Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series of profiles of local restaurant chefs.
As executive chef for Nick's Airport Inn — one of Washington County's top dining establishments — Francis Verdier is responsible for maintaining high culinary standards.
You might think Verdier's job would be simple: Make the favorite dishes of frequent patrons over and over and over.
You would be wrong.
"We have people who are looking for new things all the time," Verdier said.
Really? What about traditional, classical French cookery? Coq au vin? Ratatouille? Beef bourguignon?
"Who's making beef bourguignon anymore? Nobody. Who's making those whole classical foods now? Nobody," Verdier said. "We always look for new ideas."
Verdier sat down with The Herald-Mail recently at the bar at Nick's. He talked in his thick French accent peppering the conversation with his very dry sense of humor about coming to America, the right way to raise kids and the best way to learn to cook.
How do you get your ideas?
My ideas? Paul (Giannaris, son of Nick and Tina Giannaris, founders of Nick's Airport Inn) looks at things on TV. He eats out. He's the one who sees what's going on. He talks to me, and I think a little bit, and I come out with something.
For me, flavor is the most important. I look first to the flavor of the sauce, which goes with my main product. Then after this, I look at what is good flavor-wise and at the same time looks good. Food needs to be very appealing — way more than it used to. People work on food being visually appealing, but not enough on the sauces or broth or whatever. For me, it's flavor first, then the look.
Verdier is from what part of France?
The center of France. But it is not a very common name anymore. Actually, most of the Verdiers emigrated to Canada in 1700, 1800. Is very few Verdiers left, but is some.
You're classically trained French chef?
Yes. My training was in France. I work in a lot of different restaurants at that time, and I first started in an apprenticeship. My school was three years (long).
When did you first know you wanted to be working with food?
I don't know. I think it was in my family's genes, on my mom's side. She was very good. She's still very good with food. When I started my apprenticeship, I was 14 years old.
Wow. Was that young, or was that typical?
During that time, it was common. No high school. No nothing. And at that time, you work a 14-hour day. One day off in a week. I used to start 7:30 in the morning. We had a half an hour (break) before lunch. Then our first break after that was 4 to 5:30. Then from 5:30, we work to 9:30 at night. Six days a week. At 14 years old.
That teaches you a good work ethic.
We made a lot of money then. Sixty dollars a month.
But that's, like, nothing.
You got to depend on your parents for the following three years. Because you cannot make money. I was not even making enough money to take the train once a week to see my parents.
You stayed in a group house?
Yes. We were six apprentices living in an attic. It was not even a bedroom. It was literally an attic. We didn't even have heat. I had a water bottle where I was sleeping, and one morning, the water was frozen in the bottle. I did this for three years.
And yet you stayed with it. Cooking must have meant something to you. Or were you just doing it because your parents told you to?
No, no. I did it because I wanted to do it. It was my decision. Even at 14 years old, you have pride. You don't want to quit because it was too hard.
What did your other friends do?
You do the same thing if you want to learn to be a mason, a carpenter or a car mechanic. We all went to the same apprenticeship for three years. It was, "OK, you're not smart enough to be a doctor or lawyer or something like that." You went into an apprenticeship at 14 years old. It was a very, very good idea, because (at) 18 years old, you had a trade. You were starting to make money. (At) 18 years old, you were considered a man.
That's not the way it is in American nowadays.
In France it is the same (as here). It's totally the opposite. They went from too strict, too hard (training) to too easy (training).
Did you also get a culinary degree?
Yes. I got my degree from the Cooking Institute of Paris, because I worked in Paris during that time. But all this stuff is (nonsense), between you and me. (Laughs) The degree really doesn't (matter).
Cooking school is OK, to get the base of cooking. Cooking is all (about) are you going to work hard and learn? I sacrificed probably 10 years of my life learning. Working for hardly no money.
Where did you work?
I did a lot of traveling. I always came back to the Loire Valley — that's where I did my apprenticeship. But after that, I did travel, mostly in the Alps area. I went in the Perigueux area. I went to Toulon.
When a new chef starts out with your degree, you start out at the bottom in the kitchen, right? You're not doing fancy stuff. You're cutting carrots.
Well, it all depends. You need to go to a very elegant, a very nice restaurant to work, but you start from the bottom up. With a very, very low salary.
People thought because I was working for a four-star restaurant, I was making a lot of money. No. I was under minimum wage for years. Just to work. Because it's so much to learn.
How did you get to America?
You don't want to put this in the paper.
Why? Are you running away from the law?
Yeah. I killed somebody.
(Laughs) No, I met a young (American) lady in France who was working where I was working, and I came back with her. She was working to learn cooking, hospitality and hotel administration. It was one of those things (you do) when you're young.
She called her company. They wanted to know what kind of chef I was, because at that time I was young, but I was already very experienced. I had nine years experience before I came here.
So you didn't come here (to Nick's Airport Inn)?
No. I was in Houston. Everything was totally different. I came with the company she was hired by, so I went to work for them. It was all French (food). All the heads of the company was French. It was good, because I didn't speak a word of English. Three people in the kitchen were French. So I was able to talk to them.
(We left after) about one year. Because she was from Frederick, and she wanted to go back to the East Coast. We were married for five years. Then she went her way and I went my way.
Do you have family now?
I've been married for over 30 years now. My wife was also divorced. She had three kids and we had one together.
Are the kids all grown?
Oh, yeah. My wife was a little bit older than I was. The youngest one (a daughter) is 28. I said to her, "If you talk to me about working in the business, I'll break your leg."
You would be a tough dad.
Oh, I was. I was tough. But now, I have four kids who have gone to college.
Do they cook at home?
Yeah, they all like to cook. Even the boys like to cooking. Even the three that are not from me, they are very close to me, and they learned how to cook. And sometimes they call me (and say), "Can you remind me how you did this and that." They all love food.
Do you cook at home?
I only cook when we have friends coming, or the kids are coming. Everybody is in the kitchen. It's almost like a party. It's a lot of laughing. It's a really good social time. When the kids come home, we're just like a big happy family, because they are all (living) far away.
But when you see so much food every day, when I go home after the (work) day, and my wife comes home — she still works — we don't cook. I say, "How about some yogurt?"
So what else do you do when you're relaxing?
I prefer a (TV) hunting show.
Do you hunt?
I like to hunt birds. I like to go shooting. Shooting is one of my hobbies. I shot a lot of sporting clays, skeet, long-range rifle shooting.
What do you shoot at when it's long range? Targets?
Yeah, (at) 200, 300, 400 yards. I can shoot a 1-inch group at 400 yards. Five shots under 1 inch (spread). Two hundred yards under a quarter of an inch — five shots, basically one hole, bigger than the first hole. That's in tournaments.
That's pretty far.
I would like to shoot longer, but we don't have a place here. Five hundred yards is the longest.
When you were a young chef, were there things you learned that made a lasting difference to you?
One big thing I learned: When you do something right — I learned this at 14 years old — it's painless. Because when we do it wrong, we get hit. (laughs) I had a chef in Paris, he would punch you in the shoulder. I mean hard. No joke. And you could say nothing, because, "If you don't like it, you can leave right now."
Also, everything we got was a big piece. Like, if it was a fish, didn't matter what kind of fish it was, it was a whole fish. When we got a piece of meat, it was like a quarter of a beef. So you learn a lot of different cuts. That was very useful, because in your head, it makes sense.
You see how things fit together.
Yes, and it was more clear.
Also, I always was good with sauces. It was something I understood, and when you learn so young, it becomes part of you.
I think that's one of the biggest mistakes made with children now. You learn a profession too late. You don't have the learning capacity, for the understanding. I think manual work is the same way. The younger you are, the better you learn it. If you take a carpenter, and he has an apprenticeship at 14 years old, and you try to explain to him, "You cut the wood this way, and you carve this way, because the fiber of the wood is going this way." An adult is going to try to understand why. And you don't need to think. The kid don't look any farther. "OK, that made sense."
It's like showing how to julienne. (The teacher says), "This is how you do, you handle your knife this way." (Verdier mimes cutting a carrot on the bar counter.) And I went and did it. It became very natural.
You had to learn how to handle a knife safely.
Parents baby their kids so much right now. "Let me do this, because you might cut yourself. Let me do this, because you might burn yourself." Let him cut himself! Let him burn himself! And you will burn yourself (working in a kitchen).
I didn't believe in protecting my kids: "If you get in trouble with someone, with the neighbor, you're on your own. I'm not going to help you because you did something stupid."
It's the same thing with work. If you do something stupid, you learn, and you try to do better.
If you go ...
Nick's Airport Inn
14548 Pennsylvania Ave., north of Hagerstown near Hagerstown County Regional Airport
Call 301-733-8560 or go to www.nicksairportinn.com
Open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and dinner from 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; open from 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. Saturdays; closed Sundays.
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