This is the first part of a two-part Chef Chat interview. Please visit us tomorrow to read Part 2.
We hear the argument all the time: Houston is so much more than what you find in the Inner Loop. Venture over to the west side of town, and you'll find gems like the international food emporium Phoenicia Specialty Foods, the quaint Peruvian Bistro Lemon Tree, Akaushi burgers at The Burger Guys, delicious Pan-Asian at Rattan Asian Bistro, and authentic French cuisine at Le Mistral, where chef and owner David Denis has been offering great cuisine to a multinational clientele and sophisticated palates for 11 years. One of the first restaurants of its caliber to open on the West Side, Le Mistral took a big chance outside the Loop. We sat down for a candid chat with Denis to find out what made him choose that particular location in lieu of something closer to the center of town.
EOW: I think you took a big risk moving out here in the Energy Corridor. I know you've been here for a while. What made you open your restaurant here?
DD: You're right. It was a big risk. When I opened the restaurant, people said, "Man, you're opening in San Antonio."
EOW: It is far.
DD: It is far, but really it's not too far. It depends on where you live in Houston and the time that you want to come, for sure. If you jump on I-10, it's very fast. I live on Chimney Rock, and people who live in this area jump on I-10 and it takes only 20 minutes. Anyway, when we started 11 years ago, it was a small little place down the street not far away from this location.
EOW: How many seats? DD: It was 45 seats. Very small. And we started there, because at the time, we had absolutely no money, so we could not afford to go inside the loop.
EOW: Okay, let's backtrack. Eleven years ago, you were in your early thirties. What made you decide to open a restaurant at that time?
DD: I came to the United States as a private chef in 1996. I had met some Americans when I was in St. Tropez, who had asked me to cook some private dinners at their house in the south of France.
EOW: Where were you working at the time?
DD: I was working in Switzerland. Long story short, in Switzerland, you can only work for nine months. They do a contract for nine months. You have to leave the country for three months. And so every summer, June, July and August, I would leave Switzerland and go back to south France, where I'm from.
EOW: Where are you from?
DD: Exactly, from Le Revest. It's a small town. So for June, July, August, I would just go to St. Tropez and I would party. We partied like crazy.
EOW: You didn't go there to work?
DD: It was summer break for me. I would go and party with friends, and find a job. So I found that American family who needed someone to cook for them. So I did that for two weeks, and then the following summer, they asked if I would do it again. So, I cooked for them for two months. I did that with them for two years, and then the third year, they said "Don't you want to be a chef in America?" And I'm like "Okay, maybe I can try it for a year." So, I stopped my job in Switzerland, and I came to be a private chef in America, and I did that for five years.
EOW: So, when you moved to the U.S., how old were you?
DD: I think I was 24 years old.
EOW: So you were 24, you came to the U.S. and settled in Houston?
DD: Yes. Most of my customers were in River Oaks. I worked for the type of people who had homes all over the country. In a week, I could be in three different states. I could start the week in Florida, spend one day in San Francisco, then one day in Aspen, Colorado. I would do a party somewhere and come back.
EOW: Was it a very glamorous lifestyle?
DD: You travel in a G4, G5, a helicopter. For a chef, it's definitely kind of cool. And you're young and you party every night. I partied so much! I mean, you go, and it's always a top place. You go to Colorado, it's Aspen. Then it's Los Angeles, and then it's on a yacht in Fort Lauderdale. It's always a nice place to be. I did that for five years, and then I met Elena, who became my wife, and I was very weary of all this traveling, so I was like "Okay, I need to stop being a private chef." I decided to open a restaurant. It took me about a year to design, think about it, and put the whole thing together, so in the meantime, I worked at the French Culinary Institute with Alain and Maire LeNotre as an instructor for a year before we found our location. We were this close to opening in downtown, but I'm glad we didn't.
EOW: The French culinary boom just sort of happened in Houston these last three years. What was your competition then?
DD: On Eldridge Parkway there was none. But 13 years ago, there was just Bistro Provence and Cafe Rabelais, there was Rouge, which opened and closed, and there was Cafe Perrier, which is now Aura in Sugar Land.
EOW: So you had it wide open. You could have gone anywhere inside the loop, and you decided on Eldridge Parkway.
DD: Because we didn't have any money! My brother and me, we owned 70 percent of the old Le Mistral. So, we had 30 percent of investors. We had a little bit of savings, and we were looking around, and we were like, "Where are we gonna go?" So, we came here, and it was this old Italian restaurant, Azzarelli. At the time, it was not the "Energy Corridor."
EOW: Wow! You got so lucky! You hit the jackpot.
DD: Well, but we knew it was coming. One of our best customers was a land developer, who developed a lot of houses on the West Side. If you look around here, you have a lot of people who live here, but you also have $2 million homes around the corner.
EOW: And it wasn't the Energy Corridor.
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DD: At the time, it was not. You had a lot of companies -- BP was there, Exxon Mobil, Shell -- but it was not called the Energy Corridor, it was just a few oil companies. So we looked around, it was nice and cute and small and it was not too much money to get in, and we were like, "Okay, let's go start." So we started the restaurant -- we weren't doing pan-seared foie gras. A steak frite, a little beef bourguignon, a nice little salad and some nice sandwiches, and then we had people coming and asking, "Where is your foie gras? Are you not going to have veal chop?" And then we realized that we were in a place where people were willing to spend money, so we kind of changed right away.
EOW: How long did it take you to realize that?
DD: Six months. We were like, "Okay, let's stop doing bistro, and let's do real French food." Because people were willing to spend the money. So, we changed the menu, and we went with pan-seared foie gras, Chilean sea bass, and osso bucco, and all this kind of good stuff, and we started getting really busy.
Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our chat with Denis about Le Mistral.