Chef and owner Guillaume Bienaimé blends classical French cuisine with modern cooking techniques at Palo Alto’s newest restaurant, Zola. Previously the chef at Portola Kitchen and Marché, which the Michelin Guide named a top-25 restaurant in the Bay Area, Guillaume sat down to talk with Metro about his new restaurant.

Where does your cooking background start?

My grandmother was a great cook and food was always a part of our life. Life really revolved around meals. I started cooking when I was 15. After a few days working I realize, ‘why am I going to school?’ The fact that you get paid to be in a kitchen was pretty cool. I went to school perhaps a little late for a cook, at Johnson and Wales in Providence, (Rhode Island), but you know, I was lucky to do a stage at Marché in Menlo Park when I was still young and then I came back after college and Howard (Bulka) offered me a sous chef position—I took it.

How did you come up with the name Zola?

I was looking for a name and searching through a French dictionary and I just couldn’t find a word that was easy to pronounce, easy to write, easy to remember. I didn’t want people to feel uncomfortable pronouncing the name or couldn’t look it up on the Internet because they didn’t know how to spell it. Also I think there’s an association with French cuisine: It’s expensive, or it’s snotty and pretentious and I kinda wanted to step away from that. I was reading Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook and he mentioned [Émile] Zola and a book that he wrote called “The Belly of Paris” about the markets of Paris. And that was it—Zola.

Being of French background and your experience at Marché, was Zola destined to be French?

I opened Portola Kitchen in Ladera a couple years ago and it had done pretty well—psychologically it made me feel comfortable opening my own thing. Although I had done a $2.2 million restaurant in Ladera, with my own money I felt more comfortable doing something a little smaller and I’ve always wanted to be in Palo Alto. It always made sense. At first I wanted to do something really casual, kinda bar food—maybe French or Spanish. I like to find the space first, knowing there is opportunity and then I create the concepts. It kinda happens to be that there is no French food in Palo Alto, so that ended up working out.

It’s French food, without a doubt. We just try to lighten things up a little bit—so not everything is butter and cream. I’m not trying to do things that differently—just try to think about the technique a little bit and not just rely on what they may have done 50 years ago in classical French food. A lot of this is from the Marché cookbook, minus $10 a plate.