Chef Dan Honors the Legacy of the Great Chef Henri Bergmans
Chef Dan’s mentor in the culinary world, Chef Henri Bergmans, recently passed away at the age of 84.
Here, we asked Chef Dan to reflect on his close friend and mentor to provide us with a little bit deeper understanding of Chef Henri’s prolific career, how he helped to change the landscape of the culinary industry, and how he changed the life of our own Chef Dan in the process.
Tell us about your history with Chef Henri. Where did you meet, when did you work together, and why was he an important influence to you?
I met Chef Henri in 1981 when he owned and operated La Maison Henri in Southern California.
At that time, all I knew was that Chef Henri was a Belgian chef that originally immigrated to the US at 23 years old. He decided to immigrate State-side because a US-based restaurateur tried Chef Henri’s local cuisine in Belgium and liked the food so much that he was hired on the spot to come to be the executive chef at a prestigious Beverly Hills restaurant.
La Maison Henri was a classic French Belgian restaurant with a fantastic, classic menu that everyone loved. After several years, when the restaurant sold, Chef Henri and I accepted roles at different restaurants, but we stayed in touch throughout. After a bit of prodding, I agreed to join Chef Henri two years later at a Continental Restaurant in La Jolla. Things were peaceful until Chef Henri then took a role to be in charge of all daily kitchen activities at the very high-end Fairbanks Country Club, and took me with him to be his executive sous chef.
His kitchen was a space for learning, maximum effort and creativity for all those involved. We stayed committed to high quality and classical cuisine. While we fought hard (admittedly, we had several yelling matches in our kitchen), our passion for our craft became our staple and it made our cuisine even more well-known.
Unfortunately, right as we got into a solid groove, Chef Henri had his first heart attack. As Chef Henri had difficulties with his health, I would take over the kitchen - thus began my role as temporary Executive Chef, which would continue for many years.
In our several years working together in the kitchen, Chef Henri taught me many things, not the least of which was to NEVER compromise on quality and to always prioritize the foundations of your work. He had a career that every young chef would covet (other than his health problems), but he taught many young chefs the foundations of a successful kitchen in the process.
What was Chef Henri most known for in the culinary world?
Supreme execution of classical French cuisine.
At that time, much of the creativity in cuisine that was seen in American restaurants was actually thanks to European-born chefs (Chef Henri included). He was one of the many European chefs that helped the birth of the classically-trained American chef!
Is there a specific memory of Chef Henri that most sticks out in your mind?
There are actually two memories that really stick out, one that I was present for and one that I was not.
Firstly, Chef Henri was five years old when the Nazis rolled through Belgium and ten years old when the Allies rolled through town. He once told me that the s at the end of his last name likely saved his life because it showed that he wasn’t of Jewish heritage. I can’t imagine being that young and having to literally deal with a life-or-death situation, and I think that it perhaps led to at least some of his discipline in putting his work first and staying so committed to his career.
The memory that I was present for was during the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. We were honored to host the 1984 Olympic Equestrian event at our own Fairbanks Country Club! Prince Philip and Cary Grant were just a couple of the many famous names that were present at the one-day equestrian event, which was held at the club and was the only Olympic event held in San Diego County. Princess Anne was participating in the event, but I still clearly recall more security being focused on the horses than on the humans!
How has Chef Henri changed the culinary landscape for you personally?
While I had skills when I met Chef Henri, he re-taught me how to do the basic elements of cooking to a high level of execution without compromise. In so many kitchens, including where I had worked previously, chefs learned how to cook, but rushed the process and didn’t have the strong, classic, cooking foundation - one that I’m grateful to have deeply developed under his tutelage. I’ve built my entire career, including teaching at The Seasoned Chef, upon the skills Chef Henri taught me in the kitchen!