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Roman à Chef

Alain Guichard
Home Alain: Bistro Parisien is where chef Alain Guichard hangs his toque.

Christopher Gardner

From the shores of southern France to the streets of south San Jose, Alain Guichard's career reveals the making of a culinary maestro

By Andrew X. Pham

'WHEN I was 13," Alain Guichard recalls, "I told my parents I didn't want to go to school anymore. They said 'OK, then you should go to work.' But I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I opened the newspapers, closed my eyes and pointed. The ad was for a kitchen help position in a restaurant."

Now at age 53, Guichard stands in Bistro Parisien as the owner and master chef. His walls are papered with accolades and awards from those who have dined in his domain. With some surprise he admits, "It has been 40 years. Four decades of cooking and I still love it. It still amazes me I found my life's work when I was a boy."

I first dined at Bistro Parisien two years ago, spurred by gushing praise and recommendations from two separate acquaintances. One, who had taken a two-year sabbatical in southern France, claimed to have paid three times as much for comparable meals in France. Another, returning after 14 years of working in France, confided, "The food is remarkable, very simple but full of subtle flavors. The strange thing is that a French chef of this caliber shows up in--of all places--south San Jose."

I found it stranger still that Guichard settled his casual village bistro in suburbia's heartland of fast-food chains and franchised steak houses. And not just the setting of the restaurant is an anomaly. In this heyday of mature California cuisine and haute Italian dishes, restaurants tend to be fancy, armed with battalions of waiters and cooks who labor under the orchestration of an executive chef to bring mighty culinary works to the tables.

Often fallen by the wayside is an association between the chef and the diner. Bistro Parisien staffs itself with only two waitresses and one chef: Guichard, who designs the menu, trims the meat, cooks the meals and even washes the dishes.

Drawn by the length and breadth of Guichard's culinary experience, I ventured behind the kitchen door to learn about the career twists that brought him from the south of France to south San Jose's Almaden Expressway.

'THIS IS MY CASTLE," Guichard intoned with an expansive wave of the arm at his 9-foot-by-20-foot kitchen, jammed with counters, sinks, a monstrous cast iron stove, a refrigerator, shelves, racks of plates and about 2,000 pots and pans. On delivery days like today, the four-foot-wide walkway that runs the length of the kitchen is choked with crates of butter, cream, milk and produce, and leaky cardboard boxes of iced meat and fish.

"I miss the morning market," he says, reminiscing about France as he packs away the goods from Westside Produce. An excited wistfulness comes into his voice. "There's nothing like it. You go there every morning and talk to the fishmongers, the farmers, the butchers. You buy vegetables from someone who has a garden and bread from a baker. There's a good feeling when you see the hands and the faces that make the food you buy. He learned the nooks and crannies of the market as a teenager. "It was part of my training and chores. Every morning, the chef--my boss--took me to the market and taught me how to choose vegetables and meat. I'd get to know everyone, all the merchants."

After Guichard became proficient at selecting quality goods, his master had him go to the market alone hours before dawn to contend for the best seafood the fishermen brought in. He found the task cold and miserable, but soon he came to appreciate the discipline.

Guichard labored in that restaurant for two years, working full work weeks. He remembers his scullion duty scrubbing out blackened pots late at night, and all the sweeping and the mopping and the garbage dumping. It was hard work, but there was something wholesome and reassuring about working in a kitchen that impressed his young mind.

At 16, Guichard signed the standard three-year apprenticeship contract with a restaurant in southern France. The restaurant paid for his schooling at a culinary institute that he attended twice a week on his days off. Between peeling potatoes for his boss and learning how to peel potatoes from his teacher, he fathomed the ropes of the kitchen and even eked out a sort of living. In his 20s, he moved to Paris to continue his education under brighter culinary luminaries. An accomplished chef in his early 30s, Guichard met and married Barbara, an American, who convinced him to cook on the other side of the Atlantic.

While working in larger restaurants in California, he was frustrated with cooks and assistants who "did not know how to cook." Most of his assistants did not have any formal training; others had two years of culinary academy education and not 20 years of on-the-job experience. He and Barbara decided to open their own neighborhood bistro, where with low overhead Guichard could cook his way.

If it weren't for the bookkeeping, every chef dreams of having his/her own restaurant. Fortunately, Barbara has a knack for the books. This leaves Guichard to indulge in his little eccentricities like cooking Texas chili for friends, crafting special dishes for favored customers, or prepping food his own way. For instance, he mercilessly discards a fourth of an already trimmed loin, and whittles away as much of a sea bass filet, yet he spends five minutes rescuing and sculpting the core of a broccoli stem that other chefs would reject without a thought.

Holding out four translucent green ellipsoids in his palms, he chuckles triumphantly. "They'll never guess what these are! I love this part of the broccoli the most. It tastes so good. Tender and very sweet."

Modest but sure of his abilities and natural instincts, he whirls in his kitchen with precise energy, coordinating a dozen tasks without a sous chef, a timer or measuring utensils. The ice cream maker rattles, churning a berry sorbet. The food processor grates greens. The phone rings; Guichard pens a dinner reservation. Water runs in the sink to cool a barrel of blanched potatoes. Stock bubbles in a pot. Meat sizzles in a skillet. The TV mounted overhead follows a taped European rugby match. Guichard chops vegetables.

The aromas are fragmented but rich, the noise is a uniform thunder. Somehow, between chopping and food processing, between keeping one eye on the stove and the other on the rugby match, Guichard keeps up a steady, animated conversation with me.

He works ten-hour shifts, spending six hours to prep for four dinner hours. When the patrons arrive, Guichard goes into overdrive, communicating with his waitstaff to time and cook anywhere from 25 to 50 dinners, three to five courses each. With this workload, the pace in other understaffed kitchens ranges between frantic and crazy. Here, it is just fast. There's something to be said for 40 years of experience.

Now and again, Guichard darts into the dinning room to greet his guests and ask about their meals.

"The best part of cooking," he confesses, "is when you see people's faces after they tasted what you've created for them."

Bistro Parisien is located at 5945 Almaden Expressway, Suite D, San Jose (408/268-3200). Open for lunch Tue.­Fri., 10am­2pm, and for dinner Tue.­Sat., 5­9pm.

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From the September 5-11, 1996 issue of Metro

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