After a recent review of Zinc Restaurant, the head chef and owner of both Zinc and Caribou Cafe, Chef Olivier Desaintmartin, contacted and thanked me for the nice review of his restaurant. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind sitting down with me for an interview, which he graciously agreed too. We met at Caribou Cafe between their lunch and dinner service. Chef Desaintmartin was so pleasant, friendly and down to earth. He made my fiance and I feel right at ease, and it was such a pleasure talking with him.
Chef Olivier Desaintmartin was born and raised in France. He learned how to cook from his grandmother and mother. Back then, they had to hunt much of their food so if you wanted to eat, you learned how to hunt, clean and cook it. He was always in the kitchen watching and leaning from them. His family never bought pre-portioned foods or already prepared items. Only fresh, local ingredients were used.
Later in life, he went to Paris to formally study cooking. During his training, he again was taught to make everything from scratch. At one point, he rotated between several 3-Star Michelin restaurants to further his education and experience. He always had his sights on coming to America. Many of his fellow students always talked about coming to the United States to work and he followed suit. All the recipes that are on the menu at Caribou Cafe and Zinc are from recipes he created in France back in 1978. It’s something he is very proud of to this day.
Presently at his restaurants, there are no freezers or canned items. Everything is made from scratch. The farm to table movement in the United States over the past several years is a bit humorous to him because that’s how he has always cooked. It may be a new concept in America but not in Europe.
He started as a chef for many restaurants in the Philadelphia area when he first came to the United States. He helped reopen Dock Street Restaurant but there were 20 partners at the time. He wanted to open his own place and be his own boss, so in 1985 he opened Caribou Cafe. He just recently resigned the lease for another 15 years. That’s great news for all of us!
Extensive renovations were done before opening Caribou Cafe, but since 2003, the restaurant hasn’t changed much. In 1999 it was across the street. He moved it to it’s current location and shortly afterwards he bought it. He used to have a chicken rotisserie restaurant next to Zinc but customers were’t really interested at the time. He said has no plans to open a third restaurant again. Two is enough for him!
He talked about the French cuisine in New York City, and how it is booming after years of stagnation. He’d like to see a boom here in Philadelphia as well. Years ago, there were more French restaurants in the area but not so much any more. He doesn’t mind that too much though. If the food is good, it’s good. No matter what the cuisine. Things seem to happen in cycles so he hope sometime in the future, French cuisine will see a resurgence again in Philadelphia.
Like myself, Chef Desaintmartin said one of the most important things a dish needs is to be served hot. It also has to have taste, spice, seasoning and flavor, but it needs to be hot. If it’s cold, it can ruin the whole experience. Food shouldn’t be just a plate put in front of you. It should be a combination of freshness, passion and culture. His goal is that every bite you take from one of his dishes should remind you of France. He likes food that is simple. Lots of flavor and spice but simple. If you over do it or make it too complex, it can ruin a dish he said.
He enjoys reading reviews from food critics that have passion. He can tell if the critic really enjoys food and wine because it will reflect in the article. Critics that have a serious passion for food make their articles more enjoyable to read, and in turn, will make the reader want to try the restaurant. He told me he was a bit disappointed that unless a restaurant has something “new” to offer, they usually don’t get followup reviews. Maybe things haven’t changed too much at his restaurants, but he’d like food critics not to forget about him and his fellow restauranteurs.
When it comes to wine, he buys wine that goes with the food. He is good friends with many winemakers but he has to remember to buy from the consumer’s view, and not so much his personal favorites. It’s very hard to do! His favorite wine right now for spring/summer is a Jean Luc Colombo Rosé Cape Bleue. He let us try a glass, and it was wonderful. You can tell a good rose by the color. He serves his only in magnum sized bottles. He told me that there is less sediment in magnum bottles than regular wine bottles so you get more wine. He felt rose wines paired well with shellfish, chicken, fish and pork. He wasn’t a big fan of rose in the past because it was hard to find one that wasn’t too sweet. 99% of the wines on his restaurant’s list are from France.
Whenever he changes the menu for the season, he spends 2 weeks in the kitchen preparing and teaching the staff at both restaurants. The menu only changes twice a year, in the spring/summer, then again for the fall/winter.
Loyalty is very prevalent at both his restaurants. The two chefs at Caribou Cafe have been with him since 2003. The chef at Zinc has been there since 2008. He also has a core group of staff that has been with him since he opened both restaurants. He may not be in the kitchen as much nowadays, but that’s because as sole owner, he handles all the issues that arise from owning you’re own business. It certainly keeps him busy! He and his wife have a daughter. She started working at Caribou Cafe at an early age, and evidently she was very good at recommending wines to patrons. She became a favorite with the customers but later in life chose a different career, and is now a senior buyer for Urban Outfitters.
Back in 2011, he was one of the contestants on the Food Network’s successful television show, Chopped. The focus was on French cuisine, and he won! The Food Network’s production team came to Philadelphia for a day to film background footage about him. He said he prepared for the competition by going to ShopRite and buying marshmallow candies and other odd items that may be in the basket ingredients to practice. It was taped in November 2010 and aired in June of 2011. He couldn’t tell anyone that he won until it aired! He wanted to share the news with so many people but was under contract to keep quiet until the episode aired. It was hard but he managed to keep the news to himself. He said it was an interesting experience being on television and that he wouldn’t mind being a judge on the show one day.
As we wrapped up the interview, he stated that the restaurant world in Philadelphia is a very close knit group. Everybody seems to knows everybody. We’ve experienced this first hand when talking to bartenders, servers and managers at other restaurants. The nice thing about it is if there is ever a crisis, everyone pulls together, and tries to help each other out. For example, the fire that destroyed Bridget Foy’s restaurant on South Street back in December of 2017, saw many in the Philadelphia restaurant scene pull together and help out the owners and displaced employees of the restaurant. The outpouring of help still continues today. In a few weeks, Chef Desaintmartin will be traveling to Asia for about a month, and the folks that managed Bridget Foy will be overseeing and helping out at Caribou Cafe and Zinc in his absence.
Chef Desaintmartin also told me that he’s always open to suggestions for new ideas or new events for his restaurants. Wine paring dinners, couples nights, themed events, what ever idea you may have, he’d like to hear it. They do have some events coming up, like a wine paring dinner, so be sure to get on their mailing list if you haven’t already.
I’d like to close by saying thank you to Chef Olivier Desaintmartin for taking the time out of his busy schedule to meet with me for this interview. I really enjoyed listening to him talk about his background, how he got started as a chef, and his experiences in Philadelphia. If you haven’t been to Caribou Cafe or Zinc, please make sure you stop by and dine with them. Both restaurants are gorgeous, and will certainly make you feel like you are back in Paris. The food, wine and staff are top notch. Seeing the care, love and passion Chef Olivier Desaintmartin puts into his restaurants every day, you can rest assured that you are in good hands. Bon appetite!