"I'm all right brain," says Eric Aubriot, the French-born chef and owner of Aubriot restaurant in Lincoln Park. "I'm creative, and French cooking in France doesn't allow for that much. It's more about control and consistency." The 30-year-old opened his namesake eatery four years ago. This summer he launched two new ventures: Tournesol, a bistro in Lincoln Square, and Eau, a late-night lounge. And while the menus at all three restaurants appear to consist of standard French fare, he takes liberties that his forefathers might not encourage. "I still do the classics like kidneys and shanks," says Aubriot, "but I can put them with a curry emulsion or a savory tomato sorbet."
With the opening of Eau he's also liberated himself from traditional ideas of where French food ought to be eaten. No stuffy dining room or homey bistro, the stylish space--which occupies the second floor of Aubriot's building--has Lucite chairs flanking the tables, abstract paintings by local artist Lee Tracy gracing the white walls, and a cucumber-colored exposed kitchen. It's open Thursday through Sunday after nine only, and the small-plate cuisine--mushroom ravioli with leeks and shallot cream sauce, sauteed quail with oven-dried tomatoes and field greens in a coriander vinaigrette, and a salade nicoise with black olives and capers--is accompanied by pulsating acid jazz and downtempo riffs played at conversation-friendly levels. "I wanted to do something different," says Aubriot. "Believe me, after slaving in a hot kitchen for 12 to 14 hours, pressing up against everyone, the last thing you want is to go to a crowded bar, pay a cover, and not even be able to talk to anyone you're with."
Aubriot is one of a growing number of French chefs who call Chicago home. The earliest transplants--Bernard Cretier (who opened Maxim's de Paris here in 1963 and Le Vichyssois in 1976), Jean Banchet (the former Le Francais owner who originally came to Chicago to run the Playboy Club), Pierre Louis Pollin (Le Titi de Paris), Jean-Claude Poilevey (Le Bouchon), and Lucien Verge (L'Escargot), to name a few--have been joined more recently by younger chefs like Martial Nougier (One Sixty Blue), Sandro Gamba (NoMi), Dominique Tougne (Bistro 110), and Aubriot. "We like what we can do here," he says, "and we all know each other." They like each other so much that in 1991 they created a midwest chapter of the French culinary organization La Vatel Club, which brings them together once a year for a gala brunch. Many also belong to the age-old Chaine des Rotisseurs (which originated in 1248 in France), a society of chefs, food professionals, and amateur gastronomes who gather monthly at various restaurants.
While many in La Vatel share a background--most grew up in France and spent time training at Michelin-recommended restaurants--Aubriot's upbringing diverges. He lived in Paris until he was seven, when his father, a transportation engineer, was transferred to Singapore. After three years in the Far East, another transfer brought the family to Orlando, where at age 12 Aubriot began working as a busboy in the renowned French restaurant La Belle Verriere. Several moves later the Aubriots landed in Chicago, where Eric finished his last two years of high school at New Trier. Upon graduation he had thoughts of staying in Chicago and enrolled at Kendall College's culinary school. But after one year he quit Kendall ("Change is good," says Aubriot) and was off to Pittsburgh, where he opened a pastry shop with a French couple. He baked croissants and pain au chocolat for high-end hotels and country clubs while finishing his culinary degree at the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts. Then he moved back to Orlando to work at Le Coq au Vin, the sister restaurant to the one where he'd worked as a teen.
In the early 90s his passion for French cooking took him back to his birth country, where he apprenticed under Michel Guerard at the three-star Les Pres d'Eugenie in Eugenie-les-Bains. There he was exposed to the lighter, more healthful art of cuisine minceur. Next he went to Monaco to learn under Alain Ducasse at George V. After two years abroad he came back to Chicago, doing stints as a line cook at several highly regarded restaurants--Gypsy, Trio, Vidalia on the Park--finally landing his springboard job as chef de cuisine under Jacky Pluton at Carlos' in Highwood.
He opened Aubriot at Halsted and Armitage in 1998, unsure of the clientele he'd draw. He quickly developed a loyal following of older, established neighborhood professionals. While he has no complaints, he feels he's been missing an opportunity. "It's a bar neighborhood," he says. "I don't attract the 20- and young 30-year-olds since they don't get my food, nor do they have the means." Since he owns the two-flat that houses his restaurant, he simply converted the private party room upstairs into a lounge and opened Eau. "It's the same corporation who owns it, so we didn't have to apply for another liquor license or anything."
Meanwhile a former babysitter tipped him off about a storefront that was available at 4343 N. Lincoln, and in mid-May Tournesol opened there. Aubriot is one of three partners and the consulting chef. "Yeah, like I didn't have enough to do," he laughs. "Ever since I've been back in Chicago, I always look at spaces and take down numbers. I think you just have to keep going, you know. I mean, why not? The opportunity is out there, and it's so much easier here than in France." He had been considering opening a place there before new labor laws limited the French workweek to 35 hours, "which amounts to about three days of work in a restaurant," says Aubriot. "And the employee taxes are so high--it's just not happening for restaurants there right now."
With two kids and three restaurants, Aubriot would appear rooted for now. Then again, he says, "This is the longest time I've ever been in the same job--four years. You never know what might happen."
Eau is on the second floor at 1962 N. Halsted, 773-281-4211.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.