Chef Raphael Francois teams up with Bill Chait on the Sunset Strip.
Chef Raphael Francois has been getting into some arguments with his wine director and partner, Jordan Ogron, at Tesse.
Francois, who’s opening Tesse with prolific restaurateur Bill Chait on L.A.’s Sunset Strip this Tuesday, shows me a room set to 55 degrees where he’s storing cured meats like pork, duck, and beef sausage. Ogron, who’s opening the Boutellier wine shop inside Tesse in the coming weeks, is using that same room for wine racks. Hence the conflict.
It’s all part of what Francois, who earned two Michelin stars at Hélène Darroze at The Connaught in London, oversaw the kitchen at Le Cirque in New York, and opened Le DeSales in Washington D.C., calls the “gymnastics” of running Tesse. As we speak, about a week before Tesse is scheduled to open, the kitchen is still being tweaked and Boutellier is making finishing touches. For now, Francois and Ogron are putting things where they make the most sense.
The name Tesse is a play on délicatesse, and Francois is committed to creating a next-level charcuterie experience. Behind the bar, he’s got a striking refrigerated case with glass that allows guests to see what’s inside. The case will have three sections filled with items that will be used to build trays of charcuterie and cheese in front of customers at the bar. Guests who sit at the bar could, for example, sample a little sliver of sausage off the tip of a knife before deciding what they want to order.
Francois plans to serve more than 20 different kinds of charcuterie, most of which are made in-house. He uses his fingers and thumbs to count as he runs through the foie gras preparations, rillettes, pates, and different types of sausage. He quickly runs out of digits on both hands and continues to list the sausages.
“We have Morteau, we have Muscadet, let’s say 14,” he says, ending his count of charcuterie.
Oh wait. “And black pudding, so 15,” he adds.
Francois met Chait, whose previous restaurants L.A. included Bestia, Republique, Broken Spanish, Otium, and many others, a few years ago and mentioned that he’d like to create a charcuterie bar with this kind of refrigerated setup. Growing up in Belgium and France, Francois was around a lot of people who often ate only charcuterie and cheese for dinner. For the chef, charcuterie means an experience that includes good wine, cocktails, craft beers, and ciders. Tesse, where the cocktails are being overseen by star barmen Julian Cox and Nick Meyer, allows Francois to realize his dream and then some.
This is a 125-seat restaurant that can accommodate another 40 guests in Boutellier (which will be used for private dining, special events, and overflow seating when Tesse gets busy). Beyond charcuterie, Francois will serve his versions of bistro food, like his signature blue crab simplissime with whipped potatoes, tarragon, and cognac.
“We have a similar perspective on sophisticated casual,” say Chait, who points out that Tesse, like chef Walter Manzke’s Republique, is part of the “bistronomy movement” that is simultaneously based around classic techniques and a desire to avoid fussiness.
“Tesse is about rustic food, very down to earth,” Francois says. “Sometimes, a simple salad with a simple anchovy dressing or a nice salad with olive oil and lemon, it makes a difference. It’s more like back to the roots, closer to the way you eat with your grandparents and your parents.”
He’s planning dishes like salt-roasted beets, beer-battered onion rings, beef tartare, rich pastas (including one with duck prosciutto plus bone marrow that a waiter scrapes over the plate tableside), steak, pork chops, turbot, and halibut. For dessert, pastry chef Sally Camacho Mueller will serve her riffs on “quintessential classics” like marjolaine, mille-feuille, and soufflé. She has a crème brûlée made with duck eggs and muscovado sugar.
On one level, Tesse can be seen as the beginning of a big comeback in L.A. for Chait. He’s “an investor in an investor” in April Bloomfield’s The Hearth & Hound, which he helped open, but Tesse is really his first L.A. restaurant since Otium. Otium opened in late 2015, and Chait departed the high-profile Sprout Restaurant Group soon after.
“There’s a comeback story that obviously is popular,” says Chait, who’s a managing partner at Tesse. “But truth is, I haven’t left. Unfortunately, the way the restaurant business is, you start something, you sign a lease or think about signing a lease, and then two years later something opens.”
The lease for Tesse was signed in 2016. Chait has also been working on bringing chef Chad Robertson’s Tartine to L.A. since 2016. The biggest piece of Tartine’s L.A. expansion is the 38,500-square-foot Tartine Bianco that will debut at Row DTLA later this year. Beyond that, Chait, whose “day job” is partner and advisor of Tartine, plans to open three other Tartine outposts in L.A. by the end of 2019. One of these will be in a new Silver Lake building designed by prominent architect Neil Denari, whose portfolio includes New York’s HL23 condo tower.
I ask Chait what else he might open between now and the end of next year. He says that, through his alliance with Carl Schuster’s Cast Iron Partners, he’s putting together a food hall adjacent to the Banc of California Stadium, the arena that’s home to the new LAFC Major League Soccer team. Chait and Schuster are also working on the restaurant at the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on Wilshire Boulevard.
After he gets through next year, Chait might open two or three more restaurants in 2020, including something with Brazilian Michelin-starred chef Rodrigo Oliveira. So if you’re keeping score, Tesse is the beginning of what could be ten new L.A. projects, some of which involve multiple restaurants, in the next few years.
But a big part of Chait’s success is keeping his eye on what he has to deal with most at any given time, so he’s laser-focused on Tesse right now.
“I have a lot more fingers in the pie than I do normally,” Chait says. “Lately, I’m doing mock service, you know, at the cook line, which is about as involved as you can get.”
He’s looking forward to the challenge of establishing a restaurant on a stretch of West Hollywood known for nightlife and hotels but not for great dining (with the notable exception of Night + Market).
“So people are thinking, ‘You’re building a serious restaurant on Sunset Boulevard,’” Chait says. “The answer is, ‘Yeah, we built a serious restaurant on Seventh Place in the middle of an industrial area that had nothing except cars that were broken into if you parked on the street.’”
Chait is talking about chef Ori Menashe’s Bestia, which opened in 2012 and has been packed ever since. The point Chait is making is that he builds restaurants that endure. He wants to create institutions.
“All great restaurants have to become more than the sum of the parts,” says Chait, who’s always paying close attention to the food, wine, cocktails, service, design, and music at his restaurants. “That’s really the key. And that’s hard to do. If I told you that I absolutely had the secret sauce for that, I’d be lying.”
At Tesse, the big parts include Boutellier, which will be both a waiting area and a place where guests can pay retail for bottles of wine they drink in the restaurant. Breakfast and lunch will be served at the Tesse Café, which is across the corridor in the new Fred Segal flagship store. And dinner in Tesse’s dining room and bar could be a multi-course extravaganza or just a nice spread of charcuterie. Francois has been fermenting sausages in-house for months, and he’s also got ham aging in France because he doesn’t have enough space in his restaurant for all of his meaty ambitions.
As for Chait’s ambitions, he says he wants to create something that could exist for 30 years. So, no pressure or anything, right?
“The problem, and I don’t think this is a negative per se, but everybody looks at it like, ‘If you make Gone With the Wind, then everything after it doesn’t look as good because you’ve made something that’s incredible,’” Chait says. “I don’t think you can always sit and say, ‘Well, it’s got to be better than Republique.’ Republique’s a spectacular restaurant. Bestia’s a spectacular restaurant.”
So the goal isn’t necessarily to surpass a unicorn like Bestia. The goal is to create something that belongs in the same ballpark but also stands out in its own way.
“It’s not a zero-sum game,” Chait says. “It’s not like you win the championship and there’s only one winner.”
So how will know if he’s succeeded again with Tesse and his future restaurants?
“They have different scale, but each has to be really really good,” he says. “It has to be the best you can possibly do without any compromise. That’s the thing I would tell people—that this is the best we could possibly do without any compromise.”
Tesse, 8500 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 310-360-3866