Q&A With Toby Moreno Of Auberge

Chef Toby Moreno in a white chef's coat
Chef Toby Moreno of Auberge

FOR MARION, INDIANA, native Toby Moreno, getting a job at a nearby Mexican restaurant at 14 was more about earning extra cash for a new pair of Jordans than a deep love of food. But food, as well as a way to see the world, has long since become the focus of this young chef’s already-storied career. After culinary school and a sous chef position at Bloomington’s Restaurant Tallent, Moreno went on to head up the kitchen at Plow & Anchor and work at The Loft at Traders Point, where farm produce and in-house production took center stage. And while another two years in country club work might have sufficed for kitchen training, Moreno took the job of executive chef at Auberge, the cozy-but-buttoned-up French restaurant in Zionsville’s Brick Street Inn, where owner Paul Vezolles flew Moreno to Paris in late January for opportunities to cook in some of Alain Ducasse’s revered restaurants. Now, he’s back at Auberge, applying all of his Gallic know-how toward one of the area’s most ambitious continental menus.

Having attended Ivy Tech in Bloomington for culinary school and working with legendary local chef David Tallent, you were no stranger to French technique. So what was it like to stage in some of Alain Ducasse’s restaurants like Benoit and his test kitchen in Argenteuil?

It was great, and I’m so appreciative to Paul [Vezolles, who bought Brick Street Inn in 2010] for the opportunity. When I came aboard at the inn at Auberge, he immediately sent me to France, and he went along with me. He’s a true Francophile and is just so supportive and interested in great food and wine. The whole experience was like going back to school in a way. I was already pretty well-grounded in French food, but it was such a learning experience to see how other chefs do things. I mean, you’re working with some of the best chefs in the world in their Michelin-starred restaurants. I was even testing recipes with them. I learned so much that I’m able to use at Auberge.

What was the biggest lesson you took home with you about French cuisine?

The jus is everything. That was the motto for chef Adeline Robert, who was more or less my mentor in my Ducasse experience, and that really struck a chord with me. In the States, we make chicken stock, usually with the bones and aromatics. And that’s great. But for real French jus you use meat, and you take the time to sear it just right, cut the shallots to the perfect size, and add garlic and peppercorns at the right time. It was pretty much the embodiment of mise en place, and it wasn’t a process where you can walk away and do a lot of other things in the kitchen the way you can with stock. Also, when we were done frying or sauteing something, we would always strain the fat and use it to cook something else. Coming back, I’ve tried to recreate that process as much as possible, and something as simple as glazing our vegetables in it just adds a whole extra level. A lot of chefs will add a commercial base or MSG, but with our jus process, we’re basically creating our own MSG or at least something that adds just as much or more flavor.

Do you think it’s possible to recreate real French food in Indiana with the ingredients we have here?

Absolutely. I’ve worked closely with farmers and producers my whole career, so I feel like I know where to get the best. We get our duck and other things from D’Artagnan, I use Green Circle chicken, which is very similar to the chicken in France, and I use a lot of cheeses from dairies like Jacobs & Brichford, Tulip Tree Creamery, and Capriole, which are all very much like my favorite French cheeses and much better from a sustainability standpoint.

How receptive are Indiana diners to such a classic style of cooking?

They’re very receptive. Actually, they’ve been chomping at the bit to have a real French restaurant back in business again when there aren’t many around anymore. Lots of places kind of do it, with a French dish here or there on the menu, but to have a fully French menu is something that people have been looking for. I get customers coming in from as far away as Lafayette who came just for the menu, and they’re like, “Wow, this is what we want.”

Were you into gourmet and French food when you were growing up and starting to get into cooking?

I’ve always been passionate about French food, even if I didn’t always know it. When I was younger, I wanted to do a French-Mexican fusion place called Tripas (Spanish for tripe). That’s the kind of thing you think about when you are 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, apple, and mulberry trees, and she would always get my brother and to me climb the tree and shake the apples down. My stepfather as was part Native American, and he introduced me to foraging. We would go hunting for wild berries and morels. And my grandmother was a great cook. She grew up along the border of Mexico in the Brownsville area, and she was a migrant worker. She worked picking iceberg lettuce in the 1940s. She actually met my grandfather on the back of a truck when they were both working the fields. She has this way of frying corn that it’s so sweet it sticks to the back of your teeth. But I love it. And she always has a bowl of iceberg on the table, even after all these years, just to let you know where she came from.

What made you make the leap to culinary school?

At first, working at a restaurant was more about just getting some extra money. I was pretty much raised by a single mother, and I’ve just always been an empathetic person who didn’t want to ask for things. So if I wanted something, I figured I should earn the money myself. So I went to work at a Mexican restaurant when I was super young because it was one of the places that would hire me. Then at 17, I read Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, and I thought, OK, this world’s pretty big. Cooking is my ticket to seeing other countries and cultures as well. It actually helped me to get closer to my own culture and the dishes of my ancestors like specific salsas, tamales, tingas, and carne guisada. I don’t make those things for customers anymore since I’m at Auberge, but I make it for family meal for the staff.

Lots of chefs recently watched the FX/Hulu series The Bear, about a James Beard Award–winning chef inheriting his family’s rundown Chicago restaurant. Did you watch it, and are there any parallels in the show to your life in the kitchen?  

It looks good, but I’ve been so busy that I haven’t. Sometimes I only get one day off in a month’s time. But I want to. And I know that in some ways it mimics a lot of what I’ve experienced in the kitchen. Being a chef has definitely been a hard road to go down, and I’ve been in some kitchens where the staff adopted some pretty bad habits. A lot of chefs have mental health issues, and they have terrible coping mechanisms, especially when they’re working for a really talented or demanding chef. I’ve definitely been berated, which is doubly hard at the pay rate. Chefs have screamed at me that the okra’s not cooked right, and I’ve had chefs throw arancini at me because they weren’t good enough. But now that I’m older, I’m a lot calmer in the kitchen, and I think things are getting better. And it was definitely good to see that in France there’s just so much more respect for the profession, and restaurant workers have pay rates much more in line with other careers.

You had a chance to go to a bigger, more modern kitchen, but you chose Auberge. What led you to that decision?

People wonder why I’d go to work at the restaurant for an eight-room boutique hotel with a terribly small kitchen and ventilation that’s not the best. 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, to build, to grow with a place. I’ve always rooted for the underdog.