Some might say that Chef Dominique Tougne rose through the culinary ranks much like his delicious, slow-roasted dishes, with purpose and patience.
Seasoned to perfection over time, the popular lamb shank and braised short ribs on the menu at Chez Moi Bistro of Chicago are a reflection of a chef who does not believe in rushing the prep, nor in cutting corners in the evolution of learning one’s craft.
A French native who spent years honing his skills at culinary school and later working in Paris alongside world-famous chef Joel Robuchon, Tougne ventured to the United States in the late 1990s with the passion to cook and work hard. “I bought a plane ticket, and came to America without speaking a word of English, and without much money,” says Tougne, a chef entrepreneur who rolled up his sleeves and worked hard for years before daring to dream about owning his own restaurant.
In this week’s Q&A with Recipe for Success @ Boxerbrand, Tougne discusses the restaurant he brought to life with the help of investor and friend Christobal Huet of Stanley Cup winners, the Chicago Blackhawks.
Q: How did you get your start?
I grew up in Southwest France and went to culinary school in Blois, in the Loire Valley. After that, I worked in a bunch of different restaurants before going to work for Joel Robuchon, a world-famous chef. His many awards include being named the Chef of the Century. I learned a lot with him, but eventually decided to leave Paris and come to the United States. When I arrived in 1996, I didn’t even have a Green Card. I bought a plane ticket, spent a few days in New York searching for work, and found a headhunter in Chicago that was interested in me. They liked my work and encouraged me to return to France while they helped me obtain a visa. I quickly got established, and 10 years ago I became an American citizen.
Q: How have you attracted partners and investors?
I don’t know if I’m more or less talented than others. I think what investors and partners have liked about me is my personality and my vision. When people are looking to become your partner, there needs to be trust. You have to be a trustworthy individual. I really believe that it’s who you are as a person that’s most important, and I’m someone who would never betray or mistreat people. I respect people.
Q: How has TV impacted the restaurant business?
One of the most impactful things in my opinion is the Food Channel. In some ways, I think it sends the wrong message to young people because it shows chefs at the top of their careers, and viewers don’t understand the big work it takes to become a chef. The new generation thinks everything should happen immediately. In this business, it takes years and years to become a good sommelier, a good bartender, and a good cook. The young people seem to want to be the chef right away, and when I see an 18-year-old calling themselves ‘chef’ on TV I cringe because it takes so many years and so much hard work to get to that level.
Q: What about social media?
With social media, everyone who comes into your restaurant can be a food critic. You have to be aware of it. Someone may come in in a bad mood, and these are the people it’s hard to please. But if I see a trend in the comments on social media, like, if I hear the onion soup was cold one time, two times, three times, then I have the problem and I need to correct it. So, I look at social media, but I also try to keep a distance from it too.
Q: How do customer’s shape Chez Moi?
When you’re a restauranteur you don’t own your restaurant, the customer owns it. And I evolve to make them happy.
For example, I used to have pig’s feet on the menu. It was a very labor-intensive dish and it was difficult to sell. By not buying it, my customers sent me the message that they weren’t interested, and I removed it from the menu and added items they were looking for.
Q: What are your most successful dishes?
Right now, my most popular items are our short ribs, which are very traditional and French and made with red wine, and I’m also doing a lot of slow-cooked lamb shanks, which we braise with cumin, coriander, and a little curry. We serve generous portions, cook everything from scratch, and these particular dishes simmer on the stovetop for six hours. These are dishes you don’t find in many restaurants because they’re time-consuming to prepare and there’s a lot of technique to them. But my guests love them.
Q: What advice to you have for an aspiring restauranteur?
I have a lot of advice. But the biggest thing is you have to have the passion. You need to have a dedication to it, and I really think you need to be good at a little psychology too. Your employees are super important, and you need to keep them happy. And you also need to know the psychology of the people who walk through your door.
I opened Chez Moi in 2012 with the funding help of my friend, former Chicago Blackhawks player Cristobal Huet. The idea behind the concept was to create a restaurant that welcomed you like you were in your own home. A place to enjoy fabulous food, some laughs, and a conversation with the chef. — Chez Moi uses Boxerbrand menu covers in its table presentation. Thank you!