James Beard Awards: NYC’s 2013 rookie class

Get to know the culinary talent—chefs, restaurateurs and bartenders—repping NYC at the James Beard Awards for the first time this year.

Maguy Le Coze

Maguy Le Coze Photograph: Nigel Parry

Maguy Le Coze, Le Bernardin
Nominee: Outstanding Restaurateur

Where were you when you heard about your nomination? What was your reaction?
I was in my office preparing for a trip to Brittany for an event that I have wanted to attend for a while, but I canceled my trip as soon as I heard the news. It is such an incredible honor to be nominated by the James Beard Foundation!

You grew up in a small fishing town in Brittany and your parents owned a hotel there. What particularly important lessons did you learn from that upbringing?
There was one very important one that was given to my brother, Gilbert, and I, and it was: “Work! And then always work some more.” We worked during our school holidays when we were 11 and 12 years old!

Did you always plan to work in restaurants? Did you dabble in anything else?
No, I wanted to be a stewardess and my brother wanted to be a captain on a boat. Our plan was to go away and to travel. We managed to do both.

Few, if any restaurants, have maintained Le Bernardin’s level of excellence for so long. What sets your operation apart?
Eric [Ripert] and I work in a complete partnership, and neither of us are away from the restaurant at the same time. I am very detailed-orientated, and when I walk through the dining room, I have eyes in the back of my head! Eric is the same in the kitchen. Our focus is on the front of the house providing the best service and the kitchen preparing the best food possible. We don’t take for granted our awards or recognitions, but we don’t think about them on a daily basis—each day is a new day and we are grateful to have a loyal team, which plays a big part.

Are there any other restaurants in NYC that you admire?
Daniel, Jean Georges and Per Se. I admire all my colleagues, especially the ones with several operations—I don’t know how they do it! 

What is different about the NYC dining scene now compared with when you first opened in 1986? What is different about Le Bernardin today?
Our clientele was older and not as open and sophisticated with food then as they are now. Back when we first opened, I would push every customer to try raw fish and I would tell them if they didn’t like it, we would send them something else. Now there is a much younger crowd coming, more advanced in their knowledge and passion for food. They are taking pictures and sending them to their friends.
Are there any contemporary dining trends that you wish would go away?
Molecular cuisine!

Why did you redesign the restaurant in 2011?
Eric and I were no longer comfortable in the old setting, and I didn’t want a restaurant frozen in time. Our clientele over the years has become younger and we wanted to evolve with them through our menu, style of service and design.

You just announced plans to expand the restaurant with a wine bar and more private dining. our business partner, chef Eric Ripert, has been quoted saying that he sees this as the completion of Le Bernardin. Why wait so long to realize this? And please tell us about the wine bar.
Les Salons Bernardin are not big enough for some of the parties that wish to be entertained here now. We had to wait until we had the right location, which is the case now as it’s next door. It connects with the restaurant and will be easy for our team to manage. The wine bar—Aldo Sohm Wine Bar—will be completely different than what we offer in the lounge at the restaurant. We will serve light fare, and Aldo [himself] will oversee a wine list of 200 selections, and the by-the-glass offering will change each month, highlighting a different region each time.

Your brother, Gilbert, with whom you opened and ran the restaurant for many years, passed away unexpectedly in 1994. Does this nomination carry any meaning for his legacy?
We opened Le Bernardin, first in Paris, together more than 40 years ago and ran it successfully for 22 years. For me, it is a continuation of what we started. Eric was very close to Gilbert and he helped me to carry on.

If you win, how will you celebrate?
With the team and with a lot of champagne!