Editor’s Note: After releasing this post, it came to our attention that there was change in management at French Blue at the beginning of September 2013 and Chef Philip Wang is no longer there. You can read about the new management here. While we don’t know where Chef Wang will end up next, we are sure it will be another great opportunity for him. We hope you will still enjoy this story on this Indiana-born Chef and Carl Tiedemann’s experience at French Blue.
I am a big subscriber to blogs, newsletters and about anything to do with food, wine and cooking. Due to my winemaking duties in Napa Valley, I am particularly interested with anything having to do with that region. In early February of this year I received an article from an organization called Tasting Table. In this particular post there was a link to restaurant French Blue in St. Helena in Napa Valley. I clicked on the link and began to read about the people at the restaurant. I discovered that the executive chef (and partner) Philip Wang was an Indiana native.
This immediately piqued my interest as I thought it would be great to do an article in the wine blog on an Indiana chef in Napa Valley. I quickly sent off an email to Chef Wang asking for the opportunity to interview him for the blog. He graciously accepted my request and we agreed to meet on my next trip to Napa Valley. After a little more research on Chef Wang, I discovered he is a very accomplished and talented chef and has worked in some highly acclaimed restaurants around the country. More importantly, as I said, he is an Indiana guy.
On the day of my interview I decided to go early and have lunch at French Blue. It wasn’t a mistake. For starters I had the French Blue oven baked flat bread topped with ham, sausage, olives and goat cheese.
This was followed by an entrée featuring moulard duck with crispy polenta, sautéed spinach and bing cherry gastrique. For wine I selected a glass of 2011 Quintessa Illumination Sauvignon Blanc which paired nicely with the two plates. After lunch, Chef Wang and I had the opportunity to sit and chat about his journey from his Munster, Indiana, childhood to his role as chef/partner at French Blue in Napa Valley. What follows is an edited version of that interesting conversation.
Q: Tell me about Chef Wang.
A: “I was born and raised in Munster, Indiana. I graduated from high school in 1990 and went to Tufts University in Boston to study anthropology. I was going to go to medical school but after graduation I realized that was more my parents dream than mine. So I decided to start cooking. While it was quite a surprise to my family, they supported it. I applied at the CIA (The Culinary Institute of America) in New York and came back to Indiana and worked at the Strongbow Inn in Valparaiso. I worked for Russ and I was there for just a few weeks, roasting turkeys and making whatever. Russ and a bunch of his staff had graduated from the CIA. So he wrote me a letter of recommendation and that little experience and his letter got me into the CIA. The rest is history.
Q: So how did you come about wanting to cook?
A: I don’t have this story of it being a life-long dream. I graduated in 1994 and there was no cooking channel or anything like that. Cooking was not big. Then you had Julia Child and the Frugal Gourmet and that was it. It was not the rock star job that it seems to be now. It really was more of a whim for me. My brother said: “why don’t you start cooking?” and I said: “Alright.” Growing up our family were big foodies. My parents would plan our vacations around eating. At breakfast we would talk about what was for lunch. At lunch we would talk about what was for dinner. And at dinner we would talk about what was for breakfast. But the cooking aspect never really appealed to me until later.
Q: How did you get from Valparaiso to Napa?
A: My first job out of the CIA was at Rubicon in San Francisco with Traci Des Jardins. She had just won Food & Wine Magazine’s “Best New Chef” (in 1995) and the James Beard’s “Rising Star Chef of the Year” (also 1995). Rubicon was just named “Best Restaurant” by James Beard. So it was the hot new restaurant in the country. Rubicon was great; Traci was great. It really was the hot place to be. Larry Stone was one of the partners and doing the wines so the wine list was amazing. And I learned a lot about wine as well as cooking.
“I then went with Traci to open Jardinière. From there I went to Chicago and worked at Blackbird with Paul Kahan before he had won any of his awards. I worked there right as he won his Food & Wine Magazine’s “Best New Chef.” He and I go way back. I did a short stint at Charlie Trotters. After Chicago I went to Manhattan to open DANIEL (with famed Daniel Boulud) and was there for three years. It was an amazing experience. It was excruciatingly difficult, but it was worth it. From DANIEL I went back to Boston and got my first chef job at a little French bistro on the south end called Truc. From there I came back to California and was opening chef of the Carneros Inn. I then went to Sacramento and opened three restaurants there and then Hawaii where I opened three restaurants. Actually the first one I opened, Merriman’s on Maui, we were nominated for a James Beard Best Restaurant as a semi-finalist. That was an exciting time for the staff and I.
Q: After Hawaii you opened French Blue in May of 2012. How have things been going for the restaurant?
A: We are doing really well. Business is growing. Critically we are doing great. We have an extraordinary amount of regulars. We have great reviews on OpenTable, Yelp and all of that. A month ago, in Architectural Digest, we were named as one of “The 10 Most Beautifully Designed New Restaurants” (for 2013) in the world. Howard Backen designed this whole place and it is beautiful. We also were named on the 2013 Best Brunch Restaurants list by OpenTable. We are offering breakfast, lunch and dinner and I think we are doing it well.
Q: Do you have a signature dish? Or how do you prepare the menu?
A: The menu is really determined by what is at the market. The restaurant has three farms around the valley, including one in Mount Veeder where we raise chickens. All our eggs come from that farm. Right now we are pulling stone fruits, beets and all our lettuces from the farms. We have a farmer who runs all the farms. What he pulls out of the ground is really what we are featuring on the menu. We change it up. There is no rhyme or reason. I like that freedom and the kitchen enjoys it as well. But if the guests enjoy something we may keep it on the menu a little longer. But the minute something becomes a little bit of a dog, we take it off. It is such an amazing place here with all the produce and products. We have farmers walking in every day with something different so that determines the menu.
Q: Tell me about your wine list.
A: When we came up with the concept for French Blue, the first thing we want to do is decide the style of the restaurant. What we ultimately decided was that we really wanted to be as local as possible: with the food, the wine, the design. But it was an interesting process with the wine. When we were starting we heard from all the wine makers around town who were saying you need to offer French wines because we are sick of drinking our own stuff. And then we heard the opposite site, which is ‘when you are in Burgundy you drink Burgundy. When you are Napa you drink Napa.’ So we decided to look for some interesting wines from within the boundaries of roughly Monterey to Oregon and from the ocean to the mountains. With the exception of champagne: we have some French champagne. It would have been easy to populate the list with all cabs and chardonnays from Napa, but we decided to offer some other interesting wines. We wanted food friendly and wines that would represent a more European style but made in Monterey or Encino. And I think Adam (LaCanigna) has done a great job with that. From my background certainly I miss cooking for certain wines. A burgundy is so easy to cook for. But I love the wine list here because there is a lot that we can direct the food toward. I won’t necessarily change the dish based on the individual table’s wine choice. But Adam and I certainly talk about the wine list: What’s coming on the list, what’s going off, the seasons, what produce is in the market. We keep all that at the forefront of the menu plans. If there is a wine on the list that he loves and wants to really sell it, we will make a dish that will pair that wine specifically with that dish. And we have a lot of people in wine who come in. They will bring in three bottles of wines and say, “cook us something for these three wines today.” So we will make a menu based on what we have in house. That is a lot of fun. Being in Napa, wine always influences what we do. And I think the food we do is very wine friendly. I think there is good acid to help balance. I love that kind of complete package.
Q: How often do you get back to Indiana?
A: I was back in Indiana in February. My parents are in Schererville. I end up going back about once a year. It is hard to get back any more often…especially in summer when it is our busy time. But it is fun to go back home. I go back and drive by the old high school and get a burger at Schoop’s.
My experience at French Blue with Chef Wang was simply delightful. Philip Wang is a multi-talented chef exhibiting a deep passion for food and cooking. This passion, coupled with a forward-thinking vision and strong culinary versatility, has allowed him to create a local-ingredient-driven seasonal menu that explores a combination of wonderful and traditional flavors in a broad range of dishes. This menu is complemented with a well-thought-out Napa Valley driven wine list.
On your next visit to Napa Valley I highly recommend you dine at French Blue and experience Philip Wang’s culinary talents. If you have been to French Blue please share your experience with us by adding a comment or two.