He’s been honing his craft in the United States for over 40 years, and his restaurant has been a culinary staple on Camelback Road for over 30 years. He has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation and has received a plethora of awards for his accomplishments. Arcadia News checked in with Chef Vincent Guerithault to see what makes this chef one of the most well-known in the Valley.
Where are you from?
I am from Provence in the south of France. I moved to Chicago in 1976 and to Phoenix in 1979. I had a job opportunity to work in a suburb of Chicago. I thought I was only going to be there for six months and ended up staying. After the blizzard of ’79, I decided to move west.
How did you get into the restaurant business?
I got into the industry 50 years ago, in 1969, as an apprentice. I worked from the bottom up. I’ve always enjoyed cooking, and I wanted to continue my craft.
Who first taught you how to cook?
My mom. Our favorite things to cook were simple recipes: roasted chicken with mashed potatoes on Sundays. Simple but wonderful.
Did you go to school for cooking?
I didn’t go to cooking school. I dropped out [of school] at 16 and started an apprenticeship. My teachers started when they were 13 and 14 back in the 1940s. I started in the late 60s. But you want to start younger. There are a lot of people who drop out because they can’t stand the heat. But, for example, if you want to be a swimmer and become Michael Phelps, you have to swim 10 miles in the morning and 10 miles at night. You start when you’re seven years old. It’s not easy, but if you start too late it will be more challenging because you have other things in your life.
What is the inspiration behind the dishes at Vincent on Camelback?
I was trained in the scope of French classic cooking. After I moved to Phoenix, I had an opportunity to open a restaurant at Pinnacle Peak called Oaxaca in 1980. I was sharing a kitchen – there was Mexican and French cooking, and I was in charge of the French side. Just by looking at what they were doing, my wife and I decided that when we opened Vincent’s we were going to do something different. With my background in French, we decided to add the Southwest.
What’s one thing that sets your restaurant apart from the competition?
There are a lot of choices [of restaurants], and we’ve been open for 35 years. It’s just my wife and I; we don’t have any backers or partners and we’ve managed to stay in business all these years.
It seems to me that it’s becoming more difficult, when you look at “competition,” with the type of restaurants opening up. It looks more challenging [to open a restaurant], more so than it was for us 35 years ago. For one couple to open a restaurant without any partners; we feel very fortunate that we manage all of our business on our own – and very fortunate that we are still married to each other.
What is your signature dish?
The smoked salmon quesadillas and the duck tamale, which has been on the menu the longest.
What item, if you took it off the menu, would guests be upset about?
Our rack of lamb with the spicy pepper jelly.
What is the most challenging dish you’ve had to cook?
If you like what you do, if you like cooking, some dishes may take a little more time than others. Something simple is not always simple – it can be a little challenging to make it perfect. The more sophisticated the dish, the more likely you are to screw up. Sometimes it’s better to stay simple – at least in the French way of cooking.
It depends on timing and when it’s being served. When the restaurant is full, if the dish requires a lot of technique, then it can be challenging.
What is the most challenging part of being a chef?
It’s challenging depending on what your life looks like. Being a chef, part of a couple who owns a restaurant, and having kids – there’s a lot going on. It’s challenging to balance your life. If what happens at home affects what happens at your job, it’s not going to help you much.
What is one item that you can’t live without in your kitchen?
Wine! Sometimes I cook with it. And knives. Without knives, what are you going to use?
The farmers market that you host has been going on for more than 20 years. To what do you attribute its success?
At the beginning, we wanted to do something like the little markets that you find in the villages in France. It took us a few years to understand how to make it a success. We also wanted to make it a social meeting place that people could enjoy when the weather is perfect.
What’s unique about it is all the different food choices that we have. It’s almost an al fresco dining experience. We have a paella pan, pizza trucks, pasta, crepes…people can come and sit and get food but we also have market vendors, where people can shop. There’s also live music. It’s very social and unique.
Who inspires you?
In cooking, I admire and learn a lot from Wolfgang Puck. Business-wise, I would say my former boss in Chicago. Also, my teachers and chefs from when I first started 50 years ago.
You have a long list of accolades. Which one makes you feel the proudest?
The James Beard one was nice. I’ve been nominated many times, but received [the award] 27 years ago. But every day is a new day, and we are proud of what we have achieved as a team. Some staff members have been with us for more than 30 years. Every morning when we open the restaurant we have to start over again. If you hear something that was said about you that was nice – it’s nice, but we still have to keep going.
Around 2004-05, there was a British restaurant magazine that rated Vincent’s number 24 on the list of the 50 best restaurants in the world. We were thinking, “What day were they here?” It was really cool.
You have three sons. What do their career paths look like in terms of your industry?
Well, they know how to cook! My oldest is an engineer in Dallas, the middle is getting his master’s in neuroscience, and the youngest graduated in sports marketing and works at Ability360. They all like to cook and they help with the catering a lot. None of them want to take the reins.
What advice has stayed with you throughout the years?
I read once that Bill Gates said, “Success is a lousy teacher.” Because it makes successful people think they’re never going to lose. And that’s very true. Wolfgang Puck, who I’ve known for 50 years, told me once, “If you’ve made as many mistakes as I did, you would be as good as I am.” You learn from your mistakes, more than your success.
What would readers be surprised to know about you?
About a year ago, I started taking piano lessons, because I like challenges. If you think being in a kitchen is challenging, learn how to play classic piano. It makes your brain work. After one hour, you’re worn out. I’m also a certified scuba diver. I remember diving in the lakes on the golf courses in Pinnacle Peak and grabbing all of the golf balls!
For more: vincentsoncamelback.com.