At a small flea market in Strasbourg, France, I stop in front of a taxidermied baby alligator with cut glass in its mouth. It’s June, and I’m on study abroad with USF St. Petersburg. The gator sits on a trunk surrounded by chandeliers, priced 200 to 300 euros, which have been restored by a man named Jean-Sebastien Denis.
I speak no French, but when I tell Denis I’m from Florida, he says, “Disney,” then, in very good English, tells me about his two married friends — chef David Weiss and (a different) Jean Sebastien, who moved from Strasbourg to St. Petersburg. Cue Magic Kingdom’s “It’s a Small World.” The couple had recently opened a restaurant in Tierra Verde.
Once stateside, one of the first things I do is make a beeline to the young local bistro, called Cordon Bleu. I wanted to hold onto Strasbourg a little longer and see how French cuisine translates to the Sunshine State.
“America was a dream since I was a little boy,” says Weiss, when I visit in early July. “Coming here, I actually learned to enjoy cooking again, because I can be creative and make my own decisions.”
In 2014, Weiss and Sebastien, who wed in France three years ago, moved to Wisconsin so Weiss could take a chef’s position. They’d traveled around the States to places like New York City and Los Angeles, and considered the prospect of America’s Dairyland, Weiss says, another adventure.
After two brutal winters, though, the duo craved warmth.
“My dream was the sun and the ocean,” says Sebastien, who runs front of house. “I started to research restaurants in Tampa Bay.”
They soon left Madison for France to work on the visa process, which Weiss says proved longer and more time-consuming than they originally thought. During this time, the two found a German creperie for sale in the Tampa Bay area.
That first German restaurant didn’t work out, but another one — Tierra Verde’s old Black Forest Cottage — fit what they were looking for. The former owners, Sebastien says, brought “the wood and everything” from Germany.
“It was exactly what we wanted, and it matched great with our identity. It was destiny,” he says.
Cordon Bleu stands next to a travel agency in a plaza off the Pinellas Bayway. While the couple initially considered sites in downtown Tampa and Ybor City, they visited St. Pete and fell in love with the location. They ultimately settled on Tierra Verde, a place Weiss describes as a little village. There are some people who seem to never leave, he tells me.
“Most people don’t go off the island, which is good for us,” Weiss says. “During wintertime, there’s snowbirds, and during the summer, there’s regulars.”
At 6:30 p.m. on a Sunday, Sebastien greets regulars with hugs, sending them off with a bonsoir and a double-cheek kiss. Diane, the restaurant’s other employee, asks nearby, “When are we finally going to meet your kids?”
I sit at a small table near a dark-wood bar. The red checkered tablecloths, and surrounding pictures, are from France. As Sebastien puts it, he and Weiss wanted to create a quaint, “grandma-style” feeling.
“When I see a grandma-style tablecloth, I get hungry,” Sebastien, 39, says. “A modern restaurant is pretty, but I don’t get the same appetite.”
Although the atmosphere is intentionally, let’s say, cozy, there’s most certainly not a grandma in the kitchen. Weiss wears studded earrings and is tattooed; the Yankees logo, for one, is inked on the back of his neck. The 32-year-old started cooking as a young boy. His father had dreamed of becoming a chef, but couldn’t because his parents chose a different path for him.
“It wasn’t easy at 14 to decide what I wanted to do with my life. I love to eat, though, so [I thought] that’s a good start,” Weiss says.
Weiss completed two years of cooking school in France, plus a year of pastry training at Au Crocodile (once a Michelin-starred restaurant). After that, he worked at Germany’s Europa-Park — an amusement park that he says is comparable to Disney — for 10 years. There, the chef learned culinary skills, including how to cook for diverse cultures, and met husband Sebastien.
“We’ve worked for the same company or business for 11 years,” Weiss says. “But this is the first time we work together-together. It’s good.”
Cordon Bleu opened in July 2016, and Weiss, the sole chef, makes traditional French dishes — boeuf bourguignon, canard a l’orange and cordon bleu among them. On my visit, I order porc aux pruneaux, a pork stew with prunes and almonds, that comes with seasoned potatoes, dinner salad and soup (in my case, butternut squash).
Served in a small pot, the sweet and savory porc aux pruneaux makes me feel romantic. It gets me all warm. About midway through the dish, I even get the urge to text my ex, “Wish you were here.” Thankfully, I think better of the plan and keep my phone tucked away from bad decisions that good food sometimes instigates.
Weiss says he’s had to modify some of his recipes to work with what’s available locally. Many of the ingredients, as he puts it, aren’t readily available at an affordable price. Veal meat is expensive, for example, so he substitutes chicken in the cordon bleu.
“You have to make sure people will spend the money for something, and if you want something Frenchy sometimes it gets too expensive,” the chef says.
But price points haven’t stopped him from experimentation. He creates different specials every week and puts his own spin on dessert. Lavender crème brûlée, anyone?
Finishing off their whole meal, a married couple near me doesn’t save room for desert. However, they do purchase a bottle of house-made vinaigrette. This is the kind of restaurant where it doesn’t feel strange to interact with other diners, so I strike up a conversation.
They first heard about Cordon Bleu through word of mouth (from a neighbor who said something like, “You gotta try this place before everyone else finds out about it”). They’ve since eaten at the restaurant about 10 times.
“They’re always friendly when you walk in the door,” Greg Quinn says.
“I like the dinner,” says his wife Elizabeth, ”but I think brunch is my favorite.”
As the early-bird dinner crowd begins to thin, I start to lose track of time, staying a bit longer than planned (it is, after all, very French to spend two to three hours over a meal). Diane tells me she’s a former country DJ, and we gossip about Dolly Parton. Sebastien also talks about his sister, who’s a mega Celine Dion fan.
Weiss says his current visa lasts five years, and that he looks forward to the future. As of now, there aren’t any plans to open another restaurant, though he’d might like to own a smaller place in downtown St. Pete at some point.
“I’m happy to own one restaurant, and I want it to be full every night,” he says. “It’s the first year, and we’re pretty lucky that it’s worked.”
Cordon Bleu operates Wednesday through Sunday for varied hours in the morning, closing from 2 to 5 p.m. — as is typical in France — and reopening for dinner.
Sure, I didn’t need to go all the way to Strasbourg for authentic French food, but I’m glad I did, because, among other things, it led me to take a trip in my own neck of the woods.