Jean Banchet was a celebrity long before the word was invented.
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Sad Good-Bye: Jean Banchet

Barbara Revsine - January/February 2014

Chicago—Jean Banchet was a celebrity long before the word was invented. As far back as 1980, Bon Appétit proclaimed Le Francais, his restaurant in suburban Chicago, the best restaurant in America. Few disagreed.

Banchet, who died this past November, 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 Wheeling, 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 even if you were simply a food lover intent on experiencing world-class cuisine, you received the same food and 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 competition in Lyon was, for years, held in Chicago.

When Banchet hosted a 60th birthday party for 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, René Verdon, the White House chef during the Kennedy administration, said simply, “Jean invited me.”

Craig Claiborne, who covered the dinner for the New York Times, described the multicourse 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 that Bocuse had brought with him.

For a chef, working for 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 staff members 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 out 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 10 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 James Beard Awards 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 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 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 André Soltner of Lutèce in New York City, he put the United States on the world’s culinary map.”

In addition to his wife, Banchet is survived by his sister, Monique Chassagne, and his twin brother, Lucien, both residents of Roanne.