Jean Banchet, a prodigiously talented chef and gregarious personality who almost single-handedly raised Chicago's dining reputation from a steak-and-potatoes town to a serious restaurant city, has died. He was 72.
Banchet, Chicago's first celebrity chef, died Sunday at his home in Jupiter, Fla., three weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, said his wife, Doris.
In 1973, Chicago's culinary reputation began and ended with steak. Then came Banchet, who had been brought to the area by famed restaurateur Arnie Morton to head the kitchen at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wis. When Banchet was ready to strike out on his own, he selected a property in Wheeling, Ill. — the closest place to Chicago that he could afford, nearly 30 miles away.
Banchet opened Le Francais in February 1973. The original building was destroyed by fire in 1975, and Banchet rebuilt, setting the new restaurant deeper into the property and designing it along the lines of a French auberge, or country inn. The Banchets built their home at the far end of the property; the chef's commute was a stroll through the grass, coffee cup in hand.
Despite the restaurant's relatively remote location, lovers of fine dining found their way to Le Francais, and its reputation grew rapidly. In 1980, Bon Appetit magazine declared Le Francais America's best restaurant, and reservations, which were already difficult to acquire without weeks of planning, became even harder to secure. Deep-pocketed guests from other cities would land their private planes at nearby Palwaukee Airport, flying in just to experience Banchet's food.
"When you have people willing to travel 28 miles [from the city], to wait six months for a reservation, you know somebody's doing something remarkable," said Phil Mott, who purchased Le Francais in 2001 and operated it for two years. "He changed the landscape; he made it possible for Charlie Trotter and all the other great chefs."
Chefs throughout the city made a point of eating at Le Francais. Jean Joho, chef/proprietor of Everest restaurant and a well-known chef in his own right, said Le Francais was the first fine-dining restaurant he visited when he arrived in Chicago in 1983.
"He created a temple of gastronomy," Joho said. "He did something different from what everybody did at the time. Most of the food [elsewhere] was really conservative; Jean brought a new way to run restaurants and prepare foods. He used ingredients and preparations people hadn't seen before. He gave you a lot for the eyes before you ate."
Born in Roanne, France, a small town near Lyon, in 1941, Banchet worked at many restaurants in Europe. He trained at La Pyramide, a legendary restaurant in Vienne,(NOTE: not Vienna) France, owned by Fernand Point, who forged the careers of Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros brothers (Jean and Pierre), Georges Perrier and other famous chefs. Banchet served as chef at the Playboy Club in London, his last stop before coming to the U.S. to work at the Lake Geneva Playboy Club in 1968.
Banchet first retired from Le Francais in 1989, returned in 1999 and ran the restaurant for three years. He retired in 2001, selling his restaurant to Mott. But he remained an influential figure among Chicago chefs.
Besides his wife, Banchet is survived by a brother, Lucien, and a sister, Monique, both of Roanne.
Vettel is restaurant critic at the Chicago Tribune.
Tribune reporters Kevin Pang and Mark Caro contributed to this report.
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