Jean Banchet, the French-born chef who many credit with bringing fine dining to the Chicago area, died Sunday in his Florida home. He was 72.
Banchet, who opened Le Francais in Wheeling in 1973, had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer just three weeks ago, said Doris Banchet, his wife of nearly 50 years.
She said funeral services will be held Monday in Jupiter, Fla., where the couple lived in retirement. A memorial service in the Chicago area is being planned by his chef friends, Doris said, adding that it will take place after the holidays.
"He touched a lot of people, not just in the culinary world," Doris said. "Everybody loved him."
Banchet, a native of Lyon, came to the United States with Doris in 1968, lured by Hugh Hefner to open the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wis. A few years later Banchet opened Le Francais, a cozy French country inn of a restaurant that received accolades from the likes of Julia Child and Jacques Pepin and was proclaimed the best French restaurant in America.
"I don't think that fine dining in Chicago, in the country, would be what it is today without him," said chef Don Yamauchi, who ran the restaurant in the early 2000s.
"Good for him for not picking Chicago," Yamauchi said. "He showed that if you build it, they will come."
And come they did.
"I heard stories of people flying into Chicago Executive Airport just to go have dinner there," said Wheeling Village President Dean S. Argiris. The restaurant has been vacant since 2007.
"Dining there was such as experience; he left quite a legacy there," Argiris said. "He put Wheeling and Restaurant Row on the map."
Since leaving Wheeling (his home was next to the restaurant), Banchet enjoyed his retirement in Florida and would return at least once a year for the Jean Banchet Awards for Culinary Excellence, which are given in his honor to outstanding chefs and restaurants in the Chicago area. The next ceremony, part of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation's Grand Chef's Gala, is set for Jan. 31.
Chef Michael Lachowicz said Banchet influenced a generation of chefs.
"I learned about respect from Chef; respecting the product once it's in the door," Lachowicz said. "There's a lot of talk these days about sourcing, but back then there were limited sources. You had to work with what you had ... Some of the dishes I do are driven by what I learned in that kitchen."
Lachowicz worked with Banchet in the 1990s before taking over as head chef/partner in 2003. Lachowicz now operates Restaurant Michael in Winnetka.
"His footprint was bigger than that of Charlie Trotter," Lachowicz said, referring to another Chicago culinary icon who died suddenly of a stroke earlier this month. "Banchet did it when there was no social media, when there was no rock star status for chefs. "He had no friends in the kitchen ... when he was in the kitchen it was all business, it was serious," Lachowicz said, describing a passionate chef who would growl at his staff or throw a plate if it was not perfect. "That said, he had a heart of gold."