The French Connection
After thirty years in Memphis, River Oaks chef/owner Jose Guitierrez reflects upon his distinguished culinary career.
by Hannah Sayle via Memphis magazine
Mid-afternoon, around 2 p.m., is espresso time at José Gutierrez’ River Oaks restaurant. Before us on the sleek bar top is the paragon of espressos: a rich dark base crowned with a centimeter of velvety caramel-colored crema. Nearby, Gutierrez’ phone displays an identical image to that before us on the bar.
“I made this one,” he says, pointing to the espresso pictured on his phone. “The machine made this,” he says, pointing to the one in front of him.
“Watch,” he says. He walks to a machine at the end of the bar, pushes a button, and out pours a perfect espresso. “I could make it myself, but this is faster.”
Gutierrez leaves the espresso-making to the espresso maker. He takes the upcoming Saturday-night dinner service with a laidback assuredness. After 30 years in Memphis, 22 of them spent at Chez Philippe in The Peabody, Gutierrez has mellowed. He is, after all, the dean of Memphis cuisine, a master chef who has seen restaurants come and go, and a mentor who has played a significant role in nurturing many of the individuals who are at the center of this city’s contemporary culinary scene. And it’s been quite the journey . . .
There is, as if embedded in his genes, a comme il faut quality to José Gutierrez. Bred in the dire perfectionism of French haute cuisine — a world that led French master chef Bernard Loiseau to commit suicide in 2003 when it was hinted his restaurant might lose its Michelin 3-star status — Gutierrez has long equated quality of work and self-worth.
At least some of this mentality is a result of spending his formative years working under internationally celebrated master chef Paul Bocuse. In that “no excuses” kitchen, Gutierrez was made to understand that food quality is a religion.
“In France, the way you do things reflects on you, your family, and your past instructors,” he says. “You’re not allowed to make mistakes.”
Gutierrez’ family life set the stage for his self-determination. Born in the foothills of the Alps in the south of France to a single mother of Spanish descent and extremely modest means, Gutierrez and his sister were raised in a tiny apartment where the three shared not just a bedroom but also a bed. Every night, Gutierrez says, he and his sister would haggle over who slept parallel with their mother, and who would sleep next to her feet.
“One of the best times of my life,” he says with a smile. “I think everyone should live that way at some point.”
With little to no cooking experience (his mother was a terrible cook, he says) young Gutierrez nevertheless found himself in the kitchen. “I wanted to be a fashion designer first. I don’t know why. I just wanted the creativity part of it. But they rejected me, so I went to school to learn to be a maitre d’ or a chef.”
After formal schooling at the Professional Culinary School in Manosque and apprenticeships with Chefs Roger Petit and Francis Trocelier, Gutierrez went to work under Bocuse, where he experienced fully the rigorous life of working in a kitchen.
“When I saw Hell’s Kitchen, I thought, none of these guys would make it in France,” he says. “Not a single one. Bunch of sissies. They had bandages. I never saw a kitchen with bandages. When I cut my finger, I grabbed a tissue, tied it up, and continued service. Never show anybody that you’re in pain. There was never an excuse allowed.”