Chef Dominique Tougne of Chez Moi restaurant dead at 56; classically trained French chef combined high kitchen standards with kindness
Pro basketball players came to dine at his restaurant, including Joakim Noah, whose father is French tennis legend Yannick Noah, plus Tony Parker Sr., who played professionally in Europe, and his son Tony Parker Jr., who grew up in France.
Chef Dominique Tougne was working at his restaurant in May when he got word a special customer had arrived at Chez Moi.
It wasn’t a head of state or a movie star. It was Drew Nelson, an 8-year-old Beloit, Wis., boy who loved to cook. When his parents planned their family trip to Chicago, Drew asked if they could visit Chez Moi. He wanted to see the chef who’d appeared on one of his favorite shows, the Guy Fieri cooking competition “Guy’s Grocery Games.”
When the Nelsons booked a reservation, they mentioned their son was a fan of Mr. Tougne.
They were treated like VIPS “from the moment we walked in,” said Megan Nelson, Drew’s mother. In a moment Drew says he’ll always remember, the chef entered the dining room.
“I was nervous and excited,” he said.
“He has that French accent — and we don’t hear many French accents where we live — and he asked Drew what he loved to cook,” Megan Nelson said.
Jolly and effusive, “He made a point of comparing our bald heads,” said Drew’s dad, Jon Nelson.
“I asked him if he could make a croque monsieur,” Drew said. “That’s the sandwich he made on the last round of ‘Guy’s Grocery Games.’”
And Mr. Tougne — who’d worked with some of the most renowned chefs in the world and cooked for VIPS like Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank — returned to the kitchen.
“He made a children’s sandwich for my son,” Megan Nelson said.
And he told Drew that if he wanted to be a chef, he could do it.
Mr. Tougne’s career was forged in the heat and stress of French haute cuisine kitchens, but he remained kind, according to friends, employees and customers.
“He didn’t have to be angry to be focused,” said Anthony Ercoli, who once worked as a server and general manager at Chez Moi. “He was like a father to me. Very gentle; kind; honest. He could be in a combat-like [kitchen] situation, and when a child or a friend came in, it was like nothing else matters. He would focus and he would listen.”
Mr. Tougne, 56, who also owned the French Quiche cafe, died last month of a heart attack, according to his son Theo.
“Dominique is a big, big loss for the French community and also the food scene in Chicago,” said Pierre Zimmermann, a founder of La Fournette bakery.
“Chicago has lost a great French Chef,” the French Consul General’s office said in a tweet. The French government awarded him medals for distinguished service to his homeland. He was a chevalier — or knight — of both the National Order of Merit and the Order of Agricultural Merit.
“Chef Dom” was born in Haguenau in the Alsace region of France, but the Tougne family moved frequently because of his father René’s position with the French Air Force. Through his mother Odile, he had roots in the winemaking center of Bordeaux. Mr. Tougne was proud of a vintner grandfather who was a top winemaker for Château Cos d’Estournel, said Chad Bertelsman, his general manager at Chez Moi and partner at the French Quiche cafe. He also had family roots in the Périgord region of France.
“This mix of cultures, the fact he was exposed to all of them, meant he was completely open-minded” in his cooking, Zimmermann said.
At 14, he enrolled at the Académie Culinaire de France, Bertelsman said. The students “worked from 6 in the morning till 8, 9, 10 or 11 at night. One day off a week, when they could see their parents,” according to his son.
After graduating in 1985, he trained under chef Jacques Sénéchal at the Hotel Nikko de Paris, where he worked at restaurants including Les Célébrités.
In 1993, famed French chef Joël Robuchon “recruited me to be executive sous chef at Le Relais du Parc in Paris,” he said in an interview with CookEatShare.com. Mr. Tougne always remembered how he wanted to please Robuchon. He told Bertelsman he’d freeze when he smelled Robuchon’s cologne because he knew that meant he’d arrived in the kitchen.
Mr. Tougne was 30 when he joined the Levy Restaurants group at Bistro 110, where he worked 15 years. He didn’t speak English or know anyone, but “I am a gourmand. I love to eat,” he told Point of View magazine. “And to cook is a wonderful thing, because it is a moment that you share with a lot of people.”
“He featured a lot of Robuchon’s dishes — lamb; he had his cassoulet recipe, which was extraordinary. I crave them,” said Larry Levy, a founder of Levy Restaurants. “I ate them all the time.”
In 2011, he opened Chez Moi. French-born Chicago Blackhawk Cristobal Huet loaned him some of the startup money for the bistro, which drew other hockey players as customers. Basketball players came to dine, including former Chicago Bull Joakim Noah, whose father is French tennis legend Yannick Noah, and Tony Parker Jr., who grew up in France before joining the San Antonio Spurs.
At Chez Moi, he sometimes made ambrosial dishes he learned from chef Paul Bocuse, like his VGE soup, made of beef cheeks, foie gras and black truffles.
He welcomed children. For Thanksgiving dinner, he once told the Sun-Times, “We are bringing in an extra 50 high chairs.”
Mr. Tougne was sensitive to special dining requests because his son Theo and daughter Élodie had food allergies.
Cookbook author Emily Paster recalled how Mr. Tougne accommodated her then 3-year-old daughter Zoe — who was allergic to wheat, dairy and eggs — when she celebrated a birthday at Bistro 110 around 15 years ago.
“There was not the level of awareness there is now,” Paster said. “They made her a completely separate, safe meal. They carved a swan out of an apple. ... She felt like the most special person in the room.”
He also had a great sense of humor.
“He was hilarious,” Bertelsman said. “He loved pranks.” Sometimes, the chef would make the kitchen crew jump when he turned away from stirring a pot to reveal he was wearing a scary mask.
Always, he wore a gold chain with “a whale tail given to him by his parents, an ankh from his sister and a shark tooth from the south of Africa from his brother,” his son said. “He carried his family with him.”
Mr. Tougne’s ashes will be buried in France next to his parents, according to his son.