A one-time dishwasher and largely self-educated chef, Maurice Restaurant Francais owner/chef Corey Sumner acquired the restaurant in 2000 — a few days shy of his 30th birthday and following 11 years as an employee. He bought it from second owners John and Marge Tisdale; the popular South Paris eatery opened in 1976 under Swiss-born chef Maurice Andre and wife Louisa.

Chef Sumner talks about the importance of paying attention, edgy foods and the hazards of going into the food business.

SJ: Did you always want to be a chef?

Sumner: I’m from South Paris and went to Oxford Hills High School. I had various food industry jobs during school and didn’t really play many sports: I preferred to make money. Later, I did construction for my uncle and would have stayed with it. I really liked carpentry, but the economy turned south so I turned back to food.

SJ: How did you end up at Maurice Restaurant Francais, and what is your culinary training?

Sumner: After high school I’d thought about the military, but had braces and would have been required to rip them out for boot camp because of all the contact and then put them back in two months later. The Tisdales had two other area restaurants in addition to this one in the late ’80s. I went to work at one, and if you didn’t have enough hours they’d definitely find enough for you somewhere else. All you had to do was ask. I went to Central Maine Technical College to learn cooking for a year, but also taught myself on the job and figured out what works with what. It was a lot of trial and error. I paid attention.

SJ: What is your food philosophy and how do you get your ideas?

Sumner: I try to give people a good value for their dollar. I also make food that tastes good but is simple — not overly complicated or too many flavors on the plate at the same time. I also take food that people can relate to and refine it: dress it up a little more. In watching a lot of the Food Network — “Iron Chef” and shows like that — I try to figure out what’s new and modify it to make it work for my restaurant, and constantly research recipes online. If you read enough recipes, you learn what spices go best with what, etc.

SJ: Maurice Restaurant Francais opened 36 years ago at a time when people’s tastes may have been a bit different. How do you honor the restaurant’s legacy and maintain the French food tradition, yet reconcile the menus to today’s tastes and dietary requirements?

Sumner: There are some original menu items like Coquille Saint Jacques, escargots, filet with bearnaise sauce and veal flambe. I’ve added many items over the years (such as baked spinach, red pepper and garlic dip with mini-baguette and scallop and crab saute) and there is less and less that is French, per the business environment. I’ve even tried lighter fare, but people do not come here for that.

If you have an allergy, I’ll try to accommodate you. At the same time, I’d like to do edgier foods, but have to introduce them at the wine dinners we do each year, where the 40 to 60 guests who reserve know what to expect. The wine dinners are a nice tool for me to remain creative and do different things.

SJ: What are some of your favorite foods, and what do you prepare for your family?

Sumner: I have a wife, two stepchildren and one son of my own. . . . I basically prepare meals here for them and take it all home. My 9-year-old is pretty finicky and it becomes difficult cooking for him sometimes, which is partly my fault because I’m too easy about it. I like just about everything: seafood — and I really like lamb. Nobody in my family likes seafood or lamb, though my wife will eat haddock.

SJ: What is your advice for young people considering entering the culinary world?

Sumner: Don’t! That’s my recommendation. The hours are horrible. You work every holiday. You work all weekend. You want to think it through strongly because it definitely puts you outside the realm of a normal hourly job.

SJ: Why do you do it then?

Sumner: I had decided that this was the career path I was going to choose and, frankly, eventually wanted my talents to work for my own pocketbook and not someone else’s. I wanted my own place. Next year, I’m even going to construct an herb garden in elevated planters to grow my own herbs and tomatoes, which are a lot fresher off the vine than anything you’d go out and buy. We keep going.

The Sun Journal’s “Best Chefs” series profiles area chefs, highlighting their food philosophies, their backgrounds, what their personal “go-to” foods are at home and fundamentally what makes them cook.

Contacts: www.mauricerestaurant.com and 207- 743-2532

Bearnaise Sauce

Ingredients:

6 egg yolks

1 cup clarified butter (melted butter which separates, with fat skimmed from top)

1 tablespoon dried tarragon

Dash cayenne pepper

Dash nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup onion reduction*

Directions:

In a food processor, add hot clarified butter to egg yolks slowly to make emulsion. (If no food processor, use double boiler or bowl over boiling water, whisking clarified butter and egg yolks slowly, careful not to cook the egg yolks, which would result in scrambled eggs.) Add remaining ingredients and, if using food processor, pulse to incorporate. Season further to taste.

*Onion reduction:

1/2 cup finely diced red onion

1 tablespoon cracked peppercorns

1/2 cup white wine

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

Reduce over heat until liquid is almost gone

Steak Au Poivre

Ingredients:

Two New York strip steaks seasoned with cracked pepper and salt

1 cup heavy cream (20 percent fat content)

1/4 cup brandy

Salt and pepper to finish

Directions:

Heat saute pan on very high heat for 3 to 5 minutes. Sear seasoned steaks on both sides. Remove from pan to grill or oven to finish cooking to desired doneness. Remove pan from heat and add brandy (caution: brandy may flame). Add heavy cream and reduce by 2/3. Pour over steaks. Salt and pepper to taste.


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