By David Nelson / Photos by Kate and Michael Auda
t 11:30 a.m., hours before dinner service commences at La Jolla's new Bijou French Bistro, Shaun Gethin is dressed for the role of Chef de Cuisine ("Kitchen Chief"), an immaculate white apron tied neatly around the waist of his equally spotless chef's coat.
The look is French classic, and the rule in the best kitchens - the kind that earn stars and diamonds, and brew sauces that make critics swoon - is that this snowy suit will remain unstained through a day and night spent among boiling pots, sizzling sauté pans and roasting ducks that spit grease in all directions. It signals Gethin's focus on presenting irreproachable cuisine to diners who have the bucks and sophistication to enjoy it.
The 33 year-old St. Louis native has never crossed the Atlantic to visit the birthplace of the coq au vin, goat cheese quiche and steak tartare that, at Bijou, taste the same as in chic Paris bistros, but he's got the techniques and flavors down cold. Like many chefs, Gethin started working at restaurants in his teens, at an Italian place in St. Louis; but unlike most, he didn't start his career washing dishes. That enchanting job waited until he combined daytime classes at San Francisco's California Culinary Academy with nights at super-chef Gary Danko's star-studded temple of fine dining.
"I worked the entire time I was in school," Gethin says. "I wanted to go to a higher level of cuisine, French cuisine, so I went to Gary Danko several times and asked him for a job. When he finally hired me, I had to wash dishes for a month before he would allow me to peel vegetables and roast bones [for stock bases]."
If much of Gethin's story sounds like the plot of the film Ratatouille, it's because the movie was scripted to recreate the details and routines of traditional French restaurants.
"To do well, you have to put in the hours," he says. "I like the rigor of the restaurant business, the day-in/day-out of always doing the same thing, but always looking to do it better. And I like the structure of a classic kitchen. There's a hierarchy: Chef, Chef de Cuisine, Sous Chef, Chefs de Partie [chefs of various cooking stations], and commis, the lowly grunts who do much of the work."
Gethin's ascent to near the summit of this pyramid came from spending a dozen years at three top-rated restaurants: Gary Danko, Restaurant Alex at The Wynn in Las Vegas, and Addison at the Grand Del Mar, which is owned by billionaire Papa Doug Manchester, who also owns Bijou French Bistro.
"Addison was my third five-star restaurant," says Gethin, matter-of-factly, making a remarkable statement many chefs would envy as greenly as they do Gethin's wizardry with seemingly simple dishes like oeufs mayonnaise (eggs in mayonnaise, bewitched by culinary magic).
Widely regarded as the best dining room in San Diego County, Addison is helmed by Chef William Bradley, who is Bijou's culinary director and has mentored Gethin over the last six years. "Everything really stems from Addison," says Gethin of his current professional status. "I started as poissoniere [seafood chef ], and worked my way up to sous chef. At Addison, you take advice and criticism, and instruction in William's philosophy of how a kitchen runs. And to be there, you have to have a great palate. It's the same here. Everything is about taste and respect for the product. What we do is extremely focused, and we take pride in what we do."
In St. Louis, his family dined out once a week, which Gethin says ignited his fascination with the restaurant business. Now, he dines at home on days off. As the father of four, with a fifth child due in September, he says, "At home, my wife is the chef, for sure. She's a great cook." As she should be, since they met at cooking school, and she held professional positions until they started their family. Does he hope his children will follow their parents into the kitchen?
"I will support whatever they want to do," Gethin says, but it's obvious he has thought it over. "If my kids say to me, 'I'll either go to Harvard or cooking school,' I'll probably steer them to Harvard."
ADDISON DEL MAR
5200 Grand del Mar Way, Carmel Valley
BIJOU FRENCH BISTRO
1205 Prospect St., La Jolla