Cafe Lafayette Offers French Cuisine with a California Twist
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From Paris, With Love
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Tamara Orth
Oh, what could have been, had Frederic Imbert called his Exeter restaurant by its patron’s full name? Café Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier just doesn’t have the same ring or simplicity as Café Lafayette, the name by which most Americans know the French aristocrat and military officer who fought alongside colonials during the American Revolutionary War. By using the shorter title Café Lafayette, Imbert ensured that his customers would only have to worry about one French mouthful: the cuisine, which, like his café’s namesake, is downright revolutionary.
Imbert opened Café Lafayette last year, but the restaurant was really two decades in the making. “I came to Visalia about 20 years ago to open a little French café,” says Imbert. “It didn’t work out but I ended up staying here – you know, life, got married.”
For the next 20 years, Imbert worked between restaurants as a sous and executive chef, opened a French bakery in Hanford, then partnered as the chef at Monet’s in Exeter. And while Imbert might have preferred speedier success with Café Lafayette so many years ago, it was a providential deferral that allowed the Frenchman to grow as a chef, and grow with the tastes of Central Valley.
Imbert hails from Evian, a city near the French Alps, the same that gives its name to the famous bottled water. But generally, the French are better known more for their cuisine than their water, and Imbert admits when it comes to food, “it’s just in my blood.”
“My parents owned a restaurant in Paris, so I pretty much grew up in a restaurant,” continues Imbert, who also worked in a restaurant in London before coming to the United States.
So Paris, London, Exeter: the three great cities where Imbert got in his culinary kicks. And Imbert says France, continental Europe, and California now influence his menu.
“I had to adapt because of taste buds,” says Imbert, adding that since he first arrived in California 20 years ago, “you can now find good bread, good cheese, and oh, the wine,” he muses. “Now the wine is incredible.” But asked which he prefers, he says, “I’m going to say both.”
It may be that more Americans are traveling, which
Imbert believes accounts for the widened palate, the larger appetite for diverse foods. When people travel, says Imbert, “they want to eat what they’ve tasted over there. I remember 20 years ago I was not able to find a cheese plate, like I’m doing right now at Café Lafayette, with some stinky good French cheese. Now people crave for it.”
“My cooking has changed a little bit,” Imbert adds. “I’ve listened to my customers, and get as much feedback as I can.”
There is a culinary balance between every cook and his customers, which is especially true for Imbert, who must walk the line between classic French cuisine and California tastes. But by providing a menu that fuses classic French recipes with what Imbert calls “a California twist,” Café Lafayette has quickly made a name for itself in the valley.
It’s not always easy, he says with a laugh. “You can have people who say, ‘Oh my God, this is not what I like, what I’m used to.’ For instance, I do a classic French onion soup and I had some customers not long ago who said to me, ‘This is not what French onion soup should be.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s because you’re used to something more like a broth.”
Imbert relies upon traditional French and family recipes, including French methods of seasoning, as well as local produce to create a well-rounded menu including everything from Spanish paella to an American chicken pot pie, with of course a couple variants of the croquet monsieur in between.
Like the French military officer Lafayette, Imbert has found his home here in America, though the only war he is waging is gastronomical: A battle not for the hearts and minds of his customers, but for their stomachs and palates. And if the name of his café suggests anything at all, expect Imbert’s relationship with Exeter to be both very long
Café Lafayette • 151 S. E St., Exeter • (559) 592-9463
Tuesday - Saturday: 11am – 2:30pm, 5:30 – 9:30pm
Sunday: 9am – 2pm, closed Mondays
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