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Marcel Vigneron | The Wolf Pack | Plant Based Cuisine & Top Chef Drama Queens

September 19, 2016 Interview By: TrueCooks  Photography: SDJ

Marcel Vigneron is from a small island off the coast of Washington. He was inspired to cook by watching his mother and started working in restaurants while still in high school. It wasn’t until a post high school trip to Europe that he developed a true appreciation for the culinary arts. Upon returning, he enrolled in the CIA in New York and began what would eventually be five years of schooling.  Out of school and working at Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas he was recruited for the second season of Bravo TV’s Top Chef. He went on to place second  and went on to make numerous television appearances. In 2016, Marcel opened neighboring restaurants on Melrose in Los Angeles. Wolf is his take on upscale comfort food, while Beefsteak is plant-based fast casual. We caught up with Marcel to find out how a kid from a small town in the Northwest became a chef with two up-and-coming restaurants in one of the hottest food cities in the country.

You’re from Bainbridge Island in Washington and you attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Let’s start with a little bit of your history. How did you get interested in cooking and settle on going to New York to study the culinary arts? Originally, I think my first muse was my mom. Growing up, I would always see my mom cooking in the kitchen. I was kind of fascinated by what she was doing. She was the one that initiated an interest and a curiosity in cooking. I was living on an island. And when I was 15 my parents told me I had to go out and get a job. So I started dish washing at the local diner and hated it. I actually didn’t like it that much. It was a super greasy spoon diner. I just stood in one place all day cleaning off this nasty waffle iron and stuff like that, and mopping the floors and everything. I wasn’t really that into dish washing. And I would look over and see all these cooks working with knives and fire. It seemed like a lot of fun. So I thought I’d have a lot more fun cooking. I ended up working my way up, and I started cooking at a couple of different restaurants. I did that all through high school. I worked at a couple of different restaurants on the island. I ended up really enjoying it. But it wasn’t like… it was still kind of a job. I was a high school kid. I would still rather hang out with my friends and play sports than be inside cooking. It wasn’t until I graduated high school and took my first trip to Europe that I kind of realized that I wanted to become a chef and pursue cooking wholeheartedly.

After I graduated high school, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. All of my friends were going off to college and studying business and doing their thing. I really had no idea. I was just a local cook on the island. I really had no idea what I wanted to do. My now partner and at that time mentor was like, “Hey, why don’t you take some time off and not rush into college or anything. Do a little traveling  –  a little soul searching. Figure out what you want to do. So that’s exactly what I did. I went to Italy, Spain, France, Greece. I was in the Netherlands for a little while. During that time over there, I realized how cool food was. This was in like ’98, ’99. At that time, food wasn’t as popular as it is now in the States. But over in Europe, food is timeless. It’s so drastically different in every culture—yet such a huge part of each culture. And so, I was like, “Wow, food is actually really cool.” I think I’m already doing what I want to be doing. I just need to really go after it. So then I came back from Europe after a couple of months and applied to the CIA.

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Talk about your experience coming to New York, your schooling, and what you did leading up to Top Chef.  It was interesting moving to New York. I was this little kid from Bainbridge Island. It’s a super small island in the Pacific Northwest. It was real—I was moving to New York and going to college. I made the trip by myself, jumped on a plane, jumped on a train, and did all of that stuff. It was kind of crazy. I was leaving home, leaving the family. I was pursuing my life and my career independently. It was a pretty big step for me. I can remember getting on the train and getting into New York City for the first time. And being like, “Wow, this is really happening.” Then I started up with the CIA. I was there for two years for my associates degree. And then I actually left after I graduated. I moved back to Seattle. And I worked in Seattle at a couple of different restaurants. For about a year, I was in the industry. And then I kind of realized that I wanted to learn more about business. So I packed up my stuff and moved back to New York and re-enrolled in the CIA and did my bachelors program. So I was there for another year and a half or something like that to do the bachelors program. Then I stayed on and did the fellowship. All in all, I was there… [people] put in two years of school. I put in almost five.

So around the time you finished your schooling would be just before they filmed the season of Top Chef that you were on. Am I correct in my timeline? So I did things a little bit differently with my schooling at CIA than most people. When you’re doing your bachelors there’s this thing called Inner-session where you go on this California trip. You go and check out farms and stuff like that. I had received a scholarship to go to Italy. I went to Italy when my class went to Napa Valley. I stayed on even longer and did my Inner-session with a different class. When I came back from that—I used to go to the career services office all of the time to look for financial aid and all of that. I was trying to fund my schooling through scholarships because I come from kind of a poor family. And I didn’t really have the money to pay for school. CIA is expensive. So I was constantly, like, recipe contest, scholarships, trying to pay for my school. I was up there and I noticed that there was this flyer that had a picture of Joël Robuchon. And it said, “Joël Robuchon is opening his first restaurant in the United States. He’s hiring the culinary elite. Now accepting interviews.” And so I took an interview with the chef of the MGM Grand. The interview went really well. They flew me out to Vegas. I did a tasting, and they offered me the job. I ended up living in Las Vegas opening up Robuchon. So I left the CIA. My first real job out of school after earning my bachelors was working at Robuchon. It was when I was at Robuchon that I got linked up with all of the Top Chef guys. That was literally just like going to a food show. I was actually with Hung Huynh who is a really good friend of mine—we went to culinary school together. He was the Top Chef Season 3 winner. We were literally just walking around this food show in Vegas. And we’re talking to this guy. He’s like, “Yo, you’d be perfect for this show. You should apply. They’re about to start filming Season 2. I know the casting coordinators. You should go meet with them.” I was like, “Yeah, no, I don’t really think that’s me. I’m just working at this restaurant.” And he’s like, “No, because you don’t think it’s you is exactly why you’re perfect for it.” I was like, “Look man, I’m not going to any of these casting calls. I’m not doing any of that stuff. I’m just a cook. I’m not like a TV celebrity.” And he was like, “No, I want you to go. I’ll bypass the casting call. And all you have to do is go meet with these two people.” I was like, “Okay, sure, why not?” I went and met with Randy and Danielle who are the casting coordinators for Top Chef. I guess they liked me. And they had put me on the list as one of the candidates for the show. But I think I was actually a relief person. I don’t think I was one of the ten or fifteen or however many they actually chose. I think someone didn’t check out, or didn’t end up working out with the show. Because they called me like three days before and were like, “Hey, we want you to be on the show. Can you leave tomorrow?” I had to relay that message to my chef at Robuchon who wasn’t too happy about it—but knew there was a chance that I might be going on this show anyway. And I had a pretty good relationship with them. So he was like, “Okay, we’ll hold your job for you. You might be on a different station or something, but we’ll have a job for you when you get back—and good luck.”

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You did well on the show coming in second. How was the experience for you? I’ve talked to people that have gone on those things and said it’s a totally nerve-wracking experience.  It was grueling. It was really hard. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve done. I would say opening up a restaurant is harder. Commercial salmon fishing in Alaska is harder. But Top Chef is pretty fucking hard. There’s a lot of stuff that people don’t even realize when they go on the show and watch the show about, like, what happens. First and foremost, you get taken away from your life. It’s like no cell phone, no wallet, no television, no communication, no newspaper, no friends, no family, none of that stuff. That in and of itself is usually enough to put people in culture shock. And then, on top of that, you now have, like, babysitters. People who are telling you when you can eat, when you can drink, when you can go to the bathroom. They walk you to the bathroom. It’s pretty crazy. When you sleep, when you wake up, all of those things are dictated by these outside sources. If you’re an independent person, it’s kind of crazy. And also, that’s mixed with the fact that you are in a competition competing against a bunch of strangers pretending like they’re your friends—but actually they just want to eliminate you. And the challenges in and of themselves were very stressful and grueling—and actually a lot of work. Even when you’re not working very hard or a lot, it’s just kind of downtime. That whole hurry up and wait thing can just be pretty nerve wracking. Sitting around for five hours under the lights, it’s like, “What is going on?” So it was actually pretty tough. But at the same time we all signed up for it. So it is what it is. And ultimately, I think I actually enjoyed it. It was really one of the first times that I actually got to cook my own food. When I was working as a young cook, I was always working for other chefs and entirely cooking their food. And even if I did do a special or something like that, it would become their food. It wasn’t my dish, they could change it however they saw fit. This was one of the first times where I actually got the opportunity to be like, “This is my dish.” So it was actually pretty cool from that aspect.

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I wanted to touch on molecular gastronomy. Is that something that you had been working to develop or a label that your food was given because you were utilizing a lot of foams. How does that play into your style of cooking?  Right around that time when I was doing Top Chef, I had a fascination with EL Bulli. They had just come out with one of their new books. For me, I had always seen cooking to be somewhat similar… with dishes, presentations, or techniques, for the most part a lot of dishes were similar. When I went to school and learned about EL Bulli, I was like, “Wait, what are these guys doing? Who are these guys?” I didn’t even know you could do that with food. I thought that everything had already been done. That’s the way that we had been taught. And here these guys are discovering new ingredients, developing new techniques, creating food in a manner that had never been done before. I was just blown away by their level of creativity, knowledge, and expertise. So I started studying them and their techniques in my off time while I was working on my bachelors. I would sit in my apartment or in my dorm room and call up these companies in Spain and see if they would send me sample packs of chemicals, and researching online different recipes. We’d be making spherification in our garage and shit. So yeah, around that time I was super interested in what these guys were doing and did a lot of R and D when it came to their techniques. So naturally, those were things that I applied to Top Chef too because it was the way that I was cooking at that time. But I liken it to the natural progression of any artist. I feel like when you’re a new young artist first coming up in the game, you’re kind of like, “Look at me, look at me, look at all this cool stuff I can do.” And you try to show off a little bit. As you get a little bit older, you get a little bit more mature and a little wiser. I realized it wasn’t really about me, but more so about my craft and the guests that I’m serving. And so, I started to look at my food like, “Yeah, I just developed this dish using a high level of technique and it’s really cool and interesting to hear about or read about. But do I really want to eat it at the end of the day? Do you really want to sink your teeth into a dehydrated rehydrated spherification that has been frozen and shattered and blown up into an orb or something like that.” I don’t know. I was like, “Well, it looks cool. It sounds cool. But does it fucking taste delicious?” Is the question I found myself asking. And if the answer was no, then I started just abandoning a lot of stuff. And that’s kind of where I’ve gotten to with the food that I cook now. Which is much more approachable, a lot more simple, much more rustic. Finding killer ingredients, and just kind of letting them shine. I honestly think that 50 percent of being a chef is how you source your product and what you put on the plate. But also what you don’t put on the plate is a huge part of it too.

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Before we move on, I wanted to touch on some of the controversy that arose from that season. There was the head shaving incident. And you got hit with a bottle after the show aired. The head shaving incident is exactly what it sounds like. We came back from an event in Santa Barbara and I fell asleep on the couch because I was exhausted. I woke up and Cliff had me in full nelson. Ilan was filming video. And I guess Sam was supposed to shave my head or something. They didn’t end up succeeding. I weaseled my way out of there. You cant hold me for too long. I quickly realized that they were kind of being dicks, you know? It is like, “You’re going to physically assault me and hold me down while you shave my head. And I’m the asshole?” What did I do? I was in a competition and made food that the judges like more than you. I don’t know. It’s kind of funny to me looking back on it now. A lot of people are like, “Oh, you were such an asshole.” I’m like, “Yeah, they definitely edited me and portrayed me in that fashion – in that light.” But at the same time, did I ever physically assault anybody and try to shave their head? Like, “Nope, definitely did not do that. The perception of people is always interesting to me. But yeah, they tried to shave my head. They didn’t succeed. I ended up locking myself in the bathroom just because they were being a bunch of fucking assholes. And so I had to take myself out of the situation. And honestly, I wanted to sleep because we were supposed to compete the following day. And they were all up getting drunk and acting like assholes. But, you know, I took myself out of the situation. And then they ended up shaving their heads. So when you watch the episode, it’s like they reversed the chronological order. It makes it look like they’re a little bit nicer than they were. And this is shit that they did all throughout the show. It’s fucking crazy. If they were all shaving their heads and were like, “Oh, let’s shave Marcel’s head too,” then they seem like they’re not a bunch of fucking assholes. But if they’re like, “Oh, let’s shave Marcel’s head out of the blue,” then they kind of appear like, you know, more like an asshole. I don’t know. I don’t really understand it. I think it’s kind of fucked up either way. But for whatever reason they switched it on the show as they did so many times. But if you look in the actual episode, there’s still footage of Elia with long hair. They kind of fucked up during the editing, so if you’re really watching then you could tell. But long story short, they tried to shave my head like a bunch of frat boys—like some secret college hazing thing.

The other incident that happened after the fact—I mean who really knows. I was hanging out with my friends sitting at a table, and a bottle hit me over the head. We really don’t know what happened, who did it, whatever. All I know is that I got rushed to the hospital. I had to get a bunch of stitches.

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Wow, that’s crazy. Did you have any other negative interactions with anyone as a result of the show? No, not really. It was just me and my buddy who’s another chef in Vegas. We were just hanging out. I’m pretty sure it actually happened over a girl and had nothing to do with me being on the show. Some guys girlfriend was talking to us and whatever. I don’t know. He got the wrong impression, and whatever. People do stupid things.

You ended up in Beverly Hills at The Bazaar as the executive sous chef. Do you want to give us a brief timeline from Vegas to there? After I left Robuchon I went up to Alaska and did some more soul searching. I did some commercial salmon fishing. I got a call from Katsuya seeing if I was interested in moving to L.A. and opening up the Bazaar for José. Katsuya had always been one of my friends and someone up here that I looked up to. I took a phone call with Michael, he hired me on as a sous chef. I packed up my stuff, moved to L.A., and started cooking at The Bazaar. I was there for the opening, the pre opening, the staff hiring, and the menu development. And it was a really cool project to be a part of. We had a good time doing it. It was one of the strongest opening teams that I’ve ever witnessed or been a part of. And we had a blast. It was a lot of work, but we had a blast doing it.

Then you went back to television with Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen, Top Chef All Stars, Next Iron Chef, and so fourth. Did you step away from the kitchen when you were doing all of this television work, or were you doing that simultaneously? It was pretty much simultaneously. After I left The Bazaar, I had taken another job in Beverly Hills at the Beverly Hilton as an executive chef which would have been six years ago or something like that. I had that project for about a year, then left and sort of started what Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen was all about. I started this catering company doing high-end events. One of the beautiful things about having the event company is that you can kind of work things around your schedule. So I was booking events and I was booking shows. If I wasn’t doing a show, I was doing an event and vice versa. So I was definitely still cooking.

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How has doing all of the television work and being recognized as a celebrity chef impacted your career in the kitchen? I think it’s impacted my career in the kitchen in a couple of different ways. But honestly one of the reasons why I really like to do it is because of all of the people watching the shows. I’ve kind of had the opportunity to meet people and receive a lot of letters. Whether it was in the Myspace days, or Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever, I really had no idea what sort of impact I was having on people until I really started to receive all of these notes from people that said, “Oh, I never really saw cooking or food in that manner. Thank you for opening up this new way of looking at food to me.” Often times I would just get notes from young cooks who were like, “You’ve been such and inspiration to me,” and that sort of thing. “I’m going to culinary school because of you. I’m leaving my job as a banker. I’m going to start cooking,” or whatever. It was extremely fulfilling for me to see that I was actually affecting people’s lives in a positive manner towards food. And for me, having that sort of impact was one of the main reasons why I kept going back. And one of the main reasons why I kept pushing to do new things and create new dishes in a new manner. It was because of all of the positive feedback that I was getting from fans and whatnot. It was really cool for me to see. And obviously having a restaurant now, I always did shows as a means of getting a restaurant—never the other way around. I wanted to get my name out there and allow people to know my food. That way when I actually opened up my restaurant, there was already a little curiosity there. It was kind of good for marketing because you can’t really pay for that sort of marketing or PR. There are so many chefs out there opening up restaurants and stuff like that. It’s difficult if you’re not known. Having that sort of notoriety from all those shows, when it came to opening up Wolf and Beefsteak I think it definitely helped.

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Let’s talk about Wolf, how you went about opening it, the concept, and the food that you’re doing there. For me Wolf was paying homage to my mom as being the original person who got me inspired to start cooking. And trying to figure out what to call the restaurant, my partner had suggested the name Marcel’s. It was difficult for me to do that for a couple of reasons. One of which is when I think of a restaurant called Marcel’s, I think of a stuffy French bistro. And I am so not that. And also, for me, restaurants are a team. And it’s like, would I want to be a part of the Wolfpack or would I want to work at some place called Marcel’s? I’d much rather be a part of the Wolfpack. My mother’s maiden name is Gallic for wolf. So I really gravitated towards that name. And for me, there’s also something about that majestic creature—the way they hunt, the way they eat. Even the way they look. I just thought it was a really strong name. I’d never heard of a restaurant called Wolf before. So I was like, “Okay, let’s do it.” And also, I feel like there’s a certain level of elegance to it that we like to bring to the restaurant. That’s what the atmosphere reflects. That’s what the cuisine reflects. We do comfort food that’s elevated. It’s what your mom would have made if she was a three-Michelin Star chef. The food is not too far removed from things that you could make at home. But also elevated enough to where you’re not making it at home unless you’re a professional chef or something like that.

How do you feel Wolf fits into the landscape of cuisine in L.A. right now? I feel like we’ve found a nice little spot in the landscape. I think the city speaks for itself. The restaurant has been really well received. We get a lot of repeat customers, a lot of really positive press. And overall, people are always saying, “Concept, concept, what is the concept of Wolf?” What is a concept? We serve delicious food in a relaxed, yet comfortably refined atmosphere, with a comfortable service that has technical execution. People come into our restaurant and they have a killer meal. They feel like they’re a part of the family. And for me, that’s what it’s all about. That is our concept—to make people feel like they are a part of our family. And that our restaurant is their restaurant. That’s kind of essentially what we’re trying to do.

You debuted Beefsteak last month and Wolf was earlier this year. What are the differences between the two? Wolf is a little bit more progressive Los Angeles cuisine. I don’t like to use the term fine dining because fine dining doesn’t exist in L.A. But it’s a little bit more upscale. People still come in super casual, but the check average is pretty high. It’s a nice restaurant that has a high level of execution. So I would say it’s a little bit more upscale. Then Beefsteak is a little bit more for fast casual—sort of like a beachy vibe, right on Melrose, but serves conscious, plant-based cooking.

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Are there any standout or signature dishes on the menus at Wolf and Beefsteak?  The thing about Beefsteak is the reason why I called it Beefsteak is it’s named after the Beefsteak tomato. And I felt like often times, vegetables don’t get the sort of respect or recognition that they deserve. Often times, I feel like people, especially omnivores, are like, “Oh, I need meat. Vegetables aren’t going to be sustaining. They aren’t going to give me enough energy for the day.” So felt like with a name like Beefsteak, named after the Beefsteak tomato, it’s adding a lot of weight to it. And showing people that vegetables can actually be sustaining. If you do a proper combination through mutual supplementation or by choosing the right ingredients, they can actually totally sustain you for the day or for as long as you want them to. That’s why I chose Beefsteak. It’s a super hearty  meaty tomato.

And then standouts right now, on the Wolf menu the beets and plums are getting a lot of hype right now. People are really loving them. That dish shows technique, but also restraint. People look at like, “Oh, it’s like a beet salad.” But also a little bit like a murder scene—the way that we splatter the plate and everything. But then there’s beets in like four different manners. There’s red beets, there’s cold beets, there’s the beet puree with the yudu. There’s dehydrated, rehydrated beets that basically have the flavor of a candied apricot. And then it’s the plums that we don’t do anything to. We just source them from an incredible farm. And we cut them up and put them on the plate completely undressed and seasoned because they’re absolutely perfect in and of themselves just the way they are. When you get a product like that, I would never want to do anything to it. It switches. We change the set up according to season. I feel like that’s a pretty killer farm to table dish on the menu. And then over at Beefsteak, our Kale salad has been getting a lot of love right now. We do a turmeric hummus dressing, burnt carrots, cauliflower, and olives, and crispy quinoa. And I don’t know. People can add protein to it if they want to.

This has been a busy year for you opening two restaurants. And you had a strong succession of TV appearances prior to that. What’s next on the horizon for you? Right now I’m going to focus in on these two, Wolf and Beefsteak. I feel like oftentimes, people try to expand a little bit too quickly. The way that we’ve had success is by making sure that every person who comes through the door has a great experience. By having the restaurants side by side, it’s been manageable—because I’m actually here every day. By doing TV shows and opening up too many restaurants, I’m not going to be able to take care of my little Wolf pup and Beefsteak baby. So I’m just going to focus in on these two restaurants that I just created. If the timing works out and whatnot, and I’m able to do a little bit more TV and maybe do restaurant here or there or something—I’ll be open to it in the future. But I have to look after the flagships here on Melrose.

Finally, how did you connect with True Cooks and what’s your take on what they’re doing as far the clothing and the community they’ve built on social media connecting chefs?  I actually met Chad on MySpace—way before he had launched True Cooks. He basically just hit me up a few years ago on Facebook and was like, “Hey man, I’m thinking of creating this lifestyle brand for cooks. What do you think? Would you support it? Do you think it’s a good idea?” Obviously I was like, “Dude, you’re a genius. Of course, it’s a brilliant idea. I think there’s a really good opportunity for it. And if there’s any way that I can support you and what you’re doing, just let me know.” And so I’ve kind of been a fan of True Cooks since conception and seen it’s evolution. And it’s cool. I’ll be rocking the gear at like a 7-11 picking up some ice or something and some kid will be like, “Oh my god, fucking True Cooks!” And take a picture and tag it or whatever. It’s pretty cool to see how much it’s really developed in the chef world and cooking community.

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Follow Marcel on Instagram here & follow Wolf Here 

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