It's been a year since the peripatetic French Master Chef René Bajeux restarted the eponymous René Bistrot, a victim of Katrina's widespread unpleasantness, in the space that originally housed LaCôte Brasserie at the Warehouse District's Renaissance Arts Hotel. In the years since the storm, Bajeux has done some far-flung consulting work in San Antonio and at resorts in the Caribbean, as well as a brief stint at John Besh's La Provence on the North Shore. It was clear to him, however, that he would bring the much-beloved René Bistrot back for a second go-round, if for no other reason than that Bajeux, a self-described "crazy guy" couldn't imagine himself working in a city any less crazy than New Orleans.
You've lived and worked all over, including Montreal, Hawaii, Chicago, and Beverly Hills, just to name a few places. What made you want to settle in New Orleans?
It's a crazy city for a crazy guy [laughs]. I should not be here?nobody should really be here, but I love it. It's not the perfect American city, and it never will be, but it doesn't have to be perfect, either. Looking in from the outside, New Orleans looks like a mess, but I don't think it is. It's 'organized mess,' it works. I don't want it to be like New York or Chicago. I appreciate the difference of it.
I used to live in Montreal, where there's a combination of Europe and America. New Orleans is a combination of everything without any one thing dominating the others. The city's culture comprises black and white, infusions of Vietnamese and Hispanic immigrants?just everyone. This city was invented for that kind of mix of cultures.
A lot of people have compared New Orleans to Montreal in terms of those two being the most unique cities in North America. Do you find that that's true?
Yes, well, I lived in Montreal from 1976-79 during the Olympics. I went there with a very limited understanding of English, and it took me one or two months to really understand the French that people in the city were speaking. I picked it up eventually, but that's part of what I like about living in different places?you absorb different things. Wherever you live, you have to make a point of assimilating yourself. The first thing I did every time I went to a new city was to learn the name of streets. Not to find my way around so much as to learn what that street name means. What is Tchoupitoulas? What is Poydras? I do that everywhere I go.
When I first was a chef at the Windsor Court, I took a cab down to the French Quarter. Of course, now I know better and would simply walk, but I had just gotten here. I told the cab driver to take me to Chartres, and he had no idea what I was talking about. Eventually, I wrote it down for him and he said, "Oh, Charters!" Somehow, in America, the "e" and the "r" had traded places. Don't even get me going with "Burgundy." It's part of the charm here. It's like the city has created its own unique language.
Were you set on reopening René Bistrot after the original one closed?
Oh yeah. We did a makeshift René Bistrot in the lobby [of Renaissance]. There were some different things going on, and it just didn't happen right then. It was really out of my control, but I'm still with the same company. I think some people assumed that something had gone wrong or that perhaps we'd had a falling out, but that wasn't the case. The timing just wasn't right.
I made the decision to go after Katrina. My family went to live in Madison, Wisc. for a year, but I took consulting jobs pretty much everywhere, including jobs in St. Martin, Anguilla, and San Antonio. I could have stayed at many of those jobs, but that was never my intention. My family was always going to be here, so it was not like I was looking for a way out of the city. I was doing consulting jobs as a way to bide my time before coming back to New Orleans.
Now that you're a year in here, what's the biggest difference between the old operation and the current one?
Well, I think the biggest difference is the size. We're working on a new layout, working on partitioning the restaurant a little. I'm very excited about making it look a little more intimate. The hotel has new ownership now and they're very receptive. Food-wise, I think we're better now, simply because I can do more because I have a better kitchen in the back. I have great cooks working, and I can do more than I did before. I always made my own pâté and my own smoked salmon, but now I do homemade sausages and ham, and I didn't do all of that at René. Now I do it and I love it.
I'm more excited than ever. I mean, I'm not getting any younger, but I'm certainly not getting any lazier. With me, I get more excited as I go.
So the change has allowed you to be more creative?
Yes! Sometimes you have this stigma that you're a "hotel-restaurant," but no one has ever come to me and tried to re-shape my idea of what this place should be like. I have a lot of autonomy, otherwise, I wouldn't be here.
The Warehouse District seems to be a pretty popular dining destination right now. Has this increased activity helped you pull in more customers?
I can tell you one thing: the demographics have definitely changed. I was part of the opening of the original LaCôte Brasserie?I designed this bar and the kitchen. This area was very different then. Now, the Warehouse District is home to a much younger group of people. I read somewhere that the Warehouse District is one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in the United States. I would say everyone's much younger (of course, everyone's younger for me anyway). Before Katrina, the population was much older. It's good. It helps bring in a new kind of customer, and that customer expects different things.
Do you think that the quality of food and restaurants in this city, which has always been very high, has gotten better since the storm?
Oh, let me tell you exactly what I think?our quality of restaurants is a thousand times better than it was before Katrina. People can take that anyway they want, but, essentially, a lot of restaurants had gotten complacent before Katrina, never waking up, never listening to the customers. Those days are definitely gone now. You need to listen to your customers. People aren't paying $30 for a piece of drum anymore, not when they can go somewhere else and get an $18 piece of drum with farm-fresh vegetables.
The market woke up, and there was a lot of positive change. A lot of young chefs came to town, and a lot of young chefs that were in town worked to make themselves even better. It was a radical change. There's also much more farm-to-table stuff available now than there was before. We didn't have that even just a few years ago, or we did have it and you really had to fight for those fresh ingredients if you wanted them on your menu. The quality of what we can find now is much better than it was before Katrina. Locally-sourced ingredients are so prevalent now that people don't even mention them?if you're running a restaurant, it's expected that you'll have these things. It's the new standard.
What have been some of your biggest challenges this first year back?
Making the space more intimate has been a big thing for us. That, and staying competitive with pricing. I always try to be true to my menu, to not lie to customers. If you say you have homemade sausage, you better make sure it's homemade, otherwise, it will come back to haunt you. There are no secrets anymore in this business. To me, lying on a menu is a very big deal. Chefs in New Orleans, though, are all very truthful, and they have to be because the restaurant patrons are all very well-informed.
Moving forward, what do you hope to achieve here in the coming year?
I have a great team here, but I would like to make the space more intimate. I'd like to introduce some special dinners, maybe more wine dinners, things like that.