A crisis can represent the opportunity to reconnect with the terroir and the flavors, to deepen one's knowledge of produce, and to support local agriculture and communities.
Photo by Virginie Lemesle
French chef, Frédéric Aumeunier, has worked in prestigious kitchens alongside renowned chefs such as Anne Sophie Pic and Alain Ducasse. He did his apprenticeship in Vienne, at La Pyramide – the first restaurant ever to be awarded a 3rd Michelin – where he discovered a true passion for gastronomy. His solid experience, with 16 years working in Michelin-starred restaurants in France and England, led him to become Sous-Chef of the triple star restaurant Per Se in New York City, owned by Chef Thomas Keller.
Frédéric is an entrepreneur at heart who seizes opportunities as they arise. He’s also a passionate, generous chef who has not hesitated for a second to support local farmers and communities during these difficult times. Mid-March when the shutdown mandate arrived and Per Se closed its doors, Aumeunier volunteered to help a farmer, Zaid Kurdieh, assemble Norwich Meadows farm’s produce boxes. His role quickly evolved into overseeing logistics and selling produce on the farm stand. An enriching experience that allowed him to reconnect with the land, seasonality and taste. These last few months have also been an opportunity for him to give virtual healthy cooking classes in collaboration with “What women want”. Even if the future is still uncertain, one thing is for sure: Frédéric Aumeunier confirms that he is busier now than if he worked in the kitchen!
Welcome Frederic to Chefs for Impact!
By Frederic Aumeunier as told to Chefs for Impact
Where does your passion for terroir, agriculture and cooking come from?
"It must be hereditary. Son of restaurateurs, I have always been close to farms because my grandfather was a farmer in Loire, France. I used to spend my vacations growing and harvesting fruits and vegetables. I also learned how to raise cattle and work in the vineyard. This is something that has always interested me. Paradoxically, I distanced myself from these values from my first steps working in haute gastronomy...”
Why is that?
"Because sometimes in fine dining restaurants, you tend to look for the perfect shape and focus on the visual aspect rather than the taste. It is not rare to fly baby zucchinis from Kenya, which spent 10 days in transport, followed by a month in cellophane. It is certainly pretty but has no gustatory interest. I lost my points of reference of taste for many years because of that.
Why did haute gastronomy decide that some fishes and seafoods are more noble such as sea bass, turbo, langoustine, or lobster? We must acknowledge that the so-called ‘not noble’ species are as good, if not better. Gastronomic restaurants are guilty of these preconceived ideas.”
Do you see this crisis as an opportunity for gastronomy to become more responsible?
"Some chefs are impervious to change and won't. Others, forerunners and avant-gardists, want to make things evolve, like Alain Ducasse or Dan Barber. The latter will help define the next ten years of gastronomy; I think.
I have been guilty in the past. I sometimes created dishes thinking that asparagus would be a great addition to my recipe, so I ordered them from Peru and ended up serving the dish in December. When I think back, I realize how ridiculous it was. We are killing agriculture and small farmers because there is always a product that grows somewhere in the world, that is GMO modified and that can grow in any conditions anywhere. Today there is a definite lack of education, even amongst Chefs that goes against sustainability.”
When did you make this observation and decide to reconnect with locality and seasonality?
"When the crisis started, one of the farmers I worked with offered the ‘care packages’ - boxes of free produce - to the restaurant employees around the city. I was touched by the generosity and personality of this person and I proposed to volunteer for him. I helped launch home delivery, organize the logistics, even consolidate with products from other farms. I’m also doing the farmers markets with Zaid and his crew. Beyond the fact that I met a generous, professional and sincere human being, ready to help others in a difficult time, I also learned a lot from him. Somehow this experience brought me back to order. Working with Zaid, I reconnected with seasonality and flavors.”
You deplore a lack of education. How to educate the consumer to sustainable gastronomy?
"We spend a phenomenal amount of time educating people on the markets. We discuss with the customers, taking the time to explain, giving recipes, and helping them compose their baskets. I explain how to cook beet greens, why not to put tomatoes in the fridge, how to cook scallion roots in pickles or stir-fried. It's exciting - especially since Norwich Meadows farm has no less than 1300 varieties throughout the year so there is a lot to talk about- but it's also tiring!”
What drives you?
"When the lockdown happened, I had nothing else to do but to stay home and watch Netflix. So helping Zaid instead seemed like a fair fight! It was kind of a give back because he offered free vegetables during the crisis to restaurant employees. Who else did that? That already says a lot about the guy. I've learned so much from him in the last few months, and I'm still learning all the time.”
Any plans for the future?
"I would like to open a farm restaurant and propose a flavorful local cuisine. I'm 34 years old, I've learned a lot, now I'd like to be able to express my culinary identity in a place that reflects me and where I could blossom and transmit my values.”
Cooking classes: https://www.what-women-want.co/home-sweet-date.html
Order your box of produce:
Read Zaid’s interview: https://www.chefs4impact.org/post/meet-zaid-kurdieh