A GAULOIS IN CHICAGO, DOMINIQUE TOUGNE
DOMINIQUE TOUGNE, LA VOÛTE and CHEZ MOI, CHICAGO
This epicurean ensures to have “fallen into the pot” during childhood. Having arrived almost by chance in the United States more than twenty years ago, Dominique Tougne could be considered a little more Chicagoan than the Chicagoans themselves, if he didn’t confide that he has a little nostalgia for traditional French gastronomy … with a Perigord accent to support this. He is now in charge of two tables, including “Chez moi”, his so French bistro! Interview with a chef who doesn’t count his time or words when it comes to sharing.
What has been your best encounter in the kitchen?
Cuisine, it’s a love story. It was Jacques Sénéchal at the Niko, who made me love this job. A guy who with stood tall, very professional, honest and humane, who treated everyone the same way. These are qualities that you won’t find in all chefs.
What legacy have you kept?
I try to have the same attitude with everyone: I respect the group president or a dishwasher in the same way. A restaurant is all about team work!
That’s the Sénéchal heritage. And I also remember Mr. Robuchon’s exigency when I had the privilege of working for him: if there was even one bad fruit in a crate, it would be sent straight back to the supplier. And nobody argued! He was right, I admire that. Perfection and no margin of error.
Which French region influences you the most?
I was born in Alsace, a beautiful gastronomic region, but I was too small to remember. I would rather say the southwest, because my father is from Saint-Estèphe and he always prepared pantagruelic meals. Also, at the time, my uncle was the manager of the château Cos d’Estournel, so meals were served with magnums. Today, that would cost a fortune!
So you were born into a family of epicureans…
I’m like Obelix: I fell into the pot when I was little! (Laughs). I am the Gaulois of Chicago! When I was little, I was in the kitchen with my mother, and I tried to make mayonnaise; coconut cakes … I always liked the tastes, textures. I like to peel a carrot, cut a potato … It seems silly but the appearance, the resistance, finding the right knife, … It’s important!
Tell us one of your memories as a young cook!
Before hospitality school, I did an internship in the suburbs of Paris, in Nerville la Forêt, in a restaurant called Les Quatre Saisons. For a fortnight, I cleaned the tile joints on all-fours with a toothbrush. One day the boss told me, “We are going to promote you to the rank of officer”. That gave me the right to hull strawberries! (Laughs). I’m kidding today, but we were taught the gestures. Today, those who do not have this notion would throw away a third of the strawberry! You have to respect the product and the producer. We do not waste!
How would you define the quality of products in Chicago?
The quality improved enormously around fifteen years ago. Chicago is the third largest gastronomic city in the United States, after New York and Los Angeles. Here, you will find great culinary diversity related to multiculturalism: we find Thai, Chinese, Mexican, Ethiopian products … We can travel the world! The highlight is the quality of beef, grass-fed cattle in the Midwestern meadows.
Do you miss France?
I miss the diversity of French gastronomy. Being able to change completely in one day is amazing! I had the chance to cross the US by motorbike and car, traveling miles and miles … I probably visited more states than most Americans have! And I can tell you that from Florida to Montana, all along the way, the concepts are the same. And people go there because they have no other choice.
Could you share a value that is important to you?
Fidelity, constancy. I like reliable things! I bought my car seventeen years ago and it still starts easily. I want to be able to use a product to the end and not participate in this society of waste! And it’s the same in my kitchen. That’s why I use Matfer. I’ve known the brand since I started working and for me, this brand represents quality, and the longevity of the product. I’ve owned my pots since opening my restaurant and yet, I can tell you that we don’t spare them: they’re solid, and don’t budge!
Do you think you have found your tools?
Yes, and yet it can take time! Especially as we evolve too. For example, in France, I always learned to use a meat fork. And when I arrived in the United States, I was surprised to see all the cooks using tongs! At first, I laughed, but today, I only use that. For red meat for example, it’s great, you don’t prick it anymore!
What is your favorite tool?
My paring knife. It’s easy to use; it does everything when it’s well sharpened. It is as indispensable to me as salt in cooking.
What is your view on celebrity chefs?
It doesn’t interest me. What does please me though, is the smile on the faces of satisfied customers. The rest is not important. Yesterday, a customer asked me for my ‘family style” bouillabaisse recipe – and for me that’s great!
Dominique Tougne was born in Alsace, in Haguenau. After graduating from hospitality school in Blois (Loir-et-Cher), the young apprentice went to Paris to learn alongside Joël Robuchon, at the Relais du Parc, then at the Hotel Nikko with Jacques Sénéchal. In 1995, Dominique Tougne decided to go to the United States with a simple tourist visa and suitcase. “When I arrived here, I didn’t have a penny in my pocket, I did not speak English and I was in an illegal situation!” says the chef. He first worked in New York, then Atlanta during the Olympic Games, where a headhunter offered him a position of chef at Bistro 110 in Chicago, where he stayed until 2011. The following year, he opened the bistro “Chez Moi” in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. He is also chef at La Voûte, gastronomic restaurant of the luxury hotel “La Banque”. Located in Homewood, this monument renovated in 2013 still uses the vaults of the old bank as architectural features!