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Union League Cafe in New Haven - an interview with Chef Owner Jean Pierre Vuillermet

by Matt DeLucia

August 2008

Union League Café is a Parisian-style brasserie in New Haven revered for its outstanding wine list, attentive service, sophisticated French cuisine, and classic yet relaxed atmosphere in the historic Roger Sherman building on Chapel Street. The man behind its 15+ year run as one of Connecticut’s top-rated restaurants is its French-born chef owner Jean-Pierre Vuillermet. Vuillermet’s family has owned and operated the Hôtel Clairefontaine in Aix-les-Bains at the foot of the French Alps for four generations, so fine dining and great food is in his blood. In 1987 he was asked to relocate to New Haven as one of the chefs of Robert Henry’s, and when the owner of that restaurant retired, Vuillermet purchased the restaurant and renamed it “Union League Cafe.” Since 1993, Vuillermet’s Union League Café has consistently earned rave reviews from the New York Times, the Zagat guide, Connecticut Magazine, and the Hartford Courant among others. We hope you enjoy the interview with chef Vuillermet, along with some beautiful dishes he’s created for us!

RI: How did you learn how to cook, and what were your first inspirations for becoming a chef?
Jean Pierre Vuillermet: I grew up in the business. Pretty much everybody in my family is involved in the hotel or restaurant business. My grandparents started a small road side café on a busy Alpine road. My grandmother was doing the cooking, and it was a place where all the villagers would gather on the terrace under a giant oak tree. My father expanded the café to a country inn and I started cooking on weekends and school vacations. We had access to great local products from the farms around us. My dad would go to the market every morning and bring what he needed for the day. At the time, I didn’t realize how lucky we were, it seemed normal. At about 16, I knew I wanted to be a chef so I decided to do an apprenticeship in a one-star Michelin restaurant in my home town.

RI: Can you talk about the years you spent working at Le Pre Catelan with Gaston Lenotre? When did you begin working with him, and what did those years with Lenotre mean to your career?
Jean Pierre Vuillermet: After my apprenticeship, my chef recommended me to another Michelin-starred restaurant in Switzerland, then I went to work for Paul Blanc, the uncle of Georges Blanc, which was a two Michelin star. Then I had to do my mandatory military service for one year. During that time, my friend Jean-Michel from Paul Blanc’s kitchen went to work for Lenotre. I couldn’t wait to finish my military service when he told me I could work there. In 1980 Lenotre acquired a magnificent property, Le Pre Catelan in the Parc of the Bois de Boulogne just outside the 16th arrondissement in Paris. Gaston Lenotre was always around, looking at what everyone was doing. The restaurant got two Michelin stars. Jean-Michel, who is now my restaurant manager and wine expert, and I were eager to learn as much as we could and we worked very hard whenever help was needed in the company, not just at the restaurant. Then in 1985 Lenotre decided to branch into the US, and that changed my life and it is the reason I am here now.

RI: How much of your success, or any chef’s success for that matter, do you think is good timing & good fortune, vs. hard work and innate talent?
Jean Pierre Vuillermet: I never considered myself talented. I just happened to love food. I love to eat and don’t listen to my doctor! When I chose this career, I knew I had to work in reputable restaurants in order to learn from the best chefs, which means you have to work hard if you want to be recommended to another chef. Then of course, there is the adventurous side of the chef always wanting to discover something new, and ready to travel when the opportunity arises. That is the part of good timing and good fortune. But that timing would not have worked without the hard work at Lenotre.

RI: Tell us how you came to Union League and how you became chef/owner. Is being a chef/owner more fulfilling than being a chef?
Jean Pierre Vuillermet: It used to be a restaurant called Robert Henry’s, very formal from the late 80’s. In 1990, I was hired as a chef and I bought the restaurant in 1993 and transformed it to Union League Café. Being a chef/owner means you have more responsibility - not just financially of course but also toward your staff. You provide income for them and you want them to be happy to work for you. It’s more fulfilling in that sense.

RI: What specific modifications or design ideas did you implement in Union League’s kitchen in order to suit the type of food you knew you would be preparing?
Jean Pierre Vuillermet: We are in an historical building and the kitchen space is limited. We tried to fit as much equipment and working space as we could. We put in a wood burning grill and a rotisserie. Then we needed space to store the wood and the hood system was not efficient so we had to get rid of the wood grill but I still have the rotisserie. Of course we keep up with the new techniques and we have a vacuum machine and circulator for sous-vide cooking.

RI: Tell us why Union League is so unique and why should people know about it and come here to stay or have dinner?
Jean Pierre Vuillermet: It’s unique in the sense that it is the historic Shermann building that is the site of Union League Café. The part of the building where the dining room stands was built in 1902. Our idea was to create a restaurant reminiscent of a Parisian brasserie with professional and knowledgeable wait staff, carefully selected wine list and contemporary French cuisine. All of these unique aspects can be experienced whether in our main dining area, at the Bar des Artistes or one of our two private rooms located on the second floor.

RI: What are some of the best dishes you’ve served here at Union League, and why do you think they are/were so popular?
Jean Pierre Vuillermet: Some of the best dishes here are the French classics like Boneless duck leg confit, Grilled Berkshire pork chop, Slowly braised organic veal cheeks, Layers of bittersweet chocolate mousse, salted Piémont hazelnut caramel and crunchy hazelnut biscuit. These dishes are among our most popular because they offer a certain level of comfort in the fact that they are tried and true. It’s like coming home to a good memory and having that wonderful memory become as good if not better than the first time!

RI: When you first opened the restaurant in 1993, what was the cuisine like then, compared to what it has become now over the years?
Jean Pierre Vuillermet: I wanted to break away from the formality of the previous restaurant and do something very casual with good, simple bistro food at affordable prices. The concept is the same now but the food is a little more sophisticated. I like to bring back some classic French dishes once in a while. One thing that didn’t change is that we change the menu to use seasonal products - that was part of my culinary “education”.

RI: Tell us about the renovations that occurred several years back that opened up the upstairs?
Jean Pierre Vuillermet: We had more and more requests for large parties which forced us to close the restaurant at times. So in 2003 we decided to take over the office space on the second floor and transformed it into two private banquet rooms with their own kitchen. We wanted to make it look like it was always there and that was a big challenge not to mention a big financial investment.

RI: What was it like when the Hyperion Theatre damaged your restaurant in 1998
Jean Pierre Vuillermet: Strangely, it was Halloween night when the old building next to us collapsed on top of our building. We had a party of 150 people planned for the next day. The kitchen and basement were completely flooded. The fire department deemed the building unsafe and closed it. I will never forget when I had to call the next morning to cancel that party. It took us 3 months to rebuild the kitchen and reopen. During that time, most of our loyal staff helped us and waited to be part of the re-opening.

RI: What are some of your favorite restaurants, here in the New Haven area and in other areas such as Boston or New York?
Jean Pierre Vuillermet: New-Haven has become a great food destination. We call it “Little New York.” There are so many good restaurants. I have not been to Boston for a while. If I go to New York for the day, I will do 3 or 4 restaurants either for a drink, an appetizer or two, or dessert unless it is for a “serious” occasion in a two or three Michelin star restaurant where I will have a full meal. Let’s say that the restaurants that I have been more than once are Jo Jo and Gramercy Tavern. I am a big fan of Vongerichten. I also love Cafe Boulud, and I think anyone who misses France should go to Bar Boulud for the charcuterie specialties.

RI: Would you care to mention any farmers or producers of special ingredients which contribute to the originality of the food at Union League?
Jean Pierre Vuillermet: We always try to work with local farmers when possible. New Haven has farmer’s markets twice a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and since last year, there is a program called City Seed that coordinates the restaurant’s needs with the farmer’s offers. Also Yale University started a project few years ago with Alice Waters to grow organic vegetables for the students, so we have the Yale Sustainable Food Project right in town.

RI: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working in the kitchen?
Jean Pierre Vuillermet: Like when I was at school, I can’t keep my attention sitting and reading. I have a house and I like to do projects. I like to build, I am a “manual” worker. Coming from the Alps, I like skiing, and I also like car racing. Of course, I cook for my wife and friends when I am home.

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