Jean-Marie Ancher: Three Decades at Taillevent

Jean-Marie Ancher: Three Decades at Taillevent

This is the place where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have dinner when they’re in Paris, where Bill Gates and Warren Buffet meet informally after a conference. Not far from the Arc de Triomphe on posh but low-key rue Lamennais, housed in a private mansion built by the Duc de Morny in 1852, Taillevent was founded by André Vrinat in 1946 and named after the nom de plume of Guillaume Tirel, the author of the oldest cookbook written in French, the late 14th-century Le Viandier.

Today Taillevent epitomizes the tradition of upper-echelon family restaurants in Paris. But despite its famous name and elegant Louis XVI salons, the restaurant has seen severe upheavals during the last few years, from the surprise loss of the iconic third star to the death in 2008 of Jean-Claude Vrinat, the renowned restaurateur who had headed the establishment since 1962.

Two years after the patron‘s death, Jean-Marie Ancher has assumed the legacy of this father figure he humbly calls “Monsieur Vrinat”. Impeccably dressed but self-effacing and praised for his kindness, Ancher greets all the customers at the door of the restaurant—a meaningful symbol to him. “Today, Monsieur Vrinat’s daughter has the keys, but I still guard the door,” he says with a modest smile.

Ancher’s life story owes much to Taillevent. When he first arrived at the restaurant, in the early 1970s, he was 16 years old and had no diploma. “I dreamed of being a math teacher but I wasn’t good enough, so I quit school very early. I worked in two restaurants, but both quickly went bankrupt. Then a friend of my father’s advised me to knock on Taillevent’s door.” Under Vrinat’s guidance, the establishment had just been awarded its third star in the Michelin guide.

Hired as a kitchen helper, young Jean-Marie quickly rose in the hierarchy. At 24, he was promoted to maître d’hôtel, a rank he almost declined. “I really was afraid I could not speak English,” he recalls. “But Monsieur Vrinat didn’t give me a choice: It was either the suit or the door!” A few years later, he was prodded into the position of dining room manager, and after Jean-Claude Vrinat’s death, he became the director of Taillevent, at the request of Vrinat’s daughter Valérie. “Valérie Vrinat thought she could trust me. And for me it is an honor to head this restaurant and pursue her father’s work.”

“Taillevent is all in the details”

Over the years, a few things have changed at Taillevent. The clientele has become more international, and perhaps a little less elite, thanks to its €90 lunch menu. Wearing a tie is no longer mandatory, although a jacket is still required. “Otherwise, you would soon lose any sense of elegance,” says Ancher. But his job remains the same, with its tight schedules and heavy stress. “I get to the restaurant at 10 in the morning and tour the place to see if anything is wrong. Then at 11:30 I check on the reservations and prepare the dining room. It is really important to give each party the right table: First there are the regular customers, and then you can’t put two bankers side by side, or two people who speak the same language, for example! You know, Taillevent is all in the details.”

A customer was once astounded when Ancher noticed, the minute he entered the restaurant, that the diner was left-handed, and had his silverware repositioned before he had time to sit down! “I do see these little things,” Ancher admits. “But sometimes I miss others: A long time ago, a woman kissed me on the cheek when she left. I hadn’t recognized her, but it was Katharine Hepburn!”

After the lunch service from noon to four, the director has a brief meeting with Valérie Vrinat. “We discuss everything that went right or wrong. At six, I allow myself a little coffee outside, in the pastry shop around the corner. This is a short break before going back for dinner, which can last from eight in the evening until one in the morning.” It’s a long and exhausting day for the boss, who fortunately has a large team to rely on—nearly 50 people work at Taillevent every day, including, of course, the celebrated chef Alain Solivérès. Formerly at Lucas Carton and Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV restaurant in the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo, Solivérès sticks to classic cuisine, with a few daring touches. Taillevent is also known throughout the world for its dazzling wine list, which includes more than 1,500 items. “We have a huge cave, with almost 350,000 bottles,” says Ancher. “André Vrinat, our founder, was the first in Paris to put Burgundy wines on his list!”

A third star before retirement?

The director now hopes that these assets, along with his efforts, will regain the restaurant’s third star, first won in 1973 and lost three years ago. Reproached for being overcrowded, Taillevent is nonetheless consistently lauded by its regulars: It was recently named the best restaurant in Paris by the Zagat guide. “I will keep trying to get back that star, for Monsieur Vrinat,” says Ancher. “That will be my task now, until my retirement.”

And when would that be? “I hope I’ll be able to stay here another eight years. Then I will have worked at Taillevent for 45 years and I’ll deserve a little rest!” A fan of the United States, and a modest athlete who has run the New York Marathon twice, Ancher keeps a giant map of the US at home, hoping to make a post-retirement visit to all his American friends.

15 rue Lamennais, Paris 8th, website


Originally published in the May 2010 issue of France Today.

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