Chef Francois de Melogue has presided over many kitchens, fashioning an exemplary culinary style that receives praise wherever he cooks. Happily for Chicagoans, de Melogue has lately been creating quite a stir and receiving kudos from customers at Pili.Pili, a restaurant named after the aromatic herbed oil used as a condiment in Provence, where Cezanne lived and painted his masterpieces.
"Leading the kitchen at Pili.Pili is like a homecoming for me," says Chef de cuisine or --- in simple lingo -- executive chef de Melogue. "I've come home to my culinary roots, which are firmly based in Provence. I have an artist's palette of colors from which to work. The food of Provence, just like the region itself, has been heavily influenced by nearby countries. We feature not only the dishes of southern France, but also the colorful foods of Spain, Italy, Morocco and other Mediterranean regions."
De Melogue's roots are cross-cultural. He was raised in Chicago, but spent every summer at his grandfather's hotel and restaurant in Perigord, France.
"It was there that I became totally enchanted with food and what it meant," says de Melogue. "My grandfather, Andre Colas, force-fed my mother truffles and foie gras in hopes that he would have a grandson who was a gourmand."
Apparently, it was a successful strategy. De Melogue took to the toque. While completing his studies at the New England Culinary Institute in 1985, he interned at Cafe Mariposa in Deer Valley, Utah, then at Chicago's The Bakery Restaurant under legendary chef Louis Szathmary, and finally at Le Ciel Blue at the Mayfair Regent Hotel under chef Terry Meynier. Chef Szathmary was so impressed he appointed de Melogue executive chef at The Bakery.
Later, de Melogue joined the kitchen at The Inn at South Newfane, Vermont, followed by Chicago's Le Margaux. Inspired by culinary excellence, de Melogue headed northeast to the prestigious Old Drovers Inn in Dover Plains, N.Y. It was there that he nourished a relationship with local farmers who grow sustainable organic products and earned the moniker, "a master of the treasured truffle" from wine and food writer, Arthur Levin.
De Melogue's most profound experience occurred in 1996, when he moved to France to work at Joel Robuchon's famed Gastronomie restaurant in Paris.
"I felt linked with Robuchon," says de Melogue. "He is a hero to me. His culinary philosophy is so simple yet so brilliant , to simplify food , to de-mystify it, really , to take away the layers that camouflage the flavors of the ingredients."
Describing his own cooking style, de Melogue says, "I prefer Cuisine Actuelle, a philosophy (in tune with) Joel Robuchon's. Food should taste like what it is; a lobster should taste like a lobster. I like simply prepared food presented simply. In the 1990's there was a tendency among chefs to put too many ingredients in a dish. I am a minimalist."
Simplicity also describes the surroundings of Pili.Pili. Architects and designers Cynthia Vranas and Keith Olsen (who won acclaim for their design of MK in Chicago) created an ambiance that subtly envelopes diners with the feeling one experiences when visiting the timeless Mediterranean port cities of Marseilles, Genoa and Barcelona. Rustic stone tile floor lends informality; walls are neutral and the space is accented with deep yellows and red oranges. As one proceeds from cafe to dining room, the lighting assumes a warm, romantic glow reminiscent of dusk in Southern France.
Mediterranean foods in general -- and Provencal in -- are the basis for the menu. "Mediterranean foods are simple healthful preparations using lots of vegetables and fruits," explains de Melogue. "People live long in Provence because they live life simply and in tune with their surroundings."
De Melogue considers himself fairly mellow in temperament. He says his menu development is ongoing. "I get ideas from everywhere every second of the day." He might get an idea while eating in a restaurant, grocery shopping, reading a book -- even in a dream. He says he has "millions of notebooks filled with ideas." De Melogue likes to include his staff in the idea process, but reserves the right of final approval.
His avocation is very time-consuming. Describing his typical day, de Melogue says, "I wake up at 5:00 a.m. and play with my dog. I start my paperwork with a cafe au lait and perhaps a tartine by 5:30. I ride my bicycle to work at 6:45 and cook all day. When I get home, I like to read a book and go to sleep."
De Melogue says that customers today are more concerned about nutrition , but with a twist. "I think customers are concerned with the quality and healthiness of the raw ingredients," he says. "People these days want to see restaurants use organic products that are free of chemicals and unnecessary pesticides. Provenal cooking in general is very healthy. It involves lots and lots of fresh fruits, vegetables and seafood."