A great chef; an aperitif; and a trip to Paris

By Robert Bickell

Chef Jean-Michel Bergougnoux was born and raised in the restaurant business, and literally grew-up in his parent’s Cafˇ-Brasserie in the Auvergne region of Central France. After an apprenticeship at the Hotel de la Paix in Chaufailles, this talented and passionate French chef honed his skills at world-class restaurants such as Troisgros in Paris; The Connaught Hotel in London; and Leon de Lyon in Lyon, France. In 1986, he arrived in New York (Le Regence at the Plaza Athenee) and in September of 1987, was appointed Chef at Lut¸ce in New York with the great Andrˇ Soltner. After Lutece, he served as executive chef at Le Cygne and Restaurant Raphael. This gifted, classically-trained chef spent years working in one spectacular restaurant after another, and it was only a matter of time when Chef Jean-Michel would choose to go out on his own.

Timing is everything in life and certainly in the restaurant business. The worst mistake one can make is running a restaurant before being legitimately ready to do so. It takes more than just talent – it takes money; it takes an understanding of the business part of the restaurant; it takes good people because without capable people you have no shot. It also takes tremendous energy and enthusiasm (PASSION). I can’t comment on the money part, but Jean-Michel Bergougnoux had everything else and then some.

Of course, he had one other (very important) thing going for him – his cooking and his personality produced a following that had built-up over many years right here in New York and abroad. People knew him and respected him. Serious restaurant customers follow chefs, and his investment in time working for others was a big benefit when in May of 1995, he opened L’Absinthe on East 67th Street on the Upper East Side. He named the former Le Comptoir after a classic aperitif made famous by French artists and writers of the mid-to- late 19th century. Absinthe aficionados included the likes of Pablo Picasso, Oscar Wilde, Vincent Van Gogh, and the wild and crazy Toulouse-Lautrec. The name itself spoke volumes in terms Jean-Michel’s approach to his restaurant. It was going to be more casual and a bit more fun. The food was going to be simple and classic at the same time. L’Absinthe was going to be a brasserie – as defined by this particular chef. History has validated his decision to go the brasserie direction with the most recent closings of classic French restaurants including Lut¸ce, La Caravelle, La Cote Basque, and Bouterin. The great chef was not about to abandon all that got him here – he was just going to do it differently. L’Absinthe was going to look like an authentic French Brasserie, and for the most part, it was going to behave like one (New York style).

The ambiance immediately and decidedly transports you to a classic, turn-of-the-century, French bistro located on the Left bank in Paris, and the food is what it is – classical (and contemporary) French brasserie cuisine. I have always believed that a restaurant experience is theatrical in nature, and L’Abinsthe takes you to another world thousands of miles away and there is nothing about it that is contrived. It’s real and it’s wonderful.

Of course, a memorable restaurant experience is really about the food, and Jean-Michel’s entire reason for being is about food – simple food that is skillfully prepared. Yes, he still does the incredible venison-and-foie gras pie, but simplicity and quality still reign. Order his chicken and expect to wait at least 45-minutes. It’s cooked to order and served right from the oven. The chef believes this is the only way to prepare what one would call a simple food. Nothing is really simple in his kitchen, and this is what Jean-Michel Bergougnoux is all about. It’s also why L’Absinthe is such a great restaurant, and such a memorable experience.

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