With this year’s Jean Banchet Awards slated for Sunday, January 13, it’s time to revisit an article I wrote after Banchet died on November 24, 2013. He was, without question, the best of the best, and like so many of his contemporaries, he always made time for the press.
Jean Banchet was a celebrity chef long before the term was invented. Renowned food writer Mimi Sheraton wrote a cover story for “Bon Appetit” magazine in 1980 proclaiming Le Francais, his restaurant in suburban Chicago, the best restaurant in America. Few disagreed.
Banchet was born in Roanne, a small town near Lyon, in 1941. He trained at La Pyramide, the celebrated restaurant owned by Fernand Point, as did Paul Bocuse, Jean and Pierre Troisgros, and Georges Perrier. After stints at the Playboy Club in London and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Banchet opened Le Francais in 1973.
Located in a middle class suburb an hour’s drive from downtown Chicago, Le Francais was the ultimate in destination dining. The rich and famous flew their private jets to a nearby airport, where Banchet would have them picked up and taken to the restaurant. But whether you were rich and famous, or simply a food lover intent on experiencing world-class cuisine, you received the same food and enjoyed the same impeccable service.
Handsome and charismatic, Banchet dominated every gathering he attended, not by design, but by the sheer force of his personality and the breadth of his skills. Due, at least in part, to his influence, the selection of the American representative to the celebrated Bocuse d’Or culinary competition in Lyon was, for years, held in Chicago.
When Banchet hosted a 60th birthday party for Paul Bocuse at Le Francais in February, 1986, the guest list read like a culinary Who’s Who. Asked why he flew in from San Francisco to attend the party, Rene Verdon, the White House chef during the Kennedy administration, said simply, “Jean invited me.”
Craig Claiborne, who covered the dinner for The York Times, described the multi-course meal in detail, noting that it began with a tartare of fresh salmon topped with caviar, sautéed crab cakes, and Lyon-style sausages. The finale, an elaborate frozen soufflé and a birthday cake “filled with lemon mousse and supported by four chef figures sculptured in chocolate,” included pours from the 600 bottles of Pommery Champagne Bocuse brought with him.
For a chef, working for Jean Banchet was an extraordinary opportunity, despite the long hours and exacting standards. He demanded nothing less than perfection, both of his staff and of himself. When a staff member left, either to take another job or to strike out on their own, they received his full support. And wherever their career took them, the lessons they learned at Le Francais stayed with them.
“I can still hear Jean telling me what to do every time I make certain sauces,” Le Francais alum Yoshi Katsumura (Yoshi’s Cafe, Chicago) says. “If you made a mistake, you tossed it and started over.”
Along with 21 other Le Francais alums, Joe Doppes (chef/owner Bistrot Margot, Chicago) participated in a gala culinary reunion in Banchet’s honor in November, 1994, five years after Banchet leased Le Francais to Roland and then-wife Mary Beth Liccioni for ten years. Doppes wanted the event, which established a scholarship in Banchet’s name at The Culinary School of Kendall College, to celebrate the chef’s personality, as well as his culinary skills.
“I decided the best way to kick off the evening was to have Jean, attired in his favorite biker gear, ride his Harley into the ballroom,” Doppes recalls. “It was an extraordinary moment, and Jean enjoyed it as much as the guests.”
Banchet took over Le Francais again in 1999 and ran it until he retired in 2001. He continued to be a major presence in Chicago, however, and when the local equivalent of the national James Beard Award was established, it was named the Jean Banchet Awards in his honor. In 2007, Banchet and his wife Doris, his partner in the restaurant and an active participant in the Chicago chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, moved to Florida.
Fame can be fleeting, even for iconic superstars like Jean Banchet. Was he, as so many have said, the chef who put Chicago on the culinary map, the chef who made it clear that the city was more than a meat and potatoes town? According to Joe Doppes, he was all that and more.
“Jean had a passion for what he did,” Doppes says. “He was an incredible cook, well-respected by his peers both here and abroad. And,” Doppes concludes, “together with Andre Soltner of Lutece in New York City, he put the United States on the world’s culinary map.”
The article, sadly, needs some updates. Yoshi Katsumura died in August, 2015, although his Yoshi’s Cafe on Halsted Street is still a vibrant part of the city’s food scene. Joe Doppes closed his long running Bistrot Margot on Wells at the end of 2015.
The first of the many interviews I did with Banchet stands out.
Early in my career, I was doing an article for the late "North Shore Magazine" on the French restaurants on the North Shore. Needless to say, I was nervous.
Five or ten minutes into the interview, Jean looked at me and asked, "Have you ever had dinner here"?
"Once," I answered. "For my birthday."
"Then you'll come again," he replied, adding, "this time as my guest."
And so we went, my husband and I. Banchet sent out the dishes he wanted us to try, and each and every one of them was superb. There were no leftovers, not even a crumb.
I've been to Paris several times since then, and when people ask where I ate, they're disappointed that I didn't eat at any of the great Michelin-starred restaurants. I explain that I dined at Le Francais when Jean Banchet was in the kitchen. And nothing, I add without fear of contradiction, could be better than that.
Profits from the Jean Banchet Awards are donated to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, which produces the event. This year's edition is completely sold out.
Special Bites Around Town
Chicago Restaurant Week 2019 kicks off on January 24 with First Bites Bash. See our top 12 choices for where to make reservations, here.
Meatballs in tomato sauce and herbs ($10), zucchini frites ($8), arancini stuffed with asiago cheese ($8), and a burger ($14) topped with bacon jam and roasted tomatoes are some of the options on MiaFrancesca's Late Night menu. Available after 10 pm, the new menu does for late night what Happy Hour does for early birds. Check it out, and let us know what you think.
Mia Francesca, 3311 N. Clark St. 773281.3310
Funding the Future
Chefs Sarah Stegner (Prairie Grass Cafe) and Carrie Nahabedian (Brindille) are spotlighting female culinary students from Washburne Culinary and Hospitality Institute at Kennedy-King College (740 W. 63rd Street) at Prairie Grass Cafe on Friday, January 11. The event, a special invitation-only lunch cooked by student chefs Karen Macleod and Quiana Perry, will be co-hosted by Mary Hess, a nationally recognized food and nutrition communications expert, and Bill Reynolds, former Washburne provost who retired in 2012 and is currently the owner of New Buffalo Bill's, a restaurant in New Buffalo, Michigan.
The event, which is done in cooperation with Washburne, raises money to fund scholarships designed to help Washburne's female students achieve their goals. To help fund the effort, go to https://www.gofundme.com/women-of-washburne.
Brindille, 534 N. Clark Street,312.595.1616
Prairie Grass Cafe, 601 N. Skokie Blvd. Northbrook 847.205.4433
A New Brew
Buffalo Creek Brewing in Long Grove is kicking off 2019 with a series of events designed for beer lovers. Brewmaster Mike Marr launches a new brew every month, and this month's launch, Quentin Milk Stout, is scheduled for Tuesday, January 15. To check out the rest if the events scheduled fir this month, go to www.buffalocreekbrewing.com.
Buffalo Creek Brewing, 360 Historical Lane, Long Grove 847.821.6140.
Sommelier for a Day
III Forks is hosting "Sommelier for a Day" on Wednesday, February 6 at 5pm. Sommelier Anton Licko will be leading participants through a sampling of six different wines (2 whites, 4 reds) from the Napa Valley. Complementary hors d'oeuvres will accompany the wines.
III Forks, 180 N. Field Blvd. 312.938.4303
Save the date: The finals for this year's Grand Cochon competition will be held on September 15 in Chicago. The event, and the national tour that precedes is sponsored by Cochon555, an organization that supports the farmers, purveyors and chefs working with heritage breeds of pigs. For more information:www.cochon555.com.
The Year of the Pig
The Year of the Pig is right around the corner, and on February 9th and 16th, the Chicago Chinese Cultural Institute is sponsoring the 15th Annual Chinese New Year Dumpling Making Dinner. Expect a traditional lion dance and storytelling, along with a tutorial on dumpling making and an authentic 10-course Chinese meal. This year's celebration, which begins at 3:30 pm, is hosted by Hing Kee Restaurant, 2140 S. Archer Avenue, 2nd floor.
For tickets, contact the Chicago Chinese Cultural Institute: 312.8421988, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tickets are $40 for adults $35 for children under 12
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