New Kid on the Block 

Chez Philippe's new chef mixes French classics with Asian elegance.

Twenty-six-year-old Reinaldo Alfonso, who recently replaced the celebrated chef Jose Gutierrez at The Peabody's grand eatery Chez Philippe, grew up in a busy Cuban kitchen in Miami. It was a flavorful world that revolved around good food and frequent family get-togethers. Inspired by the women in his life, his grandmother and mother, and "the whole Latin community," he became fascinated with kitchen life and the special relationships that form over cutting boards and boiling pots. Every major event (and most of the minor ones) in the young chef's life revolved around food.

"The family got together all the time, and we would cook and eat all day," he says, allowing that Sunday feasts were particularly memorable.

"We always had rice and beans, tostones [fried plantains], vacca frita, which is different kinds of shredded beef, or maybe a chicken fricassee," Alfonso says. "But no matter what we had, the table was never set until there was a good bottle of wine and lots of Cuban bread on the table. The wine and the bread, that was my dad's thing. There had to be lots of bread for him to soak up all of the juices with."

When he was 8 years old, the budding cook sat down beside his grandmother who was turning stale bread into pudding. He asked if he could help.

"She did the cutting. I did all the mixing and all the other messy work that kids love," Alfonso says of his first kitchen duties. At 14, he took a job in a Spanish restaurant in Miami, washing dishes, mopping floors, peeling potatoes, and taking careful note of how the food was prepared.

"I started early, and I'm glad that I did," Alfonso says, holding up his hands as if to say "look where it got me."

The journey from his grandmother's kitchen to the revered galley of Chez Philippe wasn't terribly long. Alfonso's commitment to fine dining and his desire to learn took him from Florida to New York and from the tutelage of one great chef to another. Although you can still hear Havana in his voice, Alfonso's food took on a decidedly French accent.

"My food is 95 percent French, and my presentations are French," he says. "But I use a lot of Asian ingredients -- Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, and even Indian -- to heighten the flavor. I try to blend a little bit of everything I've learned, but I focus on simplicity and try to highlight ingredients for what they are. People are starting to realize that you don't need to mess with food too much. They are coming back to the classics because the classic way of preparing food has been lost in the last few years."

Alfonso likes simple pleasures. He likes to buy a pack of mini-Oreos, pour them in a bowl of milk, and eat them like cereal. He loves to fish and to scuba dive. There was even a time when his love for the water led him to consider a career as a marine biologist.

"I love fish. I love seafood. And I'm really happy about flying in the best, freshest seafood from all over the world," Alfonso says. "Everything has to be extremely fresh and extremely well-done. I'm a stickler for details."

At present he's most excited about the yellowtail tuna -- a buttery, fat-laden fish he's shipping fresh daily from Japan. But that's only the beginning.

"I will be using sea urchin soon," Alfonso says. "I'm doing things slowly. I can't bring out certain ingredients that might scare people off right away."

With sweet and spicy appetizers like the "Lobster Cigar" (a spring roll stuffed with Maine lobster and daikon radish with Thai chili sauce) and entrées like roasted wild striped bass with peekytoe crab and leek ragout, Chez Philippe's new menu already smells like a fresh ocean breeze. Steaks, ribs, and a miso-brazed lamb shank with cauliflower couscous and haricot verts (green beans) ensure that meat lovers won't be disappointed either.

Chez Philippe's desserts include ginger, pistachio, and star anise crème brûlée, an apple tart, and a banana spring roll with a heart of peanut and chocolate, as well as a variety of homemade ice creams.

"Over the past four years I've turned down several positions because I didn't feel like I was ready for them," says the young chef. "But this time it was different. This time there were more people motivating me to do this. There's a little bit of weight on my shoulders, but I'm confident in what I do."

Chez Philippe in The Peabody (529-4188)

davis@memphisflyer.com

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