The Daily Meal Hall of Fame: Henri Soulé

Staff Writer
He was tough on his staff and on his customers, but he brought a new level of haute cuisine to America
Henri Soule

Hungry Gerald/ New York Public Libray

Le Pavillon's menu was entirely in French. 

The Daily Meal is announcing the inductees into its Hall of Fame for 2017. The Hall of Fame honors key figures, both living and dead, from the world of food. We have been introducing the honorees one per weekday. Our tenth and final inductee for this year is Henri Soulé. For all Daily Meal Hall of Fame inductees, please click here.

As the owner of Le Pavillon in New York City for 25 years, the late restaurateur Henri Soulé (1903–1966) set the standard for, well, standards. If you conjure up an image of the stereotypical French restaurant owner, he embodied it: Short (5’5”) and impeccably dressed and groomed at all times, he was the kind of man who could terrorize staff and diners alike with a glance, but he ran what many consider to have been the single best French restaurant in the world from the early 1940s to the mid-1960s — and it wasn’t even in France.

Soulé was born near the picturesque French coastal city of Bayonne, but left home and family to work as a busboy in nearby Biarritz at the age of 14. By 23, he was the one of the youngest captains working in any restaurant in Paris. He came to New York at the behest of the French government to run the restaurant in the French pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair. By the time the fair closed in 1940, much of France was under German occupation, so Soulé stayed in New York, opening the restaurant he called Le Pavillon in 1941.

He ran a tight ship, manning a dining room known for haute cuisine and impeccable service, where tout le monde came to dine. With a kitchen staff of more than 30 people (including employees whose sole job was polishing the genuine silver and making sure the Baccarat crystal gleamed) and almost 40 in the dining room, Le Pavillon served lunch and dinner to upwards of 150 guests a day. In Soulé’s service system, each captain was assigned to three or four tables, assisted by two waiters — one who interacted with the diners, and another who ran food in and out of the kitchen. On the menu, Soulé’s chefs delivered exceptional versions of such dishes as lobster bisque, sweetbreads barigoule, mousse of sole tout Paris, quenelles de brochet with sauce Nantua, chateaubriand with Madeira and truffle sauce, and for dessert the restaurant’s signature oeufs à la neige.

Soulé was notorious in demanding perfection from his dining room staff and chefs, but he was also tough on his customers. All of his menus were in French. No credit cards were accepted, ever. (There were house accounts, which allowed favored clients to depart the premises at their leisure and wait for their bills in the mail; you couldn’t ask for the privilege, though — if you did, Soulé would make sure that the privilege was not extended.) Jackets and ties were mandatory for men, and women were reportedly turned away for showing up in pantsuits. Statesmen, royalty, and CEOs dined in the front of the house, while Soulé kept a back room reserved for the nouveau riche, whom he despised.Statesmen, royalty, and CEOs dined in the front of the house, while Soulé kept a back room reserved for the nouveau riche, whom he despised.

In addition to his well-known customers, Soulé had chefs who themselves went on to lives of fame and fortune. The cookbook author and French cooking authority Pierre Franey was recruited by Soulé for the World’s Fair and stayed on with him at Le Pavillon, working first as the fish chef and eventually running the whole kitchen. Franey’s sous-chef was Jacques Pépin. Franey and Pépin ran the kitchen at Le Pavillon for a number of years, arguably in its heyday, but the relationship ended badly. In 1960, Soulé demanded that Franey reduce the working hours of his kitchen staff from 40 to 35 a week (the union minimum). Franey refused and walked out, with Pépin and six other cooks behind him. Lacking its chefs, the restaurant closed temporarily. Craig Claiborne chronicled the dispute in The New York Times in a column headlined “Le Pavillon Shut in a Gallic Pique."

Franey and Pépin went on to have outstanding careers and Le Pavillon reopened, but Soulé never spoke to either man again. Nor did he speak to the young chef Roger Fessaguet, who left to become chef at La Caravelle, another Manhattan temple of haute cuisine, this one with a slightly younger crowd and hipper vibe (it received enormous press because it was a favorite of John F. and Jackie Kennedy). Food historians consider his feuds with these chefs to be the biggest mistakes Soulé made in his storied career.

Soulé had two other restaurants, the venerable La Côte Basque, which he described as “Le Pavillon for poor people” — a funny line given how exquisite that dining room was as well — and Hedges, a fine French dining room in Montauk that he began during one of Le Pavillon’s annual monthlong July summer vacations. Both were successful. It is difficult to know if Soulé would have been able to weather the economic and social shifts of the 1960s that spelled doom for many upscale French restaurants — the new generation of diners preferred places where music played during dinner, there were no fussy domed cloches to be lifted off of dishes, and women could indeed show up in trousers — because he died unexpectedly of a heart attack at La Côte Basque in 1962.

A wife whom very few knew Soulé had, ensconced back in France, showed up upon his death and sold Le Pavillon for top dollar to people who had never worked there; when it finally closed in 1971, by most reports it was only a shadow of itself. La Côte Basque, however, was left by Soulé to his rumored mistress, the Le Pavillon coat-check girl. Many of Soulé’s staff — and customers — ended up there, and La Côte Basque remained a signature of New York society dining, a favorite of Truman Capote and his ilk, until it finally shuttered in 2004.

 

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Despite Soulé’s dictatorial style and those feuds with his top employees, Craig Claiborne and other famous food-lovers held the man in awe. In Soulé’s obituary in The New York Times, Claiborne gushed that we had lost “the Michelangelo, the Mozart, the Leonardo of the French restaurant in America.” Claiborne recalled a time when an interviewer once asked Soulé what he liked to do for fun, and Soulé’s reply was that he enjoyed paying his bills on time.