Culinary masterpieces

April 15, 2003
Chef de Melogue begins with a palette of colors and flavors.

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."

A proponent of organic ingredients, he believes they are one of the hottest trends to watch. "Hopefully more and more chefs will step away from the mass-produced food that is so predominant in our culture," says de Melogue. "When I lived in the Hudson Valley, I used to go out to all the small-scale farms and work with the food raisers. The advantages are that you know exactly what happens with your food from the moment the asparagus is cut to when it appears on the table."

De Melogue is passionate about long-distance hiking. "In 2000, I walked 2,168.2 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine," he explains. "It was one of the most profound experiences of my life. For six months, I walked through the forests and over 256 mountains. It was this experience that made me appreciate how little we actually need to live a fulfilling life. It taught me to live communally and to be socially conscious. We get so caught up with numbers, deadlines and material items that we lose sight of who and what we are."

One day, he hopes to write a food column and perhaps a book. "My long-term goals are to live a healthy, long life," says de Melogue. "Professionally, I just want to see people smile and enjoy themselves."

After enjoying a variety of culinary masterpieces at Pili.Pili, we asked de Melogue to look into his crystal ball for a view of the cuisines and flavors that will influence future menu development.

He answers with no hesitation. "No crystal ball necessary! Our cuisine will be based on the cuisine and flavors of Provence, Spain, Italy, Morocco, Egypt and all the other countries of the Mediterranean. The food is honest, simple, healthy and, most importantly, delicious."

Top of his toque

FP: What are some of your favorite foods (when others are cooking for you)?

De Melogue: I love to go to Vegan restaurants. I also eat lots of Indian, Ethiopian, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Italian, Chinese well, just about anything.

FP: What ingredients do you always keep in your refrigerator?

De Melogue: Saucisson, salads, good stinky cheeses, homemade breads, fruits and vegetables, hummus, pita and coffee and milk.

FP: Which innovative chefs do you most admire?

De Melogue: Currently, Franck Cerutti, Alain Ducasse, Guy Gedda, Joel Robuchon, Alain Passard and Pierre Gagnaire. God, there are so many good chefs today! I am very influenced by the unknown chefs who work in restaurants all over the Mediterranean.

FP: What is your personal formula, vision on food and lifestyle?

De Melogue: Live life simply and uncluttered. As Marco Pierre White once said, ,'At the end of the day, it is just food.'

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