Retiring chef who catered to Frank Sinatra closes Glen Ellyn bistro

When you're a chef cooking for movie stars, you've got to master one thing: Improvising.

No matter how much time you've spent slaving over a luxurious meal, a celeb will inevitably send a meal back to the kitchen.

Take Frank Sinatra, who turned away his birthday dinner. On the menu? A perfectly lovely lobster prepared by Michel Saragueta.

But Ol' Blue Eyes just had to have a plain ol' Reuben sandwich.

“It's never been easy because you have to be always ready with no attitude, ready to jump, to please these people, ready to serve them what they want to have,” Saragueta says.

The French native had the humility to cater to whatever his famous guests wanted as executive chef at the Beverly Hills Hotel in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Saragueta is now retiring and recently closed his Bistro Monet in downtown Glen Ellyn, where fans savored hearty, traditional French meals for a decade.

“I'm just amazed at his work ethic and his professionalism, and he is just so passionate about what he does,” says Susan Mocerino, a board member of the Alliance of Downtown Glen Ellyn who frequently worked with Saragueta.

In an interview Wednesday with the Daily Herald, the 69-year-old looked back on the 56 years he spent cooking around the globe. This is an edited version of the conversation.

Q. Tell us about cooking for some Hollywood legends as executive chef at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

A. Sometimes these people want very simple stuff, but you have to make simple right.

I don't have anything to say about that ... They call you, you jump.

Q. Do you have to be ready for anything when dealing with celebrities?

A. Frank Sinatra was a big issue. We made these beautiful dishes with lobster, filet mignon and all these things ...

And when the maitre d' put his plate in front of him ... he pushes his plate away. “Can I have a Reuben sandwich? I don't want this.”

I never put a Reuben sandwich together so fast. Oh ... he was so happy.

Q. You have to accommodate whatever your guest wants?

A. That is one thing I learned ... that is what I teach my younger people. Attitude is 50 percent of the job. If you have (a bad) attitude, it doesn't matter how nicely you chop the onion or garlic.

I think my mother pushed me on that. I was a little cocky at a young age and she corrected me. And that is what I am passing to the new generation.

Q. When did you know you wanted to become a chef?

A. My mother was a chef. I always was doing some cooking with her. I do my mother's cuisine. It is the cuisine I was doing at the Bistro Monet: cassoulet, coq au vin, pork tenderloin, pork chop — that was my mother's cuisine. She was doing incredible lobster bisque, onion soup. She was perfect.

And of course, she liked to do the sweetbread. I did that sometime here, but you know not many people order it.

All these things I learned with her, from her, and, of course, when you're a kid like I was at the time, what your mother does is not a big deal. I realized later on in life how good she was.

Q. What about the influences of where you grew up, the French Basque region?

A. Our base has always been onion, garlic, pepper, tomatoes — all these kinds of ingredients. Lots of lamb. Lots of beef. Lots of stews. But also lots of fresh vegetables.

Q. What will you miss about Bistro Monet?

A. Of course, it's very hard to leave the staff I had. I had a beautiful staff. They are close to me and I am close to them. That is the hardest thing.

Q. What do you think your legacy is as a chef?

A. People having a good time. Yesterday, I was in different places and I saw my old customers. I was in the bank. I was in the store. The guy comes to hug me. It was emotional. They are going to remember that: a good time, good food.

  Bistro Monet has closed after a decade in business in downtown Glen Ellyn. Bev Horne/
  At the now-closed Bistro Monet in downtown Glen Ellyn, chef and owner Michel Saragueta prepared his mother's cuisine: cassoulet, coq au vin and mousses. Bev Horne/
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