Friday, July 29, 2016

In the Kitchen with Chef Kevin Templet

I’ve had fun publishing a couple of interviews with two different comedians, so now I’d like to publish an interview I had with Executive Chef Kevin Templet of Fremin’s Restaurant in Thibodaux, Louisiana. Cindy and I were in Thibodaux to catch up with our friend Mutzie, who happened to be performing his stand up comedy act at Fremin’s that weekend in their upstairs venue. We decided to make a long weekend of it, and not only catch up with Mutzie, but squeeze in an interview with him as well as Chef Kevin. I set this up several months ago, and when I e-mailed Fremin’s about doing an interview with Chef Kevin, he enthusiastically agreed to meet with me. Since Mutzie was performing there, we made reservations for dinner and followed that with his show. My next blog after this one will be my interview with Mutzie.

Chef Kevin Templet
photo courtesy of Fremin's Restaurant

We set up our interview for Saturday afternoon before dinner service. Chef Kevin is very approachable, and has a casual, laid back demeanor. He speaks with that buttery, southern Louisiana drawl so characteristic of the area. Initially, he allotted about half an hour for our talk, but we ended up spending just over an hour, and even then I could see he was willing to keep going. I didn’t want to take advantage of his hospitality, so I wrapped up our interview to let him get back to supervising prep for dinner. During our conversation, I had his complete, undivided attention. If he had a cell phone with him, he never checked it or made any other indication that his attention was elsewhere. I didn’t even see him glance at his watch during our talk. He was gracious and generous with his time, and I sincerely appreciate the courtesy Chef Kevin extended to me.

photo courtesy of Fremin's Restaurant

While this blog is primarily focused on my conversation with Chef Kevin, I want to give a little background on the restaurant itself. From both the exterior and interior, Fremin’s looks like it could’ve been teleported straight from Bourbon Street in New Orleans to where it is in Thibodaux. Then again, New Orleans is only a short drive away….about 45 minutes or so. (By the way, Fremin’s is pronounced “Freemans,” not like “Fremmins,” the inhabitants of Arrakis.) From both Chef Kevin and the Fremin’s website, I learned that the building was originally a drugstore and doctor’s office, built in 1878. The first floor contained the drugstore, while the second floor contained the doctors’ offices. It used to be a three story building (where the living quarters were), but the third floor was badly damaged by a hurricane in 1965. Three Fremin brothers, Dale, Francis, and Barry, purchased the building in 1998 and had it restored to its original décor. Chef Kevin pointed out the pressed tin ceiling on the first floor, which is a rare sight these days.

Entrance to Fremin's Restaurant

Fremin's dining room
photo courtesy of Fremin's Restaurant

After pointing out the kitchen and showing me around the dining room on the ground floor, we proceeded upstairs where they host private events (and where Mutzie would be performing). He led me onto the balcony, where there were a few tables and chairs set up. Once again, the image of a Bourbon Street location captured my mind’s eye, and I commented how I felt I should be throwing beads. Chef Kevin laughed and said that their Mardi Gras parade misses their location by about a block. Our interview took place on the second floor so we could chat without being interrupted.

Unlike my two previous interviews, this one was conducted face to face. I recorded our conversation, and what follows is my “reconstruction” of that talk. I tried to write everything just as Chef Kevin said it, but it is still, technically paraphrasing his answers.

Note: My original intent was to record both interviews, Chef Kevin and Mutzie, to allow me to focus on the conversation and not be distracted by note taking. Since Chef Kevin’s interview was first, I started off the recording with a description to help me keep the two easily separated. I said something like “OK, this is my interview with Chef Kevin Templet,” pronouncing Templet so that it rhymed with “template.” He very politely informed me that his name was actually pronounced “TOMplay.” The irony is that I’m usually very careful about correct pronunciation of someone’s name. This one just totally snuck up on me. As I profusely apologized for mispronouncing his name, he assured me it really wasn’t a big deal. Well, it was to me, anyway.

Chef Kevin prepping for dinner

As in past interviews, I tagged Chef Kevin as “KT,” and used “PN” for me.

PN: Chef Kevin, thank you for taking the time to visit with me. Please tell me how you got started in the culinary world.

KT: I’ve always liked food, and being from south Louisiana, it was always a big part of everything we did….family get togethers and that type of thing. All of us would bring entrees, appetizers and desserts. We always had a long pot luck line at all of our family gatherings. My mom as well was a 4-H leader, and once I got into 4-H I started cooking, probably fourth grade, and started going to competitions. When I came out second in the barbecue competition, barbecue chicken, and they told me I tore my skin and had a little ash on my chicken, that’s when I said “I’ve got to get better at this, y’all can’t tell me I can’t do this.” I cooked for years with 4-H, and my mom was there every weekend at competitions. I got away from cooking for a while in high school. 

I went to college for a little while for computer science, but that seemed a little fast paced for me, so I was kind of bouncing around doing odd jobs. I had a friend that graduated from culinary school and came back to Thibodaux. He got a job cooking and kept telling me “Dude, you need to come cook, it’s so much fun.” So I thought “Hey, I like to cook, I’ll give it a try.” I got in on the ground level, starting with salads and frying things, that sort of stuff. I played team sports in school, and I try to emphasize the teamwork to the guys and girls in the kitchen. It’s kind of like going into battle. I’ve never been in the military, but that spirit of working together. They’re getting ready for tonight, and what you’ll see when y'all come back for dinner.

PN: What sports did you play in school?

KT: Mostly basketball and baseball. Baseball in elementary school and basketball in junior high and high school. It’s always been team oriented sports.

PN: So, did you attend culinary school or was all of your training on the job?

KT: Pretty much everything on the job, what I didn’t already know. I had a few good chefs who were my mentor. One of my first mentors was in the first graduating class of the culinary program [at Nicholls State] here in Thibodaux. I wish I would’ve got in on that.

PN: Well, you are an Executive Chef now, so it looks like it didn’t hurt you not having any formal training. It’s been my experience that practical knowledge and experience usually trumps “book learning.”

KT: I agree with being more successful most of the times. I tell a lot of younger chefs coming up that a degree will definitely open doors for you, especially with the networking that’s emphasized in school. If I see two applications, and one has a degree and one doesn’t, that could be the difference. Having a lot of hands on experience, though, counts for a whole lot.

PN: When you interview a new chef, do you have them cook something for you, or prepare a certain dish?

KT: We used to do the cooking thing, especially with sous chefs, but most of the time we are hiring “entry level” line cooks. Mainly I like to just talk to them and get a feel for what they can do. We’ll also bring in someone to cook for us over the weekend, not exactly a stage, but similar. We want to see their skills and if they work out we’ll hire them. My boss really doesn’t want someone who doesn’t actually work for the company cooking for us, mainly due to insurance and liability reasons, so we’ll hire them on contingency and make it permanent if they are a good fit for us.

Author’s note: A stage (“stazh”) is an unpaid internship in the culinary world.

PN: Ok, that makes sense. Kind of like test driving a car, huh?

KT: (laughing) That’s one way to look at it, I guess.

PN: I’ve heard Gordon Ramsay say on several occasions that smoking ruins a chef’s palate. Do you have any thoughts on this?

KT:  I used to smoke, I’m reformed a couple of times (laughs), but I haven’t smoked in years now. I believe it does dull your senses. One of my guys is trying to quit, and he says the same thing. I can definitely smell things a lot better, too.

PN: So there’s some validity to this, then?

KT: I think so, at least in my experience.

PN: I call myself a “finicky foodie.” For example, being born and raised on the Texas Gulf coast, I don’t do any form of shellfish. To me, the smell is very off putting and I won’t eat any type of shellfish, regardless of how it’s cooked. I like fish in general, just not shellfish. Are there any foods that you won’t eat, no matter how it’s prepared?

KT: Not much, really, especially after I started cooking. As a child, peanut butter wasn’t my thing. Now, though, I tell people “just try it.” There is one thing, though, and that was the fresh duck eggs like you see on Fear Factor, the ones with the little duck inside…

PN: Balutes?

KT: Yeah, balutes. A guy I worked with had cooked them before and prepared them. I sat down and tried to eat them, but just couldn’t put them in my mouth. (laughs) I’ve eaten durian

PN: That smelly fruit?

KT: Hooo, yeah, that was rough!

PN: I can imagine.

KT: But like I said, I’ll try just about anything. Textures seem to bother some people. They’ll say they like tomatoes but not ketchup.

PN: For me, it’s all about the smell. That’s why I don’t like shellfish, or bananas. Even in my baby book, my mom said I wouldn’t touch bananas. The smell of bananas is completely revolting to me.

KT: Fair enough. (laughs)

PN: From reading your bio, I see that you do lots of cooking competitions. How do you balance preparing for a competition with your duties as an Executive Chef?

KT: My bosses are pretty helpful, and see these competitions as great advertisement for them. I’m there, competing, wearing a Fremin’s jacket, representing the restaurant. With our setup up here, we can practice our dishes.

Author’s note: Chef Kevin was referring to a smaller kitchen upstairs where we conducted the interview. Fremin’s has an upstairs room for private events that comes with a nicely equipped kitchen.

We would run through our timed event, where we had one hour to prepare eight identical plates. Those last few minutes go by really fast!

PN: Have you ever considered competing on something like Chopped or Iron Chef?

KT: People tell me all the time, “You should go on Iron Chef.” I’d be interested if the circumstances were right. We’ve done competitions similar to Chopped and those were really fun.

PN: It would be cool to see you on one of those shows. So, please tell me, what’s a typical day like for you in your position?

KT: We have people who get here early, who actually open the restaurant. I’m not the owner, just the chef, so I don’t need to be here until about 9 or 9:30. We start prepping for our lunch service. I have someone already starting that by the time I get here, and then we get everything set up for the lunch rush. Our slack time is usually 2 to 5, and that’s when I do our orders and scheduling.

Tuesdays are the beginning of the week for us, as we’re closed Sundays and Mondays. We’ll start planning not only the week, but the weekend specials, and prepare orders for that. Thursdays are our prep days for the weekend, and Fridays and Saturdays are our busiest days.

I have a nine page inventory that I go over at least twice a week, ordering everything from steaks to staples like flour and sugar to toilet paper and cleaning chemicals.

PN: Do you try to source locally, or do you use one of the larger companies like Sysco?

KT: We use one of the larger companies, but it isn’t Sysco. We use PFG Caro and Doyle Food Service for most of our staples and common items. I use a supplier from Baton Rouge for all of our seafood, as they make daily trips to the Gulf. Our menu is fixed, so our weekend specials are what I know will be coming in from the Gulf.

We try to keep our produce seasonal. By that I mean that produce that’s in season is not only cheaper, but better. With globalization, I can get just about anything from California, at any time, but again, if it’s not in season, it’s just not as good, even if it’s grown in a greenhouse.

There’s a local farmer’s market that I’ll go to on Thursdays to see what fresh items I can find.

PN: Do you have much latitude in determining menu changes or what specials to run on the weekend?

KT: Oh, yes. We are privately owned, and while we may not have the buying power of a large corporate chain, we can still come up with a good menu. I’m allowed to try pretty much anything for a special until I really mess something up. My staff and I are free to do what we want, when we want, until the books show otherwise.

PN: I’d like to think that in your position you’d have the owners’ trust to run the kitchen as you see fit.

KT: Yeah, they do place a lot of trust in us, and that helps us stay fresh. The problem is that our local customers are used to seeing certain things on our menu and would get angry if we changed too much. There’s a balance we have to maintain with the menu.

PN: How do you perceive customers who call themselves “foodies?” Do you see this as more of an annoyance or do you welcome someone who has a little more knowledge about food in general?

KT: I think the Food Network has been a good thing with how it has educated more people. People seem more willing to try new things and have more appreciation for food. I love to cook and love to make people happy, so those that can really appreciate what we do makes it better for all of us.

We have a Chef’s Table where I’ll sit down and talk to the guests about what they want. Sometimes they want to recreate a certain meal from a special occasion, or try something they’ve never had before. “I’d like to try a beef Wellington because I’ve never had one.” Foodies seem to have the most appreciation for trying new things and the process and effort that goes into a dish. I appreciate getting to do different dishes that I haven’t had a chance to do in a while.

PN: Well, I can definitely appreciate why a steak costs $28. It’s not just the $7 per pound for the steak, it’s the overhead of the restaurant and the experience of the chef that adds to the value. I totally get that and appreciate why menu prices are what they are.

KT: That’s why I like having foodies in the restaurant. It’s actually freeing for me, when planning a Chef’s Table meal, to have someone with very specific ideas. I’d rather have that than someone saying something like “Well, just surprise me.” That’s why I always ask “Is there anything you don’t like?” It would be like me just trying to guess with you, Patrick, and serving you a shrimp and banana dish. (laughs)

PN: Very good point! I would hate to have a special experience like your Chef’s Table diminished by having a dish with something I didn’t care for.

What’s your favorite spice or herb? If you had to pick just one, what would be your go to spice or herb?

KT: Hhmmm, favorite spice. I guess they come and go sometimes. When I’m in to Mexican cuisine, I like chili powder. I’m a Vietnamese and Thai food fan, so I like different curries….ginger and coconut milk. One of my guys downstairs taught me a curried scallop dish. Basil is probably my favorite herb. It goes with so many things and always smells good.

PN: Basil is my second favorite herb, right behind cilantro.

KT: Cilantro….really?

PN: Absolutely! I can use it in Mexican cuisine, Chinese cuisine and many other dishes. It’s one of the staples in our house.

Do you have a favorite kitchen gadget or tool, other than your knives?

KT: I like to use an immersion blender, especially for purees. Other things? Maybe a micro-plane zester.

PN: I guess my favorite gadget would be a mandolin. Since I’m not a professional, it’s harder for me to make consistent, thin slices of something with just a chef’s knife.

Borrowing this from other interviews I’ve read, what would your last meal be?

KT: Being from south Louisiana, it would have to be boiled crabs, or a whole pot of seafood, like a bouillabaisse.

PN: Mine would be a big plate of fried chicken. I’ve never been able to replicate my mom’s fried chicken, even when she’s standing right beside me, coaching me as I cook.

As an Executive Chef, how often do you actually get to cook, if at all? Do you spend more time expediting or something else?

KT: It’s funny you mention being able to replicate a dish. That’s what I find so rewarding and challenging is trying to be consistent and having my food taste the same each time I cook. For the most part, I’ll expedite. I feel that by doing this I can watch every dish, and ensure everything is correct before it goes out. Once in a while I’ll fill in on a certain station if we are really short-handed, but if I do that, I can’t keep the larger view of what’s going on in the kitchen and doing any problem solving that needs to be done. But to answer your question, yeah, I get to cook. I probably cook more than other Executive Chefs, but that’s what works for us.

PN: Do you cook at home, or when you leave here you are done with the kitchen?

KT: My wife does a little cooking. She has her specialties. Last night we had ground beef tacos, and they were good! I had a choice between tacos, spaghetti or meatloaf, and tacos sounded the best. It’s good to eat “plain food” now and then. I always say a ham sandwich tastes a hundred times better when someone else makes it for you.

PN: I totally agree! I also do most of the cooking at home, and my wife has her own specialties as well.

What do you do on your days off? Do you have any hobbies or activities you enjoy?

KT: I like to do a little fishing. My dad and I will take the boat out and have fun fishing. My wife and I like to do some gardening as well. We have some raised bed gardens, and she does that as well as flowers. We also like to just get out in the country and enjoy the wilderness, not really hunting or fishing, just relaxing.

PN: Getting out in the country reminds me that when doing some research before our interview, I learned that parts of the movie Southern Comfort was filmed around this area. Did you ever see it?

KT: I’m not familiar with that one. I remember reading the notes you sent me prior to this interview, and thinking to myself I needed to look that one up. I know they did film part of Ray nearby, on one of the old plantations. Looper was filmed close by here as well.

PN: Really, Looper? That’s cool!

KT: Yeah, we actually did Looper’s wrap party here in Fremin’s a few years ago. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt ate lunch here several times. The production company bought us out for one entire evening. That’s the only time we’ve ever been closed for a private function like that.

PN: What advice would you give the home cook to make them better?

KT: The best thing would be to just experiment with different things and recipes. Don’t be afraid to try something new. If it doesn’t work, big deal. Just write things down so you’ll know what works and what doesn’t. If you happen to ruin dinner, learn from your mistakes and go out to eat that night. (laughs)

PN: Great advice. I love to experiment in the kitchen, so I guess I’m on the right track.

What do you see as the biggest challenge as an Executive Chef over the next few years?

KT: I’m hesitant to emphasize this, but being profitable and controlling food costs. I love to cook and to do that, and keep the lights on, we have to be very careful about food costs. With the ever rising prices of food, it’s harder and harder to keep quality food without pricing ourselves out of business. I want our guests to feel that not only did they get a good meal, but also got good value for their money. That’s why I’m always stressing to my staff to make things right, and not be satisfied with anything less than the best they can do. I don’t want to put out mediocre food and deprive my guests of the best dining experience they can get for their money.

PN: Wow, I wish all restaurants felt this strongly about their guests. Chef Kevin, thank you so much for your time. I know you are busy and I appreciate your taking time to talk to me about the culinary world. My wife and I are looking forward to having dinner here tonight.

KT: You’re welcome! I would love to sit here and talk food all day if I could. I’m sure you and your wife are going to enjoy dining with us tonight.

Cindy picked me up a little after five. Our dinner reservations were for 7 p.m., so I’m glad our hotel was a very short drive away. I made a few notes about our conversation and after watching a little TV it was time to get dressed for dinner. Fremin’s has a casual dress code, but I wanted to wear something better than shorts. We got back to the restaurant about 10 minutes before seven but were seated promptly. Our server Bernadette arrived shortly after we were seated and offered us some freshly baked bread with an olive oil dip as well as some oregano compound butter. The toughest part about ordering our food was having to pick from a wide list of very appetizing entrees. Having seen the dessert tray, Cindy and I decided to forego an appetizer to save room for dessert.

Cindy ordered a nice white wine while I had Fremin’s “Voodoo Lemonade” cocktail. Both were quite tasty and started our dining experience out quite nicely. Bernadette took our orders and just a few minutes later our first surprise arrived at the table. “Complements of Chef Kevin. This is a duck and andouille sausage gumbo.” She placed a small bowl of steaming gumbo on the table. Wow, this was cool! Apparently he really was paying attention to my aversion to shellfish!

Duck & Andouille Gumbo

I tend to avoid gumbo, in general, because most of the time it’s made with some type of shellfish. Since this gumbo didn’t have any shellfish in it, I decided to give it a try. See there, Chef Kevin? I took your words to heart. My first spoonful was nothing less than an epiphany. The smokiness of the sausage combined with the rich flavor of the duck in a deep, chocolate colored roux made me realize I’ve been missing out. I’m not saying that I’ll start eating seafood gumbo, but if it’s something like this I’m going to grab a big bowl and dive in.

We had no sooner finished this treat when our server again showed up at the table bearing more surprises. “Chef Kevin would like you to have this.” On the plate was a crab cake dressed in Fremin’s own hollandaise sauce and some goat cheese and pignoli wrapped in prosciutto. I left the crab cake for Cindy and dove into the other amuse bouche. I did try the hollandaise sauce, though, and can only imagine how good it would taste over a poached egg.

Crab cake with prosciutto wrapped goat cheese

The dining room was about 80% full, so I figured we’d have plenty of time to enjoy our treats and take in the sights, smells and sounds of the dining room. In what seemed like a short time, though, our entrees arrived. Cindy had ordered one of the weekend specials, which from my conversation with Chef Kevin was one of the dishes he created for a previous competition and won an award for. The description comes directly from their menu. Potato Chip Black Drum: Gulf black drum fillet coated in Zapps Cajun Crawtaters potato chips, Louisiana crab and corn relish, honey bacon sweet potatoes, green bean almondine.

Potato Chip Black Drum

Naturally I wanted to try the fish, so I cut off a small piece that wasn’t “contaminated” with the crab. Sorry, Chef Kevin, but you know how I feel about shellfish. The piece I had was fantastic, and I could probably just ask for no crab next time. Yes, there definitely will be a “next time.” Even with Fremin’s being close to a six hour drive away, we want to go back.

In another bit of irony, I ordered the chicken prosciutto. Generally, I don’t order a chicken breast dish because in my experience, most of them tend to be dry. Anyway, as I looked at the menu, a chicken dish jumped out at me and that was it. With so many other choices, I locked on to the chicken dish and am glad I did. Again, directly quoting the menu description, I had the “Chicken prosciutto:” A sautéed chicken breast smothered with onions, prosciutto ham, and fresh sage in a white wine reduction. Served with lemon risotto. That, my friends, was what really grabbed my attention….the lemon risotto. This chicken was fork tender. Yes, you read that correctly: fork.tender! The white wine reduction gave it a nice citrus taste to complement the lemon risotto. The sautéed veggies on the side were nothing short of phenomenal!

Chicken prosciutto

Cindy and I both agree that this meal is definitely one of the top meals we’ve had in years. By the time we finished our entrees, we still had a little room left for dessert. All of the choices looked good, so rather than doing the wise thing and splitting a dessert, we ordered one for each of us, and shared both. Cindy’s chocolate mousse cake was moist and very chocolatey.

Chocolate mousse cake

I ordered the cheesecake with a caramel and chocolate drizzle. That, too, was a truly inspired effort. Maybe it’s not a bad thing that Fremin’s is so far away. Otherwise, it would be too tempting to eat there all the time.

Cheesecake with chocolate & caramel drizzle

Our server Bernadette knew we were going to Mutzie’s 9 o’clock show and assured us we could take our time with dessert and not worry about vacating our table until we were ready.  About that time Chef Kevin walked up to our table to ask how everything was. “Patrick, as soon as I saw the order, I knew you were the one who ordered the chicken dish.” We visited for a bit, and he said that he normally doesn’t come out into the dining room during service, although it would probably be a good idea to do it more often.

Chef Kevin visits our table

That’s what I mean about Chef Kevin being very gracious and generous with his time. Our whole dining experience was incredible, and all of the staff treated us more like royalty than just a customer. I can see why Fremin’s is consistently rated so high. They definitely know how to treat their guests right. As Bernadette brought us our check, we mentioned where we were from, and how we’d like to return. Her eyes got wide and she exclaimed that her parents live not too far from us. In fact, she was heading back to our area the next morning. Small world. We paid our bill and hung out by the bar until it was time to go upstairs for Mutzie’s show. 

Coming up next: Backstage with Mutzie

Until then.....

carpe cerevisi

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