Food Arts presents the October 1997 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Lucien Robert, whose business plan of patience and steady quality has created a fine-dining legacy for the city of Boston. In the late 1950’s, when the top meal in town was scrod or steak and potatoes, Robert’s restaurant, Maître Jacques, fostered the city’s appetite for haute cuisine. Later, at Maison Robert, techniques he imparted to his kitchen staff eventually passed like heirloom seeds through the hands of some of Boston’s finest chefs. Today, with a recast menu and a new family guard at the helm bringing invigorated critical acclaim, Robert sets sail for a future of continued success.
Robert was born the son of a farmer in a small French village near Vire in Normandy. At 17 he left to become a chef apprentice, a vocation he considered prestigious: “I felt that people like myself, with perseverance, could achieve something.”
After honing his skills at Prunier and Pavillon d’Armononville in Paris, Robert—hoping to see America and save enough for his own restaurant—became chef of The Edgewater Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin, in January 1951. Later, he extended his sojourn with hotel work in Phoenix, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Cleveland, but The Edgewater eventually called him back. It was then he met his wife, Ann, a graduate student, who would become his partner and help him turn his dream into a family enterprise. When Robert asked his new bride where she wanted their restaurant, her pick of Boston, a city she knew from her Radcilfffe days, resulted in Maître Jacques, which opened in 1957 on the corner of Commonwealth and Berkeley.
Maître Jacques had no liquor license, but nevertheless drew crowds with its calves’ brains, sweetbreads, and 99-cent lunch. In 1965, it moved to a riverside location, where Robert’s prize-winning wine list had its start. In 1971, Old City Hall was completing its renovation, and Robert saw an opportunity: “In my dreams I’d always hoped to open a restaurant in some kind of château. And if you can’t get a château, then you take and old city hall.” The multilevel space was quirky but elegant. He created a haute dining room upstairs and a casual café on the floor below.
Daring combined with common sense established the new restaurant. Banks advised against the neighborhood, a business district, but Bostonians flocked to the restaurant anyway, especially to its terrace one of the first places they could enjoy white tablecloth dining alfresco. To ensure a smooth opening, Robert installed as chef his nephew Jacky Robert, who had also trained at Prunier. He also hired a young Lydia Shire, now chef/owner of Biba and Pignoli, a move historians of Boston’s restaurants revolution have described as one era’s pioneer begetting the next.
But the restaurant has always been a family affair. Ann serves as event planner, a function she took on in between raising the couple’s five children. Daughter Andrée followed her cousin Jacky to Ernie’s in San Francisco when he left to become chef there in 1973. She trained with him and later under master chefs in New York City and France before stepping into the clogs herself, as sous chef in 1985 and executive chef in 1989. Andrée’s contemporizing of the menu has received more than once the praise of “inspired” in local reviews. Today, she serves as gm. Robert, now 70 and more a presence in the office than in the kitchen, is straightforward in his convictions. “Keep quality up, work hard, and don’t spend more than you get” is his recipe for success. Fresh local ingredients, used as much as possible, make up a large part of that equation. Education—of customers as well as staff—is also key. So is maintaining a good relationship with his employees, many of whom have been with him for years. “I spend as much time or more with my employees as my family,” he says,” and might as well make them part of the family, too.”
With the return in 1996 of Jacky Robert as chef, whose homecoming has brought Californian and Asian touches to the still haute menu (see Recipe File), Robert’s restaurant begins its next quarter century primed for renewed success. If its kitchen currents are any indication, this Boston “fixture” is anything but fixed in place, nor is it leaving anytime soon.