In his spare time, Yannick Cam is a photographer, which is why the refrigerator in his apartment is as likely to hold packs of 35mm film as food. The food is in his imagination, simmering in his head, where he dreams up new dishes to offer diners at Le Pavillon restaurant.
At 30, earning an annual salary he reluctantly admits approaches $100,000, Cam threatens to become an enfant terrible in the close world of Washington's pricey French restaurant chefs. Since his arrival from New York in October, Cam has pleased the palates of restaurant critics and others intrigued by the nouvelle cuisine that is all the rage in France.
"I think of dishes while sitting in a bar or during a conversation," says Cam."I won't be too interested, and I'll start to think of something... Or I'll go to a restaurant and they'll bring me a dish, and I'll see something and see it completely differently.
"Like duck with green peppercorns -- I saw that at Lion d'Or, and I said, 'I'm going to do that one.' The people who eat the duck here and there, however, will see the difference."
Of course, boastful chefs are no rarer than grouchy cab drivers. But Cam says his training -- classical French at first, the lighter nouvelle cuisine later -- sets him apart from his competition.
"The way the duck is cut, the sauce, it's different," he says. "It is hard to explain, but in the kitchen you can see the difference in detail."
Jean Pierre Moraldo, for one, certainly hopes the difference will be appreciated. As the owner (though he has investors) and operator of Le Pavillon, Moraldo is betting on the young chef with the tousled sandy hair and, as one woman admiringly noticed, bedroom eyes, will set his K Street eatery above others where a $40 dinner for a couple is the norm.
"Yannick likes everything to be perfect, and I like everything perfect," says Moraldo. "This man is working at 150,000 miles an hour."
Moraldo's restaurant has changed chefs three times since its opening in July 1977. A major partner pulled out the first week. It's time, Moraldo says, to make a mark. And if Cam's culinary magic succeeds, Moraldo says the young man will be made a full partner in the restaurant.
Cam began in the biz by getting chased out of the kitchen of a restaurant run by his mother in Brittany. At age 15 he was sent to another restaurant to begin his apprenticeship in the kitchen. He says he worked 15 hours a day, 7 days a week. Eventually he moved to Paris, where he worked under a variety of chefs.
"If you want to be someone in the kitchen, I learned, you are not to stay too long in one kitchen," Cam says. "You begin to take on the thoughts and personality of a dominating chef."
In 1973 he moved to New York.
"In France they say, 'Oh over there they can still cook hamburgers,'" says Cam, who was underwhelmed by the level of cooking he found in America. He worked in a series of New York restaurants where he says he made a reputation as a saucier. (He also met his fiancee there, a San Francisco fashion designer.)
Cam worked at the Four Seasons until "it started to be a factory and I couldn't work there anymore." Finally, in 1976, he assumed command of his own kitchen, taking over the stove at the Coup de Fusil. Which is where Moraldo found him. And if Moraldo and Cam are as prescient as they are hopeful, the rest will be history.