By Jacque Lynn Schiller
When Chef Jacques Gautier whipped out a pig’s head to use as a photo prop before launching into an impromptu recipe for pork tacos, suddenly the offbeat décor and daily changing menu of Palo Santo made sense. This guy has a playful edge, as does his food. Everything about the restaurant is a study in contrast, resulting in a brilliant fusion of good taste. Picture a sultry den housed in a brownstone, sturdy tables that feature resin-sealed trinkets – another artistic touch by Mr. Gautier – and flickering vigil candles alight. From modest plates of thinly sliced avocado served with fresh handmade tortillas to a small but thoughtfully assembled number of entrees, the Chef’s Caribbean heritage and respect for traditional Latin American market cooking is evident.
Jacque Lynn Schiller was interested to learn more about the man behind the very popular chicharrón dish at January’s Edible Good Spirits event, so she dropped in to Palo Santo to chew the fat with Jacques. Pun intended – check out the picture!
Where are you from originally?
I’ve lived in Brooklyn for about 13 years now, so it feels like home. I grew up in DC. My dad is from Haiti and my mom is from Delaware / Philadelphia.
What brought you to Brooklyn and what are you most excited about here?
I first moved to Brooklyn in the late nineties because I couldn’t afford to live in Manhattan where I was attending cooking school at the Natural Gourmet. I’m most excited about the tall glass of fresh o.j. that I am drinking while answering these questions!
How did your background influence your cooking?
My cooking is influenced by my background more than anything else, but it’s not always so easy for people to dissect that and make sense of it in their own minds. My cooking at Palo Santo ends up falling into the category of “Pan Latin.” As a kid, if I had heard and understood the term “Pan Latin” I would not have thought of a restaurant category in the Zagat guide. Instead I would have thought of it as the most concise way to sum up my father’s ethnic extraction. He was born in Haiti to a family of mixed descent (Dominican, Puerto Rican, French Catholic, and Spanish Jew), he then moved to Cuba for a few years before coming to the states and meeting my mother.
When I was a kid I had the incredible opportunity to travel with my father. We would visit family spread out over different islands in the Caribbean and sometimes he would take me with him on work trips to South America. Each country in Latin America is so unique and distinct, but somehow my father, who worked as an interpreter, was able to find common ground and relate to people wherever we would go. I always admired that in him and in an abstract way it has influenced my cooking.
In a more tangible way, I was influenced by my mother who loves to garden and grow her own vegetables. She lives in D.C. where she is very active in her local community Victory Garden. She taught me how to garden, and now I do it on my rooftop in Brooklyn. Through her I also learned a great respect for local farmers who I interact with and support by shopping at the Greenmarket.
Who are the local vendors, farmers and producers you regularly work with?
At the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket: Evolutionary Organics, Tello’s Eggs, Ray Bradley, Cato Corner Cheese, Madura Mushrooms, etc.
We’re midway through a fairly intense winter – how have you made the most of it and what are you looking forward to in Spring?
In the coming of Spring I most look forward to the start of a new growing season and my rooftop garden coming back to life.
There are many Brooklyn makers that have been around for a while – what do you think about the history here and where do you see the borough going in terms of food & drink?
I think the most incredible thing about the Brooklyn food scene has been the development of an authentic identity. In Brooklyn we have our own vibe and our own way of doing things. People have compared our scene to the one that grew out of Berkley in the 70’s.
Where and from whom do you find new inspiration?
I get fresh inspiration mostly from traveling and visiting public markets in different places around the world. In Panama I’ll be getting some research done for a series of classes that I will be teaching in the spring on Central American Cooking. The classes will be held at the Ger-Nis Culinary Center in Park Slope.
If you weren’t a chef / owner, you would…
Probably still be frustrated by having to do my cooking in someone else’s kitchen.
Have a taste of Chef Gautier’s cooking at Palo Santo, 652 Union Street in Park Slope.