The restaurant, with its soaring central gazebo and stripped-down exposed structure, seems stark at first, like a fast-forward version of a nineteenth-century crystal palace. But a close look at the carefully appointed space in the Quadrangle in Dallas, where each table is draped in linen and brightened with fresh flowers, reveals the underlying classicism — dignified, yet somehow celebratory — that is characteristic of Actuelle’s style. Almost as proof of the interior’s combination of grace and athleticism is a trophy case, just inside the entrance, that is filled with golden loving cups, medals, and statuettes. They are the fruits of Victor Gielisse’s efforts in a score of culinary competitions. The blue-ribbon chef, properly attired in full chef’s uniform, from tall white toque to clogs, completes the picture. He may well be Texas’ most decorated chef, the Audie Murphy of the kitchen.
In the slow midafternoon hours, however, you’re less likely to find him on the line tasting a sauce or perfecting a presentation than sitting at a quiet table, hitting the books. The 35-year-old Gielisse spent two years preparing for the Culinary Institute of America master’s certificate; in February he completed the grueling ten-day examination. Of the 36 chefs in the United States who have passed the exam, only 2 are in Dallas — and one of them is Victor Gielisse. In fact, he won yet another trophy, the Crystal Chef Award, for finishing at the top of the class. The intensive study has deepened his commitment to the great traditions of cuisine. “You realize again,” he says as he gestures toward a mammoth edition of Escoffier, “that everything we do is based on classical cuisine. Basically it’s all been done for us — we didn’t have to invent anything.”
While many New American chefs, especially in Texas, are translating old favorites into New American cuisine — their menus feature updated versions of meatloaf, fried chicken, and pumpkin pie — Gielisse is on a different track. Born in the Netherlands and trained in Europe, he combines an Old World reverence for culinary history with a New World relish for the future. He approaches regional ingredients not with nostalgia but with a sense of discovery, creating a cuisine that is both firmly traditional and highly original. Imaginatively conceived, carefully refined, and flawlessly presented, dishes such as his ragout of California snails with sweetbreads and basil tortellini and his grilled Atlantic salmon with tarragon-mustard sauce have earned his restaurant an impressive reputation far beyond Texas.
Gielisse’s current kitchen opens, California-style, onto the restaurant. The kitchen is relatively small, with only seven cooks besides Gielisse, who works closely with each station. The original idea for a dish may come from anywhere — a Dutch childhood staple, Italian carpaccio, or Cajun gumbo; any of his travels; or well-thumbed cookbooks and cooking periodicals — but it emerges from the kitchen transformed. Carpaccio (salmon as well as traditional beef) is streaked with Parmesan-and-garlic mayonnaise and livened with peppery chicory; beef-and-barley soup is not the heavy, hearty dish one expects but a clear, assertive broth bejeweled with the little dice of a vegetable brunoise; and gumbo is married to a French-style seafood stew and garnished with a semi-Mexican salsa that carries oriental undertones of rice vinegar and ginger root. The result is a complex layering of flavors, each tone distinct but balanced expertly against the other ingredients. Gielisse invents dishes that seem to develop a history as they linger on the palate.
Like most good cooks, Gielisse was inspired by his mother. His parents — and his grandparents before them — owned a restaurant in Scheveningen, where Victor was born. “Holland is not exactly known for its cuisine,” Gielisse admits with a wry smile. “At home we ate lots of cold-weather food — soups and stew — and, of course, lots of seafood. At the restaurant the menu was mostly seafood prepared in an international French-influence style.”
When Gielisse was thirteen, he went to technical college, and after he finished his apprenticeship at seventeen, he worked in Europe. “I studied about game and pastry in West Germany,” he recalls. “In Switzerland I learned about international cuisine and about catering to very sophisticated, wealthy customers. Italy taught me about regional cuisine, and I came to appreciate the earthy quality of good Italian cooking.”
In 1973 he was hired by Westin Hotels, eventually coming to this country. Gielisse joined up with Houston’s Westin Oaks as the executive sous chef in 1979. “Victor and I met at the Westin Oaks,” remembers Clive O’Donoghue, Gielisse’s partner in Actuelle. “He was very opinionated. I remember thinking he was like a technician — he was so consistent.” Gielisse also worked closely with the Westin’s director of catering, Kathryn Gray. “The catering director and the chef are traditionally on opposite sides,” says Kathryn, “but it was extreme in our case. Victor and I used to fight like cats and dogs. He was a perfectionist, and he still is.”
After teaming up to open the Dallas Westin Blom’s restaurant, Victor and Kathryn stopped working together — and got married. In just a short while the couple and their friend O’Donoghue started planning the restaurant that would become Actuelle.
Avoiding the confinements of “New American” and “continental” labels, Gielisse cointed the term “cuisine actuelle” (today’s cuisine) for the kind of food he wanted to serve in his new place. The restaurant, designed by Dallas’ Duncan Design Associates, opened in October 1986, with Clive running the front of the house, Kathryn handling the public relations and the books, and Victor working in the kitchen.
There in his province, Gielisse doesn’t hurry but gives time-consuming attention to detail. He often uses lengthy marinades to enhance the flavor and texture of foods, and breading may be a mixture of ground nuts, bran, and brioche crumbs to add still more flavor and rich texture. Accompaniments and garnishes expand and complement the qualities of the main dish. The savory sweetness of onion marmalade and the peppery roughness of game sausage round