A culinary era in the Midwest came to a close in late February with the decision by master chef Jean Banchet, who has owned Le Francais restaurant in suburban Chicago since he founded it in 1973, to retire and sell his business.
At the zenith of his career in the 1980s, Banchet was regarded by many as the best chef in America, perhaps equaled only by Andri Soltner of Lutkce in New York. The airport adjacent to his restaurant was regularly crowded with corporate jets carrying well-heeled diners from around the country, and reservations were necessary months ahead of any visit. The restaurant's wine cellar, valued at more than $700,000 at its peak two decades ago, boasted one of the deepest selections of vintage Bordeaux and Burgundy anywhere.
Banchet stepped away from Le Francais in 1989, leasing the restaurant to Roland Liccioni while he consulted and ran more casual bistros in Atlanta. He returned with a splash in 1999, however, investing heavily to modernize the baroque dining room into a bright and airy salon. He also surprised his loyalists with a lighter, more contemporary cooking style.
But somehow the old panache was missing: Chicago magazine accorded the new Le Francais only 2 1/2 stars out of 4 and complained about a sameness in the sauces and lapses in service. With little replenishment, the venerable wine list had withered to a pale shadow of its former self.
Banchet's decision to sell was hastened in December when a key lieutenant, chef de cuisine David Sanders, abruptly quit. "I never wanted to work into old age and end up dying at the stove," said Banchet, who is 60 and slowed by diabetes. He will now work as a part-time consultant to the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain.
Le Francais is now owned by a partnership headed by Philip Mott, 40, co-owner of the popular North Pond Cafi in Chicago, and chef Don Yamauchi, 34, who has cooked at such high-style Chicago restaurants as Gordon and Carlos over the past decade.
The two plan significant menu revisions, but will retain signature Banchet dishes, such as double-duck consommi and lobster ravioli. Mott vows to bolster the wine cellar -- now totaling about 2,000 bottles, with a retail value of around $300,000. "We don't have many older vintages left here," said Mott. "We've got to add back both more selection and depth."
No matter what, he added, Le Francais will stay true to its name, even though chef Yamauchi is Japanese-American. "Fusion would be all wrong here. You won't ever see wasabi on our menu," Mott promised.
If there is one thing Banchet will be most remembered for, it may well be his bold decision 28 years ago to situate Le Francais in the suburb of Wheeling -- about an hour's drive from Chicago. He proved that a grand style of dining could be successful far beyond the sophistication of Chicago's Gold Coast. A legion of other French chefs soon followed Banchet to the suburbs and remain there today. Bernard Critier, chef-owner of the nearby Le Vichyssois, said, "His influence has been widespread."
For more about Le Francais: