How many retirement communities can brag that they have their very own French chef? The Pines at Davidson has earned a reputation for good food, prepared by chef Philippe Frespech. Born in Southwestern France near the Pyrenees Mountains and the Basque region, Frespech (pronounced FREEZE-paw) trained with chefs all over his own country before going to work for a cruise line. That’s where he met his wife, a Charlotte native. He jokes that they met “on the Love Boat,” but quickly corrects himself – she was a passenger and he was on the crew, so they weren’t supposed to fraternize. But the romance continued for months after she left the ship, before he came to the United States to join her in 1993. They lived in Atlanta for two years, where he worked for Chateau Elan, the winery and hotel north of the city, before moving to Charlotte to be near his wife’s family. He loves cooking for the senior citizens at The Pines, he says. “They are people who have traveled a lot. They very much care about food, about wine.”
Q. What’s the biggest difference between food in France and food here? “Ten years ago, it was a big difference. There were only a few (French) restaurants here, like Patou and Marais. The food was very limited. But now, the young American chefs have made their way similar to the level of what we have in France.” He loves the way America embraces culinary variety. “In the USA right now, you have a lot of choice. Japanese, Italian, French - anything you want, you can have.” In France, chefs have to focus on the food of France.
Q. We’ve heard you’ve developed a fondness for grits. Any other favorite Southern food? “The biscuit. I never had the biscuit before. Fried chicken - you never found a piece of fried chicken in France. I love it. The greens - the turnip greens, the collards - the way you cook them.” He still struggles to get used to the Southern way with a green bean, though. “In France, the haricot vertes, we blanch them. The first time my wife made green beans, she cooked for two hours. I said, ‘what’s going on? What are you doing?’”
Q. What’s the hardest thing about cooking for seniors? “My first goal is to be consistent. They come to eat once a day, and we’re here seven days a week.” He also has to focus on the healthfulness of the food, particularly keeping down the sodium. But for the most part, the people who live at The Pines are a great group, he says. “Most of them have traveled, and they appreciate what you do for them.”
Q. What’s the best part of your job? “To work with great people and to please people. I can do anything I want, food-wise. The quality has to be the best all the time. That, for me, is rewarding.”
Q. You spend a lot of time around people who are retired. Have you learned any lessons about aging? “Yeah - keep drinking wine every day! Eat everything with moderation. You do everything in life with moderation. I have learned with these people to take care of yourself. When you get older, it’s too late. Have a positive attitude, have balance in life. Eat something fresh every day. Or fried chicken if you want.”Goat Cheese Custards with Strawberries in Red Wine Syrup From www.davidlebovitz.com. Makes 4 servings
5 ounces fresh goat cheese, at room temperature 1/4 cup sugar 1/2 cup milk, cream or half-and-half 2 large egg yolks 1/4 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or 1/8 teaspoon extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place four custard cups or ramekins in a deep baking dish or pan. Blend together the goat cheese, sugar, milk (or cream), egg yolks, and vanilla for 30 seconds until very smooth. Divide the mixture into the custard cups; each should be a bit more than half full. Add warm tap water to the baking pan, to make a water bath for baking the custards. The water should reach to about halfway up the side of each custard cup. Cover the pan with foil and bake 15 to 20 minutes, or until custards just stop quivering loosely when you jiggle the pan. Remove the custards from the water bath and cool completely. Refrigerate custards up to two days, covered with plastic wrap. Bring to room temperature before serving.Red Wine Syrup From www.davidleibovitz.com.
1/2 cup red wine 3 tablespoons sugar 1/2 to 1 small basket of strawberries (about 4 ounces)
Combine the red wine and skillet in a nonaluminum skillet. Cook until the bubbles get thick and syrup is reduced to half its original quantity. Remove from heat and scrape into a bowl to cool completely. Rinse, hull and slice strawberries. Toss in syrup, let stand for a minute to two, then spoon onto custards.