FOR MARION, INDIANA, originally from Toby Moreno, getting a job at a nearby Mexican restaurant at age 14 was more about earning extra money for a new pair of Jordans than a deep love of food. But cooking, as well as a way of seeing the world, has long been at the center of this young chef’s already busy career. After cooking school and a sous-chef job at Bloomington’s Restaurant Tallent, Moreno then ran the kitchen at Plow & Anchor and worked at the Loft at Traders Point, where farm produce and in-house production took center stage. And while another two years working at a country club might have been enough for a culinary training, Moreno took on the job of executive chef at Auberge, the cozy but buttoned-up French restaurant at the Brick Street Inn in Zionsville, where the owner Paul Vezolles transported Moreno to Paris. late January for cooking opportunities at some of Alain Ducasse’s revered restaurants. Today, he is back at the Auberge, applying all his Gallic know-how to one of the region’s most ambitious continental menus.
Having attended Ivy Tech in Bloomington for culinary school and worked with legendary local chef David Tallent, you were no stranger to French technique. So, how was it to perform in some of Alain Ducasse’s restaurants like Benoit and his test kitchen in Argenteuil?
It was great, and I appreciate Paul so much [Vezolles, who bought Brick Street Inn in 2010] for the opportunity. When I boarded at the Auberge de l’Auberge, he immediately sent me to France, and he accompanied me. He’s a real Francophile and he’s so supportive and interested in good food and good wine. The whole experience was like going back to school in a way. I was already pretty well grounded in French cuisine, but it was such a learning experience to see how other chefs do things. I mean, you work with some of the best chefs in the world at their Michelin star restaurants. I even tested recipes with them. I learned so much that I am able to use at the hostel.
What was the biggest lesson you learned about French cuisine?
Juice is everything. This was the motto of chef Adeline Robert, who was a bit of a mentor to me in my Ducasse experience, and it really touched me. In the United States, we make chicken broth, usually with the bones and aromatics. And that’s great. But for a real French juice, you use meat, and you take the time to sear it well, cut the shallots to the perfect size and add garlic and peppercorns at the right time. It was pretty much the epitome of mise en place, and it wasn’t a process where you can go off and do a lot of other things in the kitchen like you can with stock. Also, when we were done frying or sautéing something, we always drained the fat and used it to cook something else. Coming back, I tried to recreate this process as much as possible, and something as simple as glazing our vegetables in it just adds an extra level. Many chefs will add a commercial base or MSG, but with our juicing process we are essentially creating our own MSG or at least something that adds as much or more flavor.
Do you think it’s possible to recreate real French cuisine in Indiana with the ingredients we have here?
Absolutely. I’ve worked closely with farmers and growers throughout my career, so I feel like I know where to find the best. We get our duck and stuff from D’Artagnan, I use Green Circle chicken, which is very similar to chicken in France, and I use a lot of cheeses from dairies like Jacobs & Brichford, Tulip Tree Creamery and Capriole, all of which are very close to my favorite French cheeses and much better from a sustainability standpoint.
How receptive are Indiana diners to such a classic style of cooking?
They are very receptive. In fact, they can’t wait to get a real French restaurant back in business when there aren’t many left. Lots of places do, with a French dish here or there on the menu, but having an all-French menu is something people are looking for. I get customers from as far away as Lafayette who have come just for the menu, and they’re like, “Wow, this is what we want.
Were you a fan of gastronomy and French cuisine when you were a child and you started to get into the kitchen?
I’ve always been passionate about French cuisine, even if I didn’t always know it. When I was younger, I wanted to do a French-Mexican fusion place called Tripas (tripes in Spanish). It’s the kind of thing you think about when you’re just starting out. But, no, I didn’t eat a lot of French food growing up. We just ate well. My grandmother lived on this property where she had peach trees, apple trees, and mulberry trees, and she always had my brother and I climb the tree and shake the apples. My stepfather was part Native American and he introduced me to foraging. We went hunting for wild berries and morels. And my grandmother was an excellent cook. She grew up along the Mexican border in the Brownsville area and was a migrant worker. She was working picking iceberg lettuce in the 1940s. She actually met my grandfather in the back of a truck when they were both working in the fields. She has this way of frying corn that’s so sweet it sticks to the back of your teeth. But I love this. And she still has a bowl of iceberg on the table, even after all these years, just to let you know where she came from.
What prompted you to make the jump to cooking school?
At first, working in a restaurant was more about earning extra money. I was raised by a single mother and was always an empathetic person who didn’t want to ask anything. So if I wanted something, I figured I should make some money myself. So I went to work at a Mexican restaurant when I was super young because that was one of the places that would hire me. Then at 17, I read Confidential kitchen by Anthony Bourdain, and I thought, OK, this world is big enough. Cooking is also my ticket to see other countries and cultures. It actually helped me connect with my own culture and the dishes of my ancestors like the specific salsas, tamales, tingas and carne guisada. I don’t do these things for the customers anymore since I’ve been at the Auberge, but I do for the family meal for the staff.
Many chefs have recently watched the FX/Hulu series the bear, about a James Beard award-winning chef inheriting his family’s dilapidated restaurant in Chicago. Have you watched it and are there any parallels in the show with your life in the kitchen?
Sounds good, but I’ve been so busy I haven’t done it. Sometimes I only have one day off a month. But I want. And I know in some ways it mimics a lot of what I experienced in the kitchen. Being a chef has certainly been a tough road, and I’ve been in some kitchens where the staff have adopted some very bad habits. A lot of chefs have mental health issues, and they have terrible coping mechanisms, especially when working for a really talented or demanding chef. I was certainly reprimanded, which is doubly difficult in terms of remuneration. Chefs yelled at me that the okra wasn’t cooked well, and I’ve had chefs throw arancini at me because they weren’t good enough. But now that I’m older, I’m much calmer in the kitchen and I think things are looking up. And it was really good to see that in France there is so much more respect for the profession, and restaurant workers have pay rates that are much more in line with other careers.
You had the chance to go to a bigger and more modern kitchen, but you chose the Auberge. What brought you to this decision?
People wonder why I would work in the restaurant of an eight-room boutique hotel with an awfully small kitchen and poor ventilation. But it feels real to me, and I really feel like I’m doing something here. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, but I like to grind, build, grow with a place. I’ve always rooted for the underdog.