For the longest time, Chef Tony Esnault couldn’t eat cherries from the market. Growing up in the Loire Valley in France, he had plucked the tangy fruit straight off the trees that lined the wheat fields on his grandparents’ farm. After tasting the incomparable vibrancy of just-picked fruit, nothing else could come close. While the Frenchman has since reconnected with cherries, the lessons he learned on that farm, from the perfection of a freshly laid egg to the exquisiteness of a courgette at the height of season, continue to influence and inspire his cooking today.
When he was 8 years old, Esnault knew he wanted to become a chef. After four years of classical training at the François Rabelais culinary school in Lyon, he honed his craft at the one-Michelin-star Le Montparnasse 25, the two-Michelin-star Carré des Feuillants and the three-Michelin-star Auberge de L’Ill in Alsace. But when he began working with Alain Ducasse in 1996 at the legendary Louis XV restaurant in Monte Carlo, the then 25 year old found a mentor. “First and foremost, he taught me how to maintain flavors without transforming the ingredients too much,” Esnault says. “There’s a radiance to food in its natural state that you don’t want to undermine.”
Elegance of flavor and artistic execution would become Esnault’s trademark in the United States. At the Ritz Carlton Boston, his reinvention of the hotel restaurant with innovative seasonal menus and wine and truffle dinners earned him the prestigious recognition of Best Hotel Chef of America in 2004 by Food & Wine magazine. The same year, the restaurant was awarded four AAA Diamonds and in 2005 four Mobil Stars followed.
Esnault reunited with his mentor in 2005, when he became executive chef at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House in New York City. While there, he garnered three Michelin stars and was named a “Rising Star” by StarChefs. In 2007, Esnault went on to open Adour with Ducasse at the St. Regis Hotel in New York, receiving an impressive three stars from The New York Times and two from The Michelin Guide.
In 2009, Esnault relocated to Los Angeles to take the helm at Patina in the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. While he had always relied on local and seasonal ingredients to create his dishes, the abundance of produce in Southern California provided him with a new wave of inspiration and reverence for fruits and vegetables. In her four-star review of Patina, Los Angeles Times critic S. Irene Virbila called the chef’s signature glazed vegetable mosaic “a breathtaking dish. What I love about [Esnault’s] food is its balance and grace. This is quietly confident cooking, delicious by any measure.”
Today Esnault continues to master that quietly confident cooking at Church & State, where he took over as executive chef this past January. Later this year, he plans to open his first restaurant, Spring, focusing on lighter French Mediterranean dishes and using only the freshest local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients, just as his grandparents did decades before. “Chefs can set an example,” Esnault says. “We need to pay greater attention to conscious ingredient sourcing and how varieties of species are preserved. Great quality food should encompass the entire chain, from purveyor to palate.”