By Bettina McBee | Photo by Manny Espinoza
Listening to Chef Jacques Zagouri speak, you can sense his love of culinary arts flowing from his voice. You can feel the joy that he feels when preparing exquisite entrées and mouthwatering desserts. Carmel’s beautiful landscape and fresh air reminds Zagouri of France. He was born in Normandy and raised in Nice. Mischievous in his youth, Zagouri was talented at driving his mother crazy. “I was a handful,” he admits. His father, searching for a solution to harness his son’s energy, asked a friend and restaurant owner for advice. The response: put him in the kitchen.
Immediately, Zagouri was mesmerized. Entertained by the dancing flames of the fire and delighted with the delectable smells of multiple flavors, his heartbeat to the rhythmic sounds of utensils stirring in the pots. Such a choreography was fascinating to Zagouri, and he was hooked. When his father asked him what he wanted to do with his life, he announced that he wanted to be a chef. He graduated from the Culinary High School in Nice and grew to become a celebrated master in culinary arts. His travels took him to Spain, where he learned of spices such as paprika, saffron, and parsley. He experimented with oregano, thyme, and cumin while living in Israel. While traditional French cuisine doesn’t call for many spices, Zagouri enjoys blending new flavors in with tradition.
“I love the freedom of being a chef,” he explains. “It’s the art of taking a variety of foods, cultures, and my personal experiences to create something new.” Zagouri’s career started 34 years ago, and over time, his talents have grown, as has his clientele. He’s dazzled prime ministers, presidents, world ambassadors, and celebrities with his culinary talents. Apparently, none of that has compared to preparing food in Carmel. “Carmel is paradise,” he beams, “the people of Carmel are very supportive.” When he served as executive chef for André’s Bouchée and Fandango, two popular restaurants on the Monterey Peninsula, he became a friend and cooking rock star to locals. It’s hard to differentiate which Zagouri likes more, cooking or people. Being surrounded by fresh produce from farmers markets and fish caught by local fishermen adds to the sustainability and nutritional value of his art. It’s no surprise that fish is his favorite dish. “I love whatever comes from the sea, especially shellfish,” he says.
His dedication to the community is reflected in his tireless involvement in local fundraisers such as Taste of Carmel, Pebble Beach Food & Wine, and the Big Sur Food & Wine Festival. Enjoyable selections from Zagouri’s traditional French cuisine include Brie en croute, Dungeness crab cake with lemon saffron, le filet boeuf au homard, duck liver, braised lamb shank with lime and maple syrup sauce with Moroccan couscous and roasted peanuts, and puff pastry-stuffed snail with demi-glace garlic butter. This is the cuisine that reminds him of home. “My mother is an excellent cook,” he says.
He seeks her advice when he has any questions while preparing a traditional French dish. She’ll tell him to use a little bit of this or a dash of that. But giving vague instructions is a trademark of many good cooks. And when Zagouri humbly asks her to be more specific in her measurements, she proudly reminds him that he is a world-class chef who possesses all the tools of the trade. For more information, visit Chef Zagouri at chefjac.com.