“Reconciling flavour with healthy products”
The chef at the Sofitel Beverly Hills, Victor Boroda, is thrilled with the quality of California’s fruits and vegetables. Curious about culinary influences, the 35-year-old enjoys nothing more than sharing his flavourful, healthy, inventive cuisine with guests—and making them forget all about fast food.
Your restaurant, L'Estérel, immediately makes an impression with its colours and invigorating atmosphere. Is that a taste of things to come?
The restaurant was freshened up last summer. The dining room opens out onto the patio, decorated like a lush garden influenced by the bright colors of California. We also wanted a kitchen garden where aromatic herbs are grown. They change year round and we pluck them out of the garden as we need. We wanted to create a vibrant experience for our guests, menus varying dependent on the season and availability.
How do you reconcile a California approach to cuisine with the expectations of your guests, most of whom hail from around the world?
I'm lucky to have guests who travel because they teach me things about their countries' culinary trends I wouldn't have been able to learn otherwise. I'm open to all those influences, which are a starting point for adapting recipes to my menus. Based on conversations with them, I do my own research, estimate the different ingredients' proportions, write up recipes and test them in the kitchen with my sous-chefs. That's what I recently did with Mie Goreng, a delicious noodle and vegetable dish typical of Indonesian street cuisine.
What sparked your curiosity about all these cuisines?
My path was rather unorthodox. After university, I started a career in new technology that lasted nine years, until I realised it wasn't making me happy. I decided to follow my real passion, which has always been cooking. It goes back to the times I spent in the kitchen with my mother and the cooking shows I used to watch on television. So I quit my job and enrolled in the Arizona Culinary Institute in Scottsdale, near Phoenix. When I graduated in 2006, I cooked for the Norwegian Cruise Line. That gave me an opportunity to travel around the world on a ship and, especially, to break myself into the profession of culinary arts. Of course, it wasn't easy. I worked 12 to 13 hours a day for six months without a day off.
Was that a formative experience?
Let's say it allowed me to make my mark and shortly thereafter I applied with the American Orient Express, which offered luxury train trips in the United States, Canada and Mexico. I worked there for two years, climbing the ladder until becoming a sous chef/assistant pastry chef. That was a very formative experience. Train galleys are just like the kitchens on cruise ships... only much smaller! You have to be able to prepare five-star menus for seven days. That taught me how to master baking techniques and to adapt because we travelled across areas with very different altitudes and climates, which have a decisive influence in making pastries. The humidity rate, for example, can change the baking of a pie. So depending on the train's route my prep schedule would be modified based on different altitudes and climates we would be traveling through! Not only did I become much more precise, but I was also lucky to discover magnificent landscapes few people ever get a chance to see.
Then you moved to Los Angeles. What's left for you to learn?
I planned the opening of the Montage Hotel Beverly Hills before working with the chef Scott Conant. I learned a lot from him in two-and-a-half years. He's passionate and pushed you to extremes. He taught me new techniques based on his knowledge of Italy, especially the preparation of all kinds of pasta. The main thing he taught me about was the cuisine of Northern Italy, bordering Southern Germany, where the food is very different from what usually comes to mind when you think of Italy. The pasta dishes are made with game, venison and quail, for example.
There are two books on your Facebook page: Larousse Gastronomic and Molecular Gastronomy. Isn't it hard to reconcile them?
It sure is (laughs)! I actually found the Larousse at a bookshop in Richmond, Virginia during one of my train trips. It's the first edition of the French classic translated into English. Of course it's outdated, but I found illustrated techniques that can be reinterpreted. I became interested in molecular cuisine after discovering Ferran Adrià at El Bulli [editor's note: Catalan chef and restaurant that set the standard for molecular cuisine]. It contributes techniques that simplify the chef's work, for example putting food on the plate, but I'm not too keen on using all those additives. I'd rather serve the food as is.
Is that what best defines your cuisine?
It does. California is a thrilling place because I can find whatever I want at farms less than an hour away from our restaurant. Being able to offer my guests so many fresh, seasonal products, whether seafood, vegetables, mushrooms, whatever, is a blessing. The farmers are passionate about their calling. They're also real partners. I'd even say "educators" because they pass their passion on and guide you to the best products of the moment. That's priceless for helping you choose what you're going to put on the menu and for sharing the same sensation of newness and freshness with guests that you feel when you see the products at the farm.
Isn't advocating fresh products risky in the land of hamburgers and fast food?
Not really. People are increasingly aware of nutritional issues and want to lead healthier lifestyles. My role is to help them by sharing what I've learned. When I worked at True Food Kitchen in Los Angeles, we had a partnership with Dr. Andrew Weil, a recognised nutrition education specialist and proponent of healthy alternatives. His motto is "you are what you eat", with the idea that the right ingredients can replace dietary supplements. For example, ginger, turmeric and certain vegetables can boost your energy. I share that experience by showing my guests that healthy food can also taste good. For people who just can't do without hamburgers, there's a difference between what you get in fast foods and meat from a farmer when you know what he feeds his cattle. In a nutshell, we can change our guests' thinking by talking with them.
Chef Boroda's recipe:
Vegetable tajine with Israeli couscous and chermoula sauce
Ingredients (5 to 6 people):
For the tajine:
- 2 heads cauliflower, stemmed and separated into small bunches
- 4 to 5 large carrots, diced
- 3 yellow onions, diced
- 5 sweet potatoes, diced
- 10 garlic cloves, chopped
- 2 tablespoons harissa
- 2 tablespoons ginger, chopped
- 2 tablespoons turmeric root
- 1 can chickpeas, drained (470 grams)
- 1 can tomato purée (950 grams)
- 1 cup dried apricots, chopped
- 1 cup Corinth raisins
- 1 half-cup parsley, chopped
- 1 half-cup coriander, chopped
- 1 half-cup mint, chopped
Pour some olive or grapeseed oil into a stewpot and caramelise onion, garlic, ginger and turmeric over low heat for 10 to 15 minutes. Add harissa, raise heat and cook 5 minutes until fragrant. Add tomato purée and simmer until juice evaporates, about 5 minutes. Add cauliflower, carrots, sweet potatoes, apricots, raisins and chickpeas. Cover almost completely with water, lower heat and simmer 45 minutes to an hour, stirring regularly. Dilute with water if it reduces too quickly. At the end of cooking, the texture must be thick and hearty. Add mint, parsley, coriander, salt and pepper.
For the chermoula sauce:
- leaves from one bunch parsley
- leaves from one bunch coriander
- 2 garlic gloves, chopped
- 1 tablespoon powdered cumin
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1 half-cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper
Put all ingredients except oil into a blender and blend until obtaining a homogenous mixture. With the blender on medium speed, slowly add a drizzle of olive oil, emulsifying until obtaining a thick sauce. Add salt and pepper.
To serve, fill ramekins with couscous, add some tablespoons of tajine and drizzle with chermoula sauce. It's ready!