In the Heat of Decadence
► Interview with Chef Boris Druschkowitsch of Madame Janette
Boris, the chef de cuisine at Madame Janette, wants you to know that he likes real breasts and real food. “Plastic is ridiculous. After fifteen years, I have some great suppliers. It took awhile but they know what I like. I want quality but I’ll pay for quality. If it’s garbage, don’t even try bringing it here.
— By Timothy Dugdale
— Photography Kenneth Theysen
A short time ago, I had a saleswoman who wanted to sell me ravioli. The first two times, I wasn’t very nice but the third time, I invited her to compare mine and hers. And we all know who won. You can taste this fabricated stuff.”
Boris doesn’t have much time for ogling because his restaurant on an average week night delivers 350 entrées to guests and on the weekend, the number can climb past 500. He invited me into the kitchen to see his team in action. The bustle and hustle is incredible.
“No wonder you have a special on the menu called The Viking Steak,” I said.
Boris chuckled. “Yes,” he said. “Everyone must row together to move forward.”
For a kitchen that puts out so much food, it is pretty close quarters and the heat is meaner than a Finnish sauna. Boris’ cousin, a 24 year-old workhouse, sidled up to me, wiping sweat from his brow. “I pay 400 florins ($230) a month for A/C at my house. This is why.”
Yet the kitchen is meticulously clean and organized. “I was born into this business. My mom took over a hotel. During the week I was in boarding school and on weekends, I put my backpack in the corner and did the simple stuff, you know, washing dishes and peeling potatoes. An honest start. I’ll tell you something about the young chefs. They want to start in the middle. Right away they want to be TV chefs with a good salary and Saturday and Sunday off. Hell, when I started in this business, it was six or seven days a week. You started when you started and you finished when you finished. There was no clock watching! And I never quit a job. You have to keep fighting.”
“If you keep fighting, you keep learning.”
“Exactly. You need to get your butt kicked. My mother always said that my generation might be the last one for that but look at my kitchen. It’s almost all Filipinos in here but I’ve trained them. I don’t care where you come from. If you bring three things – brain, heart and passion – and do your job, everything is good. “
The night I visited Boris, it was his thirty-sixth birthday. “I like to work on my birthday. I don’t know why people celebrate birthdays. You get one more God forsaken year closer to the end. It should be a day of depression!” And he had just come back from a month in Austria, his first vacation in three years. His phone was full of photos taken at the restaurants of his friends, almost all of them celebrity chefs in Austria. “Look at this food. It is so beautiful but it is so small.”
Small is not what Boris does or can do or wants to do. At Madame Janette, the plate is big and the food is bigger. “To be a success on this island you have to have good prices, good portions and quality ingredients. People love to eat, especially Americans. They don’t want to have this little egg covered in foam with a couple of other little things and then afterwards you have to eat a pizza somewhere else. People want ten, eleven ounces of steak on a plate, not three. Look, customers come from far away. They’ve saved two years in Boston for a trip to Aruba. And then there’s the hotel. And the taxi to get to us because we’re out in the bloody pampa. So it’s our job to give this guy the time of his life.”
Even though it’s in the desert, Madame Janette’s vibe belongs to an American coastal resort town like Hilton Head or Charleston. After fifteen years of unrelenting success, the place feels comfortably scuffed and exudes an air of randy propriety, a place where moneyed frat boys might have a big night out with the parents who bankroll their shenanigans while a faded golf pro tries to conquer a shapely yet self-serving divorcee he met in bible study. Every swinger on the island of Aruba has some tall tale of a night of madness at Madame Janette. There’s a good wine cellar, an impressive beer list and a humidor filled with Fidel’s torpedoes that Americans love to smoke.
Boris has a special connection to America because his first and still biggest idol is fellow Austrian Wolfgang Puck, who famously cooked for Orson Welles at Ma Maison in Los Angeles before launching his wildly successful restaurant Spago and becoming a celebrity chef. “He had a vision and stayed true to it.” Puck gave Boris the confidence to take his first job overseas in America, just before he turned twenty-one. “I had to sneak into the bars for two months because they’re so strict about booze. I worked in Vail, Colorado, at a restaurant called Lancelot. I learned a lot about steaks there. In my country, you don’t get these big cuts of meat. 50% of the game is the quality of the meat, whether it is grass-fed or this corn and hormone shot garbage. You have to handle the meat with care, like a wife. Be nice to it. You might get something back.”
The menu at Madame Janette takes you around the world and along the way, you might need a few visits to the cardiologist. It is unabashedly decadent. “My favorite thing to cook is The Burgerloin [a punishingly delicious joke in which the bun is really two pieces of prime tenderloin and the meat is topped with sautéed onions, mushrooms and cheese. The secret sauce is a hand-shaken Béarnaise.] The meat is fantastic. And we go through hundreds of eggs to make that Béarnaise. It’s so home-made. When we first started doing specials, we would change them every week. But over the years, people get attached to them like the almond grouper for example. Or the Gianni Versace steak. How can you take it off?”
For all its heft, the menu offers some lighter notes. There’s a lovely tuna sashimi that is beautifully encrusted with sesame seeds and deftly touched by heat. When Boris offers a Caribbean twist, though, it is more like a half Nelson. He marinates mahi-mahi in white wine, onion and lime, wraps it in pancetta, cooks it in a skillet and serves it with a pineapple mojito relish. It’s a full flavor dish that uses fat to enhance taste without being heavy.
Ask Boris about his greatest cooking experience and he looks at you and laughs. “Are you kidding me? You need another drink. Every day is the best experience. Every day is a new challenge. Every day a new product appears that we can do something with. You can live five hundred years as a chef and you’re still just starting. If a chef tells me, he’s the best, that’s ridiculous. You’re never the best. There’s always someone better. But you can try and keep trying every day to be the best. On Aruba, the competition never sleeps. You have to fight every day.”