Food Arts presents the November 1994 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Claude Rouas, who introduced to America's West Coast the artlessly artful traditions of Europe's finest romantic country inns.
Raised in French Algiers, Rouas emigrated to Paris to work as a waiter at Maxim's. The lure of a woman (who later became his wife) and a job opening at the famed Ernie's in San Francisco brought him to the States in 1960. Six years later, with a humble budget of $20,000, Rouas, along with his brother Maurice (present co-owner of Fleur de Lys, with Hubert Keller), opened L'Etoile in the Huntington Hotel in San Francisco. The restaurant introduced chic Parisian menus to the city and remained the premier French restaurant there for more than 25 years. Rouas then turned his sights north to the vineyards of Napa Valley.
He procured financing from developer Bob Harmon to open a restaurant in Rutherford, California, with the understanding that were it profitable, further monies would be loaned to build hotel accommodations later on. In 1978, he started building Auberge Restaurant from the ground up. It finally opened in 1981. With chef Masa Kobayashi at the helm, the restaurant was an overnight success, and by 1985 Rouas was able to open Auberge du Soleil. Singlehandedly, Rouas had turned the wine country into a magnetic culinary destination of international allure. Set high on a hill in silvery olive groves, the Auberge du Soleil, with its 48 cottages and rooms decorated with Mediterranean touches, won Relais & Châteaux status in 1988. "Had it not been built in Napa, I don't believe the Auberge would have been nearly as successful as it is," Rouas claims. "There was simply nothing to compare in the region, perhaps nothing in America quite like it."
The instant, runaway success of the venture swiftly fired visions of expansion, and in 1985, Rouas and Harmon established Auberge Associates, an ambitious restaurant/hotel management and development company. In 1987, he expanded his holdings by purchasing the venerable San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito, a Relais & Châteaux retreat that had long been a favorite getaway for celebrities from nearby Hollywood. In order to be a Relais & Châteaux member, a property must have a minimum of one year's operation under the same general manager; Rouas effortlessly reclaimed the honor in 1988.
Auberge Associates bought the charming 27-room El Dorado Hotel in the village of Sonoma in 1987, where he installed the third unit of Piatti, his wildly successful chain of freestanding fine/casual Italian restaurants. There are currently nine Piatti units throughout California, and Auberge Associates plans to open three more by the middle of next year, in Denver, Phoenix, and Marin County, California.
Another property under Roua's management is Rancho Valencia, in Rancho Santa Fe, California, which he took over in 1991. By 1993, this property, too, had been elevated to Relais & Châteaux standing.
In the final analysis, though, Rouas confides that "It is Auberge du Soleil that I am proudest of. L'Etoile established me, but Auberge is the pièce de résistance. It is what will live on long after me." It shines as a vibrant touch, and taste, of the best of Europe in America.