When John Belleme took the reins as executive chef at Stephane's in Boca Raton this summer, it was hardly his first time leading a high-profile kitchen in Palm Beach County. Belleme, who has worked with Florida restaurateurs like Burt Rapoport and Dennis Max, was chef/co-owner of the highly regarded but now defunct Zemi
. Most recently, he led the line at Umi Fishbar Grill in Palm Beach Gardens.
The Culinary Institute of America graduate has lived and worked in South Florida since completing school in 1987. While he said he may be most associated with pan-Asian/Asian fusion cuisine, he's made the transition to the French/American fare on offer at Stephane's, which opened in July. After the jump, learn more about Belleme.
Clean Plate Charlie: How does what you're doing now compare to projects you've worked on in the past?
Belleme: This is much more of a collaboration between [owner] Stephane [Lang-Willar] and I. He's not a chef by any means; he's not a cook, but he has a great palate, and he understands food very well, and he understands wine very well.
[Lang-Willar] was very successful at a very young age. He's a world traveler. He's made a lot of money in his career, so he's had an opportunity to eat in a lot of great places around the world. He and I got together about a year ago to start designing this kitchen -- I was consulting to design the kitchen here. We hit it off and it became something bigger than that, and he offered me the chef's job here.
He wrote the menu and said, "This is the menu we're going to do. This is it." I had to create the dishes pretty much out of looking at it and understanding the ingredients he wrote down. From that, I would create a dish. He and I would taste it, talk about it, dissect it. He would say "There's a flavor I'm not used to in this dish. I'm used to having it a little bit different." We would add an ingredient or subtract an ingredient. It was a lot of fun. It took about three months to work through it...
It was a lot of fun working with someone who knows what they want, as opposed to people who don't know what they want. I've worked with a lot of people who say "I would like this." And you create it and they're like, "Well it's not exactly what I expected, but I'm not sure sure why." [Lang-Willar] knew exactly what he wanted.
Do you have a favorite ingredient? Something you just love to work with? A "desert island" ingredient?
[After a long pause and several declarations that this is impossible and there's not a lot to do with one ingredient, Clean Plate Charlie relented and let him pick more than one.)
I don't know -- olive oil? I like cooking fish -- different kinds of fish. I do like using things like ginger and soy and fish. Miso. That's a top ingredient.
Anything you don't want to mess with?
Not a big liver eater, but I do love foie gras. [Stephane's] is not serving foie gras, unfortunately. That's one of our values here. We try to follow Marine Stewardship Council guidelines and use antibiotic-free meat, and so we stay away from foie gras for the inhumane ways they treat the poultry.
Any take on your favorite types of customers to cook for versus the not-so-favorite?
I certainly have followers who appreciate my style. My followers are the people I really like to cook for. [Here, Belleme shrugs a bit and dismisses the notion of problem customers, saying he's never really had an issue.]
This crowd in Boca Raton can be pretty tough; they're hard to cook for. I appreciate that they really push you to another level in this town. They expect a lot. They're a discerning crowd. They demand perfection, and we demand perfection from ourselves and try to provide that for them.
If you weren't doing this what would you be doing?
I was a musician when I was younger. I was a drummer, and I had a band. In fact, I still play with family and friends. I was going to be in a rock band one day. I played back in the days of Van Halen, Black Sabbath, AC/DC; Rush was a very popular band for [my band].
So do you like to cook to music?
Not necessarily. In fact, I'm a little more old-fashioned in the kitchen in terms of no music, nothing going on except what we're doing. I'm a little rigid in that regard. If it was just me, that would be different. I'm trying to manage people and lead them, and it's hard to do that when there's music playing.
Do you cook for yourself at home, or are you over it at that point?
My wife cooks. My wife's a great cook -- she's awesome. When we met, she couldn't boil water, but I've been married for 22, 23, 24 years -- I forget; 23 years. She's learned from me. She comes from an Italian background. Her family's Italian, her grandmother's Italian, so she's old-school. She used to go to Arthur Avenue in [New York] City to pick out poultry and produce with her grandmother. She's very passionate, and she's very talented.
Any parting comments on your approach to cooking?
Over the years, I've learned that less is more. I think I'm my worst critic. I just try to refine what I'm doing constantly: Make it better, make it better, make it better, whether it's breaking down a tuna loin or creating a veal stock or veal sauce. I'm constantly studying and trying to refine what I'm doing.