I recently met a Spanish wine maker who was describing how his vines were planted on the side of an hill that was so steep that no machine could ever climb there.
He has to do everything by hand, loading baskets that are set up on mini rails…
He was animated, passionate as he was talking and his wines truly delicious, vibrant & full of life like him. After listening to his story, I looked at him smiling and said in my broken Spanish: “Pardon me to ask you a very pragmatic question, but why? Why on earth would you ever plant vines on such a soil if it is so incredibly hard to get too?” He looked at me and started laughing really hard: “I did not come up with the idea! I am just keeping up with the tradition: the Romans planted vines there 2,000 years ago!”.
(-Ils sont fous ces Romains!-*)
People often ask me: “How did you get into this business? Why did you open ICI? What inspired you to open a farm to table Restaurant?”. It is after having ran this business for 9 years that I finally came up with the most evident and simple answer: “Because I am French.” Let’s rewind here just a bit.
I grew up in the Northern part of Provence, in the heart of the Rhone Valley, in a very tiny little village. My childhood memories rhyme with the seasons and with the food that would come with them.
Spring would start early, by April or May we would be able to have lunch outside.
I remember the excitement to eat “the First” of the season: The first strawberry, the first cherry… I would close my eyes and make a wish.
I remember clearly as well the life cycle for it all and how much it would make me appreciate and be grateful for what we have had.
“We are having white asparagus today and it is probably be the last time for this season!”.
The first & the last ones were always the best. And we would move on through the months with excitement to have the first and then the last: peaches, tomatoes, raspberries, beans, eggplant…
Until we would wrap it all up with mushrooms in the fall: cepes, royale trumpettes, mousserons. The last of those ones would be bittersweet as we knew that then it was time for winter and a long stretch of roots, potatoes and parsnips.
On the good years, my grandmother would have stocked her “cellier” with a bounty of preserves, cans & pickles, all made with the produce she would harvest from her vegetable garden that was the size of a soccer field.
Whenever we would discover Poires Belle Helene for dessert in the middle of January or Ratatouille in December, it was a treat, a real joy to be able to taste a summer flavor in the middle of the cold. It would never have crossed my grandmother’s mind to have a apricot crumble in January unless it was made with one of the preserve or can from her cellier (root cellar). Then & there, farm to table was not a concept: it was not a niche, a marketing opportunity a trendy idea; it was the only way of doing things, of cooking. Farm to table was a daily reality, something that wasn’t thought hard at all, it was the natural way of doing things.
Coming to NYC in the mid nineties made me lose sight of all that and the simple joy of seasons around food. I got swallowed in the hype and the trendy of that time and worked in high end restaurants where flying the best ingredients from 8,000 miles away in the middle of the winter seemed to be the best thing to do.
I started buying strawberries in the winter and cepes in the spring… Au revoir local and seasonal food: I had fallen into a food coma.
Having my first child initiated a few resets: I came quickly to my senses when I realized that I had a little someone to feed that was 100% dependent of me. And when a few years later I decided to open a restaurant, the responsibility grew further: I was now responsible for some of the food that my neighbors, my community was going to consume. It felt that I had a bigger part to play on the planet, bigger than just feeding my 2 children and that my choices in the way I would run my restaurant would have an impact on the planet.
And then, it all came back to me: the taste of the cherries that you eat when you are on top of the tree, the juice of the peach that dingles on your chin as you are laughing so hard because it is the summer and you are outside and you can make a mess eating it, the smell of the just-laid eggs beaten into an omelette with freshly picked cepes… That was the kind of food I grew up with. That was the kind of simple joys I had. That was the taste I still had in my mouth, that was the excitement that I had, that was what I wanted to share with every customer that would come through ICI door.
So why did I open this farm to table restaurant?
Well now I realize that I did not have to think too hard, I just needed to open a restaurant that resembled me and the way I grew up in the South of France.
Why ICI? Simply because I am French…