Chef Dominique Tougne was born in Alsace, the northeast region of France, and began a formal culinary education outside of Paris at the age of 14. He cooked under such French culinary greats as Jacques Sénéchal and Joël Robuchon and, in 1995, he came to Chicago. Now in charge of two tables – La Voute and Tougne’s own Chez Moi – he generously shares his time with us along with his nostalgia for traditional French gastronomy.
What has been your best encounter in the kitchen?
Cuisine, it’s a love story. It was Jacques Sénéchal at the Nikko who made me love this job. A guy who stood tall, very professional, honest and humane, who treated everyone the same way. These are qualities that you won’t find in all chefs. The team would have done anything for him. This is part of my best memories as a cook; it was fabulous.
What legacy have you kept?
I try to have the same attitude with everyone: I respect the group president or a dishwasher in the same way. A restaurant is all about team work! For me, conversation must be open within the company. If a dishwasher confides to me that his grandmother made a fabulous bourguignon beef recipe, I will listen and learn from him! That’s the Sénéchal heritage. And I also remember Mr. Robuchon’s exigency when I had the privilege of working for him: if there was even one bad fruit in a crate, it would be sent straight back to the supplier. And nobody argued! He was right; I admire that. Perfection and no margin of error.
How important is teaching to you?
It’s the basis and it’s essential. If you know how to make a good sauce, you have to share the recipe. If not, what is the purpose, except to die with it? Educating is an integral part of our job. I always say: “convey knowledge: it costs nothing and it enriches greatly!”
Which French region influences you the most?
I was born in Alsace, a beautiful gastronomic region, but I was too small to remember. I would rather say the southwest, because my father is from Saint-Estèphe and he always prepared enormous meals. Also, at the time, my uncle was the manager of the Château Cos d’Estournel, and meals were served with magnums. Today, that would cost a fortune!
So you were born into a family of epicureans…
I fell into the pot when I was little! (Laughs). When I was little, I was in the kitchen with my mother, and I tried to make mayonnaise; coconut cakes. I always liked the tastes, textures. I liked to peel a carrot, cut a potato. It seems silly, but the appearance, the resistance, finding the right knife…it’s all important!
Tell us one of your memories as a young cook!
Before hospitality school, I did an internship in the suburbs of Paris, in Nerville la Forêt in a restaurant called Les Quatre Saisons. For a fortnight, I cleaned the tile joints on all-fours with a toothbrush. One day the boss told me, “We are going to promote you to the rank of officer,” which gave me the right to hull strawberries! (Laughs) I’m kidding today, but we were taught the gestures. Today, those who do not have this notion would throw away a third of the strawberry. You have to respect the product and the producer. We do
How would you define your cuisine?
I had the chance travel a lot: the South West, Alsace and then the Loire, for my hospitality school in Blois. I’ve kept the taste of the natural environment (the terroir), the product. My cuisine is very traditional, a little modernized, but it takes time: a dish of braised ribs must take seven hours to cook, not three hours on high heat. I regret that the tradition of family cooking has been lost. Here we do things right, and I think that’s what people appreciate. I make popular cuisine from the terroir. I like the collagen in beef cheek, that soft side that we don’t have in a fillet. I make sauerkraut with smoked pork, real sausages. Here, the only sausage that people know is the hot dog.
How would you define the quality of products in Chicago?
The quality improved enormously around fifteen years ago. Chicago is the third-largest gastronomic city in the United States after New York and Los Angeles. Here, you will find great culinary diversity related to multiculturalism: Thai, Chinese, Mexican, Ethiopian products…we can travel the world. The highlight is the quality of beef, grass-fed cattle in the Midwestern meadows.
Do you miss France?
I miss the diversity of French gastronomy. Being able to change completely in one day is amazing. I had the chance to cross the US by motorbike and car, traveling miles and miles…I probably visited more states than most Americans have. And I can tell you that, from Florida to Montana, all along the way, the concepts are the same. People go there because they have no other choice. As for products, what I miss: a beautiful plum, cheese, wonderful poultry. But I made the choice to expatriate myself, nobody forced me, I came looking for something else here.
Could you describe Chicago’s culinary scene?
The offer is hyper diverse — it’s great. There are 6,000 restaurants here, and I think that’s good, because the competition is motivating. In Chicago, there is a real offer of world cuisine. For example, I am close to a rising chef, Carlos Gaetan. He’s the first Mexican to receive a Michelin star.
Could you share a value that is important to you?
Fidelity, constancy. I like reliable things. I want to be able to use a product to the end and not participate in this society of waste, and it’s the same in my kitchen. That’s why I use Matfer. I’ve known the brand since I started working and, for me, this brand represents quality, and the longevity of the product. I’ve owned my pots since opening my restaurant and yet, I can tell you that we don’t spare them: they’re solid, and don’t budge!
Do you think you have found your tools?
Yes, and yet it can take time, especially as we evolve too. For example, in France, I always learned to use a meat fork. And when I arrived in the United States, I was surprised to see all the cooks using tongs! At first, I laughed, but today, I only use that. For red meat for example, it’s great; you don’t prick it anymore.
What is your favorite tool?
My paring knife. It’s easy to use. It does everything when it’s well sharpened. It is as indispensable to me as salt in cooking.
What is your view on celebrity chefs?
It doesn’t interest me. What does please me, though, is the smile on the faces of satisfied customers. The rest is not important. Yesterday, a customer asked me for my “family style” bouillabaisse recipe – and, for me, that’s great!
More about Chef Tougne:
Dominique Tougne was born in Alsace, in Haguenau. After graduating from hospitality school in Blois (Loir-et-Cher), the young apprentice went to Paris to learn alongside Joël Robuchon, at the Relais du Parc, then at the Hotel Nikko with Jacques Sénéchal. In 1995, he decided to come to the United States with a simple tourist visa and suitcase. “When I arrived here, I didn’t have a penny in my pocket, I did not speak English and I was in an illegal situation,” says the chef. Tougne first worked in New York, then Atlanta during the Olympic Games. It was in Atlanta where a headhunter offered him a position of chef at Bistro 110 in Chicago where he stayed until 2011. The following year, he opened “Chez Moi” in Lincoln Park, a neighborhood in Chicago. Dominique Tougne is also Chef de Cuisine at La Voûte, a gastronomic restaurant of the luxury hotel La Banque, a renovated bank that still uses the vaults of the old bank as architectural features. You can see more of Chef Tougne on Instagram @chezmoichicago.