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Jean Banchet, chef at Wheeling’s famed Le Francais, dies at 72

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Updated: December 27, 2013 6:14AM



When Jean Banchet opened Le Francais at an unpretentious address in Wheeling 40 years ago, Chicago was still largely a meat-and-potatoes town. Even those familiar with French cuisine had probably never been exposed to the paradisiacal standards of the meals created at his restaurant.

The world soon beat a path to his door.

The late New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne called Le Francais a “cosmic revelation.” The newspaper’s restaurant critic, Mimi Sheraton, called her 1977 dinner there “the single best and most lavishly presented French meal I have ever had in this country.”

Jacques Pepin and Julia Child came to dine. To snare a table, wealthy connoisseurs arrived in private planes at nearby Palwaukee Airport.

In 1980, Bon Appetit magazine called it the best restaurant in America.

Mr. Banchet’s perfectionism, decadent sauces, top-quality ingredients and inventive menus inspired other chefs who would go on to start — and star at — restaurants of their own.

Banchet, a native of Roanne, France, died Sunday evening at his home in Florida, three weeks to the day after learning he had pancreatic and liver cancer, said Doris Banchet, his wife and business partner. Mr. Banchet was 72.

Though he had been feeling ill, the diagnosis was a shock. “He was running around on [his motorcycle] four weeks ago,” she said.

“He was, to me, the Bocuse of America,” said Dominique Fortin, referring to French culinary giant Paul Bocuse. A former staffer at Le Francais who now owns C’est Tout bistro in Dayton, Fortin said he marveled at the lavish portions and caliber of ingredients Mr. Banchet insisted upon.

“The pheasant came from Scotland. The duck was from Canada,” said his former sous chef, Patrick Chabert, now corporate chef for the Duchossois Group. “Banchet was extremely generous. I remember [him] putting a handful of sliced truffle in consomme.”

Diners selected delicacies from trays groaning with pates and desserts.

Working at Le Francais in the early 1980s was like “going to graduate school at Harvard,” said chef Jeff Jackson of the Lodge at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif.

It was “the best and worst three years of my life,” said chef Mark Grosz of Oceanique. “He taught me about everything — discipline, life, fashion, intensity.”

Banchet was demanding, but he didn’t hold grudges about kitchen snafus, former staffers said.

“We called it ‘getting mais non’d’ because whenever he was upset he would start saying ‘Mais non, mais non, mais non’ ” — “but no” — Jackson said. Still, “his standards were no higher than ones he set for himself.”

The menu was lyrical: lobster sausage, galette of crisp potatoes, boneless rack of veal with Madeira truffle sauce. Craig Claiborne raved about duck consomme “the clear color of a piece of fine amber jewelry.”

The crowds were testament to his skill.

“Every night was like a Saturday night,” said former pastry chef Mary Beth Liccioni, owner of Les Nomades restaurant.

When he popped in at restaurants, other chefs noticed.

“I remember being with him in New York and whenever somebody would recognize him, they would stand up and give him applause,” Chabert said.

Once, they dined at Charlie Trotter’s restaurant. “When he knew we were coming out,” Chabert said, Trotter “lined the [cooks] on two sides of the door, maybe 10 on each side,” to salute them as they departed.

Mr. Banchet operated the restaurant from 1973 to 1989. Mary Beth and her former husband, chef Roland Liccioni, took over for a decade. Mr. Banchet returned for a couple of years but retired in 2001, saying he didn’t want to die at the stove.

Mr. Banchet also is survived by his sister, Monique Chassagne, and his brother, Lucien. His wife said she postponed his Palm Beach funeral service until Monday because so many chefs have expressed interest in flying in. A Chicago memorial also is planned.

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