Executive Chef Kenneth Bush of Bistrot La Minette
Give our readers a little information about your background and where you're from. I'm originally from New York, born and raised. I went to school in Connecticut. I just sort of realized I wanted to be a chef. I took sort of a circuitous route to get there.
Did you go to culinary school? I did not go to culinary school. I went to a four year university. I got into a good school and I said to myself "well, I wanna go to culinary school but I got accepted to this good school. Let me sort of take the education path." And I liked it. But my passion was always in the culinary industry. But you know, at that point I was like I got student loans, let me manage restaurants first. So I managed restaurants for a bunch of years. And then in 2009, I moved to Philly. I actually started working here as a line cook. I learned how to cook French food here.
I read that you also worked for Garces for a little bit and then returned here. Are there certain things that you took from your experiences at Garces that you implement here? Yeah, absolutely. Becoming a chef is just like any other career. It's about taking all of your experiences and having them turn you into a certain type of employer, boss or cook. So for me, there are things that I learned here and there and at all the restaurants that I've worked at that I can apply to this restaurant. As far as specifics go, I think I kind of learned how to construct a prettier plate at Garces. Which is a great thing there, they have a big emphasis on plating. They do a lot of delicate work with making sure their dishes look really beautiful. And the type of French food that we do here is French bistro cuisine. It's very well documented in France, you can go into any bistro and you can order sort of the same sort of dishes. They'll come out almost identically the same. Every cook has their way of doing something. But bringing that Garces panache touch to plating I think has made, what is bistro food here, has made it look a little bit more appealing visually. The flavors are still the same. But my experience at Garces was with a lot of different European cultural cuisine. And so, for us we're just French here. It's not so much of a translation of bringing over those flavors or those recipes, etc. It's more like a way of presenting food.
The menu changes each season. Do you ever experience any difficulties creating new dishes for the menu? It's like anything else. You have to keep your creative juices flowing. There are times where I struggle to come up with new creative different things. And it's all within that paradigm of French cuisine. So I may take a very traditional dish and put a slight twist on it with different seasonal ingredients, spring vegetables for example. Whenever those spring vegetables come up, we always put ramps into certain dishes, peas in certain dishes. There are no ramps in Europe. You just don't see them. But they're sort of a big deal here. So we try to take dishes where you might see spring onions, or scallions and add those there which brings in the seasonality of an ingredient. But still keeps it within the traditional French cuisine.
Do you ever find yourself having to Americanize certain things? I think in the very beginning of Bistrot La Minette, especially when I worked under Peter Woolsey, we were very cautious of bringing some of the very, very simple and traditional French dishes into Bistrot because we felt that they were a little too simple, or not necessarily geared to the American palate. Not that it's anything strange, you know escargot is escargot. Some people like it, some people don't. It's one of our biggest sellers even though it's snails. People aren't afraid of those sort of things. But if I told you I was going to give you a dish of boiled veal with cream sauce, you might go uhhh I don't know. But it's our second best seller. And that's something we've very recently put on the menu because I felt, as well as Peter felt that our clientele really understands French cuisine. And that a lot of things that we thought were a little too simple, or too French, not necessarily American enough for people to understand it, we just came around to realize that people are interested in it. And as long as our flavors are great, people like it. So that dish is called Blanquette De Veau and it's on our menu right now. It's veal boiled in stock. Then you take the stock and make a cream sauce with it. The way I describe it, it's like a very, very, very delicious tender version of creamed chipped beef. But people LOVE it. And we were afraid to put it on the menu because we were like people are gonna think like "beef and milk, it's weird." But people have come around to realizing that what you think of as old style traditional American food, it all has French roots. Something like a meatloaf, which people think of it as a homestyle dish has roots in French cuisine. Terrines have been made in France for like three hundred years. It's meat that's been grounded or chopped up cooked in a container. And then turned over so that you can slice it. They serve it cold in France and we serve it hot here. But if you like meatloaf, you will like a terrine. And it may seem strange, but that's where we got it from. So I think there's just ways of presenting things that even your typical American might say, "that's kinda weird." But it's familiar flavors.
Well people are taking more risks today when it comes to trying different things. I mean, when I was eighteen, if you told me I would love sushi and eat it all the time, I would've told you that you were crazy. Because I would've said I'm not eating anything raw, I don't really like fish unless it's canned tuna or a fried fish sandwich, you know what I mean! But that's just what I was brought up on. That's what was in my neighborhood, that's what I was given. And then you travel a little bit, you go to a different country. I never heard of pepper pot soup until I came to Philadelphia. I never had scrapple before until coming here. So it's the same sort of thing. If you get exposed to it, you try it.
Are there ever any different wines or drinks for each season just like the dishes that are featured for each season? So wine is a little less seasonal than the food, obviously. But like in other restaurants, we push rose' in the spring and summer because they come into season. We also feature a beaujolais. Beaujolais is the first wine bottled in France seasonally. And we actually do a dinner featuring that wine every November. It's on a Thursday and its always the traditional day to do beaujulais. We also do seasonal cocktails.
For those who haven't experienced French cuisine, how would you describe it so that people can have a clearer idea of what French cuisine is like. For me, the way I describe French cuisine to people is it's comfort food using local ingredients. France is made up from a bunch of different regions. And because the terrain in France in very different, there's a lot of farm land, there's mountains, since there's a lot of microclimates, there's a lot of different stuff. It's seasonal comfort food. Stuff like chicken, it's simply roasted or simply braised. Beef or pork, it's traditionally braised. Stuff like pork, they may take a pork loin and simply roast it. Or they may wrap it in bacon and put prunes in it. In the south of France, there's a lot of plums. They dry them up for prunes and they use them to accompany pork or game meat. This isn't much different from American food. There's a lot of cheese in France. You'll see dishes with different types of cheese, soft to hard. I think maybe sometimes people can be a little intimated by French cheeses because they might not understand what it is. Even some of the stinkier cheeses, if you might hold your nose and try it, it's very mild. But if you like Swiss cheese, comte is no different than Swiss cheese. It's all approachable once you learn about it. But for me, it's very approachable comfort food. For every scary ingredient like frogs legs and escargot, there's equal number of very simple roasted or cooked chicken, beef and pork dishes. Things that people are very familiar with. We do a chicken liver. It may sound scary, but when you put it all together it tastes just like Thanksgiving dinner. People come in, and they're like "oh my goodness, this is unbelievable. It tastes like Thanksgiving dinner!" And all we did was use French technique to create it with a very familiar flavor, something you would see in France. We used tons of rosemary, we used tons of root vegetables. Our staff here is very good at explaining things to guests. They are good at translating the dish into something familiar. The French use something called Sweetbreads a lot. It's the pancreas of a cow. People might be a little standoffish about that. But when we have them on the menu, we bread them and we fry them. And I tell the servers, if people are unsure about it just tell them the reality. Tell them it's a pancreas. It's breaded and fried and it tastes like the most tender chicken nugget you've ever had. It has a super rich flavor, it's crispy on the outside and we accompany it with lots of traditional French ingredients. The last time we did it, we did parsnip puree and little roasted mushrooms. And people ate it up, it was a great seller. We try to bridge that gap for people.