Chicago’s culinary world and French community are mourning the loss of Chez Moi chef Dominque Tougne. Tougne, who opened another restaurant, French Quiche, in 2020, died on Wednesday, July 20, after suffering a heart attack. He was 56.
Long before the burly, bald chef resembling French comic book character Obelix opened Chez Moi a decade ago in Lincoln Park, he began his decorated culinary career as a teen growing up in northern Alsace, France. He learned under famous chefs such as Joël Robuchon and Jacques Sénéchal, and once he arrived in Chicago he focused on keeping those culinary traditions alive.
Beyond his Chicago restaurants, he also lent his recipes and expertise to La Voute, the French restaurant that opened in 2015 in suburban Homewood.
He emigrated to America in 1996 after Levy Restaurants recruited him to work at Bistro 110, a French restaurant off the Magnificent Mile and across from Water Tower Place. He also worked with longtime Levy collaborator Tony Mantuano, the legendary Spiaggia chef who cooked for the likes of Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
Tougne spent 15 years at Bistro 110 and developed a reputation as an ambassador for French cuisine, gaining favor with local French civic groups who adored his dedication to preserving the culture. In 2000, the James Beard Foundation nominated him for Rising Star Chef. Tougne was also a pioneer, particularly when it came to serving customers with food allergies. He developed much of Levy’s guidelines for allergies after one his own children developed them. This was in the early 2000s when restaurants weren’t as keen to worry about them.
Soon after Bistro 110 closed, he partnered with another French national, former Blackhawk goaltender Cristobal Huet, to open Chez Moi in 2012.
“His dedication to French culinary arts, his boundless generosity, and above all his authentic friendliness and joie de vivre will be deeply missed by all of us,” reads a statement from the Consulate General of France in Chicago.
The chef was known for being direct with his colleagues, and that included a budding chef named Carlos Gaytán. Before Gaytán became the first Mexican chef behind a Michelin-starred restaurant, he worked at the Union League Club of Chicago as its banquet chef. That position deferred much to the executive chef; at the time it was Michael Garbin.
Gaytán, now the chef at Tzuco, remembers Tougne attending a dinner for the French consulate general and asking who was in charge. Garbin, who was well known in chef circles, had already gone home for the night, and Tougne didn’t react well when Gaytán revealed it was him, a newcomer without a pedigree.
“I told him I do this every day,” Gaytán says. “And that he could jump in at any time.”
Instead Gaytán proved his mettle. After dinner Tougne apologized to Gaytán for his doubts, telling him he had never seen someone work like Gaytán had. Ever so connected within the French community, he called Gaytán the next week and asked if he was interested in the chef du cuisine at Bistrot Margot, the Old Town French restaurant that lasted 16 years until closing in 2015 on Wells Street. Gaytán says the job under under one condition: Tougne had to teach Gaytán the intricacies of French cooking.
“I needed someone to teach me French cuisine from the roots,” Gaytán says.
For the next four months Tougne eagerly tutored Gaytán daily from 8 a.m. to noon before the restaurant opened. Gaytán made good use of those lessons. His Michelin-starred restaurant, Mexique, blended French technique with Mexican flavor to great success before closing in 2018 in West Town. In return, Gaytán connect his mentor to opportunities cooking in Mexico as the two seized the chance to engage in a cultural exchange.
“It’s difficult talking about this right now,” Gaytán says, struggling for words.
Tougne taught a countless number of chefs about French food, including Mitchell Abou Jamra, the owner of Evette’s and All Too Well in Lincoln Park, located a short distance from Chez Moi. Abou Jamra calls Tougne one of his idols. Though his heart was always in the kitchen, management pushed him to work as a server at Bistro 110. But that didn’t stop Abou Jamra from popping his head into the kitchen, trying to soak up techniques. Tougne respect that curiosity and, because of his kind demeanor, he served as an inspiration.
“You wanted to make him proud because of where he comes from and his chef’s lineage,” Abou Jamara says. “It’s impressive. I can’t think of another chef who has had such a big impact in Chicago.”
Chez Moi and French Quiche should reopen on Wednesday, August 3. Services will take place on Monday, August 1, at Drake Funeral Home.