02/26/2009 12:00AM

A master chef and his grapefruit


ARCADIA, Calif. - If The Pamplemousse is going to be a good horse, maybe even a Derby contender, then the rest of us might as well get used to the name.

In French, it means "grapefruit," which is fine, but has nothing to do with his sire, Kafwain, which means "doubly strong" in Arabic, or his dam, the Rubiano mare Comfort Zone, which is where The Pamplemousse should be on Saturday in the $200,000 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita Park.

The Pamplemousse was named for Pamplemousse Grille, a restaurant across the street from the Del Mar backstretch. You can't get there, though, from the Del Mar backstretch unless you climb the fence, and then rob a bank. The lunch menu includes a Kobe beef burger for $24, but if you're feeling flush, owner Jeffrey Strauss can scare you up a $50 grilled cheese sandwich chock full of roasted lobster and shaved truffles.

Ask Strauss why he named his award-winning restaurant after a member of the citrus family, and the sensory memories come flooding back. He will tell you of his wandering youth, from a teen in the kitchen of a New Jersey Italian joint, to college in Massachusetts, to working at the five-diamond Greenbriar resort in West Virginia, and then on to the south of France, where he ran into a cast of characters straight out of "Ratatouille."

"One day, using his broken English, the head chef told me to get him a 'pamplemousse' from the refrigerator," said Strauss, who eventually worked for the renowned New York catering firm Glorious Food. "I thought it was a joke, like 'bring me a dingleberry.' Pretty soon he was screaming, 'A pamplemousse! A pamplemousse! Why do I hire such a useless American?' One of the other guys whispers in my ear, 'Get him a grapefruit.' Ever since then it's been my favorite word."

Now it is being carried by an iron gray colt with a high cruising speed, whose $150,000 tag as a 2-year-old is beginning to look like a steal. The partnership of Chuck Winner and David Bienstock (Three Degrees, Yankee Bravo) owns 52 percent of The Pamplemousse, with Strauss and his brother, Bill, founder of ProFlowers, in for 20 percent. Their other partners include Tom Lenner, Tom Murray, Jess Ravich, and bloodstock agent Alex Solis Jr., who tabbed the colt as a horse they needed to buy.

In his most recent start, The Pamplemousse led all the way to win the one-mile San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita on Jan. 17, defeating the Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up Square Eddie by two lengths. The Pamplemousse is trained by the eccentric Peruvian Julio Canani, a three-time Breeders' Cup winner who has never taken a horse down the Kentucky Derby trail before. This bothers Jeff Strauss not in the least.

"Before this, I knew Julio through other people," Strauss said. "Three years ago he was in my restaurant as a guest of some owners. The next night he was there with another horse owner. And then a third straight night, he was there again as a guest. That was when he stopped me and said, 'You know, this is my third night here. Don't you think I should get a free meal?' "

There will be a pause here for Canani fans to shake their heads and say, "That's Julio."

"Julio reminds me of me in certain ways," Strauss went on. "There's a reason why you do things in the culinary world. You can tweak things, and incorporate other ingredients, but you always respect the basics. I don't see Julio changing the way he does things very much, just because he might have a Derby horse. I mean, he's worn the same Russian hat for God knows how many years!"

Pamplemousse Grille has been in business since 1996, and with its success, Strauss has become a benefactor of the sport. Each year he turns the restaurant over to the local jockey colony to raise money for the Don MacBeth Fund. Now, Strauss has gone from a high-profile fan to a potential player in the game's greatest arena.

"The other day, when we won the stakes race, a friend of mine said, 'Hey, Jeff. I hope you appreciate what's going on right now,' " Strauss said. "Well of course I was. I'm screaming, jumping up and down. He said, 'No, not that. I've been doing this for 25 years and probably put $25 million in the industry. I've never been close to where you guys are right now.' That hit home.

"After our horse won the San Rafael, I went back to Julio's barn expecting to see him exhausted," Strauss added. "Instead, the horse is wolfing down his grain, looking for more. I asked the groom if it was unusual. He said the race took nothing out of him. So I asked him if I could feed him some carrots."

And there you have the image of the day. Jeffrey Strauss, named San Diego's best chef by San Diego Magazine, winner of the Silver Fork from San Diego's Lifestyle magazine, owner of the No. 1-ranked San Diego restaurant in the Zagat Guide, offering raw vegetables to a racehorse.

"I've cooked for seven United States presidents in my lifetime," Strauss said. "And not one of those experiences gave me the same high as feeding a carrot to my Pamplemousse."