Marcel Vigneron is probably still best known for season 2 of Top Chef, during which he displayed his talents for molecular gastronomy -- and for getting under the skin of his competition. After the show Vigneron, who still has his signature gravity-defying hair, moved to Los Angeles, where he was sous chef at José Andrés' The Bazaar. This February, Vigneron became the opening chef at the new Bar210, a posh lounge in the space previously occupied by Trader Vic's, adjacent to the Beverly Hills Hillton.
Marcel Vigneron of Bar210
Last week Vigneron took some time to talk about growing up on an island in the Puget Sound, the origins of his well-publicized interest in molecular gastronomy, and how he wound up in Los Angeles. Oh, and that memorable day swigging single malt with Bobby Flay at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. Check back later for the second part of our interview, and for Vigneron's recipe for boneless chicken wings.
Squid Ink: You're from Bainbridge Island, Washington. So how'd you get into food on the island?
Marcel Vigneron: Well, it wasn't so much that I got into food on Bainbridge, although. Well, that's not true. I did actually get into food on Bainbridge. What happened was that I was going to high school, and my parents were like [in old folks accent], You need to go out and get a job and start making some money. So I was like, Okay. And I started working at a little diner, it was called Streamliner Diner on Bainbridge as a dishwasher. And realized that dishwashing was kind of like grunt work and it wasn't really for me. And I saw these prep cooks working with like vegetables and stuff and I was like, Oooh, that looks like a glamour job. I totally want to be a prep cook. So I worked my way up to prep cook, and then I worked at all the different restaurants on the island. There were like four of them.
I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I'd saved up a decent amount of money and after I graduated from high school I went to Europe for five or six months and was out there just backpacking around and I had this epiphany that cooking was what I wanted to do. And I just needed to take it to the next level.
So while I was in Paris I looked at the Cordon Bleu and a bunch of different cooking schools in Europe and then decided that I wanted to go to the CIA. I did my associate's and bachelor's [degrees] and stayed on and did a fellowship there: I was running one of the restaurants that was open to the public. It just fulfilled every sort of aspect that I would want in an occupation, you know. It's physically challenging; you're not cooped up in an office, you're running around in a kitchen. It's mentally challenging, you're doing recipe costing, or trying to figure things out. And it's a huge creative outlet, whether you're plating up a dish, trying to figure out what goes where, or actually doing the flavor profile of the dish. I was lucky enough to figure out what I wanted to do very early on and dove into it headfirst.
SI: No cubicle for you.
MV: No. Can't be contained.
SI: And no college.
MV: Well, the CIA. It was more of a trade school. It was what I considered to be a college.
SI: Where did you work in Europe?
MV: I staged in a lot of different restaurants. The first trip -- I've been to Europe like three times now -- I was just checking it out and going to restaurants and dining. The second time I went out there was for a scholarship and I went to Campagnia to all the really nice restaurants and I ended up staying there after my scholarship was over and working for a restaurant called Ristorante L'Europeo, which is rated number one -- it goes back and forth between number one and two -- in the region of Campagnia and it's just a classic old school Italian restaurant. They have a glass case and customers would come in and be like, "I want that piece of fish," and they'll grab the fish and take it back and cook it. We're talking 6th generation pizza cooks, where the dough is like an extension of their hands. So I worked there. Let me see, the last time I went to Europe I only went to Spain and I was out there at El Taller where Ferran and Albert [Adrià] have their laboratory. I was out there taking classes on avant-garde cooking techniques through their company. I spent like a week and a half in their laboratory, and then I checked out some other restaurants in Barcelona and then I went up to San Sebastian, and mainly just ate my way through Spain.
SI: So where do you trace the interest in molecular gastronomy? Cooking school, or Adrià?
MV: Basically through research and development -- and curiosity. I can't really trace it to somebody that I worked under, because I basically taught myself the majority of most techniques. I taught myself spherification in a garage in New York while I was getting my associates degree. I called elBulli before I'd even been there and got on the line and asked them for a sample packet of chemicals. And they mailed me the chemicals.
SI: You can do that? You can get those through the mail?