José Gutierrez hasn't had much time to cook for himself since his new restaurant, Encore, opened up a little over a year ago in Peabody Place. In fact, Jose and his fiancé, Colleen, moved to Midtown to be closer to the restaurant, which is open six days a week for lunch and dinner. The lunch business, Jose says, is slower than he'd like: Most Memphians don't want to sit down to lunch -- and definitely not a leisurely two-hour repast with a bottle of rose. But that is exactly what I was treated to at his home: An artfully arranged tower of potato pancakes, made with fresh thyme and a touch of cream, pan-seared duck in a cherry and port wine reduction, and haricots verts (green beans); a glass (or two) of Robert Sinskey's 2005 Vin Gris of Pinot Noir; and, for dessert, a wonderfully light apple pie.
When I arrived, José was neatly arranging apple slices atop a layer of puff pastry. The chef's kitchen was simple, but immaculate, with white cabinets, gray countertops, hanging copper pots, and various knickknacks -- such as a chef's clock, and a cookie jar that declares, in a French accent, "Keep your hands away from my cookie jar." José's one complaint was the electric stove -- he much prefers gas -- but he shrugged, and said, "An electric stove is like a husband." He grinned as he delivered the punch line, "You have to tolerate it once in a while."
Once the pie was in the oven, José turned his attention to the main course. I noticed that he used an organizational technique known as mise en place , which literally translates as "setting in place." It's a term used to describe the preparation done before starting the actual cooking. To put it in context, when he started cooking, José had already soaked the haricots verts in cold water and then cooked them in salty, slightly warm water so that they were ready to sauté with a touch of olive oil just before serving; he had already chopped up the onion for the potato pancakes; and he had laid out most of the other ingredients he would use -- flour, port wine, cherries, cream, olive oil.
Unfortunately, like most chefs, José doesn't have recipes per se -- as he cooked, I watched him add a little of this, a little of that, calling to Colleen, "I think I need a touch of balsamic vinegar" or adding some of the juices from the duck into the potato pancakes. For the great chefs, cooking is an art form -- but one which we can certainly hope to imitate.
At home, as at the restaurant, José cooks with olive oil, European butter, and sometimes a bit of goose fat. Besides apple pie, José makes traditional French dishes like crêpes and quiche -- and sometimes Italian food to mix things up. José and Colleen always start their day with espresso, made from beans imported from New York. They're also picky about their croissants: Good croissants are hard to find in Memphis, they say, so the couple orders the flakey, buttery pastries from France and keeps the freezer well stocked.
José cheated a little bit: The dish he prepared for me is a new addition to his menu, not something that he'd ordinarily make at home. Apple pie, on the other hand, is a home staple for the chef -- and proof that a great dish doesn't need to be complicated. In fact, the entire meal took about 30 minutes, inspiration for those of us who might think home cooking means hours hovering over the stove.
José Gutierrez' Apple Pie
José Gutierrez has a sweet tooth. His favorite dessert? Apple pie. In fact, he loves apple pie so much he doesn't serve it at his restaurant (else he'd be tempted to eat it all). Here is his recipe, so easy it might be your new favorite.
2 sheets puff pastry (Pepperidge Farm)
2 1/2 Granny Smith apples sliced paper thin
2 tablespoons butter in small pieces
1 tablespoon sugar
Preheat oven to 375º. Place puff pastry on a baking sheet. Line puff pastry with apple slices, layered one by one. Top with butter and sugar. Bake for 25-35 minutes, until it is golden brown, and serve with your favorite vanilla ice cream.