Who is this?

Last Saturday morning, I was at the club lounge at the Ritz in Half Moon Bay. David was attending the Inside the Kitchen event at the hotel for the weekend, et moi, I was just arm candy. (So no serious report from me, check Amy’s and Nitin’s for that stuff.)

At breakfast that morning, the table next to us was full of French chefs. One of them was Fréderic Robert –perhaps one of the two best pastry chefs in the world- another, I think, was Bruno Davaillon, of Mix in Vegas, and a few other French chefs I didn’t recognize. Commanding the attention of the whole table was an older, slightly unkempt man in a track suit, speaking rather loudly in French while the others listened rapturously.

I didn’t recognize him, and strangely enough, neither did David.

I gathered from the conversation I was pretending not to listen to that he was also a chef. He must worked somewhere in the Midwest, as the other chefs were quizzing him for his opinion on a few famous restaurants in Chicago –and no, I’m not repeating what I was pretending not to listen to….no….

I saw him later on that same day, this time in the kitchen where David was prepping for the Grand Cru dinner that night. He showed up in shorts and a Les Bleus #10 jersey, that’s Zidane’s –so, yes, obviously he’s French, and probably from the South. In the kitchen was also Roland Passot, Hubert Keller, and Ron Siegal, all of whom have four stars from the Chronicle. The mystery man seemed to know Hubert and Roland quite well, especially Roland.

I finally found out who he was, and was duly impressed, David even more so. The man is a legend, perhaps the first serious French chef to open a restaurant in the US. His restaurant was for a time considered the best French restaurant in the country. And, despite being literally in the middle of nowhere, his restaurant was so successful, diners flew their private planes in to visit his dining room.

He was also arguably the first celebrity chef in the US. Hubert Keller told me how he, as a young man, was inspired by a story about this mystery chef in the French tabloid Paris Match, posing with his collection of rare watches and sports cars with a headline "Millionaire Chef".

Do you know who he is?

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16 Responses to “Who is this?

  • Robert R. said:
    November 1st, 2006 at 5:09am

    Jean Banchet of Le Francais.
    With no beard and a bit thinner.

  • Agricola said:
    November 1st, 2006 at 5:12am

    Alain Ducasse?

  • Alex said:
    November 1st, 2006 at 5:21am

    Hmm, after googling a bit, I would say it is J.P.
    But I have to admit I never heard of him before.
    You learn everyday.

  • Jeff said:
    November 1st, 2006 at 5:59am

    Love to see some of those cars 😀

  • liz said:
    November 1st, 2006 at 6:43am

    Jean Banchet from Le Francais????

  • catherine said:
    November 1st, 2006 at 8:47am

    Sylvain Portay?

  • Ryan said:
    November 1st, 2006 at 9:44am

    Jean Banchet? I had to google to figure it out, though. Most interesting story yet out of Inside the Kitchen!

  • liz said:
    November 1st, 2006 at 10:05am

    Jean Banchet – Le Francais ?????

  • Martha said:
    November 1st, 2006 at 10:32am

    Would that be Jean Banchet, of Le Francais?
    Just a hunch…..

  • Dianka said:
    November 1st, 2006 at 11:57am

    I’m dying to know!

  • liz said:
    November 1st, 2006 at 12:00pm

    Blanchet’s training started at age 13 at La Pyramide. At 15, he had reached the rank of premier commis. Bocuse was a fellow apprentice at the time and offered him a job at Hotel de Paris, the restaurant that Bocuse took over from his father. After a year there, Banchet spent 2 years in Algeria where he performed his military service by becoming chef to General La Roux. At 21, Banchet was asked to command the kitchen at Sporting Club in London. In 1968, he accepted Hefner’s offer to open Playboy Club’s resort at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
    In 1973 he opened Le Francais. In 1980, Bon Appetit proclaimed it America’s Best restaurant.

  • Harold said:
    November 1st, 2006 at 3:14pm

    I thought first of the restaurant Le Francais, and it fits Pim’s description to a tee, but the photos I saw of Banchet–unless his appearance has changed from the web images I saw–look different to me.
    I am perplexed. Of course, if it is, indeed, Banchet, then “celebrity chef” means something very different today than when he opened his restaurant in Wheeling back in 1973. And I’m not sure for the better.
    Of course, one might quibble with some of the description. I dare say that Lutece (which opened in 1961) was a serious French restaurant and Andre Soltner a serious chef.

  • Pim said:
    November 2nd, 2006 at 9:39am

    You guys are good!
    It is indeed Jean Banchet.
    Harold, I found a couple of pictures of him via Google and I thought he looked different too. But I assure you he is certainly Jean Banchet.
    He not only attended the event but served as a judge in an inron-chef style competition (Elizabeth Faulkner and Melissa Perillo VS Laurent Manrique and Gerald Hirigoyen).
    Not to detract from Andre Soltner, but I did use the word ‘perhaps’ in that sentence. I probably should have said one of the first.
    There’s no denying that he’s one of the first ‘celebrity’ chefs over here in the US though. His impeccable pedigree, coupled with the fact that he chose to open a restaurant in the middle of bloody nowhere gave him a certain mystique that’s alluring for the media. I didn’t see the Paris Match story myself -quite a bit before my time I admit- but I hear it was impressive.
    The reverence accorded him by the other French chefs (that is to say practically everyone at that French dominated event) was also clearly seen.

  • Harold said:
    November 2nd, 2006 at 10:45am

    Thanks for unveiling your mystery chef. I agree with your characterization, and was not trying to deny his celebrity status, and I think you are certainly correct on that score.
    The description you gave was the real key. The photo, as we both note, does not square with the others I found in trying to verify my suspicions. Actually, you don’t really have to be all that good with access to internet search engines; they do all the “legwork” for you. I would enjoy other questions like this (I seem to recall a few food puzzles a couple of months ago).
    And on my nitpicking, I suspect that we–and others–could get into a lengthy discussion about the earliest serious French chef/restaurant in the US. I wouldn’t want to go there, though. I’d rather eat at one of these places.
    I was not lucky enough to visit Le Francais during its heyday, but did have the opportunity to eat at Banchet’s Riviera in Atlanta while it was open. I remember thoroughly enjoying it.
    Thanks for the challenge.
    PS. Your restaurant postings were invaluable to me in helping to plan food outings in England and France this past summer.

  • Ryan said:
    November 3rd, 2006 at 10:19am

    The fact that put it over the top for me was when you said Roland seemed especially close to him. I Googled the two names and found Roland had described himself as a “protege” of Jean.
    When I ran a Google Image search, it was hard to find images of Jean because there are so many images of people who have won the award that carries his name, and they come up as hits. I could only find one or two fuzzy pictures of the man himself.

  • Janie said:
    April 17th, 2007 at 4:58pm

    It is not Chef Jean Banchet. I knew him well in the late 70’s, the eyes are too narrow, he would never be without his trademark beard, and his health obsession would never let his body be that flabby. He also would not wear that kind of outfit, unless you had just caught him from exercise

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