“Restaurants have become the casseroles of civilization,” declares Francis Staub, the dapper Alsatian from Colmar. “In a great city like New York, they’re where everything happens now, especially since New Yorkers dine out so much and are so food mad.”
Staub should know, since he’s the founder of the eponymous line of cast-iron cookware that many of the world’s great chefs consider to be the ne plus ultra of their batterie de cuisine. The Staub cocotte is his signature. His innovation was to line the lids of his casseroles with short, evenly spaced nipples, which causes the cooking steam trapped inside to condense and evenly baste the food. This process tenderizes and deepens flavor.
Staub’s passion for restaurants explains why he bought Les Halles, the Park Avenue South brasserie, from fellow Gaul Philippe Lajaunie. It was scheduled to open in March 2020, just eight days before coronavirus lockdowns began.
“Eh oui, c’est la vie,” the stoic Staub comments by phone from his home in Colmar, in northeast France. “But owning a restaurant in New York had been a dream of mine ever since I first visited the city, in 1977, on my way to a housewares show in Atlantic City. New York just mesmerized me—I think it’s the most interesting place in the world.”
Les Halles was best known as the restaurant where the late Anthony Bourdain cooked and then wrote his way to fame. Staub has renamed it La Brasserie. “I like to think of it as my gift to the city, or a real French brasserie created in homage to Anthony Bourdain and New York City, la metropole of all metropoles.”
Staub met Bourdain only once, when they both appeared on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. He admired Bourdain’s passion for food, and believes they shared the same ideas about what makes a quality restaurant.
“Good food is crucial, bien sur,” says Staub. “But so is producing a great show, because people go to restaurants as much to be entertained as they do to eat. And after covid, I think this is truer than ever before. What did we really miss when the restaurants were closed? We missed each other, we missed the overheard marriage proposal, the flirtation, the sounds of laughter, and the pattering clatter of cutlery on plates, clinking glasses. Everything, really.”
Staub is no novice restaurateur. He previously ran Le Coq Rico, a New York restaurant specializing in chicken, with Antoine Westermann. “When you manufacture casseroles, you’re inevitably interested by what happens inside them,” he says, reminding me of the first time I met him, some 20 years ago. Then Staub tells me that owning one of his casseroles will help people cook better. As he explains, “You’re just not going to put shit in a beautiful, expensive casserole. You’ll buy good produce and try to cook it carefully instead.”
Bear in mind, too, that the brasserie is an Alsatian creation. The word means “brewery” in French, and in Alsace, many of them had tap rooms where you could drink freshly brewed suds with simple comfort-food meals. This tradition migrated to Paris with the exodus of Alsatians from their home region after France lost the Franco-Prussian War, in 1871.
In Paris, the lowly brasserie morphed into a new type of glamorous, fast-paced, see-and-be-seen-in restaurant. Places such as Au Pied de Cochon, La Coupole, and Bofinger were among the standard-bearers for this suave and sexy but democratic and profoundly metropolitan category of restaurants. Nodding at its big French cousins across the Atlantic, La Brasserie seats 173, and also serves at a classic, 20-foot-long zinc bar.
“When you manufacture casseroles, you’re inevitably interested by what happens inside them.”
“The brasserie is the ultimate big-city restaurant, and New York is the ultimate big city,” says Staub, who recruited chef Jaime Loja to run the kitchen at La Brasserie. (Loja previously worked at Rockefeller Center’s Brasserie Ruhlmann, which closed in early 2020.)
The single dish he doesn’t want you to miss on the menu is the Comté-cheese soufflé with caviar. He’s also very proud of Loja’s sauces, and thinks Bourdain would have admired them, too. “Sauces are the fundamental element of great cooking,” he says like a good Gaul. One way or another, you’ve got to love a place that offers a side of béarnaise sauce as a menu option at brunch. It’s a slam-dunk way of making this yawn of a meal more interesting, whatever you’ve ordered.
Midtown may still be a little quiet, but Staub isn’t worried. “Ze show must go on,” he says in his knowingly accented English. “And in New York City, it always does. New York, comme je l’adore!”
La Brasserie, 411 Park Avenue South, New York City; 212-267-8282; labrasserienyc.com
Alexander Lobrano is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL. His latest book, the gastronomic coming-of-age story My Place at the Table: A Recipe for a Delicious Life in Paris, is out now