by Nicholas Boer:
You might expect the owner of Cypress, a contemporary French restaurant famous for resurrecting classic tableside dishes such as steak au poivre, beef tartare, and flaming Baked Alaska, to be somewhat of a fuddy-duddy. But Rick Delamain, a father of three and a disciple of Lolek Jasinsky—the bon vivant who ran Walnut Creek’s most venerable French restaurant Le Virage for decades—is anything but. “If I’m not in my chef attire I’m in my baseball cap, flip-flops and shorts,” he says. “That’s who I am.” In June, Delamain unveiled a 40-seat courtyard—complete with Mediterranean murals he painted himself—to offer a more relaxed counterpoint to Cypress’ upscale dining room. This “backyard patio” as Delamain calls it is a good reflection of the chef’s demeanor. We recently stopped by Cypress to check out the courtyard and ask Delamain about his first year (Cypress opened in September, 2011).
What’s your business philosophy?
Just have fun. People get such a mindset about numbers. Guess what? If you’re only in it for the money you’ll never have any. We’re in the hospitality business. I stand outside before service and tell passersby that their usual table is waiting. “But we’ve never been here before,” they’ll say. “That’s OK,” I tell them. We’ll worry about that later.”
But you had a comfortable corporate gig and a mortgage. Wasn’t opening Cypress a big risk?
I said to myself, OK, I’m almost 40. Either I’m going to do something with my life or I’m going to be what I don’t want to be—the old guy sitting on his porch wondering what could have been. So I did one of the craziest things. I went to my wife and said “I’m done. I’m quitting. I’m gonna open up a restaurant.”
So as a boss, you went from supporting one family to supporting dozens?
One thing I didn’t anticipate is having 45 families relying on me. It can be very nerve wracking.
Are your wife and kids cool with it?
She’s proud of me for doing this. On my day off my kids give me a laundry list. Nerf wars, water balloon fights, bike rides, basketball … If I can get four of the 18 items done, I’m good.
Do you encourage them in the kitchen? Any budding chefs?
My middle son really likes to cook. But every parent wants their kid to be a senator—something that’s a little bit easier in life.
What about your cooks? How do you keep them motivated?
I tell them “It’s food. It’s alive. Make it creative. Don’t stick your head in a box and think this is the way it has to be.”
You make dishes up on the fly? Doesn’t French food follow a formula?
You can make it dummy proof but it gets to be boring. I try to go out to the guests as much as possible. I’ll ask “What are you in the mood for? You tell me a protein and I’ll run with the rest.”
Did you learn to mix it up with the customers by working with Lolek Jasinsky at Le Virage, or is that just who you are?
I naturally like to be out with people but watching him and his huge personality was an inspiration. I’ll be at hour 14 or 15 in my day and wonder: “How did Lolek smile and kiss everyone’s hand and be joking every day when I can’t physically get up and talk to another person right now.”
You do chef dinners for schools and the local symphony. Any good lessons learned from your community involvement?
I built this huge beautiful menu for a 175-person event we were doing for ARF (Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation), but when I talked to the lady from ARF she said it all had to be vegetarian. “OK this is going to be a good challenge,” I thought. So we put out 19 different items, from sushi with cantaloupe and watermelon to look like fish to parmesan cups with various little salads. It turned out to be a lot of fun.
Your iPad wine lists are seriously fun.
Everyone loves to play with them. I opened one up and a customer had put a Tiki mask screen saver on it.
Is that due, perhaps, to all your specialty cocktails?
At least half our beverage program is, I don’t want to say artisan, but from smaller-batch producers. Walnut Creek is a big Vodka town. I want to be known more as a gin joint. Hendrick’s. Square One. St. George. Blade. Not the boring norm.
Any disasters your first year? With tableside flambé and all?
Haven’t caught anybody on fire, yet … but, it’s still early.