A Conversation with Jerome Audureau and Frank Mentesana
Q: How did you each start cooking? When did you just know it would become a large part of your life?
Frank: I have been cooking for as long as I can remember. Food was everywhere in our family. We ate it, talked incessantly about it, grew it, shopped everywhere for it, and ate it again. My Italian grandmother lived in our house while I was growing up. She was the kind of grandmother who cooked every day. I loved to watch her. Then there was my Dad who loved to shop for food and would venture into other cuisines in addition to his native Italian. He roasted whole pigs on an open pit and baked clams in the ground. It was all fun for him.
Jerome: When I was a kid, I spend a lot of time looking at my mother in the kitchen cooking. Then when I was 6 years old I got a children’s cookbook for Christmas and every Wednesday I spent a lots of time trying those recipes.
Q: What do you love most about cooking?
Jerome: Cooking is a type of art. You can express yourself by mixing ingredients; if you are creative and have a good visual sensibility you can reach an incredible result. I like to cook for other people—it makes me feel like I’m sharing my creativity with them.
Q: How did you two become partners?
Frank: Jerome and I worked for a large French hotel company (Accor). As I was supposedly moving up the corporate ladder, I found myself spending more and more time in meetings…you know the kind behind closed doors, at a large conference table. I was 25 years old then and realized I was becoming less and less creative as I interacted less and less with customers. This was one of the things that attracted me to the business in the first place. So when Jerome and I had the idea of starting something of our own (no matter what it was), I thought it would be a good life change.
Q: When did you know that your café would be a success?
Jerome: Our first Saturday in business, we got discovered by Florence Fabricant, a writer for the New York Times Food Section. She did a write up on us the week after. From that point on we kept getting some other strong reviews, but I think we really knew that our café was a success after few people asked us if we would like to franchise “Once Upon a Tart.”
Frank: We always thought the café would work. We had prepared well for it. We attended small business classes, wrote a business plan, tested and re-tested recipes. I don’t think we ever for a moment thought “what if it doesn’t work?” We believed if we worked hard and kept at it, it would be a success. What we didn’t suspect was how quickly the business would take off. We had a great product, a wonderful store, good press and a lot of youthful energy.
Q: How did you find the space for the shop? Is there a story there?
Jerome: I was riding my bike all over the city looking for those “FOR RENT” signs. I was in Soho one day and saw a sign on 135 Sullivan Street. Even though the gates were down and the storefront was painted in a dark gray color I had a great feeling about it. We took the space right away.
Q: What dish do you crave that would surprise your customers?
Frank: It’s not what I crave most, but from time to time I will make hot dogs baked in a casserole of baked beans and would never admit it. But in general, I think people think that because I cook, I make a huge, extravagant meal every day. The reality is I tend to keep it simple. One of my favorite meals is spaghetti with olive oil, garlic, parmesan cheese, salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Q: Your aesthetic taste is so apparent—from your distinctive packaging to the design and decorative detail of the shop. Can you tell us where that comes from?
Jerome: I love art and design. Every Christmas I always make my own gifts for relatives and friends. A few years ago I took some architecture classes and considered becoming a designer, but I am still cooking and making window displays for Once Upon a Tart, which is fine with me.
Frank: I think that Jerome and I have different tastes and styles, but they seem to complement each other. I have a much more country style (somewhat conservative) and Jerome has a much more modern approach to style. The influence comes from my love of all things old and worn and Jerome’s love of all things new and high design. It seems to make a good combination.
Q: What made you two decide to write this book?
Jerome: From the time we decided to open a café, we’ve wanted to write a cookbook. At first we wanted to write a cookbook for kids, but one day, one of our regular customers asked if she could be our agent and work with us on a cookbook proposal.
Frank: Throughout the years of running Once Upon a Tart, customers have always asked us for one of two things—first, to open another store in their neighborhood and secondly, for us to disclose our recipes for a specific item or to write an actual cookbook. That was our motivation. Janis (our agent), who lives down the block, had been a customer since day one; so there was a certain comfort when she approached us with this long-standing idea.
Q: What’s the strangest request you’ve ever gotten from a customer? Did you oblige him or her?
Jerome: One of our customers who lives on Sullivan Street walks her dog, Fred, every day and all the neighbors feed the dog with treats. Every September 23, for the dog’s birthday, she asks us to make some decorated cookies in a shape of a dachshund to give to all the people that feed Fred during his walk.
Q: What advice do you have for the kitchen amateur or cooking novice?
Frank: I think it is important to not be afraid of making mistakes (so maybe don’t try something brand new for a dinner party of 12, save the testing for just you and your family). Keep learning. There are so many books and magazines out there. The cooking novice can learn a lot through reading (this is definitely one of my greatest tools). It is a great way to learn about techniques (nfusing oils, roasting vegetables, etc.) before applying them to the food you want to eat. Pay attention to new ingredients at the market. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask the grocer at the Asian market what he does with a certain ingredient or how the butcher would make a cut of meat. Another thing that I believe is important in cooking (if you are not using an actual recipe) is a kind of taste memory. This means you remember flavors and combinations and are able to apply them in cooking. I think this can evolve if you pay attention to the flavors you are eating. With baking, it is a bit more exact. Get to know your equipment, be aware of oven temperature, and do it often to learn how things should feel and look.