Jean-Claude Vrinat, who died from lung cancer on Monday at the age of 71, was France's greatest restaurateur, and his passing marks the end of a particular form of hospitality. Vrinat was the star attraction at his venerated Paris restaurant, Taillevent, but he was not its chef. Instead, he presided over the dining room and left the cooking to someone else (a very talented someone else, of course). In the era of globe-spanning celebrity chefs, this allocation of labor and limelight was nothing short of antediluvian. But having a chef tethered to the kitchen and a revered owner in the front of the house had its advantages: Taillevent commanded a loyalty like no other luxury restaurant in France, and Vrinat's death has prompted an outpouring of grief, not just for the man but for the breed of restaurateur he represented.
Taillevent was founded in 1946 by Vrinat's father, André. Vrinat joined the restaurant in 1962 and took charge of it a decade later. In 1973,Taillevent was awarded a third Michelin star, the guide's highest rating. Under both father and son, Taillevent employed some of the finest chefs in France—Lucien Leheu, Claude Deligne, Philippe Legendre, Alain Solivérès—and the food, while never at the vanguard of culinary fashion, was unfailingly superb.
However, it was the quality of the service that set Taillevent apart. Vrinat and his staff went about their work with a serene perfectionism; no detail escaped their notice, but they made flawlessness look easy and fun. Above all, they were guided by a determination to send every client home satiated, smiling, and happy. In contrast to Sirio Maccioni of New York's Le Cirque, who fawned on his friends and treated the nobodies like nobodies, Vrinat was as attentive to the first-timer as he was to the regulars. This democratic spirit manifested itself any number of ways—in the complimentary glass of the house cognac offered to every guest at the end of the meal, for instance.
Vrinat's example was an inspiration to others. New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, owner of the Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern, modeled his service after Taillevent's, and when the makers of the animated film Ratatouille needed advice on how to portray the workings of a high-end restaurant, they turned to Vrinat.
Vrinat was an urbane, supremely elegant host; as he approached your table, you reflexively sat up and adjusted your tie. But there was nothing intimidating about him—he was a man of great charm and had a terrific sense of humor. He was also preternaturally unflappable. Vrinat once told me about the time that Salvador Dalí, a frequent guest, arrived for lunch accompanied by an ocelot on a leash. When Vrinat asked why he had brought the cat, Dalí explained that it was his birthday and he wanted to celebrate with someone. Fortunately, the meal passed without incident, but as Dalí was settling up, Vrinat gently conveyed his disapproval: "Perhaps next time it would be best if your friend didn't come; I had the sense he didn't especially enjoy himself." Dalí took the hint, and the ocelot never returned.
Vrinat's graciousness and generosity was particularly remarkable in light of his personal hardships. His mother died when was he was just 1 year old, and he saw his father, a member of the French Resistance, only sporadically between 1939 and the end of World War II. In 1975, Vrinat's 3-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia and died two years later. Vrinat rarely spoke of these events, and it was hard not to think that the slightly inscrutable expression he wore was in some ways a protective mask. The great unanswered question is how and why a man who had known so much turmoil and grief became so single-mindedly committed to giving tranquility and pleasure to others.
Vrinat's gifts were not limited to hospitality: He was also one of France's most respected wine experts. He participated in the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris, and he introduced some of America's leading wine figures to some of their favorite wines. In a tribute that he posted yesterday on his Web site, critic Robert Parker said he first encountered Jean-Francois Coche's otherworldly white Burgundies at Taillevent. It was there, too, that legendary importer Kermit Lynch discovered Francois Raveneau's Chablis, which set Lynch off on a maddening but ultimately successful effort to become Raveneau's U.S. agent.
Last February, after 34 years atop the Michelin firmament, Taillevent lost its third star. The decision to demote the restaurant struck many as farcical—an attempt by Michelin to gin up controversy. Certainly, Taillevent's food was as good as ever, and Vrinat, always anxious that his restaurant not be seen as a gastronomic museum, constantly tweaked the menu and the décor. The loss of the third star had been rumored for weeks, and when Michelin made it official, Vrinat made sure to have the last laugh: He posted a picture on his blog of a car with a flat tire. He wrote that the restaurant would carry on and that he had known more painful challenges in his life.
Taillevent was open for business on Monday (no doubt, Vrinat had insisted on it), and the restaurant will continue under the direction of his daughter, Valérie. Head maitre d' Jean-Marie Ancher, who worked alongside Vrinat for more than three decades and is a beloved figure in his own right, will oversee the dining room. All the ingredients are in place for a smooth transition, but for those who had the privilege of experiencing Vrinat's tableside manner, Taillevent is inevitably going to feel a little empty. Paris, too.