At age 14, Provence-born chef Christophe Bonnegrace was convinced his cooking career was over before it had started. His first job, as an apprentice, lasted approximately one week, and ended with the head chef thrusting his hands in the fryer. “I got scared, escaped the kitchen and pedaled home as fast as I could to get away from this guy!” Bonnegrace remembers. Luckily his wounds (both literal and figurative) from that grisly first experience eventually healed, setting off a career that’s taken him from celebrity-frequented restaurants and resorts in Beverley Hills (Aristoff Caviar and Fine Food), Maui (The Royal Lahaina) and Las Vegas (Little Buddha), all the way to the far reaches of Africa, where he learned to cook crickets over pit fires with primitive tribes from Cairo and Nairobi.
Although his passport may indicate otherwise, at the end of the day his cuisine remains resolvedly French, as evidenced by the menu at his new West Village bistro, La Villette. “We make food that is simple and classic, but exceptionally good,” Bonnegrace said. He’s talking, of course, about dishes like Braised Mustard Rabbit with green olives provencale, hand cut Beef Tartare with cornichon and caper sauce, and house made Foie Gras Terrine. With simple dishes like these, he aims to change the public perception that French food is weighed down with an excess of sauce, fat, and heavy cream (although he does confess to using a free hand with a good bottle of wine). “I’m French! What can I say?” laughed Bonnegrace. “I have to deglaze my sauté pans somehow.”
I am married to the most understanding woman about my career, and she is beautiful too.
When and how did you realize that you wanted to become a chef?
At age 14 I announced to my parents that I didn’t want to go to school anymore and wanted to work, but didn’t know in what field. The first job my mother came out with was “cooking.” My first reply was “Pfff, cooking is for girls.” Look at me now!
How did growing up in France, and specifically in Provence, inspire you as a chef?
Growing up, we either went to the mountain to pick wild herbs, fruits, and escargots, or we went fishing. We then made soup for the week, using whatever we had. It was always inspiring.
What was your first food related job? What did you take from that experience?
It was as an apprenticeship. The chef looked at me straight in the eyes and asked me if I wanted to become a chef someday. When I said yes, he grabbed my hands and plunged them in the fryer, telling me you have to do this if you want to become a chef! What did I take from that? Don’t work with crazy people in the kitchen.
You spent two years studying food abroad in Africa. Why Africa?
I’ve always wondered how, in ancient times, they prepared such lavish feasts without any of the equipment we have today. The only place I could actually answer my question was with the local tribes in Africa, that have no fridge, burners, oven, or mixer, just a firepit to cook with! It’s amazing.
What did you take away from your time there?
I learned how to be humble. I never take for anything for granted anymore. We have everything right at our finger tips; clothes, gadgets, phones with apps, but at the end at the end of the day, we always find something to complain about. I learned how to live my life happily, no matter what I have or don’t have.
When did you decide to move to NYC, and what brought you here?
New York is to a chef what the White House is for a politician. And my wife always dreamed about living in NYC, so I did it for her.
What do you see as the public’s perception about what French food is, and how are you trying to change that?
The perception is always the same: heavy sauces, lots of butter and cream. My dishes are clean on the palate and light on the stomach.
What would you say sets La Villette apart from any of the other French bistros in the city?
It’s the food your mom or grandma used to serve, but with a little nouvelle twist added to it.
What are some ingredients and dishes that are particular to Provence, and how are they reflected on your menu?
We use a lot of olive oil, garlic, white wine, olives, tomatoes and lemons. I grew up on the French Riviera where seafood is very present on the tables, and all around Provence the cuisine is very light and powered with flavors. That’s what we are doing here at La Villette.
As a chef, what do you find particularly inspirational about NYC and its food scene?
Being brand new to New York, I can already tell that I am dealing with a lot of educated palates that know exactly what they are looking for in a dish. It’s definitely challenging. It keeps me on my toes and inspires me to be better every day.
What is your favorite dish on the menu at La Villette right now?
I will have to say the Mustard Rabbit with Green Olives and Mushrooms. What a noble product! I know it’s a little bunny but, but oh so delicate and good when done properly. Everyone loves it.
Your least favorite dish? (you have to choose!)
I will have to choose the Chocolate Mousse. It’s a classic that everyone knows and loves, but not my cup of tea!
What would be your ultimate Christmas feast be?
I would give anything to have my Mom’s Roast Beef with Flageolet Beans and my father’s Octopus Salad. That would be the ultimate for me.
On a rare day off, what can we find you doing?
My wife and I love to walk. Five to six hour long walks before hitting a great restaurant.
You’re on your deathbed…sex or dinner? (No, you can’t have both.)
Sex of course, because even on my deathbed someone will say “I can’t cook for you! You’re a chef!”