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Provencal chef brings French country cooking to Gulf Coast

Gulfport — There’s a little bit of Provence in downtown Gulfport. The restaurant, Bonjour, on 14th Street reflects the home of French chef and proprietor Eric Barthelemy in food and décor.

When weather permits, tables and chairs sit in front of the 1920, two-story building. Inside, walls are exposed brick and a sunny yellow that Barthelemy calls apricot. He says the original pressed tin ceiling has been painted Marseilles blue in honor of his hometown. Original flooring includes blue and white tile downstairs and restored wood upstairs. A series of framed Provencal postcards decorate one wall while original art by Barthelemy’s father, Claude, and local artist Joyce Leonard brighten the walls of the upstairs dining room. The 2,000-square-foot building seats 60.

A graduate of France’s Rivesalts Cooking School, Barthelemy has been cooking since he was 14 years old and studied with a mentor who achieved the highest level of training. Bonjour’s owner came to this country less than three years ago to be near his children, Marguerite and Sterling, who came here with their American mother.

“There was no real French restaurant here, and the restaurant business is what I have always known,” he said. “I did a business plan for another location, but when I saw this building, I liked it and it was more of a feeling than anything else.”

While he felt that downtown Gulfport might not be the best business location, he liked it, too, and decided to go with his heart. “I stay my life here — six days a week — so the building must be a thing of the heart like my food,” he added.

Barthelemy says downtown has not been bad with the new federal courthouse opening nearby and other office buildings. Closing for the recent hurricane hurt business, but other than that, things are going well. He now has three employees to help handle the lunch crowd. Bonjour no longer serves breakfast.

“I tried breakfast, but it doesn’t match with lunch prep,” he said. “I also stopped opening on Sundays. I moved to America for my children, so I have to have that day with them.”

This chef makes it clear that his cooking is Provencal, one of five different regions in France. It is hearty and plentiful. “My cuisine is French country and that’s not nouvelle cuisine. You can come dressed like you want to and really enjoy the food,” he said. “It’s not true about small portions. It’s like eating with a farmer in France, and if you go to a real French place, the chef will cook like this. There’s a lot to please meat eaters.”

Asked if escargots with garlic is on the menu, he shrugs and smiles, “Of course, people expect to see snails on a French menu.”

French onion soup? The charming chef shrugs and smiles again, “The stock for my soup is veal. In France, 25 different towns will have 25 different recipes for onion soup,” he said.
True to tradition, Bonjour also has quiche Lorraine — made with heavy cream, Swiss cheese and lots of eggs — and a rich paté plate. Barthelemy is proud of his authentic French cheese plate that includes Emmenthal, Roquefort, Brie and goat cheese.

“It’s really interesting, and we serve it with farmer bread; that seems to be what people prefer rather than a baguette,” he said.

Barthelemy points out that cooking in Provence includes the use of garlic, olive oil, wine and lots of tomatoes and other vegetables. The region has the lowest heart disease in France. There, the people eat a lot but are not fat. He feels the healthy diet would benefit Americans.

Accustomed to open-air markets in every French town, he was surprised by the lack of markets in America. “We eat by the seasons, but you can’t do that here because there are no food providers,” he said. “I would break my week and menu by the markets on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday — big markets like the one in the French Quarter in New Orleans — but I have to deal with the food supplies we have here.”

He feels a downtown is always stronger because of markets. “It would keep the food business alive and it’s good for health,” he said.

Entrees at Bonjour include beef, duck and fish. Barthelemy prepares a filet mignon crowned with portobello mushrooms, heavy cream and cognac that he calls The Crown. Another filet is called Filet Gold Coast because it is stuffed with crabmeat and topped with béarnaise sauce. Shrimp a la Provencal is shrimp sautéed with garlic juice, white wine, lavender and herbs. Rice is served with a lot of dishes because it’s produced in the South of France and served a lot there.

The daily menu includes tasty sandwiches and salads, along with coffee and homemade pastries, to please the lunch crowd. Gourmet Night is a new feature for Saturdays and is quickly catching on. It’s a three-course meal with a wine theme. Every element matches the wine. The choices include a champagne menu, Chardonnay menu and red wine menu.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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