Reporting Sara Pelissero
The Twin Cities are blessed when it comes to talent in the kitchen. The culinary minds at the helm of our favorite restaurants receive critical acclaim and top honors from food enthusiasts and reviewers, alike. But who are the people behind the chef’s coat? Our Chef’s Profile aims to find out.
It was roughly 16 years ago that Vincent Francoual, a native of France, moved to Minnesota. But before he arrived, he had one important question – where is Minnesota?
“I didn’t even know Minnesota. I didn’t know it existed,” he said. “I knew Chicago. I didn’t know there was a state called Minnesota before I got to the United States.”
His wife at the time was responsible for Francoual’s initial introduction to the land of 10,000 lakes and it wasn’t long after, he realized this is where he belonged.
Last week, Francoual celebrated the 12th anniversary of his Nicollet Mall restaurant – aptly named Vincent A Restaurant. To him, it’s a wonderful accomplishment – one he doesn’t take for granted and certainly one he’s worked for over the course of his career.
Francoual grew up with two grandmothers who excelled in the kitchen. One had a country style and a farm-to-table approach – she raised rabbits, chickens and pigs, plus a garden of fresh vegetables, which she maintained all on her own. The other lived on the shores of France and taught Francoual about creating lighter fare.
He loved to spend time with both but says it’s not what inspired him to cook. That inspiration was still a ways away. Instead, his initial motivation was a sense of freedom.
Barely a teenager, Francoual started culinary school at the tender age of 15.
“You know, to tell you the truth, I think it was just a good excuse to get out of the house and get some quick cash,” he said. “Nothing against my parents, they were very sweet people, but just for some independence, whether it was a chef or whether it was a truck driver.”
Francoual was attracted to the benefits of becoming a chef – “You can travel a lot, everywhere you can eat and every six months I could move around,” he said.
Travel and move around he did.
After three years of culinary school, he enrolled in the army, where he served as a cook. After his two months of drill were completed, he moved to England when he was 19. After celebrating his 20th birthday there, he came back to France to cook in the French Alps, continuing to gain experience and master his craft. Then it was off to Italy for a year before taking a job as a chef on a cruise ship.
“I mean, I liked the island but I wasn’t too crazy about cooking on a cruise,” he said.
Looking for a change of scenery, he took his first trip to the United States to stay with a friend in New York. He only intended to stay in the states for a couple of months but in 1995, he accepted the job of a lifetime. It was the job that took Francoual from cook to passionate chef.
As chef de partie at the renowned four-star restaurant Le Bernadin, Francoual had the opportunity to work with the culinary mastermind that is, Chef Eric Ripert.
“It was amazing. I guess it’s almost like a football player making it to an NFL team. That’s how it felt,” he said.
Working with the best brought out the best in Francoual. Only six months later, he worked his way to sous chef, working directly under Ripert.
“I learned not only about cooking but about elegance in food, which I think is important,” he said.
Two years later, Francoual’s then-wife was transferred to Minneapolis for work. As stated before, he knew very little about our northern state – except that it was cold. On a late night drive one night, he heard a story about a place called St. Paul, which at the time was the coldest place in the country.
“And I thought, ‘Who would want to live there?’” he said. “I also have a friend and when I was in Italy he said, ‘Hey, do you want to move to Toronto?’ and I thought, ‘No way, it’s way too cold there.’ And then I end up in Minnesota.”
Still, he couldn’t deny the opportunities that Minnesota offered. He knew he wanted to live in a city that was smaller than New York, where he’d have a chance to make a name for himself.
He started working at Café Un, Deux, Trois, did some offsite cooking and taught classes in a culinary program on the side to save up for a restaurant of his own.
After two years of working towards his goal, he opened Vincent, A Restaurant to the public on Aug. 28, 2001 – only a few weeks before the world would change forever.
“We opened right before Sept. 11 and already the economy was not that great but then we had that,” he said. “And then we had the Iraq War with all of the French bashing, where people would come here and say, ‘Give me some wine, but I don’t want any French wine.’”
Still, considering the circumstances, the new restaurant was well received.
“We had a long honeymoon. I don’t think restaurants get as long of a honeymoon as we used to,” he said.
He eased in to his cooking style, finding ways to introduce himself to the people and palates of Minneapolis.
“I was afraid to be too French, to tell you the truth. The white table cloths … we wanted to be more of a neighborhood place,” he said. “People like French food. If you speak to the French people in France they think if you do French food, everybody loves you but there’s so many other ethnic foods here. For a chef, when you have the trust then you can do more.”
Keeping with that mindset of earning trust and trying new things, Francoual tried something different in 2009 – and it turned out to be phenomenally successful and quite surprising.
“I like to joke, that no matter how much French food we do, you know once I retire, that’s the one thing we’ll be known for – the Vincent Burger,” he said, with a laugh. “I don’t mind that.”
The Vincent Burger is known as the upscale Juicy Lucy – a burger filled with braised short rib and smoked gouda. It’s been named one of the best burgers in Minnesota and consistently earns top spots on burger lists in a town full of worthy contenders.
Francoual dreamt up the burger on a whim. Everyone had been talking about Daniel Boulud’s $120 foie gras and black truffle burger. Francoual thought it was OK but wanted to do his own spin. The result? Instant success.
“This took off like crazy,” he said. “It was just interesting. It was amazing. It is kind of a goofy thing of life. I never planned to be known for a burger.”
Francoual said the burger is a fixture on their menu. They hand shape the burgers and probably go through 40 or 50 of them every day. You can also get the Vincent Burger at Target Field, where it’s an upscale escape from the typical ballpark fare.
Being a French restaurant with a pretty famous burger may not have been Francoual’s intention but the praise from both critics and customers has certainly made this chef feel at home. He’s been named the Best French Restaurant by several Twin Cities publications, is known as one of the top restaurants in America and earned a 2010 James Beard Award semi-finalist nomination for Best Chef Midwest. But it’s not the reason he gets up every morning for another long day in the kitchen.
“It’s nice. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice but don’t let it go to your head, OK,” he said. “It’s a very fickle business. If we get a prize, we’ll put it up on the wall and it’s really nice. But at the end of the day, the best award is still to be in business.”