Laurent Zirotti was destined to work in a car factory, seemingly with the rest of the people who lived in his French town. But he wanted to escape. At age 15, he went to Thonon-les-Bains, a hotel and catering school in the Alps, and from there continued to study hospitality at a school on the Riviera in Nice. After years of working in France, Zirotti traveled to the U.S. and opened a restaurant in Montana with his wife, Patricia. In 2008, their journey led them to open Fleur de Sel in Post Falls, where Zirotti now whips up meals influenced by his French mother and Italian grandmother's cooking.
INLANDER: Tell me about growing up in France and the influence of your French and Italian family on your cooking.
ZIROTTI: Food was part of our living. We come from a very low key [family], but we always had food on the table. We didn't eat beef tenderloin or we didn't eat foie gras or, you know, truffles. But we had an appetizer, a main course, a cheese course and a dessert every day. Every day and twice a day — lunch and dinner. So it was very fortunate to be raised around [that] for what I do now. Everything was homemade and we had a garden, so [my mom] would do a lot of fresh product in the summer. She would can a lot for the winter. We had uncles that were hunters, so they would bring deer, wild boar and hare in the winter season.
How would you describe the food you sell at Fleur de Sel?
Are we a French restaurant? Yes. Not only because of the accent, but my wife is also working in the dining room. So you get real French people working.
But are we a traditional French restaurant? No. I think we are a mix of serving traditional dishes and dishes also that are French with a twist. Why? Because I feel like it. It's fun for me. It's fun for me to do things that are not always traditional and also to adapt with our clientele. We are in North Idaho. Even if we are close to Spokane, we cannot do everything that a French restaurant would do in New York City, for example, especially in the winter when business is slower. How can I put it? It's harder to serve, for example, frog legs all the time, or foie gras, because you're not going to serve it every night, and the foie gras is going to go either for the staff meal or in the garbage.
Why did you decide to do Restaurant Week?
Well, first to be very pragmatic. That week was very slow for us here, so we thought, "Well, it's true there is Restaurant Week in Spokane [now expanded to North Idaho] and we are lacking business for sure." We felt it. A lot of people imagine that this restaurant is very like a French restaurant, [for example] this restaurant is very snotty and very expensive and serving very small portions. That's what people have in mind for French restaurants. I think we're very friendly. We have very fair prices and our portions are more than large, or more than normal. ... So, to break that ice, there is no better way.
Do they do restaurant weeks in France?
There's a week of gastronomy in France nationwide where everybody talks about food. ... As an occidental country, everybody works too much. Everybody's busy. Everybody wants to do too many things and nobody cooks anymore. Kids don't know where vanilla beans come from. They haven't seen a cow for ages. It's the same problem everywhere. So they have a gastronomic week where they go in school and they talk about food and restaurants try to do their part.