Food, Culture, and Memories: The Story of a Chef Recreating a Piece of France in Princeton, NJ.
Imagine a place where the sweet and savory aromas of a french bistro fill the air, and the cozy ambiance invites you to take a seat with a glass of good wine and friends. Each bite of food feels like you’re in a French Bistro in Lyon only to step out the door and be in beautiful Princeton, NJ. That’s what it’s like at Kristine’s, the French bistro by Executive Chef Nicolas Démurgé.
An issue about food wouldn’t be complete without speaking to a chef, so we’re excited to share the story and passion for food of Chef Nicolas Démurgé. From growing up in Lyon to working in a bank and then opening up a restaurant in Princeton, Nicolas shares his journey of recreating his memories of France and Lyon in every bite.
Your restaurant Kristine’s is beautiful! It looks like your guests are transported back to France. What inspired you to open Kristine’s?
Kristine’s is a French Bistro. A French Bistro means French comfort foods. If you look at the menu, you’ll probably know a lot of the dishes. Even when you’re doing classics, you try to find the right ingredients and products to make it perfect. In my restaurant, I’m cooking the food that I used to eat when I was a kid with my family.
Food’s a global experience. We try to match the ambiance with the food, service, and experience. We opened Kristine’s in 2019 - which was pretty bad timing actually! Living in Princeton, it’s difficult to find people who are used to cooking French-style food. My job is mostly about training people and teaching them about the French flavors.
We have a lot of regular customers, and it’s become very fun. When I walk into the dining room, I know half of the people there. A bistro is a place where people meet together and have a good time. In France, you can find everybody from a company CEO to everyday people at the bistro. There’s a lot of social mixing.
I read that you were inspired by your Mom's cooking. When did your passion for cooking start?
It’s a lot of things. When you’re a kid, cooking is something magical. By mixing flour, butter, chocolate, you almost immediately have a cake! It’s a very satisfying activity. I used to enjoy it, and I never stopped cooking.
Even when I was doing something else as a full-time career, I was always cooking, trying recipes, geeking out over new kitchen gadgets. I was working for a bank, but I wanted to cook more than I wanted to bank!
The second thing is that cooking is about memory. You memorize smells and tastes when you have emotions. The same goes for flavor. You can memorize some flavors forever. As a Frenchman, I’m not very good at cooking Japanese food, because I don’t have the right flavor memories. It’s not a question of technique, it’s a question of culture. So yes, definitely your environment and how you grow up influence what you are doing.
I grew up near Lyon, a big spot for classic French food. They have the best ingredients. You can also find superb wine places nearby like Beaujolais and the Rhone valley. Food is very serious in France. Even in your daily life, you sit, have a starter, a main course, and dessert almost twice a day! It's a very important social aspect of French people's daily routines with family and friends.
What was that spark that made you go from banking to pursuing your passion for food and cooking?
It’s simple. I wasn’t enjoying myself working, but I had small kids and was buying a house. At one point, my wife had a good job, and it was possible for me to stop working and go to culinary school.
The good thing about going back to school is meeting new people - you are in a new dynamic. I was super lucky. One of my teachers was a retired chef, but he worked for 45 years in all of the kitchens in Paris. He was very knowledgeable and sent me to cook with one of his friends- an Italian chef. It was the most personal way to cook that I have ever seen before.
Being a chef is a question of transmission. You learn something from everybody you meet. Even from the prep cook in your kitchen, you can catch something new. I was always lucky to meet wonderful chefs and cooks.
How was it transitioning from working a normal 9-5 job to going back to school and working in a kitchen?
My first days in a restaurant as a cook were very hard! My body wasn’t ready. I lost probably 20lbs in 3 months. I was just hurting myself. But, it was fun because I still remember my first time in a kitchen. Everything was amazing because everything goes so fast during the shift. You have a plate from the first station, a plate from the meat station, a plate from the fish station, and you need everything ready at the same time and fast, not in 1 hour. Sometimes you have 10 tables to cook for at the same time. It’s a lot of coordination and communication. You have a lot of press pressure, but we enjoy it. The worst is a slow day. You need a fast pace in the kitchen.
It was definitely hard, but it was super exciting.
What are some big misconceptions about being a chef and running a restaurant?
A chef needs to be creative and organize all the processes in the kitchen. When you cook at home, you have your guests and you try to make something around 6 or 7 pm. If it’s early or a little late, it doesn’t matter. In the kitchen, we split the work and we have shifts. Everything is ready when we start to cook. When an order comes in, we assemble, we finish, we bring everything to temperature. We’re in production mode.
Also, many people think the chef is cooking. The chef is not cooking. The chef is checking everything, and he'll cook from time to time. I’ll prep the special, show it to my sous chef, and I’ll cook the first one. During the service, I can’t cook for over 200 guests. I can’t cook for everybody!
We’re in the middle of the kitchen, like a coach. You’re checking if everything is going right, trying to help someone having trouble at a station, and coordinating the different stations.
When did the idea to start Kristine’s happen?
I never envision myself as a head chef. When I started cooking, it was to enjoy myself, work for some good Chefs, and keep learning from them.
My first experience in the US was with an American farm-to-table restaurant. That was a great and fun experience because I was cooking with ingredients that we don’t really use in France, like corn. It was a lot of new discoveries, like smoking meats, using different sauces, or cooking American classics. There is a huge cooking culture in the US, but I was missing French cooking.
My wife's friend is a friend of Kristine’s owner, and we were made aware that he was opening a French Bistro in Princeton. So, I met him. He was passionate about opening a French bistro in Princeton, I’m passionate about French food, we immediately had a great connection. After 5 minutes, I was convinced about his project and said to myself, “We are on the same page, we understand each other.”
We quickly started working on making their dreams happen. Jack Morrison and his son Jess wanted to be immersed in the French bistro culture before starting Kristine’s. We worked together to identify iconic French bistros in Paris. We took a trip to Paris, visited many bistros, tasted a lot of food, and came back home with tons of ideas and inspirations for Kristine’s. We wanted to bring the soul of the French Paris bistro to Princeton. Jack and Jess spent a lot of time and energy in making this happen.
In life, you don’t meet people by accident. Kristine’s is a good example of coincidence. A few months later, Kristine’s was born as we dreamed about it when we first met.
Where did the name Kristine’s come from?
That’s actually Jack’s daughter’s name. Fun fact, that’s my mother’s name too.
It was a surprise for me. We had a meeting to work on the restaurant name, and I was working on a lot of different names. He came over and said, “The name will be Kristine’s, my daughter’s name.” I said, “Okay, sure. That’s a good thing because that’s my mother’s name too!”
It’s like an homage to his daughter and your mother!
I also saw that you participate in the Share My Meals program. Can you tell me about that?
Oh yes, sure!
Share My Meals is an organization in Princeton that provides food. Their initial project was to avoid food waste and collect unsold food from grocery stores and collective restaurants. However, with the Covid-19 crisis, they couldn’t collect food from collective restaurants - which were closed -, and they began buying prepared food from restaurants at cost price. Even in Princeton, many people can use some help, Share My Meals grew significantly with the Covid-19 crisis.
There are several restaurants in Princeton cooking for this organization. Krisitine's provides around 100 to 300 meals a week for this organization. We try to provide a variety of balanced meals over the week. When we opened Kristine’s, we were looking for a local initiative to support. It's very important for our company, the Jack Morrison Group, to be involved in our local community.
Wow, that’s a lot of meals!
What advice would you give to someone interested in working in the restaurant industry?
Go into a restaurant, any restaurant, find somebody, and do it! For example, I have 2 young people starting. I told them. “Come, and we’ll cook together. If you like, you’ll probably never stop."
You can definitely go to culinary school. But, if you cannot afford it- because in the US culinary school is pretty expensive- find the right place. It doesn’t need to be a super fancy restaurant. Find a place where people cook.
What’s the story you want to tell through your food?
I think every chef wishes to be understood. When you have a restaurant, you receive feedback, some very good, some bad. Sometimes you have feedback that the guest understood what you tried to do in your restaurant.
At Kristine’s, the story is that we want you to feel like you’re in Paris. We want you to walk into the restaurant, stay 2 hours, and enjoy the food in this very special ambiance.
I remember somebody from California asked for me at the table. When somebody asks for you at the table, you are pretty scared as you don’t know if it’s good or bad. I came over to the table unsure about what was going to happen.
The compliment wasn’t, “This was the best food ever in my life.” It was, “This is the most French place we’ve found in years in the US, and I’ve lived in Paris for 3 years!” She explained why she liked it, and she had a full understanding of what we’re trying to do there. I got a bit emotional, actually. I was very proud to walk into the kitchen and say, “Guys, we did a great job. We are trying to be a very authentic place, and we made it today. That’s it!”
When in the Princeton, New Jersey area, make sure to stop at Kristine’s and experience a taste of France by Executive Chef Nicolas Démurgé. You can view their menu, make reservations, and order online at www.kristinesprinceton.com.
Chef Nicolas is offering weekly takeout family meal specials at Kristine’s. Make sure to subscribe to their newsletter to be the first to find out what will be on the menu for next week at https://www.kristinesprinceton.com/kristines#info-section. You can also keep up to date with Chef Nicolas and his work at Kristine’s on social media @KristinesPrinceton on Instagram and Facebook and @kristines_nj on Twitter.