Le Cirque’s New Chef, Raphael Francois, on Moving to New York, Auditioning for the Job, and Pleasing All of the People, All of the Time
NEW YORK, NY — Just a few months ago, Chef Raphael Francois took on a task both flattering and perhaps unenviable when he assumed the toque at New York City’s storied Le Cirque restaurant. Le Cirque, a New York institution with a rich heritage of great chefs including Alain Sailhac, Daniel Boulud, Sottha Kuhn, and Sylvain Portay, has been engaged in a Sisyphean enterprise since being taken down (shockingly at the time) from four stars to three by Ruth Reichl in 1993. Since then, in the Times‘ estimation, the restaurant has dipped down to two stars and back up to three during Frank Bruni’s tenure, then down to one star by Pete Wells in 2012.
With that backstory, there would be no shortage of pressure on whoever took over the kitchen next to restore at least some glory to the forty-year-old Le Cirque, and you could almost hear the thundering of white-horse hooves as Raphael arrived in New York City, most recently from Hélène Darroze at the Connaught in London, where he earned two Michelin stars in 2011. Raised in Belgium and France, Francois has cooked at Le Giverny in Tournai, Chateau du Mylord in Elezelles, Le Sea Grill in Brussels, and Four Seasons George V and Hôtel de Crillon in Paris. His working relationship with Hélène Darroze began in 2006 when Francois worked with her at her Restaurant Hélène Darroze, and several of her city-based projects.
We recently sat down with Chef Francois to discuss the unique nature of the task before him, and the delicate balancing act required in his position. (Two notes: In the full-disclosure department, Le Cirque’s legendary ringmaster Sirio Maccioni, recent recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, graciously insisted we join him for dinner as his guests to try Chef Francois’ food; as the meal was gratis, we’ll refrain from detailed praise here and stick to the interview. Also, a special thanks to Toqueland pal Evan Sung for the images.)
TOQUELAND: Before you came here for this job, had you visited New York City much?
FRANCOIS: Yeah. I had to come to New York for a few events, so I came a couple of times.
TOQUELAND: Had you spent much leisure time here?
FRANCOIS: No, it was mainly professional, for business events that we did here in New York and also visiting hotels and restaurants to see what they were doing.
TOQUELAND: But you feel you had a sense of the city?
FRANCOIS: Yeah, in terms of food. I tried the three-Michelin-star restaurants in New York. I tried brasserie restaurants, many types of restaurants. I’ve been brunching as well. I’ve been to breakfast. I’ve tried a lot of different things.
TOQUELAND: Had you thought you would live here at some point before the Le Cirque opportunity came up?
FRANCOIS: Not really. But to live in the US and to live in New York was always a dream.
TOQUELAND: Really? Why?
FRANCOIS: I don’t know. I was that kind of teenager who always liked the USA; I used to have an American flag in my bedroom.
TOQUELAND: Did you really? Did you like American entertainment, American movies and music?
FRANCOIS: Yeah, to be honest. My taste in terms of movies is very simple; I like only American.
TOQUELAND: Is that right?
FRANCOIS: Yeah, that’s true. Even if you have a great actor and a great movie in France, I still think it’s crap, and I like American movies. [laughs]
TOQUELAND: I’ve encountered this with a number of European chefs that I’ve met over the years.
FRANCOIS: I always liked the USA and always dreamed to live in the US. And to be honest, at some point I thought that it would never happen because I was not interested in staying here for a short time, and to stay in the US for a long time, I thought that it wouldn’t be realistic in terms of visas. And there are a lot of great chefs in the US so I couldn’t imagine a great opportunity like Le Cirque would be open to me.
TOQUELAND: How did you first hear about the possibility of coming here? How did you and the Maccionis find each other?
FRANCOIS: They contacted me.
FRANCOIS: Yes. They asked me to make a tasting for them. I did a tasting for the entire family.
TOQUELAND: You came to New York just to do that?
TOQUELAND: How much did you know about this restaurant? When you started to think about what kind of menu you would do for the Maccioni family, how did you go about conceiving it?
FRANCOIS: I knew Le Cirque by reputation, so I just checked what they were doing and I saw also the different dishes they’ve had on their menu over the years.
TOQUELAND: You mean the real signature dishes like the paupiette of sea bass? [Note: A few Le Cirque classics are asterisked as “Heritage” dishes on the menu, where they live side-by-side with current offerings.]
FRANCOIS: Yes. I think that at some point, chefs, if they would have come for a tasting they would have thought, “Look, let’s try to make classics.” And when I came, I said, “Look, I’m going to make a tasting of food that I like to cook.”
TOQUELAND: Do you remember what you made for them?
FRANCOIS: Not everything but I did carpaccio of langostine, and fish with a spicy flavor, a fresh herb juice, and spring vegetables. I didn’t want to order things beyond what they’ve got on the menu so I used what they had in their fridge and I did my own recipes. I did meat as well. But it was more by feeling. I didn’t come with a proper menu because I was not sure about the capacity of the restaurant. So when I came, I talked with the Maccionis and we discussed the business and how the restaurant works, and then according to that I made a realistic tasting. I didn’t want to make a tasting that afterwards I wouldn’t be able to execute for 200 covers.
So then they said, “Yeah.” And as soon as I knew we were going to work together, we organized another tasting.
TOQUELAND: This restaurant’s been around for a long time, obviously. There have been some very well‑known chefs who’ve cooked here. What’s it like for you coming here as a relatively young chef? Is there an extra pressure that comes with taking over a restaurant like this?
FRANCOIS: Yeah, definitely. There are pressures about the critics, and the clientele as well because obviously I need to understand their palate and their habit. You’ve got all the regular customers who have been eating at Le Cirque for ‑
FRANCOIS: And also new people, so I have to cook for all the regular customers, because those customers, they know exactly what they want.
TOQUELAND: Do you come out and talk to the regulars here?
FRANCOIS: I talk to people who want to talk with me, definitely.
TOQUELAND: Do you get important feedback that way?
FRANCOIS: Yeah, I get feedback and especially from the regulars. They don’t mind to ‑‑
TOQUELAND: To tell you what they think?
TOQUELAND: [laughs] Welcome to New York.
FRANCOIS: That’s very different than what I used to have in the past. But that’s the game. And the Maccioni family told me that right at the start so I knew what I would be facing. So we have regular customers who have been coming in for a long time, and know what they want, and part of the deal is I have to do the things that they are used to having, which I totally understand, and then try to also please all the customers at the end of the day.
TOQUELAND: The press release the restaurant sent out said that you were modernizing the kitchen and modernizing the techniques in the kitchen. What did they mean by that?
FRANCOIS: No, no, I don’t modernize anything. I just try to make it a bit more different. Before, they used to roast and maybe fry the vegetables; I like to also steam and poach.
TOQUELAND: So you think your food will be a little bit lighter in style?
FRANCOIS: I don’t want to be too pretentious. I love eating rich food, but some dishes are very light as well. I cook some things that I want to eat myself. So any dish that I do, it’s some things that I like personally. I mean, it’s like when I invite people to my house, if I am going to cook for them, I’m going to of course cook something that I really like. So sometimes I can hear clients say, “It’s too spicy or too hot.” Because I love hot food. I love pepper. I love fruit as well so sometimes, I use a lot of fruit. I love acidity. I don’t modernize anything, but I do like clean plating.
TOQUELAND: The other thing it said in the press release that I wanted to ask was that you would be updating the heritage Le Cirque dishes.
FRANCOIS: I mean, the lobster salad, it’s a classic from Le Cirque. I updated it in that I’m currently using spring vegetables. But the paupiette from Daniel Boulud — we never change anything on that.
TOQUELAND: You won’t?
FRANCOIS: No. The paupiette of Daniel Boulud? I mean, it’s difficult to change some things, and especially from Daniel Boulud. He created that dish which is leeks and the black bass wrapped with potato. Some of our customers always order that paupiette. So why would I change it? If I change it, I’m going to get clients who ask me to do it the old way. At the end of the day I’m going to have two paupiettes.
TOQUELAND: You moved here at the beginning of January. How are you finding New York?
FRANCOIS: When I got here, I thought it was Alaska. [laughs]
TOQUELAND: You mentioned you have some new dishes coming out. Can I ask what some of them are?
FRANCOIS: In the cafe, I am introducing salmon with ginger, and a steak with arugula pesto. For the fine dining room, I’m changing the pork, [adding] morels and fava bean. And foie gras with pineapple.
TOQUELAND: Have you been discovering new purveyors of your own since you’ve been here; are you trying to develop new relationships?
FRANCOIS: Everything takes time, but first of all, when I arrived I was meeting the ones we already had and then there are the ones that I knew from France already. And then I started to build my own little suppliers list. So it’s a combination of what you used to have and what you can have, with your clients and with the food as well.