A New Chapter for Old World Cuisine: Amherst’s Chez Albert celebrates its ten-year anniversary

Chef Paul Hathaway lives for the moment when an idea for a new dish comes to mind. “You have this dark image in your head of what it should look like,” he says, “and you have to try and turn the light on it, see what it’s supposed to be.”

Hathaway didn’t go to culinary school. He didn’t grow up in what he calls a “food family.” Sometimes when he burns toast in the kitchen of Chez Albert, the Amherst restaurant he opened ten years ago, he’ll scrape off the burnt bits and joke “This is the only thing my mom taught me!”

But that ability to “turn up the light” on creative food ideas seems to come naturally to Hathaway. He developed a passion for cooking early on, and he has worked in restaurants all around the Boston area. Now, he’s forty-seven, a father of three, and the owner and head chef at one of Western Mass’ premier French bistros.

Chez Albert, on North Pleasant Street in Amherst, serves lunch Tuesday-Friday and dinner seven nights a week, offering fresh and hardy takes on French-style comfort food. Some classic French meals are permanent fixtures on the menu- the pate and the escargot, for example- while specials rotate though on a seasonal basis: oxtail, or, most recently, a rabbit rillette.

Dinner entrees range from Basque seafood stew with Andouille sausage to veal blanquette and pork confit with polenta and apple glaze. The lunch options most consist of sandwiches and tartines, soups and stews, plus meat dishes.

For the winter menu, Hathaway served up root vegetables like potatoes, parsnips, and turnips alongside stick-to-your-rib-entrees like cassoulet and chicken cordon bleu. “We want to cook meals that make you feel warm inside, so that you can relax with a glass of red wine and enjoy yourself,” he says.

Fostering that warm atmosphere, balanced between refined and casual, can be tricky, he adds, especially when it comes to serving French food.

“Some people see the word Chez in the restaurant’s name and they conclude that we are fine dining,” Hathaway says. But Chez Albert is designed as a bistro, not a fancy restaurant. The polished wooden tables have no white tablecloths. The music on the speakers tends toward soul and funk, not Edith Piaf. And the best of all, Hathaway says: “No uptight waiters.”

The restaurants attracts plenty of diners out for a special occasion, he adds. Still, the vibe is more festive and formal. One of Hathaway’s favorite times of the year is summer, when people stop in for a drink and sit to watch a baseball game on the television.

Customers aren’t the only ones sometimes surprised by the café atmosphere of Chez Albert. Some cooks specializing in French cuisine have been confused, Hathaway says, when they join the Chez Albert team. One employee referred to the menu as “healthy French”- in a tone that wasn’t exactly reverent. The implication, as Hathaway heard it, was that the Chez Albert kitchen cooks with less butter and cream than most French restaurants.

“Anything I can do to help my clients live a little longer is a good thing!” he says, laughing.

But the underlying fact is that French cooking is a vast culinary canvas and its signature techniques- braising, roasting, sautéing- can inspire any number of styles and flavors.

Hathaway refers to the food at Chez Albert as country-style dinner food made from fresh, locally-grown ingredients, but that seems to say more about the area’s growing farm-to-table movement than it does about Hathaway’s specific brand of French cooking.

The question doesn’t concern him much. French food is, above all, about tradition. “Everything’s been done before,” he says. “That’s every chef’s challenge. You’re never going to write a new blues song. That’s not what it’s about. You have to try out techniques here and there and see how you can manipulate them into producing your own ideas.”

Hathaway reads cookbooks from a variety of European countries (most recently, he’s been working through a cookbook written in England in the early 1900s). Even within France, styles vary widely, he says. “You can start in Brittany, then travel towards Paris, the styles change. Near the Swiss and German borders, those cuisines start to bleed over into French cooking. Go down into Provence and toward Italy, and you’re eating French takes on gnocchi and pesto.”

This gives Hathaway permission to push the traditional French flavor profile, which showcases herbs like thyme, tarragon, and rosemary, even while he experiments (one inventive item on the entrée menu: pumpkin gnocchi with sage).

And ultimately, all of the options of Chez Albert’s menu speak to Hathaway’s interest in crafting complex and perfectly balanced tastes- a very French obsession. Many southern European and Mediterranean styles of cooking are quick and fairly easy: throw fresh ingredients together and cook them up quickly. But Hathaway loves the French slow styles of cooking. “This cuisine really allows you to develop a dish over time, when you build layer upon layer of flavor.”

An impulse to revamp the restaurant seems to hover in the air here- Hathaway hints at some upcoming changes to the menu around the time of Chez Albert’s ten-year anniversary on May 12- but even now, the restaurant is a downtown Amherst mainstay: busy enough to retain its great reputation, and quiet enough during the snowy winter months for this head chef to play in the kitchen, blending ideas, and doing his practiced best to turn the light up on some delicious new ideas.