His duck confit is beyond reproach, his foie gras dumplings are sublime, but when chef Patrick Yves Pierre-Jerome eats at home he prefers shepherd's pie, Yorkshire pudding, and a dessert called Tipsy Parson.
A French chef who eats British food? Surely this is sacrilege, or at least a very bad joke.
But Pierre-Jerome spends his working day over the stove, creating brilliantly flavored, intricately composed dishes at Stage Left: An American Cafe in New Brunswick. When he's at home, he lets his wife, Bernadette, an attorney, do the cooking. Her choice is the food of England, where she was born. That English food is more often the object of derision, not admiration, bothers Pierre-Jerome not in the least.
"During the week my wife cooks for the kids--fast-food and such--so she likes to show off for me during the weekends," Pierre-Jerome says.
Pierre-Jerome is a contradiction. Born in French-speaking Haiti 39 years ago, Pierre-Jerome is a French chef, with French mannerisms, but without a Gallic accent. His 5-year-old daughter is named Manon, after the heroine of the movie "Manon of the Spring," and his 3-year-old son is named Etienne.
He admits to being his own worst critic and a tough boss, but he is thoughtful, funny and easy-going in person, even after he is two hours late for work because of a massive traffic jam along Route 1.
Pierre-Jerome also is a culinary rarity for another reason--he turned his back on his own restaurant, Yves in Montclair, because he grew tired of working 70-hour weeks.
Pierre-Jerome grew up in an upper-middle class creole family in Haiti. The Haitian government sent his father to hotel management school in Europe.
The family left Haiti when he was 3 years old and moved to the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. When he was 10, the family moved again, this time to the United States and settled in North Jersey.
Pierre-Jerome grew up in an extended family, watching his mother and grandmother cook hearty Caribbean food Sunday dinner--roast chicken with rice and gravy--was always his grandmother's responsibility.
One Haitian specialty he doesn't miss is the homemade hot-pepper sauce. Haitians, Pierre-Jerome says, have a taste for "sadistically hot peppers, scotch bonnets marinated with carrots for a week. The potential for pain is there. It's definitely not for the faint of heart," he says.
But for everything else, he has warm memories. Our home life centered around the table." Pierre-Jerome says.
"My mother used to tease me... She said the first thing I cooked up was a scheme, says Pierre-Jerome.
The first thing Pierre-Jerome owns up to cooking is a "left-over chicken stir-fry dish that I tried to flambé with Boone's Farm Apple Wine. Thirty minutes after I made it I regretted making it." He was 16 years old.
Outside his home, in a strict Catholic school, Pierre-Jerome lived the life of an American child. Inside, it was a much different.
"When you got in the home and closed the door, for all intents and purposes you were in Haiti," Pierre-Jerome says.
If Haiti is his spiritual home, France is his cultural home. He is French in outlook and temperament, answering one question with a typical Gallic gesture.
But his voice does not betray the fact that English is a second language. He admits to learning English by watching television shows like "My Favorite Martian," "Mayberry R.F.D.," and "Mr. Ed."
He attended Rutgers-Newark as a pre-med student but took a job in a small mom-and-pop luncheonette, discovering in the process that he loved to cook.
He eventually left Rutgers and, despite his parent's objections, enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
"It broke my parents' heart," he says, explaining his father knew fully well about the long hours and unbearable conditions of working in a professional kitchen.
He took his externship at Harrah's in Atlantic City and then went to work at the U.N. Plaza Hotel in New York City after graduation. After 18 months working all the stations of the hotel kitchen, Pierre-Jerome went to France.
He settled in Gascony, in the southwest corner of France, working at the Hotel de France in Auch and La Ripa Alta in Plaisance, where he picked up a love for duck, duck confit and foie gras--the specialties of the Gascon table.
"My signature dish at Yves was a duck pastilla," a Moroccan phyllo pie made with a typically Gascon ingredient: duck.
He came back to the U.S., working at the Hotel Maxime de Paris, the Peninsula Hotel and Adrienne, all in New York and all for about a year.
He moved to New Jersey, opening Yves in 1989. The restaurant across the street from a church that ran a day-care center, which meant Yves would never obtain a liquor license. This limited his ability to generate income.
After six years of more than 70-hour work weeks, Pierre-Jerome sold Yves in 1995. "Closing Yves was one of the most difficult things I had to do," he said.
But closing Yves meant he had more time with his growing family. To earn his daily bread, Pierre-Jerome went to work as the pastry chef at the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse and then joined the staff of the Park Avenue Club, a private club in Florham Park.
In May, the owners of Stage Left, looking to expand to a site in North Jersey, brought Pierre-Jerome in to get acquainted with their operation, with an eye to his taking over the kitchen of their second location once it opened.
For all the innovation in his food, Pierre-Jerome worships the classical French chefs and considers himself to be one himself.
"I consider myself a bit of a classicist. To be a good cook, which you have to be before you're a good chef, you have to have a mastery of the basics, and the basics are classics," he says.
His hero is Andre Soltner, the legendary former chef of Lutece in New York.
"He once said in an article that you have to do something a thousand times before you get to do it right," Pierre-Jerome says of Soltner. "I think that's so profound."
And how does the classic French chef, the owner of his own restaurant, like working for someone else?
"Each chef brings something new to the table--no pun intended. Each chef has his own style, his own approach. The thing that I like a lot about this place is that they allow me to express my creative freedom as I see fit. They trust me to create great food, and they trust me to enhance their restaurant," Pierre-Jerome says.
The relationship between employers and employee is a mutual admiration society. "He is an incredibly intelligent and sensitive individual with a lot of maturity and restaurant savvy," says Mark Pascal, co-owner of Stage Left. "He's got the same kind of restaurant sense that we do. His food is a lot brighter in flavor and a little bit more intricate, and a great deal more pleasant to the eye."
Pierre-Jerome believes the next wave in American cooking will be health-conscious food. But he always will be a French chef.
"The defining hallmark of my food is decadence. I believe in decadence. Ingredients like truffles and foie gras and butter, cream, while perhaps used in moderation, will never be completely removed from my repertoire," he says.
Here are two recipes from Pierre-Jerome. The first, an entree, will approximate the taste of duck confit.
STUDY OF DUCK
1 carrot, sliced
1 stalk celery, sliced
1 onion, sliced
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup port
1 quart olive oil, or more
4 Peking duck legs
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Combine all the ingredients except the oil and duck in a bowl, and mix. Spread mixture on bottom of a casserole dish large enough to hold the legs snugly. Arrange legs on mixture in single layer.
Add enough oil to cover legs by 2 inches. If necessary, weigh the legs down with a small plate to keep them submerged. Bake in oven for 3 hours, until tender. Carefully remove legs from casserole and put in a nonstick pan. Increase oven temperature to 500 degrees and bake legs 10 minutes until skin is crisp. Serves 2-4.
FLOURLESS CHOCOLATE CAKE
1 pound semisweet chocolate, chopped
8 ounces sweet butter
2 tablespoons Frangelico liqueur
8 eggs, separated
1-1/2 cups sugar
Melt chocolate and butter in a double boiler, cool to room temperature. Whip in Frangelico, yolks and sugar until thick and pale. Whip whites until stiff. Fold 1/3 chocolate into yolks. Fold in 1/3 whites. Fold in rest of chocolate and whites. Butter and flour a 10-inch springform pan. Pour in batter, bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes. Edges will be set, but not the center. Cool in pan, then chill overnight.
Serve with raspberry sauce and fresh raspberries. Serves 6-8.