Marcel Vigneron isn’t just that one Top Chef contestant who always had a vial of isomalt or agar-agar up his sleeve. He’s had his fair share of TV gigs over the years—it’s hard to forget Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen, SyFy’s epic foray into the cooking show genre—but the former Bazaar chef is now focusing all his attention on his new restaurant, Wolf, open for dinner tonight in West Hollywood. We spoke to him about the rise of rustic cooking, the downfall of molecular gastronomy, and being back in the public eye.
What was your inspiration behind the menu? What kind of vibe are you trying to get at?
I mean, the general idea is deliciousness; I was just focusing on making dishes that taste really good. And we’re also trying to be really seasonal about it. I talk a lot to my farmers and we’ll go, “Okay, citrus is crushing right now, beets are phenomenal.” and then it becomes a no-brainer—I just do a beets and citrus dish. That’s the biggest thing, really, just working with phenomenal products and letting them shine. Maybe implementing techniques here and there that will really heighten the amazing products we’re already getting.
It seems like this all happened really fast. How long have you had the concept of Wolf in mind? It’s named after your mom, right?
Yeah, it is. And it’s been a long time coming, really—I mean, ever since my mom taught me how to cook. She used to cook professionally when I was really little, like from the ages of zero to four, and she would take me into the kitchen with her where I had these weird memories of just like sitting on a sack of flour in the corner of the kitchen and watching her do her thing. And then all throughout elementary school I was fascinated by her cooking and so I’d follow her around. By the time I was eight, I’d be making little pumpkin pies with her leftover scraps and stuff, and it all kind of started there. When I graduated high school I went to Europe and it was the first time where I was like, “Wow, food is awesome.” Then I was like, “Alright, that’s it, I guess I want to be a chef” and I never looked back. And Wolf really is the culmination of all those things.
When’s the last time you were cooking full time in a restaurant?
Well I never stopped cooking, you know? I was most recently the chef for a group called Summit out in Utah, and I cooked for them straight for two years, pretty much every day. I was doing breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a staff of 60-80 and then I cooked for basically 300 people on the weekends while running my catering company at the same time. I haven’t really been in the public eye, but the last time I was in a kitchen would have been at the Bazaar.
Are you stoked to be back in the public eye and have your name attached to a restaurant?
Oh yeah, are you kidding me? For sure, it’s a total dream come true. Wolf is basically my life’s dream coming to fruition. I’ve always dreamed of having my own restaurant and now it’s finally happening. It’s a huge deal for me, I’ve been putting a ton of hard work into it, and it’s cool because now all that work is finally about to pay off.
Between Top Chef and Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen, you’ve always been labeled as the molecular gastronomy guy. Is any of that going to show up at Wolf?
No, not really. It’s funny, and a lot of people don’t seem to realize it, but when I did Top Chef season 2, that was over a decade ago. And when you’re younger, you always have something to prove and it’s all about showing off cool techniques. But as you get a little older and a little wiser, it’s a lot less about you, and a lot more about your craft. I don’t need to show people that I can do cool stuff—at the end of the day I want to show people that I can make delicious food.
It seems like the menu is almost reductionist in a way.
Well, whenever I’m adding something to a dish, I always ask myself a couple of questions: Does it taste delicious? Why is it there? What’s the purpose of this technique applied to it? Does it actually improve the dish? If the answer is yes to all those, then I’ll do it. If the only answer is “because it’s cool” then it doesn’t make it on the plate. We are making ice cream with liquid nitrogen, which looks like an avant garde technique, but at the same time, people have been doing it forever. I mean look at Dippin’ Dots, how old are those things, right? Plus, when you freeze ice cream that quickly, you get super small ice crystals which makes for a smoother ice cream. Is it theatrical? Maybe, but it’s not about that, it’s about the food.
Does any part of you miss the crazy molecular gastronomy stuff?
I’m not going to lie, with Quantum Kitchen—I mean it’s the SyFy network, right? They were like, “alright cool, now make this food blow up or make it glow in the dark.” And I don’t really want to do that. I mean, would you want to eat something that was blowing up or glowing in the dark?
I mean, kinda, but I see what you’re saying.
The food I cook is honestly pretty simple and rustic. Like with the burnt carrots—I don’t even peel the carrots because the dish just works better that way. And that’s what I want Wolf’s cooking is all about. I like to joke around with my kitchen staff, like, “Yo, what would the wolf do? Would the wolf peel the carrots? No he wouldn’t, he would eat the skin and burn those things whole.” Even when it comes down to our dice at the restaurant, we don’t want a perfect square medium dice. You’ll get the rounded outsides of a potato because I don’t want to throw away like 50 percent of my potato to serve a quote-unquote perfect product.
It seems like the rustic ideal is more pronounced in L.A. than ever.
Yeah, and in this day in age, especially, in L.A., we have a lot of conscious diners out here. And with all the problems we have in this country regarding food waste, it doesn’t really make sense to do that even if it is classic French or whatever. We’re not going for three michelin stars here, this isn’t that type of restaurant, and LA doesn’t have that type of food scene. We just want to have really delicious food in a relaxed atmosphere with gracious hospitality. And that’s what we’re going to do.
Lastly, have you been keeping up with Top Chef?
No, I haven’t—I don’t watch much TV. It’s a great show, and they do a really good job with it, I just don’t really watch it. That’s kind of like a doctor coming home and watching Grey’s Anatomy. When I get home from work—and if I am watching TV—it’s going to be something like Breaking Bad or a documentary on surfing. I’m not watching Rachel Ray, I need to think about something other than food. Though I did love Chef’s Table.