Citronnelle: Where Local Ingredients And Global Flavors Collide

Meet Chef Rafael Perez - Citronnelle

“Cooking is one of those things you really have to love in order to get into it. When I go to work it’s more like play—I could do it forever. As with anything, if it starts to feel like a chore, you have to step back, take a break, refresh, reboot. Maybe learn a few new things. Then come back with a fresh perspective.”

Chef Rafael Perez, of Citronnelle, embarked on his epic culinary journey soon after he graduated high school. He, at first, was pursuing a career in physical therapy–before he came to the conclusion that that sitting in a lab all day was not for him.

“I realized I didn’t want to pursue that career,” said Chef Rafael. “I tried retail—also not for me. I wanted to do something creative.” Then, with some encouragement from his mom, who noted how much he loved to cook, he embarked on his calling.

“I watched a video for culinary school and thought, ‘I am going to try that’.” And it stuck.

Rafael wanted to learn everything he could so he could figuratively, and literally, bring high level experience to the table.

We met Rafael before the dinner rush at Citronnelle, sitting near the open window at the front. He and his wife Susan, owner of Citronnelle, are content in bringing locally grown, globally inspired cuisine to the Lancaster restaurant scene. The dining space is intimate and cozy, perfect for a BYOB specializing in crafted French cuisine with a twist.

Before he ever even imagined opening his own restaurant, Rafael was driven by an intense desire to master everything the culinary industry had to offer.

“I started taking weekend classes to learn basic skills,” said Rafael. “It took a year—and then I decided to attend full-time to gain all the skills I needed to succeed.” That drive landed Rafael an internship at the Friars Club in New York City where he learned many critical techniques from Master Chef John Souza. Rafael also worked at the German Embassy, where he was able to cook for a multitude of ambassadors and guests who visited. Plus, he had the chance to cook for other celebrity individuals throughout his journey.

“I had the opportunity to meet many interesting people,” said Rafael. “I cooked for both Margaret Thatcher and Oscar De La Hoya, what a great experience.”

Rafael wanted to expand his knowledge—not being settled with one perspective or angle. He worked in different restaurants in New York City, soaking in all the types of cuisine he could. This continued passion to learn opened up an opportunity to attend ICE, the Institute of Culinary Education—and, this time, focus on the pastry field.

“Being a pastry chef as well as a culinary chef makes you even more viable in the industry,” said Rafael. “So I decided to pursue that next.”

That led to Rafael working under very famous chefs, including Michael Zebrowski of Montrachet, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, and the king of farm-to-table cuisine, Bill Telepan.

But he wasn’t done with just pastries—he wanted to learn more about Asian cuisine.

“I decided to go work at a sushi restaurant to learn more about it,” said Rafael. “When I was at ICE, I learned from master sushi chef Hiroko Shimbo. She was a woman, and it was difficult to break into that field as a woman. It was amazing that she was able to do that. She taught me all the skills I needed for making authentic Japanese cuisine.” After working for two famous sushi restaurants, Megu and Morimoto, he learned about Malaysian cuisine at Fatty Crab, and Korean cuisine at Miss Kim’s. “The owner told me my kimchi was as good as her mom’s. That’s a huge compliment,” he proudly stated.

“Cooking is one of those things you really have to love in order to get into it. When I go to work it’s more like play—I could do it forever. As with anything, if it starts to feel like a chore, you have to step back, take a break, refresh, reboot. Maybe learn a few new things. Then come back with a fresh perspective.”

“We always liked Lancaster,” said Rafael. “We had been coming down to visit friends for years. So it made sense to move and open a restaurant here.”

First, Rafael moved down to the City and worked at the Belvedere. Then after a year, he and Susan decided to open their own place. The end product resulted in Citronnelle—a tiny mid-century modern restaurant serving French cuisine with added global twists. Located right on Orange Street near the intersection of Orange and Prince, close to Gallery Row, Citronnelle has now been serving customers for almost 5 years.

“We wanted Citronnelle to have the feel of a restaurant you would find in New York or Paris,” said Rafael. “We wanted it to be intimate, special, and unique.”

Citronnelle’s name was inspired by one of Rafael and Susan’s stops during their honeymoon.

“We were traveling the world and visiting many exotic countries,” said Rafael. “When we were in the Seychelles, Susan caught a bad cold. The proprietors of our inn gave her some hot citronnelle tea after dinner, which was basically fresh lemongrass cut from their garden. It literally cured her overnight. So we decided to name our restaurant after this magical, global herb.”

A big reason why they love their location in downtown Lancaster is its proximity to fresh, local produce from Central Market.

“We love serving local, seasonal food.” said Rafael. “We are French, but we also incorporate flavor inspirations from Asia, Spain, and North Africa.”

Rafael sources much of his ingredients from Central Market, ensuring the dishes are always fresh and seasonally-specific.

“We base a lot of what we offer on what we can get at market,” added Rafael. “One time, a guest had one of our artichoke dishes. He went to Central Market and bought some for himself because he enjoyed it so much. It helps Central Market, and encourages that local connection within our community.”

Rafael decided to make us one of the specials—a Basque-inspired fish dish with cod as the focal point.

He roasted a variety of vegetables for the side, then created a piperade from pequillo peppers, tomato, and chorizo oil that smelled amazing.

“My mom taught me how to cook when I was little,” said Rafael. “I learned how to make Dominican food from her. She was the best when it came to that. She also owned a sweet shop in the Dominican Republic that sold desserts and pastries.”

Rafael tries to incorporate that personal education with his professional experience.

“Whenever we cook together we still argue, (laughs), I always try to cook as well as her. I often call her for tips.”

Rafael put the final touches onto the dish, topping it with a cluster of crispy potato hay.

The smell was incredible—as was the presentation. Next up, the taste test!

To say it was fantastic is an understatement. The cod was cooked to perfection, with the piperade underneath—creating a taste I’ve never experienced before. The vegetables, tender and buttery, were so rich in flavor. The potato hay added texture—nice crunch with each bite. It was delicious!

“We have fish specials every day,” said Rafael. “We’re always looking for the freshest seafood available.”

Seriously, you need to go try this dish. And if it isn’t on the menu, you’ll be sure to find something full of flavor with a global influence to satisfy your appetite.

“We really enjoy being unique,” added Rafael.

Explore more about Citronnelle on their website. Check out their various menus and plan your visit. It’s BYOB, so be sure to bring your favorite wine to pair with your dinner! And most importantly, prepare to have a dining experience you’ll never forget.

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