Graduate of CIA, veteran of French Laundry and long time Patina chef, chef Greg Stillman has been around the culinary scene. Everywhere he goes, even on vacations, he brings back something to put in his culinary tool belt. We’re not talking just about inspiration or technique, it’s whole dishes and concepts for Chef.
We sat down with Greg at Ra Pour in Rancho Cucamonga, CA, where he works as Executive Chef, and discussed life at French Laundry, his earliest food memory and California love.
First food memory
Chef Greg attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York after high school, so he knew that cooking would be a big part of his future at a young age. But what about that first moment where food could be something special?
Greg says, “most of my memories with food have to do with my Mom. She was a home economics major and loved to have a garden. We pulled a lot of stuff from the garden and ate it. We just ate baby carrots right out of the garden, dirt all over them and everything. I can still remember the taste of the dirt with the carrot, but it was amazing.”
Greg also shares another early memory from a New England family vacation, “I was probably 3 or 4, so I could barely remember what was going on, but I remember eating steamed clams with butter.”
Greg, just about done with school, decided that he wanted to work with Thomas Keller. What what does he do? He gets on the phone and calls him, saying, “I really want to work for you.” Thomas replies, “that’s great, but you’re not here.” Greg assures him that he will be there by the time it takes to get across the country. So Thomas told Greg to look him up when he arrived in Napa.
At the time, Greg says, “I think he was assuming that I wouldn’t actually make it.” But Greg was serious, he went to his last day of work at his current restaurant ready to head west. The stars aligned that day. A new replacement chef came in for her first day and asked Greg where he was off to. And luckily for Greg, the new chef worked with Thomas in the past. After a hectic day at the restaurant, they bonded in the way that chefs do while working side by side in the kitchen.
A call was made to Thomas, Greg arrived in Napa and started working at French Laundry. “I put all my stuff in my car, drove out there, I slept on the floor of someone’s house. I did what I had to do to get a job there,” he says.
Cooking at a few stations during his time with Thomas, Greg tells us about the environment in French Laundry while working the cheese station, “before dessert you got cheese and someone had to produce that. It’s a composed dish, you have to come up with some kind of garniture for it.”
We’re not talking about slicing cheese and sticking it on a plate, “back then, there were no sous chefs and each guy at the station did the ordering for their station. At the end of the night, we would talk about what dishes we would do for the next day. It gives you a bit of creative influence because you have to come up with an idea.”
So why leave? “It’s a pressure cooker,” says Greg. “Most guys don’t stay very long there because it’s really hard. Everything is prepared fresh everyday from scratch. At the end of the night you’re pretty much out of the stuff that you sold. If you have anything left, its trashed and you start over each day.”
Greg wasn’t just here to cook with Thomas Keller, he also wanted to explore California, “one of the things you learn while your there is you don’t see anything else but that place. And there’s so much in California to experience.” He loves that he can drive up to Big Bear to enjoy some snow, go down the mountain, and leave the snow behind. He has lived all over Northern and Southern California and currently resides in Temecula.
But when it’s all said and done, “if I could go back, I wouldn’t have quit. I would have stayed longer.” Greg worked for Thomas for a year and a half while he says most were there for a year.
After French Laundry, Greg did a 10 year run at the Patina Group where he was sent to an assortment of different restaurants. While he may not have liked it at the time, “I learned a lot from each place that they put me even if I didn’t want to be there.” So his approach is “not the French laundry at all,” it’s his own way. He’s assimilated a knowledge on food that you can see at Ra Pour.
On his menu, a wood fired Margherita pizza which he picked up while working for the Patina group, Lobster Mac and Cheese with a whole deshelled lobster from French Laundry, Paella from his travels in Spain and more. He puts his own twists on dishes as well as reproducing them authentically. Chef also has developed an extensive knowledge on wine from living in Napa Valley.
In his own words, “my approach to food comes a lot from the experiences that I’ve had, at the restaurants that I worked in and places that I’ve visited and seen.”
Greg in the kitchen
Check out the video of Chef Greg as he presents his Lobster Mac and Cheese.
Photography and video provided by Laura Izumikawa