Homegrown Chef Takes Helm at Chez Philippe

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

Chez Philippe has a new chef, Jason Dallas, and the shadow of Jose Gutierrez no longer looms over The Peabody’s opulent flagship restaurant.

Jason Dallas is the new head chef of Chez Phillipe in The Peabody hotel. The native Memphian takes over the top kitchen job at the hotel’s flagship restaurant. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

“Once, yes, this was the case,” said Andreas Kistler, executive chef of The Peabody, “but now we have gotten past that.”

Gutierrez, a classically trained Frenchman, was chef at Chez Philippe from June 1983 to August 2005, an amazingly long tenure in the restaurant business and one that defined Chez Philippe as uniquely his. To everyone’s surprise, Gutierrez left Chez Philippe to start Encore, a less expensive, bistro-style establishment in Peabody Place, just a few steps from The Peabody’s valet parking entrance.

“It was a shock when Jose left,” said Kistler, “and it was a challenge because he was going to open just across the street. We knew that he would be offering the same French cuisine that he had been doing here. We needed to find a way to separate ourselves from him, though we love Jose and his legacy, but we knew that the next guy to come in would constantly be compared to him.”

The solution to that issue was a young chef named Reinaldo Alfonso, whose specialty was a fusion style of Asian-French cuisine. He cooked at a restaurant in West Palm Beach, Fla., named Tsunami – no relation to Ben Smith’s Tsunami in the Cooper-Young neighborhood. Alfonso took over the kitchen at Chez Philippe in December 2005, ushering in an era of exoticism in the form of lobster egg-rolls and daikon, soba noodles and seaweed salad, Chinese five-spice and soybean broth and sweet Thai chili sauce, all at the service of traditional entrees like wild striped bass, Atlantic salmon, lamb shank and guinea hen.

Alfonso left Chez Philippe in Oct. 2009 to take the position of executive chef at Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia, one of the establishments in the wildly successful Stephen Starr Restaurants group.

“Reinaldo did what we expected,” Kistler said. “The effect was that there was not a comparison with Jose because what Reny was doing was so different. People seemed to like it, but we were not surprised when he left. He’s a young chef, and we actually thought he would only be here for maybe three years, so he stayed two years longer. Now we are at the point where there are not so many people that remember Jose, and anyway, now he’s further away.”

What Kistler means is that Gutierrez closed Encore in September 2009 and by December that year had become ensconced in the kitchen at River Oaks, out east at Poplar and I-240. Alfonso’s departure and the ascension of Dallas – he worked as pantry chef at Chez Philippe – meant the opportunity for a retooling of the restaurant and a return to its roots in classic French cuisine.

“Not ‘classic’ classic,” Kistler said, “but French cuisine with more of the trends of today, lighter, more diverse.”

While cooking a modified and transitional menu beginning in December, Dallas has been working on his first menu for Chez Philippe, a menu he hopes will debut between Valentine’s Day and the beginning of March.

“It takes several months to create a menu,” Kistler said. “A new chef has to learn the mechanics of the kitchen, learn about all the people. If a chef comes in and says he can change a menu in three days, you need to get rid of that chef.”

Kistler described the up-coming menu as “simple and elegant and approachable,” terms with which Dallas agreed.

“To me,” said the new chef, “the perfect menu for Chez Philippe is rooted in French cuisine and French techniques but is more modern, more inviting. We don’t need all the butter and cream that French chefs used to use.”

Continuing a practice initiated by Alfonso, Dallas wants to incorporate as many local ingredients as possible and maintain relationships with local and regional farms.

Dallas, 39, is a native Memphian, a graduate of Germantown High School. He attended the University of Memphis, studying graphic design, but decided to go to culinary school instead, receiving his degree from The Restaurant School of Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia in 2002. After interning at the Ritz-Carlton and working for the illustrious Susanna Foo in Philadelphia, Dallas and his wife, Mari, a pediatric oncologist, moved to Seattle. In Seattle, Dallas was in the kitchen at The Herbfarm (still thriving) and at Todd English’s Fish Club (since closed) and finally served as executive chef at the city’s Sorrento Hotel.

Then Memphis called, in the form of a job for Mari Dallas at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

“This was a chance to come home,” said Jason Dallas. A position was open for pantry chef, or garde manger, at Chez Philippe. The garde manger is responsible for preparation of cold foods – cold soups, salads, cold appetizers. It’s considered a number of steps down from executive chef or chef de cuisine, but Dallas took the job.

“I just thought that this is the kitchen I wanted to work in,” he said, “so it didn’t matter what the duties were.”

Nine months later, and now he’s in charge.

“This is a very positive move,” said Kistler, who as the hotel’s executive chef is Dallas’ boss. “Jason is the first chef at Chez Philippe who is homegrown. That’s going to speak well for Memphis and for the hotel, and it will help the concept of the restaurant.”