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Full circle

Bresca's new collaborative effort brings intimacy back to dining
By LEISCHEN STELTER  |  July 22, 2009

NOT-SO-SIMPLE PLEASURES Bresca's Roman gnocchi.

Bresca | 12 Seats | 111 Middle St, Portland | Bresca is open Tues-Sat at 5:30 pm | 12 Seats is one Sunday a month starting in October | Visa/MC | 207.772.1004
For someone who once envisioned herself sequestered in a dusty library somewhere in England reading medieval literature, Krista Desjarlais, executive chef and owner of Bresca, has a life far from quiet and solitude.

Desjarlais (formerly Kern) is a force of energy, solely overseeing the restaurant operations at Bresca while maintaining an air of calm authority. In 2007, she opened the intimate five-table restaurant, which is vastly different from most of her previous culinary background. Previously she held executive roles, largely as a pastry chef, overseeing the operations of multi-million-dollar restaurants in Aspen, Colorado, and Las Vegas.

Bresca is a chance for Desjarlais to determine her own style. She describes the menu as inspired by the French Riviera, embracing influences from the south of France, Italy, and Spain, where the cuisines tend to "all morph together." While the menu weighs heavily on the Italian side, Desjarlais says she is always looking to try new things, while being mindful of clientele favorites and maintaining a menu with a sense of harmony.

Desjarlais's pasta options, which can be enjoyed as either an appetizer or a main dish, include Roman gnocchi — pasta dumplings with charred tomatoes, basil, goat butter, and Parmesan cheese. This, like much of Bresca's cuisine "appears more simplistic than it is," says Desjarlais. "To make the batter and get the density right and then they're pan-seared in olive oil and finished in the oven — there's a lot of love that goes into them."

And soon Desjarlais will have a new outlet for her creative offerings. In partnership with her husband, Erik Desjarlais, the executive chef and owner of French restaurant Evangeline, she will open 12 Seats, a "restaurant within a restaurant" located in the Bresca space. The new endeavor will be a 12-course meal for 12 people for a $120, with a 12-course wine flight available as well. Guests will be seated together at one large table on the last Sunday of every month, beginning October 25. The menu will change each month to include courses that Desjarlais says she hopes will "tell a story ... without becoming too intellectualized."

Twelve Seats is not only an opportunity for the pair to work together, but it also allows them to break away from some of the confines that go along with restaurant ownership. "There's a battle between being a restaurant owner and chef because to operate your business you have to appeal in certain respects to the larger mass," she says. "At 12 Seats we're not trying to appeal to the masses, there are no choices, it's a set menu, but it's not ego-dishes either. It's not Evangeline or Bresca dishes, so we can take off the personas and let go of our customer base."

The concept of 12 Seats stems in part from a turning point in Desjarlais's culinary career. While a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine studying medieval literature, Desjarlais began working at a private dining venue owned by Scott Paper Company with renowned chef Elizabeth DeFranco, preparing and serving an intimate meal to between six and 20 guests a night. Working with DeFranco, Desjarlais says she came away with more than skills in classic French technique; she embraced DeFranco's work ethic and strength as a female chef, at a time when men dominated kitchens.

DeFranco "was a spitfire," recalled Desjarlais. "She could do anything and nothing was above her. She worked her whole life with strong men and she would say to me, 'Don't be afraid to walk into a kitchen, even if you don't feel qualified to be there. Don't be intimidated.'"

Her experience working for DeFranco "was the first time cooking became more cerebral," she says. "Where food and philosophy came together and was elevated to the point where it was more intellectual and cooking became creative and it was treated very much like a craft."

Returning to that intimate setting and creating "a beautiful environment with butler service and courses served on bone china ultimately, in my mind, is how I've come full circle with 12 Seats," she says.

Leischen Stelter can be reached

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  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , Culture and Lifestyle, Food and Cooking, Italian Food and Cooking,  More more >
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