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Interview with Elisabeth de Kergolay of Babeth’s Feast

Jordan Wright
December 6, 2014
Special to DC Metro Theater Arts

Elisabeth de Kergorlay

Elisabeth de Kergorlay

Elisabeth de Kergolay has led a charmed life with nannies, chateaus and pied-a-terres, though that’s never stopped the beautiful young countess from using her entrepreneurial spirit to bring fresh ideas to America.  Take for example her early investment in Le Pain Quotidien, the rustic chic French bakery café she invested in with Belgian chef and founder Alain Coumont in 1990.  Since then the well-known communal table eatery with four locations in the DC area, has skyrocketed to 200 outlets in 17 countries.  She clearly knows a great idea when she sees it.

Recently de Kergolay launched a frozen food emporium in New York City that is poised to recreate the same success she has enjoyed through her earlier business foray.  Fashioned after the popular Paris store Picard, Babeth’s Feast opened on the Upper East Side in early August.  The groundbreaking store offers high-end frozen foods and cooking demonstrations.  Where has this clever idea been?

After learning about her venture at the opening of Daniel Boulud’s new DC outpost DBGB, Whisk and Quill was highly intrigued to learn more about this novel concept.  

Jordan Wright – What is your past experience with food?

Elisabeth de Kergolay – I grew up around food, and being around Daniel when I was young was a great experience.

Tell me about your inspiration for Babeth’s Feast?  How long has it been in the planning stages?

It was based on the concept of Picard from France.  Arriving in New York in 2008, I like many other French people wondered, ‘Where’s the frozen food store?  Where’s the Picard?’  When I realized there wasn’t one, I thought it had been tried and failed.  But actually it had never been tried!  So I thought about it a lot and spoke to quite a few people and decided to go ahead.  I knew there was a niche for this, though it took several years to achieve.  We had to do absolutely everything from the ground up – – creating and positioning the brand, selecting the products and designing the packaging.

The idea was to have a full range of products.  We like to think of ourselves as a frozen grocery store where you can get anything you want for every meal of day.  We have 400 products divided up into 10 different food categories.  For sourcing and creating the recipes we have our chef, Susie Cover, who develops the recipes.  Initially we made a list of what we liked of French-inspired foods then adapted them slightly to suit American tastes.  We make over half of our products.  Some are made by Susie, and some by private label, others are manufacturers’ brands made by companies who are specialists in their field.  Of course we want our own products to be predominant in the future, but for the moment the remaining products are manufacturers’ brands.  For that we select small companies who are specialists in their field.

Has Daniel been involved with Babeth’s Feast?

Daniel wrote a recipe for our cabbage soup using our fantastic lobster tails – – something new we had brought in for the holidays.  We work with a lobster manufacturer in Maine to assure the most impeccable quality.  In the future I want to explore having other chefs create dishes for us.

Are all the foods prepared?

Mostly, but some are unprepared cuts of meat and sausage and things that we source locally from the Hudson Valley.  Also all our fish are raised sustainably.  For uncooked products we help the customer with recipes.

Who creates the recipes?  

Susie does.  We brainstorm together to come up with different dishes and then she comes up with a recipe.  Most of the original ones we did were traditional French, but we have moved on to curries and other things.  We taste new dishes with our store team and our board to decide which we like.  For the best local products, Susie also visits the food shows.  For example, our ice creams are from Maine and New York, our meat-based products are prepared in Connecticut, and we produce our soups and quiches in New York.

Are they made in the sous vide style? 

Ours are flash frozen, but some of the products we carry are made sous vide.

How are they readied for the table by the consumer?

Usually we have three options – bake, microwave or pan-warmed as with our velouté soups.  Of course if it’s a gratin, it needs to be baked.

Do you sell any fruits, herbs, lemons or salad fixings to complement the dishes?

We have a selection of frozen herbs that have been very successful from the day we opened, like chopped onion, garlic and shallot, as well as sauces and spreads.  And we have a pantry category as well.  We carry crackers for the spreads, jams for our breads and sauces for our meats.  Some of the jams are ours and some are French brands that are not yet known in the US.

Do you find customers buy your products to take to their weekend homes for entertaining?

Absolutely.  I think the customer has yet to get used to the idea of having things in advance for special occasions as well as for regular use for whenever you need them.  For me, although I still like cooking, perhaps I won’t make a side dish.  I might make some fish or meat that I’ve purchased elsewhere to complement some of the side dishes that I keep in my freezer. It’s a whole way of mastering the use of frozen food.  It answers many needs.

Do you ship to customers who might not have access to high quality foods?

We ship nationwide by FedEx.  It’s packed in dry ice. And we deliver around Manhattan too.

What are the most popular items?

So far mostly the main courses like Coq au Vin, Veal Blanquette, Chicken Provençal and Chicken Tarragon.  Also side dishes like Susie’s gratins and her favorite savory crumbles.  She’s made three this season – one with Brussels Sprouts, one using tomatoes and another with butternut squash.

Coq au Vin Fig and Caramelized Onion Puffs Tomato Crumble

What surprised you the most since you’ve opened?

I think really the time and the interest that people spend in the store looking before buying. When I shopped at Picard in France I was single and going out all the time, I didn’t spend a lot of time looking.

People are learning that we have a tasting area where we sample all day long.  It was something that was indispensable to the success of the store.  Because when they try they “get it”, and it’s so satisfactory for us.  We know there’s a certain stigma attached to frozen food because the offerings haven’t been great.  In France people choose to go to the frozen food store.  It’s not considered a last resort.

I looked at your online calendar and your upcoming cooking demonstrations sounded exciting.  I was especially captivated by the one called “Comfort Food” featuring Cauliflower Blue Cheese Velouté, Lamb Shanks, Sweet Potato Écrassé, and the Banana Apple Crumble.   Are you also teaching your clients to cook at home as well as purchasing the products?

We show them how to pull it all together.  When we give a demonstration we’ll use a few different products to create a meal.  We want to keep it simple.  We also show people how to plate the foods and show them tricks as how to serve it in their own dishes.

What other helpful tricks do you use? 

We use a color code for each category of product.  The idea behind this was to see exactly what the product is when it’s in the freezer.  Like the breakfast products are coded yellow.  That way you can see immediately what you have without having to rummage around.

Babeth’s Feast is at 1422 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10028.  For more information visit www.BabethsFeast.com

Mini parfaits

Mini parfaits

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