Imagine the response one might receive from a second-grade lad or lass if asked to guess what “ratatouille” means. My own field of misconceptions includes thinking that ratatouille originated in Italy. Turns out, the dish is French, generally believed to have taken shape in and around Nice in Southern France in the late 1700s.
In the vernacular of those days, ratatouille indicated a coarse stew. For poor farmers of the time and place, that coarse stew was a meatless dish made of summer vegetables. Only later, in the 1930s, did the recipe solidify around a set array of fresh vegetables, cooked in a precise way to maintain distinctive flavors and textures within the stew. For Chef Laurent Degois of Chez Renee, following the classic French method produces delicate flavors and subtle texture differences that are well worth the time and care taken in the kitchen.
“Ratatouille is eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, peppers—red, green, yellow, it doesn’t really matter—onions, and a tomato base (that acts as a binder for the stew). The tomato sauce, I cook a long time. Start with Roma tomatoes, peel the tomatoes, and with some onions cook them for an hour and a half; I add vegetable broth if I need to, to keep it moist. It takes time to get the sauce to be good, rich and thick the way it should be,” he said.
“Ratatouille, you don’t just throw this (dish) together, because the texture of the eggplant is not the same as the texture of the zucchini; you want to keep the crunch (of the zucchini).” To that end, Degois said this: “The eggplant, to cook it needs a lot of (olive) oil, and when you sauté, you get some color on the eggplant” which produces a distinctive flavor.
“I sauté every vegetable one by one. The vegetables are cooked in olive oil, no butter. I season with herbs de Province, which adds to the flavor of the dish. We serve the ratatouille as a side dish, and even people who don’t like vegetables, they eat this one,” he claimed.
Once the vegetables are sautéed, all are combined with the tomato sauce, and briefly warmed together, thus maintaining the subtleties of taste and texture of the individual vegetables in the stew. For the record, ratatouille may be served warm, at room temperature and even cold, depending on the occasion or meal it accompanies.
We tried a generous portion of Degois’ ratatouille, as a side for both a fish and a beef dish, and it is wonderfully tasty. A diner easily may pick out the individual veggies and Degois is correct in saying that the textures and flavor profiles are discernible. For me, the complexity and care cooked into this dish at Chez Renee make it special — a must-try. For Jewish diners-out who lean vegetarian and dine kosher style, this ratatouille could be an entrée instead of a side — it is that good. A few chunks of French bread with butter, a cool, crisp white wine, and you are set.
Another classic menu item we discussed on this visit was steak frites, or steak with French fries for we Midwest meat-and-potato types. In this case, the steak is special. The beef is raised on a farm near Lake of the Woods outside Westerville, Ohio, northeast of Columbus, so, a regional supplier perhaps 110 miles from Chez Renee. What makes the beef, and the source, special is the method of animal husbandry employed. According to its website, the farm produces Waygu beef of the type formerly only available from cattle operations in Japan, which is half a world away from Old Milford. Sakura Waygu Farms is the name of the supplier, which is a member of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association.
“Yes, Waygu beef; we do the steak frites and the beef bourguignonne with this (beef),” Degois said. Waygu cattle are raised in a way that adds “marbling” to the meat, thus producing more succulent, tender cuts of beef, especially noticeable in steaks.
The Waygu steak at Chez Renee is grilled, then sliced and assembled on a plate with a side of French fries. “Then I do a shallot sauce (for the steak), a reduction of red wine and butter, but for Jewish diners (wanting to maintain kosher style dietary practices), we serve the steak frites without the sauce,” he said, adding that the steak is mouthwatering either way.
Degois wanted diners-out to know that Chez Renee has reduced its service hours a bit during the pandemic, saying: “The weekend we are doing better; we see some customers come back, since they are vaccinated now. We are seeing people wanting to go out and eat in a restaurant again, so, the business is good on the weekend; but could be better during the week, and even on the weekend, it could be better, but things, they are getting better,” Degois said, encouraging more people to visit the restaurant.
See you soon at Chez Renee!
Chez Renée French Bistrot
233 Main Street
Milford, OH 45150