By DEVIN HEILMAN
POST FALLS — Exercising culinary creativity is a large part of Chef Laurent Zirotti's profession.
European-inspired dishes fill his menu at Fleur de Sel in Post Falls, from his signature chicken and truffles to the gigot d'agneau provençal (herbes de Provence crusted and roasted leg of lamb).
But for Zirotti, the crème de la crème of his work is when his guests truly enjoy their dining experience in his restaurant.
“We are fortunate because we are part of the entertainment industry," Laurent said in his velvety French accent Thursday evening. "We have to put a show on. We open the curtain like a theater and we close the curtain, but in between we get to perform. But the most rewarding thing is to put a smile on somebody’s face. That’s what we are here for.”
From the moment guests enter to the moment they leave, Laurent and his wife, Patricia, and their team are attentive, affectionate and accommodating.
"They're the kindest, sweetest people," said regular patron Laurie Coyle of Post Falls. "They always make you feel at home, 100 percent at home. And the food is so incredibly delicious. The way they plate things visually is so appealing, it's beautiful to look at. And it tastes so phenomenal, your taste buds go crazy."
This combination of hospitality, atmosphere and culinary prowess made the perfect recipe for recognition. In mid-February, Laurent was announced as a semi-finalist in the Best Chef: Northwest category of the 2017 James Beard Foundation Awards.
The Beard Awards are the highest honor of the food industry. Thousands of nominations are submitted each year in the separate categories. Laurent was the only Inland Northwest chef to be selected as a semi-finalist.
"I know the James Beard Foundation, but I didn’t know it was such a big deal,” Laurent said. "No matter what, you try to do the best that you can every day and be professional, that’s all."
Laurent and Patricia opened Fleur de Sel in 2008. They also have an artisan creperie in Spokane where Laurent starts his days around 6 a.m. He works evenings at Fleur de Sel, making for pretty long days.
“I see him of course working hard all the time," Patricia said. "He strives for excellence."
But Laurent knows the long hours are worth it when his food brings joy to others. He said when guests come up to him and say how much they enjoyed a meal, "all that work, it's fine. It just lifts everything and makes you happy. You accomplished something."
Laurent views the nomination not as a solo achievement, but a team effort that showcases the dedication of the whole staff. Although Laurent was not announced as a finalist when the awards list was released Wednesday, making it to semi-finalist status is appreciation enough.
"I felt good, I felt proud, I think also I felt that it was not a one-nomination kind of thing, I think it’s everybody here,” he said. “It was everybody’s nomination. Everybody felt good about it. It was a restaurant nomination, not just one person."
Patricia said the nomination is a nice boost for everyone, but they will do their best whether or not an award is at stake.
“It’s a little bit of a token of appreciation," she said. "It feels like it’s a little cherry on the cake."
Fleur de Sel, located at 4365 Inverness Drive, will close March 26 and reopen April 4 with a fresh spring menu.