Story of a Dish: Fleur de Provence
CHEF: JAMES LAIRD • RESTAURANT: RESTAURANT SERENADE • LOCATION: CHATHAM
In the Disney film Ratatouille, restaurant critic Anton Ego is transported back to his childhood by a classic dish that celebrates summer’s concurrent bounty of zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes. Those same ingredients transport James Laird, executive chef and co-owner of Restaurant Serenade in Chatham, back to the lessons he learned in the early days of his culinary career. Fleur de Provence is his homage to that beloved peak-of-summer triad—and to the seasonally driven, geographically defined cooking of France.
The flower-shaped pinwheel of sliced vegetables, which he serves as a special summer appetizer, is a variation on a dish Laird learned to make as a young chef working in Provence. In his revised version, he shrunk the size of the dish from a single large “flower” to individual florets. And he introduced olives, another staple ingredient in southern French cuisine. Where he remained true to the original Provençal dish is his requirement that it be made only when the vegetables are at their seasonal peak at local farms. For Laird, experiencing the deep commitment that the French have to local, seasonal ingredients was a revelation.
“I was 20, and anything you do when you’re young, you always remember it. I thought it was just amazing,” Laird says. “They only use guinea hens and pheasants in November and December. Strawberries, it was May and June. Asparagus was April, May and June. They just didn’t use them other than that. That was really one of those ‘aha’ moments as a young chef.”
Fleur de Provence begins with slices of eggplant, zucchini and tomato. Laird adjusts the thickness of the slices based on the water content of each vegetable, which determines the cooking time for each. The goal is to have all three vegetables finish cooking at the same time. Tomato slices are the thickest and the eggplant slices are the thinnest. The thickness of the zucchini sits between the two. Laird doesn’t have specific varieties of eggplant, tomato and zucchini that he recommends for this recipe. Ideally, however, the three vegetables are of similar diameter so they will roll neatly into a flower. The slices are laid out on a parchment-lined sheet pan in rows of alternating vegetables—zucchini, eggplant, tomato, zucchini, eggplant, tomato, etc. —with the slices overlapping by about half. Once they are laid out, each row gets painted with olive oil to keep the vegetables from burning. After being seasoned with salt and pepper, they are slow roasted to release the natural sugars and concentrate the flavors.
Once the roasted vegetables have cooled, Laird adds a personal touch by drizzling tapenade onto each row. “When I’m using zucchini and tomatoes, I think, ‘where do they come from?’” Laird says. “They come from the south of France. What else do you put in things that come from the south of France? Olives, olive oil, fresh herbs, capers—anything from the sun. That’s how I bring all my dishes together. It’s really the geography of where the ingredients come from.”
Each row is then rolled up and stood on its end. The flower is formed by pressing the base together while loosening the top to open the petals. Fleur de Provence is served at room temperature on a bed of arugula. Laird suggests serving it alongside seared tuna or roasted chicken. Or alone with a bit of basil oil and fresh herbs. Laird marvels at how much easier it now is to buy fresh ingredients locally. “Years ago, there weren’t farmers’ markets in New Jersey, so I would travel twice a week to Union Square Market. You had to leave early in the morning because of the traffic, so I would see the New Jersey farmers in front of me going through the Holland Tunnel,” Laird says. “Now those farmers have their own farmers’ markets in New Jersey that they go to.
“Our restaurant, which has been in business for 20 years, is busier than ever,” he adds. “People just want to eat fresh food. They want to know where it comes from. They want antibiotic-free, hormone-free—and that is everything that we do.”
6 Roosevelt Ave., Chatham