When top chef Philippe Schmit, of Bistro Moderne fame, joined Twitter with the catchy moniker TheFrenchCowboy, we just had to get the scoop on how the French-via-Manhattan import identifies with Texas cowboy culture. Currently hard at work on his eponymous eatery, Philippe Restaurant & Lounge, set to debut in Blvd Place in September, Schmit told us about letting loose his inner cowpoke (with a little bit of European flair), how Texas themes influence his cooking (cactus is involved), and what he would name his horse, if he had one (Jolly Jumper).
Q: How did you come up with The French Cowboy name?
A: Well, since I move to Houston I was always buying boots and cufflinks and cowboy hats for my friends in New York and Europe, because that's always the interest in Texas to foreigners. And a few years ago the (Houston) Chronicle asked me to be a rodeo reporter, I guess to see how I would react as a chef and a Frenchman to the cooking and the barbecue and the smoking. And I went and I wore the boots and hat, but with my European pants and people thought it was such a funny combination they started calling me the French Cowboy.
Q: How does being a cowboy translate into your dishes?
A: I like taking the Texas influences and integrating them with French technique. I always smoked food, even in New York, and I'm very proud of my barbecue sauce, even though it's different, it's not the kind you eat at the rodeo wearing a bib. And wherever you cook you have to know the ingredients. Now I serve filet mignon on a bed of cactus. And Texas flavors are like dried chilies, grapefruit, avocado, Tex-Mex influences, spices, molasses — it's almost like a fusion. So I can adapt it, and make my French version of you eat at a barbecue. But my food is very straightforward, I use the ingredients from Texas but keep a French identity. The challenge is to embrace the version of Texas with French technique.
One example is when I make an avocado bombe. An avocado is definitely a Mexican influence, but instead of doing a traditional guacamole I deconstruct it and make an avocado mousse with a dressing that has the other ingredients you'd find in guacamole.
Q: And France has somewhat of a long history in Mexico ...
A: Well, we do, but we don't like to talk about it because they basically kicked our butts. But we do. There's a spice called espelet that has been used for French cooking for 200 years, and everybody thinks it's French but really it originally came from Mexico. So by using it here I'm really just bringing it home.
Q: Is there a cowboy culture in France?
A: It's kind of a fascination, really. Growing up my favorite comic was Lucky Luke, about a cowboy in the Old West. It's one of the most popular comics in France still today even.
Q: When we think of a cowboy, we think of the Lone Ranger on his own, traveling west, and that's something you've mirrored in your career.
A: In some ways I do feel like a lone ranger. New Yorkers, you know, really think they are the center of the world, and I've isolated myself to a degree from the national press. But as a French chef in Houston I embraced the community and it's my pride to be representing Texas and to convince people to come here and try the food and the city. Plus I like to joke that my horse likes it here.