Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Chef Vincent Francoual runs. He runs his 5-month-old baby, Chloé, to daycare. He runs on a treadmill. He runs marathons. He runs around Lake Calhoun, down the Midtown Greenway pushing Chloé in a jogging stroller, and in Ironman races in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and in Nice, France. What’s he running from? People, mainly.
“There are so many human factors in a restaurant,” Francoual shrugs, in a very French way. “The customers, the staff, the purveyors. Every day there’s some minor crisis—or some major one. I love to be at my restaurant, but I also need to be alone. It’s a bit taboo in our society to enjoy solitude. But I do. I think in life you know yourself better when you are alone with yourself.”
Most people in the Twin Cities know Francoual for his restaurant—called, with vivid eponymous flourish, Vincent, A Restaurant. The place has white tablecloths and is easy, cool, modern French. “Why do you Minnesotans make such a big deal out of white tablecloths?” Francoual asks. “People ask, ‘If you have a tablecloth, do you have a dress code?’” (The answer is no.) This summer Vincent, A Restaurant will have been open for 13 years, dominating its particular corner on Nicollet Mall with its decorous little signature flowerpots of bread and chilled butter in a way that begins to seem eternal. But, of course, isn’t.
Long before Vincent was a restaurant and a Minneapolis landmark, he was, of course, a man. Vincent the man, who is 45 now, was born in Puy-l’Évêque, a small town in France’s wine country, and he liked it for a while. He enjoyed the three-course chef-made meals served in the state-funded nursery school. “You have a salad or appetizer, one day it’s fish, one day beef, then a yogurt or fruit for dessert,” he says. “There are no allergies. The French understand you either pay for good food or you pay the doctor for your sick body.” As Francoual got bigger and stronger, he joined in the grape harvest at nearby vineyards. He slaughtered pigs with his grandmother. “Making blood sausage—it’s like you’re in the Friday the 13th movie,” he says.
Eventually, though, he tired of small-town life. His parents worked in the post office. “They knew everyone. Everyone,” he says. “They knew before I got home if I did something bad. Nothing against them, but I had to get out.” At 17 Francoual started working in restaurants. When he enlisted for France’s obligatory military service, he had enough kitchen experience that he was assigned to cook for officers in Paris. This set him on a globetrotting path that landed him at one of the best restaurants in the world: New York City’s Le Bernardin, where he ascended to the second most important position in the restaurant: sous-chef.
From that lofty perch, Francoual came to Minnesota—for love but also to open his own restaurant. Then he became acclaimed, and increasingly self-interrogating about his acclaim, which is to say, increasingly Minnesotan. “Even when I speak French at home now they say I have an American accent. It is really annoying. Really annoying,” he says. “I get annoyed if an American restaurant has a French name and unrecognizable food. But then I go to France and find myself telling them that America is not so bad. The whole time, everyone in France and here is telling me my accent is not right—it’s schizophrenic. That’s why I get grumpy.” So he runs.
When he runs, Francoual thinks about what’s going wrong and what’s right. On the wrong side: fear and marketing. “We live more and more in a society of fear,” he says. “Fear of doing the wrong thing, fear of getting hit by a car. When I get on my bike people say, ‘Be careful!’” He shakes his head over the inanity. On the positive side, Francoual feels that each day his restaurant is getting better, because he has set a goal of being smarter every day, in business, spirituality, or health, than he was the day before.
He has also learned the lesson of not micromanaging. “When I first opened Vincent, I was very micromanagey. You can’t do that. It doesn’t work. If you micromanage, they don’t learn how to fix it, and it becomes a vicious circle,” he says. He is attempting to apply his management of micromanagement to parenthood. “This is my number one rule with parenting: We leave the baby alone.” That said, he admits to running out of work three times a shift to visit Chloé. “This baby is my new Ironman,” he says. “Ironman—it’s 13 hours by yourself. It’s a bit like life. It’s your own race against yourself. You cannot worry about the guy in front of you. You can only worry if you can keep up to yourself.”
Happily, Francoual can just keep up to himself, if he runs fast enough.