February 14, 2012 | Short Order
Jean Jacques Rachou hopes to reopen his long ago abandoned Le Lavandou on E. 61st Street
Chef Jean Jacques Rachou, who scuttled La Côte Basque in a huff, is hoping to reopen his earlier, long ago abandoned restaurant Le Lavandou in a building he owns on 134 East 61st street. But first his tenant, Wajima Japanese Restaurant will have to close. The stocky Toulouse-born Rachou was all smiles as he confided his plan after greeting countrymen from the Southwest of France at a cassoulet celebration at Benoit last week.
Before the restaurant was Benoit it was the deathbed of La Côte Basque in March 2004, when Rachou, furious to be interrupted during lunch by city health inspectors, locked the door and refused to return. Alain Ducasse stepped in to buy the place.
He has modest plans to reopen La Lavandou. “But the lease has two years to run. Then I’ll be 78 and too old.” he mused. “I need to do it now when I’m just 76.” He says he has told the owner of Wajima he will help him out with a good deal.
When he surrendered La Côte Basque, Rachou talked about opening a small restaurant however his daughter persuaded him not to. But he couldn’t keep away from the kitchen and came in mornings without pay to work in the Benoit kitchen on the delicate quenelles de brochet or the rustic cassoulet of his Toulousain heritage..
Rachou was left at an orphanage at birth, a story “too sad to talk about,” he told Bryan Miller of the New York Times years ago. At 11 he needed work and found it in a restaurant. His first job in New York was as chef of The Colony. In 1974 he bought Le Canarie d’Or for $55,000 and opened Le Levandou with a classic French menu and gentle prices, $11.50 prix fixe at lunch, $20.50 at dinner. “Rachou cooks as if nothing new has happened to French cuisine since Caréme…never mind Escoffier,” I wrote in 1978. “And why shouldn’t he? Le Lavandou gourmands love it. He seems to have a fix on how to please a hungry New Yorker. If a Jewish mother could be French, she would be Jean Jacques Rachou…crafting his staggering sea scape arranged on the plate.” A frustrated painter, Rachou was famous for the still lives he painted in sauces.
One day lunching at La Côte Basque, its luster sadly dimmed, he realized the owners wanted out. By 2:30 that afternoon he had agreed to buy the restaurant, closing Le Lavandou in 1979. Through Rachou's re-built basement kitchen at Côte Basque, past a constellation of young American chef stars-to-be — Charlie Palmer, Rick Moonen, Ali Barker (the first chef at Union Square Cafe) and Waldy Malouf. This was a time when no other French restaurant would put up with an American in the kitchen.
When the Côte Basque building was sold to make way for Walt Disney on Fifth Avenue in l995, Rachou moved it across Fifth to its West 55th Street address bringing the luminous murals of La Pays Basque Bernard LaMotte had painted for the original owner, Henri Soulé.
“I have it all in my garage in Queens,” he said, “Everything, the paintings from La Lavandou, the murals from La Côte Basque. I’m ready to go.” Rachou left two days after the cassoulet celebration to visit his son in Los Angeles, hoping his offer to help his 61st Street tenant get out of the lease would come to a boil on his return.
Click here to read my 1965 article, “Papa Soulé Loves You.” And click here to read my November, 1968, review of “La Côte Basque.”
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