OC With A French Twist

Pascal Olhats

Pascal Olhats

written by Robyn Wyman-dill
It was supposed to be a much shorter stay for Normandy-born, Chef Pascal Olhats, who paid a visit to Orange County over 30 years ago, and never looked back – pioneering an under-developed culinary scene into the realm of excellence with signature dishes like – seabass au thym – while remaining true to French classics like – Normandy tart tatin and salade lyonnaise. Fast-forward to April 23, when The Newport Beach Film Festival presents an insider’s perspective from ‘our man with panache’ with the debut of La Tradition, a documentary biopic, tracing the evolution of Chef Olhats’ influence on the fine dining scene here. His narrative is the kind of stuff the ‘American Dream’ is made of.

Raised on butter croissants and bistro fare, living on the French-German border, I paid a visit to Orange County over eight years ago, never expecting to find – authentic French chefs in American-style strip malls – serving French food in bistro-style restaurants. Restaurants that can deliver the same subtle flavors and refined tastes found in bistros and cafes in France – over 5,000 miles away. But I did and it is because Pascal Olhats was such a game-changer.

Pascal, who was raised in Rouen near Dieppe, spent just four years working in the kitchens of Le Meridien hotel in Newport Beach, Piret’s at South Coast Plaza and Chanteclair in Irvine, before he debuted his first restaurant, Tradition, in 1988. His resume and reputation for exquisite food would continue to grow, placing him at the helm of the very best local restaurants – Brasserie Pascal, French 75, and Savannah Chop House and later at Cafe Jardin and Tea Garden Creperie at Sherman Gardens & Library in Newport Beach.

When I was a teenager, I checked out a French cookbook from our library to learn how to cook. Falling hopelessly in love with the art of cooking. Which inspired me to create a master plan, apprenticing in the kitchen, to save enough money to attend a cooking school in Dieppe.

As ‘proof is in the pudding’ Pascal would keep proving he has the Midas in terms of food, increasing the headcount of restaurants in comfy settings infused with continental character – under his management. As every new branch on the Pascal restaurants tree grew, it continued to bring something uniquely special to the table.

And, then there’s the accolades.

Pascal has been credited with introducing the olive-oil-centric cooking of southern France here and making macarons long before they became trendy. He prohibited smoking in his flagship restaurant long before smoking in restaurants was banned in California. He even went into specialty coffees.

The year, 2014, would mark a new beginning and a major turning point in Pascal’s life, however, when he decided to downsize and take a new direction. Pascal’s bakery, cafe and gourmet deli market in San Juan Capistrano opened the same year.

The 3,200 square foot space is nestled in native shrubs and borders a rambling country road across from the gentrified, Marbella Country Club with a menu that offers croissants, butternut squash soup, quiche, bread pudding, caviar, panini, cheese plates, salads, poached salmon, lamb, paella and a very special Macanese egg tart – for dining in or takeout. (A word about the very special Macanese egg tart. As one of two American chefs invited by the Macau Bureau of Tourism to experience – first hand – their cultural pot of ethnic foods, he was inspired to create the Macanese egg tart.) He now partners with Manassero Farms, producers of farm-to-table produce, to bring breakfast, dinner, cooking classes, and special events here – often showcasing guest chefs. Pascal’s Catering continues to offer full-service catering in Southern California.

The documentary, named after Pascal’s first restaurant, takes us on a journey into the mercurial world of cuisine through the eyes of Pascal and his colleagues and illuminates those rare instances where cultures collide, careers are made or crushed, and passions play out through a common love of their craft.

The screening is being held at Island Cinema, 401 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, on Saturday at 11:15AM. Reservations are recommended at www.newportbeachfilmfest.com. This marks the first documentary for Grub Tribe team and Mycena Productions,  who specialize primarily in culinary, restaurant and chef demo videos and produce short video interviews with local food businesses.

Stay tuned.

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