There’s a school of thought that says specific talents or desires are in our genes or are passed down automatically from generation to generation. Looking at executive chef Sebastien Archambault’s path towards cooking, you might be persuaded to believe just that. Growing up, Sebastien’s father started out as an engineer for Texas Instruments and later became a chef and restauranteur. And while Sebastien initially went the science route himself, majoring in biology in New York, the kitchen came calling when he realized he didn’t want to be a researcher or teacher. “I grew up in the restaurant environment and world,” says the chef, explaining that as he grew older and spent more time helping out at his dad’s restaurant on vacations and holidays, he realized cooking was for him. He adds that both of his grandmothers cooked a lot. “It’s in my blood,” he says.
Fast forward through his ten or so years in Paris in cooking school and working in restaurants ranging from bistros to three star Michelin restaurants, to a stint in Mexico and another in Corsica, Sebastien returned to the United States in 2008. After four years working in Los Angeles at RH and L’Epicerie Market, he landed in DC at the end of 2011 to take the helm in the kitchen at the Blue Duck Tavern from previous chef, Brian McBride.The two had worked together in LA when McBride assisted with the opening of RH.
Chef Sebastien Archambault of Blue Duck Tavern
courtesy of bonappetitfoodie
“I like the approachability of chefs in DC,” says Sebastien. Comparing his experiences elsewhere, he adds that LA had many “star chefs” who were removed from the local chef scene. “In France, chefs have a big web,” Sebastien says, noting similarities in DC. “There are suppliers we can share. The chefs are team players. They send their staff to other places and then they come back. It’s a very interesting and important process.”
Throughout our chat, Sebastien emphasizes the importance of having a good team in his kitchen. “There are two things that make me happy: guests and my team,” he says. Sebastien explains how rewarding it is to train cooks and sous chefs and watch them go onto other projects, such as opening their own restaurants. A big smile overtakes the chef’s face as he describes the feeling he gets when a former cook sends him a card years later inviting him to their restaurant. “I spend a lot of time with my staff. You have to train and coach them,” he says.
At the same time, the team in the kitchen presents various challenges. “Team is number one for your mentality,” he says, adding that it’s crushing to have a cook in the kitchen who isn’t passionate. “You’re not just a technician. You have to put your love and respect into it. You need to feel it on the dish. I want to see the fire in the eyes on my team.”
While collaborating on dishes with his staff, Sebastien emphasizes that his role as executive chef is to push his team and try new things, to give directions and a plan, but not kill anyone’s creativity–something that is a delicate balance for most chefs. Not only does Sebastien use his team as a source of inspiration for new dishes, but he says he turns to his memory or the products themselves. “I really want to stay with the concept of American, local cuisine,” he says.
As for the front of the house portion, the self-described “calm, concentrated and proactive” chef says that when he sees guests having a good night it’s like “fuel for a motor.” For those who haven’t been, the first thing you’ll notice at Blue Duck Tavern is the open kitchen (no, don’t worry if you think you’re walking through a food station you’re not supposed it be in. The layout is that way on purpose). From the chef’s vantage point, Sebastien can survey each table in the dining room, further connecting him with diners.
In addition to feeding off of the dining room’s energy, Sebastien is providing a little twist for a few guests at Blue Duck Tavern. Since he’s taken over as executive chef at Blue Duck Tavern, he’s been offering limited specials. For example, he’ll prepare between five to ten orders of a special dish throughout the night, which for a restaurant that turns lord knows how many covers in a night is a very small number of dishes. Once it runs out though, it’s out for the night. “I want people to feel it’s special and unique,” he says. “We respect the product we’re using,” adding that often times these dishes are made with ingredients from farmers or purveyors that have a limited supply of a seasonal ingredient.
Check back at 3 PM for Sebastien’s elegant recipe for salmon with crispy skin and sorrel cream along with roasted baby vegetables and farro.