While this Belgian-French native is new to the New York City culinary scene, Executive Chef Raphael Francois comes to Le Cirque with an extensive resume in fine dining. He has worked at Le Giverny with Claude Lavalle in Tournai, at two-star Michelin restaurant Château du Mylord, at Le Sea Grill with Yves Mattagne, and at Maison du Boeuf with Micheal Theurel in Brussels. Then he moved to Paris, working at Hôtel de Crillon with Dominique Bouchet, and at Four Season George V. Before moving to the states, he was the executive chef at London’s Connaught Hotel and its restaurant Hélène Darroze, where he earned two Michelin stars.
At the start of this year, Raphael Francois became the newest executive chef at Le Cirque. For a chef following in the footsteps of quite a few culinary legends, the 35-year-old is calm, collected and focused. He’s a chef who stands by what he creates.
Having earned two Michelin stars and given his current position, one might consider him successful, but he modestly declines being called this, explaining that he “hopes to be” successful. But for now, he’s just an executive chef with the simple goal of winning you over with his dishes at Le Cirque.
On a sunny summer afternoon, Executive Chef Francois shared stories about his culinary path, indulged us in a deep dark secret, and explained what it means to manage an international team of cooks.
The Chefs Connection (CC): How did you get to Le Cirque?
“I was working in London before I arrived in New York. I was the executive chef at The Connaught Hotel in London, which is a nice hotel with fine dining, bars, events, banqueting. It’s quite a big operation for a European country. The Maccioni family approached me to see if I was interested to make a tasting for their entire family, and to possibly handle the challenge here at Le Cirque. I accepted, so I came to New York and I did a tasting for them.”
CC: What did you make at the tasting?
“I did not have any food in mind. I just wanted to do it by feeling. I didn’t know how many people I was cooking for. I didn’t really know the concept of Le Cirque. I didn’t know much about the American palate. So I came and just did the menu for six or seven [people] in the family. I did the menu according to what I found in their fridge. I did the menu by feeling.”
CC: Were you nervous?
“Basically, I was supposed to have the kitchen in the banquet kitchen upstairs for the tasting. But that day, they had a corporate event, so I [had to use] the pastry [kitchen]. At that point, when they told me I would do the tasting in that kitchen, I became stressed. It was very challenging.”
CC: It came out well? Because I guess you got the job! So you moved out here for the job?
“I arrived at Christmas , and I started to work in late January. Then in February, [it was] Restaurant Week. So I [spent] a month and a half seeing how they organize the kitchen, visited a few restaurants with the family, and then met with suppliers. It is a long process. Then I started to work on the menu in March and April. Step by step.”
CC: What have you learned about the American palate so far?
“When I say that, I mean about Le Cirque’s client palate. I’ve come to New York many times before, so I had the chance to try many good restaurants. But Le Cirque is a very specific business, in terms of clients and chefs that they have. I didn’t know about Le Cirque, how they deal with their regular customers, the new ones, and how they organize the classics they keep from each chef. So that’s a big exercise.”
CC: And you have a lot of loyal customers at Le Cirque. You want to please them.
“Yes, of course. We have to. That’s the main point. The regular customers and [new] customers that visit Le Cirque.”
CC: You have a French-Belgium background. What are some differences between French-Belgium and French cuisine?
“In Belgium, the food is great. There aren’t many differences between Belgium and France. Belgian food is like northern French food. Belgium is such a small country, so if you go to the north of France, it’s pretty much the same roots. What I kept in my cooking roots is the match between salty and sweet. But not too much sweetness. It’s not like I put sugar on the plate. In the north of France, they love to match fruits with a protein: meat or fish. And that’s what I like.”
CC: I know Le Cirque was hoping you would bring some of that Belgian-French influence to the menu. What have you done so far?
“I cooked for three years in Belgium. I cooked most of the time in France. Obviously, it influences your style, but I’ve also worked in London, Brussels, Paris – main cities. Paris is mainly French food, but you have to please clientele coming from all over the world. London was a real plus. You have people coming from all over the world.
“About cooking style at Le Cirque, we still have some dishes that have been on the menu for a while. For example, the Paupiette of Black Bass has been on the menu since Daniel Boulud. It’s still on the menu, and we haven’t changed the shape or the flavor or anything, because that’s one of the first dishes that regular customers go for. So why change it? We keep it as it is.
“Then I have the freedom to change a new items as well. The Maccioni family knows everything about their customers, everything about New York, so I show them what I do and receive comments and feedback. They are very open-minded. Mr. Maccioni is still the one who tries all the food. We follow the feedback and we believe in what we do. I have to say that most of the time, the family likes what I do.
“I think also, they chose someone according to the tasting. I was a match with their taste, their palate. And then to come from London to New York, it’s not like coming from France and having only cooked French food. In New York, you have to be flexible.”
CC: So your customers also helped shaped your dishes, right?
“Yeah. I don’t know everything about the American palate, but I’m still learning.”
CC: When did you first become interested in becoming a chef?
“I used to live with my grandparents for a long time. My bedroom was just above the kitchen. We had a main entrance, but it was always closed. And everybody was always coming [in through] the kitchen, which became the main entrance. They had a fridge, but they [didn’t use it], because we had a cold stone basement. That door [was next to] small stairs [which led] to my bedroom, so [when] they were cooking, I had the smell. I never had an alarm, because I was getting up with the smell of the coffee. And my grandparents were making a 5 Clochers-type coffee, which means it was very strong. You could put something in the coffee and it was floating, because the coffee was strong. The smell was wonderful actually.
“During the weekend, [there was] always fantastic food with my grandparents. And my grandparents were basically living in the kitchen. They weren’t staying in the living room. They were staying in the kitchen, sitting at the table, drinking together and cooking at the same time. It was a long process. They were starting very early until we [went] to the terrace. When I was arriving in the kitchen in my robe to have my coffee, I was sitting there with my coffee and my great-grandmother was cutting the salad and my grandmother was peeling the garlic and my grandfather was cooking. I was always helping them. Then after school I was working in a restaurant to make pocket money.
“That’s how it came, step by step. It was a family process first, because food in my family [came] first. We were always planning what we were gonna eat. And everyone was involved, to help [with] cooking. It wasn’t just my grandfather stuck in the kitchen like he was punished. No, it was everyone in the kitchen and we were all helping, talking at the same time, eating at the same time. And with my mother, it was the same process. And with my dad, it was the same process as well.
“And sitting at the table until very late. It was a pleasure actually.”
CC: What city was that in?
“I was staying with my grandparents on my Belgian side in Tournai, which is on the border with Lille. Lille is one of the major cities in France. I think it’s the biggest city in the north of France. And the city my mother [lived in] is the same. It’s not like in the U.S., [where] you have to go on a long drive to go somewhere. Everything is smaller in Europe. You jump in the southern side and you’re in France.”
CC: Do you have a comfort dish you enjoy, maybe one your grandparents made for you?
“It’s a simple food, but I love when my grandmother makes me ratatouille. That’s something we ate regularly during the week.
“The food was very heavy at dinner. Breakfast was always light: baguettes, salted butter and honey. Lunch was more, [but] that’s when you’re working or going to school. You still have to rush a bit. But dinner was always a big dinner.
“Many of our family meals was authentic food, no fuss, rich on flavor and very strong on flavor as well – things I couldn’t do in a restaurant. When they put garlic, they put GARLIC. When they put onions, they are not joking; they put ONIONS. The main flavor was always around parsley, garlic, onions – and then it was changing according to the season.”
CC: Le Cirque has had a long history of executive chefs: Daniel Boulud, Sylvain Portay, Pierre Schaedelin. Do you feel like you have big shoes to fill with taking on this role?
“Yeah, obviously. Definitely. I guess, to be the latest one is always more challenging. There are a few big names and [now] those big names [have] amazing restaurants.”
CC: Is that a goal that you have?
“My goal is to do a good job here, and to be welcomed positively by American customers. That’s my first goal. Then if I can reach that, we’ll think about the next step. But I’m not there yet.
“First, I would like [for] all of our customers [to be] happy. I have my own style, but I adapt myself to the client, because at the end of the day, I want to please them. I want them to come back. I want them to give positive comments. So that’s my first goal.”
CC: Are you happy to have feedback from customers, be it positive or negative?
“Yeah, I mean I’m always happy to have feedback. And then I adjust if I think I can adjust. I mean, it’s not like we are running 30 or 40 covers. If we had 40 covers and two clients make comments, you have to adjust, because the percent is high. But when you have 200 customers and you have one comment … Of course, you have to consider every comment, but then you have to [decide] whether to adjust.
“So the challenge is there. You will always have comments, and then you find the right direction. That’s not easy. But every comment is always a plus, because it helps you improve and to understand. All the big names in the U.S. and New York, like Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Jean-George, Eric Ripert – all those big names, before they arrived to where they are now, it’s a long process: understanding their clients, the seasons in the U.S., the suppliers, the way to get things done quickly. Those are some things that I am learning now. I have to learn it quick. So of course, comments help me learn quicker.”
CC: So you’ve worked in a two-star Michelin restaurant. Can you tell us about that?
“The Connaught Hotel [earned] two Michelin stars in two years. The name of that restaurant was Hélène Darroze. It was huge work. Each chef has their own philosophy. Hélène Darroze’s philosophy was to not cheat the customer. It means that they pay a price, but they get good quality. And the second one was keep it authentic. And that’s what you find in my style. I don’t hide the taste and flavor by different flavors. I try to keep it natural and authentic. If you taste my squab, you taste my squab. If there are components around it you don’t like, then you don’t like it. [With] rhubarb, you have the real taste of rhubarb. I keep it authentic.”
CC: So is that your motto, your kitchen philosophy?
“You make your own style with your own experience. I was executive chef at The Connaught Hotel, and the fine dining was under their name. When I was at the restaurant in the hotel, I always [kept] in mind the philosophy about [quality] of the produce and respect for the clientele. It means I won’t put a price behind it if the quality is not there. So you have to make sure they pay for what they get. The best we can give to the client. I always keep that in mind. So even if the customer is not happy, I always make sure of the quality.”
CC: How would you describe the culture of the kitchens you’ve worked in?
“In London, I was working with people coming from 17 or 20 countries around the world. So your management approach has to be different, because someone who learns in France doesn’t learn the same way as in India or Australia. So that was a very good experience.
“In France, most of the time, you deal with three nationalities maximum, but when you’re in London, you [have] Hungarian, Polish, Indian, Chinese, American, Australian, Italian, Spanish, French. That’s the kitchen. When you arrive, you feel differently. You can’t expect a Chinese to think the same way as a Hungarian. You can’t expect a Hungarian to feel the same way as a French. It was maybe rough before.
“In London, I was more focused on how to get the best from everybody. And here [at Le Cirque], I’ve got a good team. A little bit you have to change, but they are really willing to learn. It wasn’t complicated at all. If you look at my team, they have different backgrounds, they all want to learn and they all want to make it good. So I’m lucky.”
“I noticed when I arrived that a few people [did not have a lot of] experience, but they wanted to learn and they wanted make it right. They are here with me from morning until evening. They have the same target as us. As a sous chef, I have one Australian, German, American and Mexican – he was a line cook and a great chef, so I promoted him to sous chef.”
CC: Your team is very international.
“Yes. And I have to say, I have mainly women in my kitchen. I am surrounded by women. I would say 60 to 70 percent of the team is women.”
Battman: Do they work hard?
“I am very impressed by them. Very, very impressed by the women I have in the kitchen. They accept comments. They are quiet. The kitchen is quiet.
“The women I have here … I have good ones.”
CC: In London with your international staff, did you have any funny stories about miscommunication or because of culture?
“I have to think back a long time ago. The funniest stories in London were the first year when I arrived, because when they saw a chef that was working in Paris for such a long time, it was pretty rough. That was in 2008.
“When I was making a line on the plate … I can’t remember the chef, which country he was from, but he was doing the line at a different angle. And I was mad. I wanted the line like this, and for him, the line was exactly the same as mine. It was, but not the same angle. He was probably thinking, ‘What’s going on with this chef? Is he crazy? Just for a 20 degree angle?’
“I have many defaults, weaknesses, but one of my strengths is I like to explain. I like to explain and I don’t mind to repeat. So I’m not bored with repeating and repeating. I’m quite good about brainwashing people. I can repeat and repeat many times, and it doesn’t bother me at all.
“So it means that in London, at the end of day, it was not that complicated for me. I’m talking about teaching people, because I like it. I like to explain. I’d rather spend time explaining. If I have a meeting with the family and I go to the kitchen and see someone grabbing the knife not in a good manner, I will stop and take one minute to show [him the right way]. I like it.
“One of the [other things] is also taste. In a kitchen in France, you’ve got mainly French. The taste is pretty similar. But when you [people from] Mexico, Jamaica, the U.S., and Italy in your kitchen, the taste could be different, in terms of spicy, saltiness, sweetness. So it means that if you say to one chef, ‘Taste this to make sure it’s the right seasoning,’ one chef to another could be different. One chef could say it’s not acidic enough, but to me, it’s going to be too acidic. And one chef is going to make it too sweet. And for another, it’s not sweet enough. That’s the challenge. That’s the challenge when you’re with people from all over the place, but it also brings you ideas.”
CC: How do you handle that challenge?
“You have to be present. You have to be there. You have to try it again, and make sure that their seasoning tastes are closer to what I expect. It doesn’t mean that my seasoning taste is the one, but it has to reflect what I want. So that’s the challenge, but overall we get there.
“The good thing is that we work with Asians, Mexicans, Jamaicans, it brings you different culture and different products. I love Jamaican food. I love Mexican food. I really love it. I love Asian food. And that makes French food more interesting I would say.
“And anyway, French food … there are the bourgeois French food, which is really old school, which I love. That’s the kind of food I go eat. It’s closer to my family taste. But French food is also influenced by tastes from Asia, North Africa, so French food since years and years ago always has Asian influences, North African influences. So when some people say French food is too old school, it’s because they’re thinking about French bourgeois food.
“When I was working at The Connaught, we always used [flavors] from the Caribbean in the French islands. We always used exotic produce in the classic French food.”
CC: What is the best comment you’ve received as a chef here?
“I have a few in mind, but I keep it in my mind. I receive very positive comments from American people who love the food in New York. But that’s the kind of comment I keep for [myself]. Knock on wood.
“If you have a few customers that like what you do, then that’s great. We have positive comments, but then again, you have people that don’t understand why you don’t roast the scallops [more]. They don’t understand why you don’t caramelize them [a lot]. They want the fish colored and caramelized, which is not really the way I do it. I caramelize and color, but not too much, because I like to keep it delicate. And some don’t understand that.
“But positive, yes. You have some clients that ask for the same dish again. They come and eat the dish again and again and again. I have the squab for a long time with the mandarin, but I should change the mandarin. But some clients want to eat that one. When I say, ‘Yeah, but soon I have to change it’ and they say to me, ‘Please keep it.’
CC: So it changes with the season?
“Yeah, but here in New York, you can have everything anytime. You have all the climates in the U.S., so you can get pretty much anything at any time. But then in the philosophy point of view, I would like to change the squab with the mandarin, but I have some clients that say, ‘Please keep it.’ So I’m stuck. I will change it. But I don’t want critics to misunderstand me and I want to please the client.”
CC: What’s next for you?
“Basically, focusing on what I’m doing now. Currently, the menu is 20-30 percent of the classics of Le Cirque. And then the new one … to make sure that the customer likes me, like what we give at Le Cirque. Of course, I have my own ambition as well, which matches with Le Cirque. I would love to be rated by the New York Times. I think it’s like any chef in New York. I would like to be rated by the Michelin guide. When you come from Europe, you always think about the Michelin guide. That’s for sure. That’s an ambition, which matches with customer demand as well.”
CC: Is there something you wish you knew before becoming a chef?
“No. When I was young, I was mainly in Paris. We know about that business. In France, we don’t need to see a TV show to understand what’s going on in the kitchen. It’s a part of the culture. At 12 o’clock, we always have a chef introducing one recipe. The TV show lasted five minutes. It was a quick tip for one recipe. We all know about food business and how it works, how it runs. It’s a part of the culture.
“So when I stepped in, I knew about it. But at Le Cirque, I have to say it’s a good transition, because I arrived within a family. They are obviously American, but they are also European. They grew up in America, Italy and France. They help me a lot.
“But again, the experience in London was great. The few years I had in London before arriving in New York was the best. It was the best transition ever. I still see myself when I went from Paris to London; the first year was really tough. So London to New York was the right transition.”
CC: Last few questions: I’ll give you a sentence for you to finish. I never leave home without …
CC: My favorite music is …
“Ah. I like the app Shazaam. It’s my favorite application. So I listen to any kind of music, but just one song of each. The last one I downloaded was when I was on Spring Street eating a burger on Sunday. I heard a very nice song: “How I Do” by Tapesh & Dayne S. But I don’t know if the song is good, because it was with the surroundings of the restaurant. So maybe it’s crap.
“But I can listen to classical music. I love classical music. I can listen to rock, rap, R&B, jazz, electronic.”
CC: The last great meal that I had was …
“At Thomas Keller’s in the U.S., but I have had so many great meals in New York. I could say hello to all the big chefs, but the last table [sitting] I had was by Thomas Keller, who I admire a lot. I really like what he does.”
Interview and photos by Kara Chin