2022 Speaker Profile: Philippe Gouze
Meet Philippe Gouze, floral designer and Director of Operations of Blue Hill Restaurant at Stone Barns, where we are holding our special Slow Flowers Summit dinner on Monday, June 27th. As part of the Slow Flowers Summit, Philippe and Shannon Algiere will kick off our Day Two program with a presentation called "The Flowers at Stone Barns Center & Blue Hill." On Day Three, he will be part of our Floral Immersion, demonstrating to attendees the design and installation process of Blue Hill's farm table displays. Debra Prinzing recently interviewed Philippe for this Slow Flowers Summit feature.
On Wednesday mornings, before the first day of the week for Blue Hill, Philippe Gouze designs the florals throughout the celebrated Michelin 2-star restaurant. He may bring a bucket of branches pruned from his own garden in nearby Rockland County where he has lived for more than 20 years with his husband and a rotating cast of cats, dogs, and chickens. He most certainly will have gleaned and foraged nature's seasonal blooms along the way, and will incorporate flowers harvested from the greenhouses and flower fields at Stone Barns. Philippe's seasonal displays incorporate cut floral arrangements and plants, including his vast orchid collection. The botanicals appear in the foyer, bar area, and on the large farm table in the center of Blue Hill's dining room. On a recent Wednesday morning he brought branches of weigela, honey locust and ninebark from his garden. "I arrange the flowers the first thing in the morning - before I do anything else."
His evolution into Blue Hill's resident floral designer was an entirely organic one, rooted in his family's land in southern France, where he was raised in the countryside among grape vines, gladiolas and dahlias. "I had a very strong connection to the land when I was growing up," he recalls. "It wasn't necessarily flowers, but just farming in general." After earning an MBA in marketing and working in advertising in Paris, Philippe took a trip to New York City when he was 24 years old. When the vacation ended and his friends were returning to France, Philippe decided to "drop everything and stay in New York" and began working in restaurants to support himself. Flowers unexpectedly captured Philippe's heart when he was working for Vong, a French-Thai fusion restaurant in the Vongerichten group. "We had orchids as our florals," Philippe explains. He befriended the grower and one day she gave him an orchid plant. "From there, I bought two more and six more, 10 more. I built a greenhouse on top of my apartment building, in the East Village, building it out of crates that I would find on the street, and with plastic sheeting. I even ran water and electricity through the chimney." Although the landlord had turned a blind eye to the rooftop, he eventually sought to shut it down. Philippe prevailed in the subsequent legal dispute but realized he needed more space. "It was time to start looking for a house and have a real garden. That's when I moved outside New York City to Rockland County in 1999." Rockland County is located across the Hudson River from Westchester County, where Stone Barns Center and Blue Hill Restaurant are based.
"The Blue Hill experience is all about bringing what's outside into the dining room," Philippe says. "So the visual of the flowers is totally part of that. Dan (Barber) understands that having something that feels like it was just picked outside the window enhances the guest experience . . . "
With a small house surrounded by four acres, the first thing Philippe did was plant a huge vegetable garden, and eventually added a greenhouse. "I went back to my roots and raised chickens and bees, and pretty much all the food that we would eat at home. I've spent the last 23 years just planting and planting -- and pushing the forest back to have gardens that are a little bit more manicured, but still very natural looking." There are obvious parallels between his personal lifestyle and his professional role at Blue Hill. "My vegetable garden allows me to have everything you can think of throughout the year, because I also preserve -- freezing, canning, drying, fermenting. It is the way Blue Hill operates on a smaller scale." Philippe met restaurateur Dan Barber, who in 2000 opened the first Blue Hill in New York's Greenwich Village with his brother and sister-in-law, years earlier through a friend. Philippe recalls, "I heard about the project at Stone Barns and I thought that was totally up my alley." He reconnected with the Barbers and joined Blue Hill as the opening General Manager in 2004. "I've been working hand-in-hand with Stone Barns over the years. That's how I got involved with creating the gardens around the campus when Stone Barns first opened. From there, as I saw the variety coming from the farm, I started doing more and more arrangements for the restaurant, supplementing with florals from my private garden."
He is hands-on with the restaurant's entire visual presentation, including plateware and utensils, and collaborating with local artisans to design objects for the dining table. "It's one of the reasons I enjoy my job here so much -- because it's multifaceted and creative," he says.
Coming out of COVID, with the reopening of Blue Hill in October 2021, Philippe has pulled back from outside floral commissions, devoting himself to ensuring the restaurant operation is a success. "The Blue Hill experience is all about bringing what's outside into the dining room," Philippe says. "So the visual of the flowers is totally part of that. Dan (Barber) understands that having something that feels like it was just picked outside the window enhances the guest experience, but I design the arrangements so they're not distracting . . . it's hard for me to describe it, but I've brought it down to two things: I like to start with a branch and I want the flowers to face the way they grow in the garden."
Philippe's naturalist botanical displays are inspired by what's growing at Stone Barns or in his garden -- and simply set on the table. "I think the comment from a few years ago was, 'it feels like a six-year-old went through the field, picked up a handful of things, and just threw them on the table,'" he laughs. "I didn't know if it was a compliment or an insult, but I liked it."