Talking bouillon, black truffles and Bay Area cuisine with Executive Chef Xavier Salomon of the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay
It’s not every day that you get to meet an esteemed French Master Chef, but a day when you can meet half a dozen of them stands out like a civet of duck leg with Cabernet wine sauce and mushrooms on Pyrenees cheese polenta.
Back in December, I attended a special brunch at the Ritz-Carlton featuring six prestigious French chefs who all contributed to the new book, Master Chefs of France: The Cookbook. After meeting them, and tasting their phenomenal food, I was excited to follow up on the local front with the Ritz’s Executive Chef Xavier Salomon to talk about his long career as well as the food scene here in the Bay Area.
Chef Salomon has been heading up the culinary program at the Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay since 2001. Last year, he was awarded the prestigious 2017 “French Master Chef of the Year” award, also known as La Toque d’Argent (“The Silver Toque”) for USA-Canada. Each year since 1951, an elite group of the most famous French chefs in the world chooses one member chef in North America to thank and reward for their dedication to their vocation, exceptional work ethic, community involvement, charity work and diligence in regards to the organization. Salomon is currently the only chef within The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company to receive this honor, which he considers the crowning achievement of his career.
In addition to helming the culinary program at the Ritz HMB, where he directs a staff of 65, he teaches all over the world and is proud to host a group of 15 international students at the Ritz for a year-long internship annually. Mentoring others in the field is tremendously rewarding to him, and he takes great delight in imparting his infectious love of the culinary arts.
Originally from Savoie, France, Chef Salomon grew up with a father, grandfather and uncle who were all French Master Chefs, becoming the fourth in his family to earn the title of Maitre Cuîsinier de France. He trained at Michelin three-star restaurant La Bonne Auberge in Antibes, France, as well as at Le Bateau Ivre in Courchevel, graduating from Thonon les Bains Culinary Academy. He joined the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company in 1991 as the executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton, Aspen. Since coming to the Ritz, Half Moon Bay, Salomon has lived in Belmont with his wife, who insists that he stop cooking so many potatoes.
What is your first food memory?
I was born and raised in the business. My parents had a restaurant and we lived above it. I had no choice but to be surrounded by food and all the aromas always coming from the kitchen.
Did you always want to follow in your father’s and grandfather’s footsteps to become a chef?
My brother and sister are doing something completely different, but I loved the Chef world more than the cooking. My Dad was tough to work for: the staff were somewhat intimidated. I respected that! I’ll tell you a funny story. When I was 15 or 16, I met with someone who did career counseling and he asked me what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to be a chef. He asked me what my second choice was, and I told him I didn’t have one. He asked, what if you can’t do it? I said, I will do it.
What an honor to have been voted French Master Chef of the Year for 2017. Is this something you’d always wanted to achieve?
It was such an honor, and no I wasn’t expecting it. You look at the list of people who have been chosen before, like Jacques Pepin, Daniel Bouloud and Roland Passot, and you say, “That’s not me!” My father was so proud and he came here for the ceremony.
What experiences or cultures have influenced the way you choose ingredients and prepare food?
Travel is an important part of what I do. I’ve worked for this company for 36 years and have opened 22 hotels around the world, including Russia and Asia. You learn different techniques and marinades and presentations. You see different combinations of ingredients and even though I have classic cuisine teachings in my head, I can say, “Black truffles and pear, why not?” My Dad, though, would say “No way!”
You’ve been at the Ritz in Half Moon Bay for over 16 years — what has changed about the food you are preparing now vs. what you were preparing when you first came to this resort?
Being in California, you naturally cook simpler and lighter. It’s all about the produce. In France it was always like this, but in California, we make it lighter. We look for ways to make the dish not so heavy. I’ll tell you a story. When my parents came to visit, I roasted potatoes with olive oil and garlic and herbs, without peeling them. My father was shocked: in France you never eat the skins! I told him we don’t peel potatoes here: there are nutrients in the skins.
What trends do you see happening in cuisine here in Northern California?
There are always trends! I regret to say that sometimes restaurants here just copy each other. You put avocado toast on your menu, and everybody does it. How about the cauliflower craze? You’d think it was a new vegetable! It’s crazy. I love cauliflower, but it’s everywhere now. I think Filipino cuisine will grow. We’ll see the elevation of more authentic cuisine — particularly Latin and Mexican — like Californios. I think it is going back to our culinary roots.
How did you become involved with the Master Chefs cookbook? How did you come to choose the recipe you did?
Our president in New York thought it would be good to publish this collection of recipes from North America. They asked each of us to submit four recipes, and they chose two from each. Since I have two restaurants at the resort, I am glad they chose the pumpkin chowder since pumpkins are so linked to Half Moon Bay. And it is an approachable recipe that you can make at home. Not one of those recipes you look at and say, that’s way too complicated! The other they chose to feature was a pork chop dish we make at The Conservatory.
What are the dishes you enjoy preparing most?
I love roasted chicken — the way Thomas Keller makes it. It is such a comfort food. I also like to cook any kind of potatoes—Lyonnaise, roasted—I love potatoes. My wife tells me I make too many potatoes! She introduced me to quinoa. I also like to read my classic cookbooks for inspiration. I recently made Beef Wellington: so good!
Would you rather prepare breakfast, lunch or dinner?
Dinner at the restaurant, for sure, as I play with more things. But for breakfast, I push my guys to be more creative! Different kinds of French toast and pancakes. I’m always looking for ways to improve breakfast. We make all our own marmalades and granola. We make our own breakfast breads.
Any funny stories about mishaps in the kitchen?
Ok, this is a prank they played on me when I was an apprentice in a kitchen. The chef told me to cook crayfish in court boullion but not to let them turn red or the head chef would get angry. I had never cooked crayfish before. When they started turning red, I pulled them from the pot and threw them in the trash — but they all turned red! And all the kitchen was laughing at me. But mishaps in the kitchen? They happen all the time. You learn from each one.
What is the most unusual request you have ever had from a guest?
This is a luxury hotel, so we have guests from all over the world. They are very different from typical restaurant guests. We had a guest from Saudi Arabia who wanted meals served on his time zone. He wanted to eat lunch at 2am and dinner at 3pm. We accommodated him and his party of 20–30 people, including cooking a whole lamb.
Is there a new kitchen tool or gadget you’ve become fond of lately?
I love microplanes. They’re great for chocolate, truffles, hazelnuts, so many things.
What are the most critical skills a would-be chef needs to have to pursue a successful culinary career?
I’ve been teaching at hotel schools in Asia, and have also started culinary programs in Peru, Bangkok and the Phillippines. I share this with all my students. You need three things to be successful. The first is passion. You can’t do this job if you don’t love it. It takes your whole life. It consumes holidays and weekends and is hard on your family. You give everything to it, so you must love it. The second is patience. There is not a pill, not a fast course, no shortcuts. It just takes time. The third is learning. Even when you get out of culinary school, you are just starting to learn. You continue to learn. I have 15 students from those hotel schools in Asia working at the Ritz now. They come for a year and they are so excited to work and learn. We have them rotate throughout every single station. They go back to their home countries to work at resorts or to open their own restaurants.
How many people work in the kitchen at the Ritz? What is the biggest challenge you face?
We have 65 people in the kitchen. A dozen of them have been here since I started: they are mostly local. There are two kinds of people who leave: people that should go someplace else and those that cannot afford to live here.
What is the one dish every parent should teach their children to make?
It is unfortunate how much bad food people are eating. I think parents should make their kids more good-tasting vegetables!