By spotlighting a single ingredient — olive oil — Fig & Olive takes a slightly different approach to foodservice. Executive chef Pascal Lorange (pictured at right) works olive oil into every menu item, and each of the five locations (four in the New York City area; one in L.A.) sells a selection of olive oils in a small retail space. The theme carries throughout the premises, which are designed with walls of golden bottles, framed olive plants, olive trees and a tasting bar. Knockout dishes like chilled cucumber soup with mint, lemon, orange and pink peppercorn; zucchini carpaccio with lemon, pine nut, parmesan and picholine olive oil; and warm marzipan cake with olive oil gelato are creating devoted followers.
The impish Lorange explored the concept with RH contributor Libby Platus at the recently opened West Hollywood Fig & Olive.
RH: When did you decide to become a chef?
Lorange: I'm a third generation chef. My parents had a hotel and my grandfather had one also. My brother is a chef. Now, my nephew, the fourth generation, is taking over. At six years old I was doing chocolate with butter for my Mom…I didn't have knowledge of olive oil. I had to wait to apprentice until I was 13 because that's when I was allowed to cook with knives. Instead of giving me butter, they gave me a bottle of olive oil, and I began tasting different oils. I didn't want to go to school. I just wanted to cook.
RH: Over the years you were a chef to the stars. What was that like?
Lorange: After owning my own restaurant, I became Julio Iglesias's private chef for two years. His friend, President Bill Clinton, visited Iglesias's yacht in the Dominican Republic for two weeks to write his book, My Life. He loves Mexican food, so his assistant requested it. I had never cooked that in my life, so I went to the supermarket, bought tacos, quesadillas, this and that, and he loved it. President Clinton telephoned Iglesias: “The lunch was awesome!” Iglesias asked, “What did you have?” Clinton said, “Mexican food.” And Iglesias said, “He never cooked that for me in two years!”
On Tenerife, I cooked for Princess Stephanie of Monaco. She wanted to eat piglet. On the Canary Islands you cannot find everything. I went all over and found one, frozen. I barbecued it. It was a nightmare, but we did it. She loved it.
I also cooked for Oscar de la Renta, who enjoyed meat, but his wife just liked pureed vegetables, like baby food, which is a big mess.
RH: How is the L.A. restaurant different from those in New York?
Lorange: In L.A., the vegetables are the best you can find. At the Santa Monica farmers' market I pick out my own salad mix. We're using local chicken and we found beautiful blue San Diego oysters. We visit farms and pick our ingredients. This year I bought seven pallets of fresh figs, then shipped them to New York to freeze for the year.
RH: How do you choose your olive oils?
Lorange: We play with over 30 oils. For fish en papillote, we use Arbequina, a buttery olive oil; it's not too peppery. Lamb has a stronger taste, so we'll use peppery oil that is acidic to cut the fat. For Nicoise salad, sweet, fruity picholine olive oil goes well with raw vegetables.
We cook all our dishes using extra virgin olive oil. We don't brown or fry; we just start with low temperatures, cook in the oven or a la plancha. We have different kinds of oil: reserve, finishing and infused. All dishes are finished with extra virgin olive oil. Papillote comes with a little carafe on the side to finish your fish. We use infused oil for crostini and carpaccio.
RH: What inspired the concept?
Lorange: In the South of France, Laurent's (Laurent Halasz, Fig & Olive's founder) mom had a restaurant using olive oil, and when he started his own restaurant he wanted that approach. And it's healthy.
RH: How do you teach your guests about olive oil?
Lorange: Once seated, customers are welcomed with three different olive oils, olive oil bread and an explanation. We have olive oil tastings. Our website is linked to “how to do an olive oil tasting.” And we are starting cooking classes.
RH: What is the best way to taste olive oil?
Lorange: You use a blue glass with a narrow mouth to hide the oil's color and thickness. You put your hand under the glass and cover the top to warm it up. Swirl it, smell it to check out the aroma. Sip a small amount of it on your tongue and hold it in your mouth for 10 seconds. Suck in air through the oil (spread the oil throughout your mouth, swallow, close your mouth and breathe through the nose), and check out the flavor. It's like wine tasting. You eat green apple slices to clean your palate.
RH: Private label olive oil is featured throughout your restaurants. Is this from a single source or is it a blend?
Lorange: Our olive oils are shipped from Spain, Italy and the South of France to San Francisco, where they are mixed and bottled. Italian oils are herbaceous and peppery, really strong, while those from the South of France are green and fruity. Spanish oils are rich and buttery.
Three years ago we spent 10 days discovering olive oils …everything from trees through production. At Verona Fair, we tried so much, we almost got sick.
RH: Which menu items are most popular?
Lorange: We serve about 10,000 people a week in our New York restaurants. It's really hard to remove dishes…customers complain. Certain dishes stand out: zucchini carpaccio, which is raw zucchini marinated with lemon juice, picholine olive oil, fleur de sel, parmesan cheese and pine nuts; fig and gorgonzola tartlet, a tiny puff pastry with fig and heirloom tomatoes and walnuts that we bake, finish with arugula and prosciutto and melted gorgonzola; and fig and olive salad, with three different cheeses, figs, olives, apples, walnuts and organic mesclun salad.
RH: How do you make desserts without using butter and cream?
Lorange: Our pastry chef, Andrew LeStourgeon, is working on that. It's going to take time. In L.A. we have more fruit-based deserts, such as the juniper sorbet paired with grapefruit segment/orange segment, mint and Castelas olive oil from South of France. It has a green and apple taste.