Jean Banchet first came to the attention of Great Chefs in the early 80s, when the call went out for nominations for chefs to be taped in Chicago. Over and over, nominations came back with Jean Banchet, then at his Le Francais restaurant in Wheeling, Illinois, on the list.
Jean Banchet was taped at Le Francais, and again when Great Chefs taped in Atlanta where he had opened La Riviera. La Riviera is closed now; Jean Banchet headed back to Chicago at Le Francais, as exceptional as ever. Now retired and claiming to relax, he´s still a force in the culinary world.
Years ago Jean Banchet´s picture beamed from the cover of Bon Appetit, which proclaimed his Le Francais ‚“America´s Best Restaurant.‚” Surrounding the framed magazine cover, on the wall of Le Francais, were the awards supporting the assertion: Mobil Travel Guide 5-Star awards, a gold plate from Cartier´s Fine Dining program, books of press clippings. Le Francais originally opened in 1973 with the same standards of excellence for food and service that marked the French restaurants at which Banchet had trained. ‚“I scream a lot, and I don´t take any excuses if something is not good, but then I take the time to show them exactly how something should be done,‚” he said then. He says that he eventually mellowed about the screaming, but he never mellowed about the standards.
Banchet´s training started at the age of 13 in the kitchen of La Pyramide. Although the hours were grueling, after two years he had reached the rank of premier comis, a station just before demi-chef, an incredible accomplishment for someone still in their mid-teens. A fellow apprentice, Paul Bocuse, became a life-long friend, and offered Banchet a position at the restaurant Bocuse had just taken over from his father. What followed was a year at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, and two years in Algiers where he fulfilled his military service as the chef to General La Roux. At 21, he was asked to command the kitchen at the Sporting Club, a casino in the Knightsbridge section of London. ‚“After La Pyramide all doors were open, but London was a big step,‚” he says. In 1968, he accepted Hugh Hefner´s offer to open the Playboy Club´s resort at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Being an executive chef was a far too sedentary job for the energetic Banchet, so he moved to Chicago and opened three restaurants for others before opening his own.
When Banchet left Le Francais in 1989, he consulted, but missed the bustle of the kitchen. He was attracted to Atlanta — where he could ride his motorcycle year-round — and – opened first Ciboulette (with Tom Coohill) and then, in 1996, La Riviera. La Riviera was a hit in Atlanta, where Great Chefs taped Banchet a the second time. But eventually he decided to close it and move back to Chicago. His return to Le Francais was marked by no less than a full cover photo on the Sunday Chicago Tribune Magazine, his magnetic eyes nearly at the bottom of the cover and Il Est de Retour! splashed across his toque. The extensive story inside, ‚“The Toque of the Town,‚” by food critic William Rice, notes his return as one of Chicago´s three gastronomic events of 1999.‚”
Banchet turned Le Francais over to trusted associates in 2001. Retirement from the kitchen beckoned, perhaps time with grandchildren, perhaps time to fish. And perhaps too, time to still be one of the guiding lights of fine cuisine.