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One on One: Dave Racicot

By James Wright
June 01, 2009

If you want an honest answer about the Pittsburgh dining scene, ask Dave Racicot. Just be prepared, you might not like the answer. If you want to taste the talents of a driven, award-winning chef, take a vacation at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort deep in the western Pennsylvania woods where Racicot plies his culinary craft.

But if you want to compliment (or criticize) the chef after your 18-course extravaganza, forget it. Racicot doesn't want to know who's in the dining room - even if Tiger Woods came to play at the resort's two championship golf courses - or what they think of his food. If Racicot thinks it's good, then that's plenty good enough.

Racicot has a dogged determination that far exceeds his 30 years, not to mention a biting sense of humor. And humble he is not - Racicot is supremely confident in his abilities and proudly speaks of his numerous successes. However, the chef de cuisine at Lautrec, one of the nation's most acclaimed private dining rooms, is far from resting on his laurels. He wants the world to know his name and won't be content until it does.

That might not take very long. Lautrec is one of only a handful of U.S. restaurants that can boast both AAA 5-diamond and Mobil 5-star ratings, the highest of praises from two of the leading travel and hospitality guides. Those elite distinctions are precisely what Racicot had envisioned when he took the reins at Nemacolin's flagship restaurant in early 2007.

The Nemacolin resort is as ambitious as Racicot. Besides golf, the 3,000-acre resort also features a 140-acre shooting academy, an off-road driving school and an Orvis fly fishing lodge. Founded by Joseph A. Hardy, founder and CEO of 84 Lumber Co., the sprawling resort includes a luxurious spa and an art collection consisting of nearly 1,000 original pieces valued at more than $45 million, some of which don the walls of Lautrec, one of several restaurants on site. Nemacolin guests not only come for a taste of the outdoors or for head-to-toe pampering, they also get to choose from a wide range of dining opportunities.

I caught up with Racicot in mid-April, on the day Lautrec hung up its Mobil 5-star plaque.

WRIGHT: What seafood 
is featured at Lautrec?

RACICOT: Three kinds of caviar, including spoonbill caviar for my White Chocolate and Caviar dish. I was the first one to do this dish, and now everyone's doing it; mine's still the best. White chocolate is sweet and creamy with a nice mouthfeel. The caviar is briny for a sweet-and-salty thing - two tastes people can recognize but not the flavors they might expect.

We're also always doing langoustines, cod and tuna. We have three tasting menus featuring 18 courses.

What's your favorite 
seafood to work with?

Seafood, in general, is without a doubt my favorite thing to cook. My favorite, which I rarely use, is scallops: Hot grapeseed oil, browning beautifully on both sides, a little garlic in the pan until they turn golden brown - no other piece of fish does that. I love to just watch them cook.

 

What's your favorite seafood to eat?

I don't really eat it much. I'm a redneck; I like cheeseburgers, man. If I go out to eat, I'll get the tasting menu. I'll never say no to what the chef serves, I'll eat every bit of it.

 

You started out washing dishes at a Holiday Inn - does that earn greater respect in the kitchen?

My story is no different from anyone else's. I'm certain Eric Ripert (chef at Le Bernardin in New York) didn't start out where he is. The control and respect in the kitchen comes from not necessarily who I am, but from work ethic - sometimes my sous chef will just stop and watch me work. I don't even notice, because I have an ability to shut everything off and just focus. That's probably where the respect comes from. They see that this is more important to me than anything else.

 

How many seafood 
vendors do you use?

Just Browne Trading Co. (in Portland, Maine); won't buy seafood from anyone else. We're not super huge; we don't buy 600 pounds of bass a week. They can easily meet my demand. I'm kind of weird about ordering seafood from other places. Once you trust your seafood purveyor, you trust him. You can buy meat from anybody.

 

What's your seafood philosophy?

No farmed salmon or any farmed fish, really, except Kona kampachi or loup de mer. We can't use products that aren't raised properly. More important, though, we try to source the best, freshest things possible, all the time. I refuse to use frozen seafood, unless it's lobster or shrimp. I only care if something line-caught is better than something dragged with a net. If it's better, it's better.

 

Your restaurant bills itself 
as the night's entertainment. 
Is that a lot to live up to?

Living up to the demands of the average guest - if we don't do that, we're a failure. We have to live up to something so much bigger than just making the guest happy. It has to be the best dining experience they've ever had. It has to be. It's unbelievable, the pressure. I have a hard time sleeping at night.

 

Do you ever visit the dining room?

No. I don't want to know who's there; I don't want to hear from them. I'm not good at receiving compliments or criticism. My place is in the kitchen; I feel 
naked out there.

 

How high do you set your sights?

When I first set foot in here, I told [the owners] my goal was to be a AAA 5-diamond restaurant. It was something they wanted for 10 years - we did it in nine months. We changed everything. The service team, who's been here forever, I told them we were going to do it together. It really showed us anything is possible. I said, 'Congratulate yourselves, but we're not done; it's not good enough.' My inability to be satisfied really drives everybody. I care enough and am passionate enough to make it happen.

 

What's next? Fame on TV?

Hell no. While this restaurant has the same awards as some of the restaurants I admire and while it's rated among the top restaurants in the world - until Lautrec and French Laundry, or until Thomas Keller and Dave Racicot are said in the same sentence, I'm not done. This is way too important.

 

Associate Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com

 

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