Born Into The Business

14 Nov 2014
4 min read
Le Bernardin is New York’s Zagat-winning, three Michelin star seafood institute, known for its silver-haired head chef, Eric Ripert. It was however, the brainchild of Brittany-born Maguy Le Coze who first brought the restaurant critical acclaim back in 1986, writes Simone Miché in FOUR’s Autumn International Edition…

“I first met in 1991, the year he came to Le Bernardin. “We are very close. We are more than business partners, we are family.”

Maguy Le Coze grew up in a small fishing village in Brittany where her parents owned the Hotel de Rhuys. By the time she was a teenager, Maguy had already gained a head start in hospitality, working at the hotel’s restaurant, while her entrepreneurial spirit was flourishing as she ran a summer disco, La Biscorne, which her father opened as a project for her and her brother to practice their talents.

Growing up in this attractive area of northwest France has had a huge impact on Maguy’s career, right down to the choices made at Le Bernardin today. She reveals: “My brother and I were involved in the [family] hotel very early in our lives. I was in the dining room with my mother, my brother in the kitchen with my father. Hospitality was part of our DNA. Growing up in Brittany, our lives were the sea, the air we breathed, the food we ate. Everything we knew about fish, we learned in Port Navalo. We couldn’t imagine serving anything other than fish at Le Bernardin.”

Maguy opened Le Bernardin with her brother Gilbert in New York in 1986 following an inspiring trip to the States. A restaurant which has since gone on to become one of only seven restaurants in New York to be awarded three Michelin stars and hold four stars from The New York Times for the longest period of time, neither Maguy nor Gilbert, or anyone else for that matter, could ever have predicted the dazzling reception they would receive for their little French restaurant based on memories from home.

The restaurant namesake, however, began life much earlier, in 1972, when Maguy and Gilbert moved to Paris in their early twenties to open the first Le Bernardin—named after a song their father used to sing to them about an order of Monks that loved to eat and drink — with loans and help of family and friends. “While my brother and I were in Paris, we realised [opening a restaurant was] in our blood. There was nothing else that we knew!

“[My brother and I] were very close from the very beginning. We were so similar, both very ambitious. We balanced each other and shared the same goals. We were perfect partners.”

Maguy worked tirelessly in the restaurant’s dining room while Gilbert’s love of seafood led the menu to be based only on fish: fresh, simple and prepared with respect — inspired by the very stuff Maguy and Gilbert had enjoyed as children in Brittany. Their hard work paid off and in 1976, Le Bernadin received its first Michelin star and, after relocating to a bigger premises, its second in 1980. Curious of how it must feel to receive such a highly regarded accolade for a first project, I asked Maguy what it was like when Le Bernadin was granted its second star. “We were over the moon. My brother was not a classically trained chef and had never been to culinary school so recognition from the establishment came as a shock.

“Our vision was to have our own business and a restaurant was a natural choice for us. We worked very hard; harder than anyone else we knew at the time and I think we exceeded our initial expectations.”

In 1986, Maguy and Gilbert relocated to New York. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of dining in one of the city’s top restaurants will know that the buzzing metropolis is to the US what Paris is to France’s culinary scene — a distinctive gourmand mecca. And for an ambitious restaurateur like Maguy, it was the natural next step.

Maguy, however, puts it down to spontaneity and a strong sense of intuition; her version of the story: “The idea to go to New York came out of the blue and my instinct was strong. At first my brother was hesitant but I convinced him to give it a try. It took us several tries before we were able to open Le Bernardin in New York, but finally we did in 1986.”

In 1991, at the same time Le Bernadin celebrated its fifth year as an award-winning restaurant (it received four stars from The New York Times just three months after opening, as it has for the last 15 consecutive years), fledgling French-born chef arrived in the city looking to broaden the culinary experience he had already garnered working in legendary restaurants La Tour D’Argent and Jamin (three Michelin stars). He worked briefly as David Bouley’s sous-chef before Maguy and Gilbert Le Coze recruited him as chef, becoming head of Le Bernadin’s kitchen when Gilbert sadly passed away in 2004. “I first met Eric in 1991, the year he came to Le Bernardin,” Maguy explains. “We are very close. We are more than business partners, we are family.”

In the inaugural 2005 New York City Michelin Guide Le Bernardin with honoured with its highest rating of three stars. Today, Maguy credits as one of her greatest inspirations (alongside her mother and brother). The partnership between food and ambiance at Le Bernadin’s is striking and pays tribute to the vision of impeccably good food and hospitality that and Maguy both share. “The kitchen and the dining room must complement each other. and I work closely to make sure that neither one stands still in time. It’s important to evolve.”

Le Bernadin received a significant redesign from Bentel and Bentel in 2011, featuring a separate lounge bar and restaurant, while at the same time Maguy and expanded their brand, Ripert Consulting, opening restaurants in Florida, California and New York City, as well as partnered restaurants in the Caribbean, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia with The Ritz-Carlton.

Maguy tells me that she plans to further expand the Le Bernadin brand this year in New York. “In September 2014, we will open two new properties — Le Bernardin Prive, an extension of our private dining rooms and Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, both located just across from Le Bernardin.”

At the end of our conversation there is still one final question left for me to ask Maguy. What is the key to your success? She answers, enthusiastically, “Passion, hard work and dedication. Never underestimate how hard you must work!”