Maguy Le Coze
Food Arts presents the March 1995 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Maguy Le Coze, restaurateur extraordinaire.
In partnership with her late brother Gilbert, Maguy Le Coze set the standards of modern fish cookery in America. When it comes to fish, there is "before Le Bernardin" and "after Le Bernardin." It's that simple.
In the year 1986, the electrifying brother and sister team took New York City by storm. These French Horatio Algers were young, handsome, and hardworking. Faster than you could eat a skate wing, they had snagged four stars from the New York Times and a rave review from New York magazine. Tout New York was begging for reservations to taste their sea urchin, raw slivers of black bass, pounded tuna, and tartare of salmon.
Nearly ten years later, Maguy, the established executive, confides that the thing of which she is most proud is that she was "able to make it in New York."
It was the American dream that inspired this French duo when they were growing up in a small Brittany fishing village of 200, where their mother and father operated a small hotel and restaurant and their grandfather was a fisherman. Maguy, a year and a half older than her brother, was twelve when she started in the dining room; Gilbert was eleven when he took his first taste of the kitchen. "But we didn't really think we would go into the restaurant business," Maguy recalls. "I wanted to be a stewardess; Gilbert a ship's captain."
"In our 20s, we left Papa and Mama and went to Paris to have a good time," she continues. "Then we said, 'we've got to think about our future.' And the only thing we knew was the restaurant business."
Their first Le Bernardin, opened in 1972 on the Left Bank, held only 25 seats. "We had only fish on the menu, not one piece of meat," Maguy says. "At first, our menu was very traditional. Then we realized that that was not enough to make a success. Gilbert had never worked with Bocuse or Vergé or any of the great chefs. But he was very creative, and we started to make a revolution."
It took nearly five years to get that first Michelin star. Then, in 1981, they moved to a bigger space and quickly won a second star. Within another five years, they took on New York, opening Le Bernardin in Equitable's striking headquarters, at 155 West 51st Street.
"Our first menu was a replica of our menu in Paris, but with American products," Maguy recalls. Eberhard Müller, now at Lutèce, was Gilbert's second-in-command.
Within two months, the Le Cozes had their four stars. "When I think of it, I still get tears in my eyes," Maguy says. Soon they decided to sell their Paris restaurant and devote themselves entirely to New York.
While Gilbert worked magic in the kitchen, Maguy, with her Chanel suits and dazzling smile, lent an aura of glamour to the dining room. And when they expanded three years ago, opening Brasserie Le Coze in Miami in January, and then Atlanta, she was the one who moved South. "I did it by myself," she says, "Gilbert was busy in New York."
Then, last July, everything changed when Maguy's beloved brother and partner died of a heart attack at the age of 48. She is now back at the helm in New York. She sold the restaurant in Miami in January, and Atlanta remains, she says, in highly capable hands. She has redone the flowers and lighting at Le Bernardin to bring back a "little bit of femininity," and has worked carefully to revamp the menu with chef Eric Ripert, who came to Le Bernardin from Bouley four years ago. "I just kept Gilbert's raw fish," she says. "And one signature dish a day, such as the slivers of black bass or the monkfish with cabbage."
Ten years ago, Maguy explains, the mandate was for her and Gilbert "to establish ourselves as the best fish restaurant in New York." Now she will steer that restaurant into the next decade. "Like any other restaurant, we have to feel what people want and give it to them. You need something new all the time or people get bored. Me? I'm the same. I'm sure when everything here is as I want it, I will do something else—maybe another restaurant, maybe a new concept, maybe work on developing the name Bernardin...."