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Cheers to 50 Years in the Kitchen
By Lisa Mullavey
This October marks 50 years that Chef Vincent Guerithault has been in the kitchen, starting as an apprentice in Paris at the tender age of 16. For many years, he worked tirelessly up the ranks of the kitchen, often with no more compensation than the satisfaction that comes from hard work and the love of his craft. After years of working in some of the best kitchens in Europe under the tutelage of expert chefs, Chef Vincent made his way to the U.S., eventually opening Vincent on Camelback almost 35 years ago. His unique style and ability to blend French cooking with the flavors of the Southwest have made him a highly regarded chef and a Valley favorite. I recently had the privilege of interviewing Chef Vincent and learned about his career, what he enjoys when he is not in the kitchen and what’s next for him.
Quite often, advice from a mentor helps to inspire a person. What words of wisdom were so impactful they not only helped you but stayed with you to this day?
Dad once told me the tale of the two frogs on a farm who fell into a bucket of milk and couldn’t get out. One of the frogs panicked, gave up and drowned in the milk. The other was determined to find a way out so he swam and swam and soon the milk turned into cream and then butter, and he jumped out. When I started working at the age of 16, things weren’t so easy and there were times I felt like quitting and going home. But I was determined not to give up, so I pushed through 18-hour workdays, $6 a month salary and countless cold showers living in an apartment with six other chefs far from my family to create the life I wanted. Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
You’ve had the opportunity to experience every job in a kitchen. What job challenged you most?
My first job in a 3-Star Michelin Restaurant in the south of France was to cook for small dogs that our customers would occasionally bring to dinner. It was common to bring a small poodle or little dog who would sit obediently by their owners and my job was to prepare a dish for the dog while their owners dined. Their dishes had to match the quality of what their masters were eating. It wasn’t what I was expecting but I learned you must start at the bottom and work your way up. My apprenticeship was tough, I worked for a demanding chef who was always screaming and throwing pots and pans when things weren’t done to perfection. But I was immediately immersed in the real world. Looking back, I’m glad that’s how my career started because not everything is taught in a classroom or in a cooking school. You have to grind it out, work every job in a kitchen, and learn from the real world. There is not any job I can’t handle in my kitchen now from dishwasher to chef.
With a career spanning 50 years it’s no surprise that you have received numerous national and international awards. Which award meant most to you?
The James Beard award in 1993 was certainly a career highlight and being named one of America’s best chefs was my dream turned to reality. But being honored by my home country of France with the honor of merit of “Officier de L’Ordre du Mérite Agricole” (an award given by the French Republic recognizing a person’s outstanding contributions to agriculture) was especially meaningful.
What professional kitchen tool and ingredient could you not live without?
A mandoline. It’s such a versatile tool and makes things so much easier. And being French, I wouldn’t be able to cook without butter. I use it in just about everything. And as Julia Child said, “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream!
When you have downtime, what’s your favorite way to spend it?
Being with my family on a Sunday afternoon having cheese, Champagne or a bottle of rosé by the pool when the weather is nice.
If I were to look through your music library, what would I find?
Your favorite guilty pleasure?
How do you give back?
We hire many high school students to help us at our Saturday Farmers’ Market and it gives them an opportunity to manage a product station and learn how to interact with a customer, skills that will benefit them later in life. In the spring, we partner with the Barrett Honors College at ASU to offer a non-credit course to Barrett Honors students interested in cooking. I teach them some basic cooking techniques, how to prepare the mother sauces, the importance of mise-en-place, and at the end, they prepare a five-course dinner for their parents and guests at Vincent’s. It’s always a fun class but more importantly it gives them knowledge on nutrition and why being able to cook is so important. It’s often overlooked at a university but knowing how to cook is an essential life skill.
What do the next few years hold for you?
Although we have been in business for almost 35 years, I don’t have any plans to stop anytime soon. We have some exciting new things coming up including a Regent Mediterranean Cruise next summer that I’ll be leading and doing some cooking demos on and an expansion of the culinary class I mentioned to a larger audience. If anyone’s interested, they can join our email list to be notified or visit our website for more details when the information gets posted.
For those who would like to celebrate with Chef Vincent, visit vincentsoncamelback.com to make a reservation for a “Toast and Roast” being held on Oct. 11 at Vincent on Camelback.