Cheftell: Chef and Restaurant Owner Jeffery Daigneau

Interview with Jeffery Daigneau of Lattitude on April 13, 2013.

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If you are an aspiring chef or a foodie, Lattitude restaurant in West Springfield, Massachusetts is definitely worth checking out.  The fine dining establishment is all about exceptional food and service.  From the moment you walk in the door, you are ushered into one of their urban, exposed brick dining rooms.

Chef and owner Jeffery Daigneau, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, is always introducing the newest trends in the culinary world at his restaurant. His goal was to create a simple restaurant that was “all about the food.”  He successfully accomplished this because it is nearly impossible to get into Lattitude without a prior reservation, even on a weeknight.

His innovative menu is constantly changing with what’s in season and current.  He recently began experimenting with sous vide cooking (immersion water bath) and gastronomy.  The dishes you will find at Lattitude are unlike any other restaurant. Chef Daigneau strives to combine flavors from around the world in all of his dishes, so you are guaranteed to try something new.  Whatever you decide to order on their ever-changing menu, make sure to order their signature appetizer: fried brussels sprouts with chili aioli.  If you are not a fan of brussels sprouts, Lattitude’s will surely convert you.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Chef Daigneau to learn more about his experience at the Culinary Institute of America and the inspiration for opening Lattitude.  After talking with him I couldn’t have been more eager or excited to start at the CIA this fall.

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L: Are you originally from this area?

J: I was born and raised in Agawam, MA.

L: Have you always had a passion for culinary arts or was it something you never expected to pursue as a career?

J: It has always been a passion. I was thirteen when this whole adventure started for me. I started as a dishwasher then slowly I became a cook and then developed into a lead cook at a banquet hall in Agawam.  I was encouraged not to go to school by those guys but I knew I wanted a higher education so I applied to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) and went.

L: What was your experience like at the CIA.  Are you happy that you had the opportunity  to go there?

J: The CIA was unbelievable. I got a full boat to Johnson and Wales but it wasn’t worth it to me because I wasn’t going to learn what I was going to at the CIA. CIA wasn’t even a question. From the minute you step on campus you are like, “I am going here!”

L: Did you travel at all when you went to school there? Where did you do your externship?

J: I did a bunch of different things.  My roommate got very friendly with two other kids and we all started working weekends down at the Rainbow Room.  So we would go to the Rainbow Room after class on Friday or Saturday and come back after the weekend.  Back and forth. Back and forth.

My externship brought me to Nantucket.  I worked at a place called the American Seasons for my extern. I did a little bit there and a little bit back at a place in Agawam.

L: Did you ever travel abroad to study food in another country?

J: Not to learn how to cook, but I have eaten my way through Italy and Paris. I spent five days in Paris, five days in Rome, three days in Tuscany and then another five days in Paris. Literally eating where the locals ate, meaning you go to the front desk and say, “hey I’m a chef in the states, I want to eat dinner. Where do you guys eat dinner?” Then they would direct me where to go.  I found some of the coolest little places that you would never find in any Zagat book or recommendation book.  It was just where the locals ate. There was one place where I had three entrees because I just had to try the food.  It was such a unique experience.

L: You said that you have worked in the food industry since you were thirteen.  Would you say that you always enjoyed it or was there a point where you were unsure whether you wanted to continue pursing a career in the food industry?

J: There is always a point were you aren’t sure. Always. It’s because the days and the hours aren’t normal. I left here at 4:15 this morning and now it’s 10:00 am and I’m back. You don’t know what your day is going to bring. Your day is always different. So, if you are ready for that, this is a unique opportunity. This is not a desk job.  This is a working job. Even though I am the chef and the owner, I am never at a desk.  I am at a desk when I have to be at a desk but I am always on the floor every single day when that door is unlocked.

L: Was working in the food industry ever a part of your family growing up?

J: My uncle, Uncle Charlie, was the bar manager at Salvador’s in Springfield. That’s the first time I ever really saw anything [in the industry]. My parents were always very influential with food. We would always have to go out to dinner. We were always out. Friday night was always like, “were going out to dinner!” And if a child’s menu was put in front of my brother and I, my father would have the server’s hands taken off. It was actually pretty funny. We always ate off the adult menu.  At a very young age, five/six years old we weren’t allowed to eat off the kids menu.  My parents were always trying to get us to try new things.  They never said you can’t get that. It was always, “get something, just try it!” I remember one time my brother, I think he was five our six, he got a two and a half pound lobster. “Why not! That’s what he wants to try so that’s what he is going to get.” So our parents were very influential about that. But my uncle is the one who brought me back in the kitchen and said, “this is what these guys do.” He left there [the bar in Springfield] and soon moved down to another restaurant in Agawam and I got to see more of what they did, and I was able to get more involved. The influences, however, were really more at my first job.

L: How many restaurants would you say you have worked at throughout your years in the business?

J: Maybe eight or nine.

L: Did they all contribute different things to your overall experience?

J: Always.  Everything is always different. Whenever you leave a job in this business, at least for me, it is to do something new, something different that you haven’t learned before. You have to do things that you will gain different experiences from. It might be to upgrade what you are doing as a professional – you are going from a sous chef to a chef, a line cook to a sous chef. You have to make those kinds of moves. I have never made a move for money, ever.  It’s never been about money.  It’s always been about what I’m going to learn next.

L: That is an important motivator.

J: It is. When I was out of the CIA and I was trying to work at different places, there were a couple different places I wanted to work. When I was doing something at one place an opening came up at the Eastside Grill in Northampton, MA. I wanted to go to the Eastside Grill because I knew their reputation, I knew what they were doing and I wanted to work there. Three months later, I got a job.

I spent two and a half years at the Eastside Grill. I had learned everything I could possibly learn at that particular time, so I went on to the next thing. Then, I started looking for the next job. You never stop looking when you are a chef. You always have to see what’s out in the field because things open up all the time.

L: What would you say is your favorite part about working in the industry?

J: The people. I say the people but you hate the people and you love the people at the same time. But when you stand at the front door when they leave and they talk about their experience and how great everything was, you see the happiness on their face – you did what you set out to do. In this business, you want to blow their minds and that’s why people come here.

L: What would you say is the most challenging aspect of your job?

J: A combination of the hours and the people. You have got to be everything to everybody. So, for example, I have two-hundred reservations tonight and I have to be everything to every one of those two hundred people. I have got to make sure everybody likes everything, everyone is happy with what is on the menu, that the spread is proper and that they get the experience that they are expecting. So that’s the challenging part. Making sure everything is done on time, making sure things work.

L: What made you eventually decide to open up your own restaurant? What was the process like?

J: I was sick of making everyone else a lot of money. This isn’t about money, I swear, this isn’t about money. But you get to a point where it’s time to do it for yourself. You’re young enough, dumb enough and stupid enough to borrow that kind of money so you just do it.

I had been looking for a space for about two years and I stumbled across this space.  The space that you are sitting in now isn’t the original space I leased. The space I originally leased was just the bar. I looked here, I looked at Worthington, Northampton, Agawam, Springfield – anywhere you could possibly look for a restaurant, I looked.

When I came into this space, I came in with another person. They wanted me to become a chef and investor and I wasn’t comfortable with that. So a couple of weeks later I started exploring it with just myself and I was able to do it.

L: When did you first open?

J: June 2008. It took six months to get open.

L: What was the vision/design for your restaurant?  Did it turn out like your initial plan?

J: Yes and no. You’re always trying to update.  You’re always trying to have the coolest greatest thing. But there’s one thing that’s the problem and that’s the money. You can’t afford the Vegas restaurant without the Vegas money. Sure these restaurants in Las Vegas and New York and all these other great places are gorgeous and spectacular – they fill every nook and cranny from their design. But when you’re a guy like me and not a lot of people get involved you have to do it all on your own. There’s no big savings, there’s no money train behind me.  So when you can do things, you do things.  The restaurant is doing well so I can afford things.  We just finished construction, we just did an expansion project. We bought the building a year and a half ago. We just put a patio in and new dinning room. We are going to sandblast the building to bring it back to where it used to be. When I can afford to improve, we improve. The design is not to be too overbearing, too overpowering. Just simple and subtle, because a restaurant is about the food. It’s not about what the place looks like.

L: How long was it before you started making a profit off of your business? When did you feel like you caught up with all the expenses of opening a new business?

J: You never catch-up. Well, it feels like you never catch up. I made a profit after my first year. Did I see it? No. It was on paper. You make a paper profit. But you’re paying down debt, you’re paying down this and that.  You’re always working on the next thing. What are you going to do next? What are you going to update? What are you going to change in the restaurant? Or the kitchen? So you never really see it.  Or at least I haven’t seen any profit yet.  But I didn’t do this for the profit. I didn’t do this to make money. If I did this to make money, everyone would do this to make money. It’s not about the money, it’s about the life.

It’s a lifestyle more than people understand. At least in my end of the business, you have got to be able to give it all up. People come into this business thinking they are going to make all kinds of money – I’ll be a millionaire after the first year. And they close.  Restaurants close because everyone thinks they can make money. I couldn’t cash a pay check for two and a half years. I’m not made of money. I grew up with two working parents and I worked every single day since I was thirteen. I had no savings. I had nothing. When I came in here I had a dream. A wish. And a prayer. And I was able to open this restaurant. I would give my paychecks to another employee and to the guys working here at the restaurant. I kept a little money just so I could do what I had to do and I just kept working until all my loans came through.  Once the loan came through there was money but I still had no extra money.  At the end of a project, when I was one hundred and fifty thousand dollars short, I charged it. I spent the next year trying to pay back my credit card company.

This isn’t about money. It is about love, passion and desire. I have staff that are actually happy to be here.  They are happy to come to work every single day. That’s a huge deal. The fact that they come to work every day is another huge deal.

L: What was the inspiration behind the name Lattitude?

J: Well, Lattitude goes around the globe [in a horizontal circle]. I gather ideas and concepts from all over the globe. The double “Ts” is about the food.  I want the food a certain way.  The chefs in the area will look at what I’m doing and say, “what is he, nuts?” I do things because I want them. I do them because I think it’s right. Whether it’s right our wrong, it is my place to do it. If I want to sell a bottle of wine at cost then that is what I’m going to do. If I want to fly Alaskan King Crab from Alaska every year during Alaskan King Crab season then that is what I’m going to do. Why not?

L: What about your cooking style and restaurant is unique and independent from the other restaurants in the area?

J: (He laughs.) What’s unique is that you can’t get in [a reservation]. I don’t know, though, we are all a little different in what we do. We are very consistent.  The food is consistently good. People enjoy the mix of what we do. People enjoy the adventure of what is going to be next – what I’m going to put on [the menu] next.

L: When you train your staff, what emphasis do you place on hospitality and good service?

J: Service has to be impeccable. They have to know the menu inside and out. If they don’t know the menu, they don’t hit the floor. If I find out that they lied and they don’t know the menu, they don’t hit the floor. Being the chef and owner of a restaurant, I am held to a different kind of standard. If you go to a TGI Fridays you are expecting one thing.  If you come in a place like this and are planning to spend a little bit more money because of the quality of what’s coming out – “you have to know what you are serving, you have to know wine service, you have to know liquor service.’ If you don’t then you don’t belong here.

L: Does that mean that they try everything on the menu beforehand?

J: They try all the food all the time. Whenever we put out something new, they try the dish. They are always informed about the food and about changes. When we have new wines and beers they try them as well. There is usually a two to three week training process just to get someone on the floor. They are tested every single day to make sure they know what the food is and understand the menu.

L: Your menu is always changing and people seem to respond well to that.

J: It is.  You can always tell when a dish is dying because people slowly stop ordering it. You can just tell. Where as at a regular restaurant, the menu is the menu and that’s just the way it is. But here when you see a dish dying you got to change it.

L: Would you say that you have a food philosophy? Are you more of a traditionalist or do you cater to the current food trends?

J: You have to. You’ve got to change. If you’re not willing to change you are not going to make it. One of the biggest changes is the molecular stuff [gastronomy] in the food industry. There is a lot of molecular and sous vide cooking going on right now and I have had to teach myself how to do all of it. By doing that you are staying on top of the trends. I’m doing a lot of beer and wine cooking. We have to try new things to keep bringing people in.

L: Where do you get your ingredients? Is buying locally something that is important to you?

J: Whatever I can get locally I get first.  When I can’t get locally, I’ll go outside of that. I’m on the edge of my seat right now, along with many other chefs in the area, because we are getting close to farm time. I’ll be at the farm every single day. Asparagus will be first; it’s always first. So we will have asparagus here the end of May/beginning of June. Then a week after that we’ll have strawberries.  The asparagus will go for about a month and the strawberries will go for maybe three weeks. Strawberries, we always hope go through July 4th, but it always depends on rain. Then lettuces, beans, and peas come.

L: That’s great. I think it is important to try and eat what’s in season, not only because it is fresh but it tastes so much better.

J: It tastes better when it’s at the height of the season because it takes all of the water growth.  When you cut a squash right off the farm, you can watch the water and the liquid from where you cut it ooze out of it. It’s one of the coolest things to do.

L: What would you say is the most difficult part of your job right now as both owner and full time chef?

J: Keeping up with the business. I can only go so fast but the business is just going nuts. I have to just keep up with what the business wants and what the customers want. And I’ve got to be everything to everybody.

L: It’s nearly impossible to make reservations. That must mean that your business is doing well.

J: It’s unique. Never in a million years would I have guessed that we would be this busy. It’s not only weekends but there are Tuesdays when you need a reservation. There are Wednesdays where if you don’t have a reservation you can’t get in before eight o’clock.

It’s challenging too because people are upset – “what do you mean I need reservations for a Tuesday night?” But on some Tuesdays you do. Even some lunches you need one. If you don’t have a lunch reservation around the holidays you may not get seated. It really is a unique problem to have. It’s upsetting because people can’t get in. And when you have a slower night and you can take walk-ins, the walk-ins don’t want to come because they think there are going to get turned away at the door.

When I have gone to some places on the West coast you have to have reservations two months to the day and if you don’t you are not going to get in. It’s not two months to the day [here] but if you have a reservation on a Saturday night at least three or four days out you are going to come in late, it could be nine/ten o’clock.  We cook until eleven o’clock for a reason.

L: Would you say you have a group of regulars?

J: We have a certain clientele that comes in all the time. We have some people that come in two/three days a week for lunch and we have some people that are in two/three nights a week for dinner.  We have people that come in consistently every week. We do have a loyal following of customers. And they all want the brussels sprouts.  If they don’t get the brussels sprouts then I’m getting my head cut off. It’s all about brussels sprouts here.

L: Would you say that brussels sprouts are your signature dish here?

J: Yes! Unfortunately, I am known for a vegetable that everyone hates.

L: What is your favorite dish that you have created here?

J: I don’t have a favorite dish. Everyone asks – “what’s you favorite dish? But really I don’t have a favorite. It’s the food of the moment. There are some days when I make food and it’s like “that’s awesome, I love it.” There are some days when I’m like I hate that dish, I’m never making that dish again.” There is no dish that I say I love or hate any more than another dish.

A lot of things we have been doing with the sous vide.  We did a duck fat striped bass last week. That was just awesome. I did a bourbon brown sugar maple sous vide pork chop for a couple like two weeks ago and it was absolutely fantastic. The juices, the flavors were something you dream about. It was so good.

L: Is it common for your customers to request new dishes? Do you try to accommodate them?

J: Oh all the time. I usually always can. There are times people come in wanting something and if I have the ingredients to do it, we do it. If I don’t and they give me a day or so notice, I can get it made. It’s all a matter of that.

L: In the non-stop restaurant business do you feel as though you have enough time to spend with your family and friends?

J: There is no time. We are closed on Sundays and I’m here every Sunday. My day starts anywhere from nine/ten in the morning and goes until around four the next morning, seven days a week. If you are not willing to do that then this is not the right path.

L: Do you have any plans for the near future for your restaurant?

J: “What’s next?” Well, the first phase of construction is done [from the recent expansion]. We have to make some changes from that because I’m not happy with some things. We are going to make some updates here in the dining room.  We are going to fix the walls. The windows behind you are going to be replaced next week with brand new picture windows. I am going to redo the tops of them so that they all match with a single pane of glass rather than the ones there.

We have begun sandblasting the exterior of the building. We want to bring back the exterior of the building to what it originally was, all natural brick. We are going to side the second story and put in some windows so it looks finished and beautiful. The roof is all new.  We are going to take down the over hang and put up a brand-new one. We are going to put up a new sign to help people see that we have updated the restaurant.  We just did construction putting in a patio on the side.  We had a wall that separated two of the dining rooms and taking down that wall opened up the space.

The next substantial project will be moving the bar. We are moving the bar into what was Memos.  It is going to be a four thousand square foot bar. We are going to take the existing bar and make it an open kitchen table.  We’ll take the wall down between the kitchen and the bar and make it one large open kitchen. We’re installing all new air systems so that nothing comes out into the dining area.

L: What are you planning to use the patio for outside? Is it going to just be a dining area or for entertainment?

J: Everything. Eating, dining and drinking. There is a full entertainment schedule for this summer. Every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday there will be live entertainment outside. Anything. You name it; it is going to be out there. Acoustics, disco, rock and roll, country –we are doing a whole mess of things out there.

L: Lastly, what advice would you give to someone who is thinking about attending a culinary school or pursuing a job in this field?

J: Don’t do it. [He laughs.] Don’t do it! No, if you are going to do this for a living I wish anyone in the world the best. We all take different paths. I know people that I went to college with that no longer even think about doing this. I know guys that three weeks after we started college were leaving because they didn’t like it. To do what this is, for me, is a lifestyle. It really is. You change whatever do.  There is no such thing as holidays, there is no such thing as weekends, there is no such thing as friends. I can’t just take off a random Saturday night because I want to go hang out with the boys. It’s you’re in the restaurant, you work until you are done. I can hire a lot of people to help me do my job, but they are expensive and sometimes you just can’t find that right person. When you find that right person it’s a different story. This is a whole lifestyle. It really is. You get up in the morning and you don’t want to get up in the morning but drag your butt out of bed because you have to go to work. But when you get here it just all comes together and you make it work. And that is why you do it every single day. You do it because of the way the customers look at you when they leave. You do it because of the way the staff looks at you when you’re here.

This whole restaurant, I say it everyday, this shouldn’t work. This shouldn’t work! [He laughs.] It was a thirty-year old kid who walked into a bank and gave them my business plan. I borrowed four hundred thousand dollars to open a restaurant. If you asked anyone else they would have said, “what are you f***ing nuts?! Your are going to give this kid four hundred thousand dollars to open up a restaurant?” I didn’t have a liquor license. I didn’t have anything! In mid-April I got a liquor license for this place. Liquor licenses are very challenging to get in West Springfield. I paid over two hundred thousand for the license just to pour booze. It worked.

The first Big E [after we opened] almost put me out of business. There was a day when we did one hundred and ten dollars in sales. That’s it. You can’t make a payroll on a hundred dollars a day. But after the Big E ended we were able to start getting people in here and then it grew. And then Christmas came and we did some parties and gift card sales and that helped. Just every little bit helps. My second full year in business was a great year. I can look back at it and it was an amazing year to see what we did. Here I sit almost five years later thinking about what we did five years ago and it sometimes feels like a lifetime away. I look at photos from photographers that have come in here in the past and shot the restaurant and I say, “oh my god, I can’t believe that was then and this is now.”

My biggest advice to anyone is learn what it is first. Learn what you are going to do, learn why you are doing it and make sure that this is a true passion. That’s the bottom line.

I wouldn’t give this up for the world. As much as you can cry and bitch and moan about it, this is not a job. This is my life. I love it. I couldn’t give this up. I couldn’t do anything else. I couldn’t sit behind a desk. I’ve got to be active the whole time. I’ve got to be busy. When you do weddings and parties you see the people and that is the motivator. It’s the reality of what it is.

Taking two ingredients that just shouldn’t work and putting them together and making it work – it’s a lot of what we do. We just put a pork belly BLT on the menu and it’s unbelievable. The pork belly went in the immersion circulator [water bath] for thirty-six hours and it just melts in your mouth. Then it is pan fried with a whiskey beer glaze. That’s why I do it. Just because the fun of talking about food, seeing food, and tasting food.

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To learn more about Lattitude and Chef Jeffery Daigneau visit the Lattitude website.