Jean Banchet Dies: Chicago's First Celebrity Chef Had Prostate Cancer

Tuesday, 26 Nov 2013 12:48 PM

By Clyde Hughes

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Jean Banchet, the French chef who became Chicago's first celebrity chef, died Sunday after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer three weeks ago. He was 72.

Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel wrote that Banchet "almost single-handedly raised Chicago's dining reputation from a steak-and-potatoes town to a serious restaurant city."

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Banchet, a native of Roanne, France, was brought to the Chicago area by well-known restaurateur Arnie Morton to lead the kitchen at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva. When Banchet struck out on his own, he opened up a restaurant in suburban Wheeling, which he told the Tribune was the closest place he could find to Chicago that he could afford.

Despite the location, Banchet and his Le Francais restaurant grew a strong reputation with people who enjoyed fine dining and Bon Appetit magazine declared his eatery "America's Best Restaurant" in 1980.

"Reservations, which were already difficult to acquire without weeks of planning, became even harder to secure," Vettel said in his Tribune story. "Deep-pocketed guests from other cities would land their private planes at nearby Palwaukee Airport, flying in just to experience Banchet's food."

The Chicago Sun-Times wrote that late New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton called her 1977 dinner there "the single best and most lavishly presented French meal I have ever had in this country."

"When you have people willing to travel 28 miles (from the city), to wait six months for a reservation, you know somebody's doing something remarkable," Phil Mott, who purchased Le Francais in 2001, told the Tribune. "He changed the landscape; he made it possible for Charlie Trotter and all the other great chefs."

The Sun-Times' Maureen O'Donnell wrote that celebrity chefs Jacques Pepin and Julia Child would fly in to dine at Le Francais. The newspaper wrote that "Banchet’s perfectionism, decadent sauces, top-quality ingredients and inventive menus inspired other chefs who would go on to start — and star at — restaurants of their own."

The Sun-Times said Banchet taught numerous chefs who are now leading their own kitchens. Chef Jeff Jackson, the chef at the Lodge at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif., told the Sun-Times that working at Banchet at Le Francais in the early 1980s was like "going to graduate school at Harvard."

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