by: Pamela Najor, photography by: Nicole Bedard
Francis Layrle, the executive chef at Bezu in Potomac, Md., is most in his element on a rare day off, taking a relaxing Sunday stroll through the Dupont Circle farmers market visiting long-time friends and purveyors.
The farm-to-table concept is in Layrle’s blood, having been raised on a multiple-generation family farm in the Gascony region of southwestern France. His mother and brother-in-law still tend the land. Like his mother, grandfather and great-grandfather before him, Layrle began his love affair with farm-raised food before he could even walk the fields.
When his mother was 16 she secretly smuggled fresh food to the French resistance. Layrle at 16 took his food passion to culinary school, in Tarbes among the Pyrénées. While he learned traditional techniques from some of France’s finest chefs and restaurateurs, he already knew how to identify quality ingredients and understood how they should be grown. “Product is essential; nothing is as important. It is simple,” says Layrle, who has used as many as 40 independent purveyors to put a seasonal menu together at Bezu. His list of farmers is culled from nearly 50 years of tasting and testing from countless suppliers around Washington. “I simply could not do what I do without the chain of people it takes to produce every dish,” he says.
After 33 years as the French Embassy’s chef de cuisine, successfully catering to the refined palates of French ambassadors and their guests, Layrle has learned that every bite is personal. “Does the food speak to you? Do you like it? That is all that matters to me,” he says.
“Balance is essential,” he says, describing how to prepare the kohlrabi he picks up from The Farm at Sunnyside’s market stand. He samples the youngest leaf he can pluck; they give a more accurate reading of the sweetness of the bulb than the older leaves. With every taste at the market, a recipe leaps from his tongue. “Do not add too much vinegar” to the beet greens, he advises anyone within earshot as he takes a delicate handful for the simple salad he anticipates. Haricots verts should be “habillés” or dressed only lightly, Layrle says. “You have to leave intact the natural flavor of every product. If you do too much you are, like, wasting the product by disguising it within a mélange of other items.” Walking through the stalls, his eye is keen to subtle differences between rows and rows of containers of mushrooms. He points out samples that embody the phrase “fresh-picked” from those that appear repackaged, and whispers, “They are too perfect.”
Bezu completely overhauled its French/Asian fusion cuisine to offer Provencal/American when Layrle joined as chef last fall. Now, Eddie Benaim, owner of Bezu with his wife Lydia, and every Bezu staff member adhere to Layrle’s commitment to support local organic farmers as often as possible. Benaim describes Layrle as a humble perfectionist.
When he is not awaiting phone calls announcing that his choice products are ripe for delivery, Layrle is visiting his purveyors’ farms in Amish Country — Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. “I love working with every product. Right now I enjoy very much the fresh strawberries I get from the Path Valley Co-op in Greencastle, Pennsylvania,” he says. The soft-spoken Layrle works with these farmers at Path Valley, whom he affectionately calls former hippies “because of their quality, and because they need it. Greencastle is a very poor area of hard-working Amish families.”
Unlike the mass-produced, generic-tasting fruit found on supermarket shelves, farm food is unique, ripe for exceptional preparations, Layrle says. “For example, the pure strawberry flavor that comes from these small, very red strawberries also has a lack of sugar, so it allows me to play with it.” Layrle adorns the fruit with a slightly sweet granité of red wine and surrounds it with a coulis of puréed strawberries gently coated with a very special extra virgin olive oil from Mas du Castelas.
Layrle’s uncompromising approach to food belies a mellow, friendly spirit that allows him to build relationships with farmers such as David Ober and wife Sheilah Goodman of Cedarbrook Farm in Kearneysville, WVa. Ober, raised like Layrle on produce only grown in his mother’s garden, has the same reverence for great ingredients. He gives free roam to his Tamworth pigs, which feed on apples, acorns and other fare bartered from other organic farmers. The pigs cause no environmental degradation to land and water, and are slaughtered in the most humane way possible by local Mennonites.
Layrle says the bartering – “troc” in his native tongue – results in an exquisitely porky flavor, heightening other farm-raised products when they finally reach the plate together. One result is Layrle’s celebrated terrine de paté de campagne, a country-style paté made with the liver, shoulder and belly of Cedarbrook pigs and perfectly balanced against the earthiness of black trumpet mushrooms.
Ober left a career as a K Street litigator to become a pig farmer, and now finds himself catering to Layrle’s every porcine need. He is taking on the difficult task of raising Muscovy duck so that Layrle can further refine the flavors of his renowned terrine de foie gras, made from fresh duck liver with Armagnac.
Bezu aims to further drop its prices to respond to the struggling economy, while staying true to Layrle’s high quality. “It is a big challenge, but I have the passion,” he says.
Benaim says it’s more than a passion – it’s a commitment and skill level increasingly uncommon in the restaurant world. There are chefs, Benaim says, and then there are “the Francises of the world, who will prepare products from scratch, which means butchering a whole lamb, fish and other meats; preparing his own desserts all the way down to the foundation, the sauces, sorbets and ice creams; and even if the butter needs to be whipped, he insists on doing it himself to his own high standards and trains his assistants in the same fashion.”
This summer, Bezu is offering two tasting menus and hosts a happy hour featuring small plates every weekday evening from 5:00 to 6:30 p.m. Wine is half-price from Bezu’s cellar every Monday. Layrle also offers cooking classes.
9812 Falls Road
Potomac, MD 20854