A Conversation with Chef Cedric Maupillier - Convivial

Interview and Images by Dimple Dhabalia

Image courtesy of Cedric Maupillier

Image courtesy of Cedric Maupillier

Last month I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Cedric Maupillier - a James Beard Award winning chef and owner of Convivial – one of the hottest dining spots in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, DC.  Dressed casually in gray slacks and a navy blue polo shirt, the French-American chef shared stories about preserving heritage through food, what it means to be an American, finding success on his own terms, and learning to live in the moment.

Chef Maupillier’s Go-To Places in Washington, DC

Kinship – I love the bar at Kinship because it’s quiet, I can always find a seat there, and the food is some of the best in the city.  1015 7th Street, NW, Washington, DC / 202.737.7700

The Dabney - I love the cooking style of Jerimiah Langhorne – I think he’s a very talented young chef who represents the mid-Atlantic movement and the farm-to-table movement very well – he takes it very seriously.  I think he’s a good example that young chefs should follow.  122 Blagden Alley, NW, Washington, DC / 202.450.1015

Unconventional Diner – This one is owned by my friend David Deshaies – I was the best man at his wedding.  His cooking is fantastic – he’s a very sharp chef and is developing a wonderful restaurant filled with comfort food.  Make sure to check out the pastries made by his lovely wife, the pastry chef - a wonderful woman from Peru.  1207 9th Street, NW, Washington, DC / 202.847.0122

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DD: Thanks for sitting down with me. I wanted to start by asking how you typically start your day.

CM: I usually go through my news feed, and look at new stories from the blogs I follow, and I also check Twitter.  The Michelin Bib Gourmande list came out today.  I was a bit sad Convivial was not a part of it this year, but there is always next year.  There were a lot of new restaurants on the list – I’m looking forward to trying some of those and seeing what the newer chefs are doing.

DD: Where does your love for cooking come from?

CM: My main influence was my maternal grandparents. I was born in Toulon along the Mediterranean coast between Marseilles and St. Tropez on the east coast of France.  My grandparents were from a small village north of Marseilles in the g­arig – the Provençal forest.  My parents used to send me there for all my holidays.  My grandad was an avid hunter and used to take me with him to hunt hare or pheasant early in the mornings.  He also had a big garden – half the size of this restaurant, and he took care of it daily, watering before the sunrise.  I loved being in the garden with my grandad and watching my grandmother cooking in the kitchen because this is where I found comfort – I was very insecure and this was my warm place.  This generation, born before second World War – they had to get their food by hunting and gathering.  They cooked more than people do today.  We rarely went to restaurants – maybe once year for family gatherings or a special occasion. 

DD: So would you say that the flavors of Provence most heavily influence your cooking now?

CM: Definitely.  My dad’s side of the family came from the center of France where the food was more earthy, but the Provençal flavor profiles are more in my genes than those of the rustic cooking found in the French countryside.  So my menu, especially this time of year, is filled with dishes that have more Provençal or Mediterranean influences.  Daurade grilled with calamari and fennel, or bouillabaisse, a traditional soup from Marseilles.  Flavors of fresh tomatoes and basil - this is the fragrance I grew up with and I remember - they are the flavors I try to translate in my menus.  I try to rotate the dishes seasonally and use my food to educate people who may not be familiar with the flavors of my childhood. 

DD: Tell me more about using your food to educate people.

CM: In America there is no really authentic cuisine, because America is such a melting pot of flavor.  France is a small country – the size of Texas. When I was growing up in France, the food you ate in any particular region was strongly rooted to that area.    There are multiple regions from north to south, east to west.  No matter where you go - Brittany, Basque country, the Niçois region, Marseilles – each place has its own flavors and traditional dishes.  Each region is about a 2 to 3 hour drive maximum, so you find different scenery, different soil and sometimes different climates within very short distances between regions. In this area you go from Washington, DC to West Virginia you don’t really see any change in the climate or cuisine – it’s kind of - I will say unexciting food.  I’m sure there are traditional dishes people pass down from one generation to the next, but they don’t often make it out into the mainstream so over time people lose that part of their heritage.

DD:  This idea of native cuisine and being native to a particular area is really familiar to me.  Indian food in the United States is often either from the north or south of India– so that’s what people equate Indian food with.  But Indian food is so much more than just those two regions. The flavors of western India where my dad’s family came from, or from East Africa where my mom’s family came from – they’re very different from what you find in restaurants here. 

CM:  We didn’t have much Indian food in France when I was growing up so I wasn’t really exposed to those flavor profiles.  When I moved to England to work I found curry houses everywhere.  Even pubs were transformed into Indian restaurants.  You’d come to a very traditional British looking building and look at the menu and it would be filled with Indian food.  Nothing probably compared to what you have in India, but I really liked the spices and I discovered more when I came to DC.   When I went to culinary school I learned to make a traditional curry dish created by the renowned French chef, Auguste Escoffier.  But I came to learn about an area in India called Pondicherry, an area the French had imported French cuisine to when they colonized the region. For many years it was the British and French in India and when it was time for the French to leave, they brought back the spices necessary to translate what they liked about Indian cuisine.  The French enjoyed the flavor and fragrance of the Indian spices, but they couldn’t take heat – so when they came back they only brought the fragrant spices - none of the heat.  One of the most popular dishes in French cuisine is actually not pure French – it’s curry which is Indian with couscous, which is North African. There are also a lot of Vietnamese dishes that have French influence, like the Banh Mi -  a traditional Vietnamese sandwich.  It is a baguette spread with mayonnaise and pâté , topped with pickled vegetables.  So you have the mayonnaise, the pâté and the baguette - three very French ingredients brought together with Vietnamese flavors.  Another popular dish in Vietnamese cooking is pho – a soup which consists of boiled meat and vegetables and a little bit of fragrance from herbs.  In France we have a very rustic and traditional dish called Pot au Feu – even the names are similar in the way it sounds pho and feu.  The French soup is also made of meat, vegetables, and broth with herbs – this dish is very popular in France, especially for farmers in France because you can put it on the stove in the morning, let it simmer all day and come back and enjoy a hearty meal for a few days. 

From left to right: Burrata served on corn soup with breadcrumbs; Soft shell crab; Escargot in a blanket. Images by Dimple Dhabalia

DD:  It is interesting to think about food pathways and how ingredients from one country or region makes their way to another area of the world.  I think as immigrants journey to new places, more and more countries are becoming melting pots of flavor, but to me, the melding of different flavors or methods of cooking adds a richness to native cuisines.  For example, I loved what you did with the escargot here at Convivial – the idea of wrapping it up in an egg roll wrapper and serving the garlic butter on the side – it was such a unique presentation - not something you’d typically find at a traditional French restaurant. 

CM: I’m glad you enjoyed it!  You’re right - you don’t get a dish like that from a French cookbook – at least not in any book that was around when I was growing up or started cooking.  Dishes like that come from experiencing something from a different culture.  In France we have many Vietnamese restaurants and influence on modern French cooking because France had a fairly large presence in the Vietnam War. In Vietnamese cuisine they use a rice paper to make an egg roll but it’s more crispy on the outside and not  as fragile.  They serve it with nuoc cham -which is like a fish sauce. I’ve only found a few restaurants that serve it like that around DC.  Traditionally Chinese egg rolls are made with wrappers that are thicker and have a crunch.  They are heartier and you can make them and keep them in the fridge and the moisture doesn’t go through the skins.  So I decided to try these wrappers around the classic flavor profile of the escargot which is parsley, garlic, butter, salt, and pepper and serve it with the same butter on the side for people to dip if they wanted more of the buttery goodness that we love in France – people in America don’t seem to be crazy about butter. When I opened Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan a few years ago, I also chose to feature escargot, because it’s so classically French – but I didn’t want to do so selfishly. I wanted to find a way to keep my French roots while honoring traditional foods of my newly adopted country – so I worked to combine two dishes into one and came up with escargot hushpuppies. I took the escargot and mixed it with the hushpuppy batter and deep fried it. I served it with a chervil remoulade - it was very very popular.  I think that if you give people something they are a bit familiar with, they will try something they normally wouldn’t. 

Many of these small restaurants are here to warm the hearts of immigrants that haven’t yet found acceptance in this country. Food, especially when it is made with love, brings people together and is a source of comfort, especially for those who miss home.

DD: To what extent has the ethnic food scene in DC influenced your cooking?

CM: When I moved to DC the mix of restaurants – of ethnic restaurants, was a lot more diverse than what I grew up with and it took me some time to appreciate spice, heat, acid, tart, bitterness the very common flavors in other cuisines.  But I kept going back and developed a strong  appreciation for cuisines from around the world.  Especially smaller restaurants where one or two chefs cook for their peers – you know like those small Thai, Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, North African - so many out there.  I often meet people with accents who tell me about particular dishes at local restaurants that I have to try – and this is important - you have to listen to people with the accents – because these are the people who arrived as teenagers or a bit after - they still remember the food of their homeland and know where to find it here.  Many of these small restaurants are here to warm the hearts of immigrants that haven’t yet found acceptance in this country.  Food, especially when it is made with a lot of love, brings people together and is a source of comfort, especially for those who miss home. Today’s generations have grown up with Food TV Network. They’ve grown up with more ethnic flavors, more salts, more spices, and when they come here they find the food to be bland because they don’t have the palate education required to appreciate the subtlety of French cooking, which pairs well with wine.  But it’s the same thing when I eat spicy food at a Thai restaurant - my palate is not educated for that food and those flavors. I understand that and I work to continue educating my palate with the different flavors.  But at the end of the day, I don’t want to lose my heritage - that is very important to me. I could do some other kind of cuisine - like Italian which is popular – but I keep emphasizing my French roots because this is where I find my comfort.

DD:  What made you decide to become a chef?

CM:  When I was 14 I had long hair below my shoulders and a beard like I have now, but more red.  I was playing rugby, smoking marijuana, drinking a lot of beer – I was a bad boy and my family was sure I would finish life as a drug addict. And of course I was very terrible at school.  One day my grandad took me to the side and asked me what I wanted to do in my life.  That at some point I would have to make your money, leave home and grow up.  Or I could finish badly like the people I felt bad looking at on the street.  I told him I didn’t like school and I just wanted to travel.  My grandad said “that’s fine, why don’t you become a chef?”  I asked why a chef.  He said “because you’re French and you’ll never have to look for food to put in your stomach.  Because you can travel the world and you’ll always have a job wherever you land.  Being a chef is a safe job – people will always need to eat and even if you go the wrong direction in life you have no excuse – you will be able to sustain yourself and take care of yourself.” That conversation stayed with me for some time – it was a safety net.  I loved the idea of traveling, I loved cooking and eating and I loved feeding others to make them happy. 

DD:  How did you end up in the United States?

CM:  After working in England and France for a few years I knew I was ready for more.  I sent my resume out to restaurants around the world and the first person who was willing to sponsor me was Fabio Trabocchi of Fiola and Fiola Mare – at the time he was the chef at Maestro, a restaurant at the Ritz Carlton in Tyson’s Corner.  I read up about him and I liked his philosophy. I accepted his offer and arrived in the United States on a J-1 visa. When my visa was coming to an end he couldn’t sponsor me on an H1-B visa because I wasn’t a manager, so I had to find other work.  I didn’t want to leave fine dining and I didn’t want to leave Washington, DC because I had made friends and I liked living here.  My good friend David Deshaies was working for Michel Richard at Citronelle in Georgetown - he told me to come and talk to Michel. Michel was willing to sponsor me so I moved from Maestro to Citronelle. After 3 years as the executive sous chef, Michel asked me if I wanted to open a restaurant for him called Centrale at 11th and Pennsylvania. The first year I was there we won the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. I got some good reviews and my name was starting to get recognized in the industry around town.  I left Centrale after three years, found a partner and opened Mintwood Place. 

I have realized over time that that the people who like to work withe me are the ones who come from similar backgrounds to my own. They understand that some days are tough and some days are better, but they have a passion for food and they will always put a lot of love in the cooking.

DD:  You’ve had a fairly celebrated career working with some renowned chefs.  What was your motivation for opening Convivial? 

CM:  I always wanted to own my own restaurant - I knew this from my first experience working in a local boulangerie - I was the dish washer for the pastry chef, I brushed the floor – I did all the crap jobs you can imagine. Of course I learned to make croissants, pain au chocolat, and other pastries, but I wanted to be at the helm of a kitchen – I wanted to be the maestro – the leader of the team – the voice that people listened to.  The one giving the orders and directives – I wanted to be what I am today – this is what I envisioned even back then.

DD: What has been the biggest challenge to owning your own restaurant?

CM: Opening Convivial has been wonderful and challenging in its own way. I want to share my French heritage, while keeping the price point reasonable and the food good.  But in a city like DC the competition is fierce and the good workers are looking for places with the most compensation, benefits and flexible schedules. In the past - ten years ago- it was easy to fire someone that was not performing well and replace them very quickly because people were looking for jobs in this industry.  But today, before you let someone go, you have to try to fix the problem - coach them, train them more, and see if you can save the soul inside of him that hasn’t been performing well. The ones who come and stay in my kitchen generally come from other countries – we have a lot of immigrants that are passionate about food the way I was passionate about food when I was their age.  They grew up in poorer families where the meal was the main event of the day – where they were united around the table and shared stories. In America, this type of dining at home is rare these days.  There is a culture clash - this is the place of the TV tray. Even me, many days I now eat and watch TV at the same time - this was never allowed in my home growing up.  Only maybe on New Year’s Eve my parents would turn the TV towards the dining room table so we could watch the fireworks – but meals in my home were a time to tell the family about how the day went.  I have realized over time that the people who like to work with me are the ones who come from backgrounds similar to my own.  They understand that some days are tough and some days are better,  but they have a passion for food and they will always put a lot of love in the cooking.    

DD:  Having so many different cultural backgrounds and languages in your kitchen must bring its own set of challenges.

CM:  Well, I’m very strict.  In the United States there is no official language.  We speak English because it is the language that is most used, but you can’t force someone to speak English if they don’t want to.  This is why if you go to the DMV or the airport you see information in Spanish and English. In France you will not see that - we speak French and people who want to live there have to adapt and learn the language first.  In this country its very different.  But in my kitchen we have to be able to talk a and communicate during service.  My tickets are printed in English so we speak the language of the ticket.  If the restaurant is very busy I need to be able to walk through the kitchen starting from pastry all they way through salad, sauté, grill, fry, prep, and the dishwasher – to listen to what is going on and jump in where I am needed the most.  I don’t have time to use my translator when the restaurant is busy. I do understand some Spanish, but when it’s important and busy I want the communication in English – not just between me and my staff, but between them as well. 

DD:  How does your staff feel about only English in the kitchen?

CM:  I know it’s difficult for some people to get used to. If you work with someone from your nationality or ethnic background, you tend to speak the language that’s easiest - and the easiest is usually your mother tongue. But they get used to it and they learn.  I love the United States – I love this country – I love the immigrants that make this country so diverse.  I don’t ask them to lose their traditions or forget their heritage - I want them to keep those things alive – but there is something bigger than that when you belong to the United States - I’m asking them to make the effort to adapt to the global American culture.  People in my kitchen are scared about what they hear on the radio and TV these days – they worry about renewing their passports and going home to see family. They do everything to be lawful in this country. Which is why I think it’s important for them to speak English. To me, if you can’t communicate, then you separate yourself from the possibility of allowing others to understand you better.  If you don’t offer the people who refuse to accept you the chance to understand you, they will not change.  And I’m sorry to say it, but as an immigrant, we are the ones who have to make the effort.  I had to do it when I came here. I adapted. I’m happy in what I’m doing and I’m doing what I am with a group of people who are resilient and love this country as well.  They want to have a voice and they don’t want to go back to where they come from – I’m talking about people from South America and North Africa.  If the people that don’t think immigrants should be in this country could see the people who work with me- spend time with them, eat their food, meet their families – perhaps they would feel differently.  

DD: I know you got your American citizenship a couple of years ago.  What does being an American mean to you?

I became an American citizen to be able to defend the country. And the way I want to defend the country is using my right to vote.

CM:  I have both – I kept my French citizenship and I am an an American.  To me, being an American means I have the right to vote.  I have a voice that I can use.  I have been legal since the day I walked into this country.  I was lucky – unlike so many others, I never had fear in my country or felt the need to escape it.  France is a beautiful country.  I have all my family there.  I became an American citizen to be able to defend the country.  And the way I want to defend the country is using my right to vote.  There are so many people who die to protect that freedom and I don’t understand why more of the American people don’t vote - 25-35 percent of the people vote?  This is unacceptable.  I still have my French passport so sometimes I think if it doesn’t work here I can go back and try in France.  But so many others don’t have the ability to go home. I have hope - I think we will see some change.  There are some very smart people coming from unstable countries that will work very hard for the United States and make it better.  We need to protect the border certainly, and defend ourselves against crime – but we need people to make this country smarter and better.  Differences of race and culture make us stronger as a nation. 

DD:  I want to change gears a bit.  This is a tough business - long hours, high stress - what do you do to take care of yourself? 

CM:  This is an interesting question.  For a long time I was not doing much to take care of myself.  When I opened Centrale I worked every day for two years with no day off.  And I slept there sometimes.  When I opened Mintwood Place I decided to close on Mondays so that was my day off.  But I was there all the time.  I was drinking at night to put myself to bed.  Now I have my own restaurant I feel like I have the freedom to do what I want.  If I want to close on Christmas I close the restaurant on Christmas.  If I feel like I want to take the day off  I take the day off as long as I have people in kitchen who can cover me.  I don’t do it often – but life is too short. I go to the gym four times per week and work with a trainer who pushes me.  I eat healthier.  I try to take a weekend off every other month to get out of the city to go to the beach for a couple of days – walk on the sand, go in the water, refresh myself.  Sometimes I go to the river with the dog and spend the day in the water. Sometimes we take two or three days and go to Montreal – make reservations at some great restaurants, eat and come back.  It’s only a one hour flight – yeah, you can do it.

DD:  What does success look like for you?

I suppose this is my mid-life crisis. I don’t dream of a big house or a big car - I dream of big freedom.

CM:  I think it’s this.  It’s taking time for yourself. I keep hearing this from older people.  Take time for your family.  You might not be most popular chef and you may not have a line outside your restaurant, but as long as you have the money to pay your bills, pay your rent, and once in a while travel, do it.  Don’t save the pennies for your retirement – you might never get there. Your life might be shorter than you expected.  I’ve started to realize this.  I’m 41 years old now - and I think that’s it - I’m past my prime.  I abused life a lot in the past, but now it’s time for me to take from life and use it in a better way.  There are places I want to visit and I won’t be able to do it in a wheelchair or if my back is broken – the time is now.  I suppose this is my mid-life crisis.  I don’t dream of a big house or big car – I dream of big freedom.  And the first freedom I got was to open my own restaurant.  When you make a decision, as long as you pay your debts and most of the people you serve are happy - because you’ll always disappoint some people - you should go to bed and wake up happy the next morning.  I run a good business, I don’t rip off people, I pay my debts and don’t go bankrupt.  There has never been a time when I haven’t been able to pay my employees – this makes me feel proud and successful.  We worry way too much about little things. Take a drive through Rock Creek Park in the afternoon.  Take a bicycle and go to Georgetown and return the bike there.  I’ve done this a few times and I always ask myself why don’t I do this more often.  Discover new restaurants.  This is also something very exciting, no?  There are always new restaurants opening. When I hear good things about a place that has been open for a few weeks I try to take a night off, get an early reservation because I don’t like to eat late-  I’m like an old guy now – I take the night off and I’ll go at 5-5:30.  After that I go home, watch a movie and I can still have my sleep.  I like to sleep too.  I rarely use my alarm clock – I wake up naturally.  

DD:  What is your comfort food?

CM: When something goes bad or I have a tough day, all I want is a piece of bread with butter and salt. It makes me feel a lot better.  But you give that to someone else  and they’ll say, what is this, butter and bread and salt?  But for me it is the best food.

DD:  Bread, butter and salt sounds heavenly to me. This has been a great conversation - I just have one last question for you – if you could have any superpower in the world, what would it be?

CM: Superpower?  To travel without any restriction – there is so much to see – and eat – in the world!

Convivial - 801 O Street, NW, Washington, DC / (202) 525-2870

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