NEW YORK — She grew up in a modest hotel run by her parents in a French seaport village, sharing a room with her younger brother. Her father cooked, her mother oversaw the dining room, and Maguy Le Coze was waiting tables by the time she was 12, a serious child who forever remained that way.
“I would do my homework,” she said. “My brother never did his. I always tried to do the right thing, to learn.”
Her career path, as a woman born into an unassuming French restaurant family, seemed predestined: tending to customers while her man cooked for them. The chef, even behind kitchen doors, was the face of the restaurant. The dutiful woman rarely looked beyond the front door.
For Le Coze, such an existence was understandable but unacceptable. “They were good parents,” she said. “They thought this was the right way to bring us up.”
She has been working in restaurants for more than 60 years, and what might have been a life spent in a simple family business never occurred. She is today the co-owner of Le Bernardin, the Midtown Manhattan citadel of seafood created by her and her brother, its first chef, and heaped with accolades: three stars from Michelin, four from The New York Times, ratings attained and never lost.
Secure in her position and her accomplishments, she is hesitant only to admit her age, worried about the reaction of the staff. “When they see I am 73, they will say the boss is old,” Le Coze said.
They will not, of course, say anything of the sort, not to a woman so regal, so formidable, so unbending — and so charming when she chooses to be. If Eric Ripert, the chef and other owner of Le Bernardin, is the face of the restaurant and its ambassador, she is its queen. Decades ago her role was to pamper guests; these days she is more often laboring over ledgers in the underground offices.
Ripert calls her “the soul, the spirit and” — he smiled — “the boss of Le Bernardin.”
Yet Le Coze’s name is not widely known, except among her peers. Ripert calls her “the most underrated, ultrasuccessful woman in the restaurant world.”
Amanda Cohen, the chef and owner of Dirt Candy, a vegetarian restaurant on the Lower East Side, said she finds it fascinating that “so many of the people who do the hard work behind the scenes are women,” mentioning the late Ella Brennan (the New Orleans doyenne who championed Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse) and Barbara Lazaroff (the business partner and ex-wife of Wolfgang Puck). Cohen pointed out that Gilbert Le Coze, who died in 1994, and Eric Ripert have Wikipedia pages, but Le Coze does not.
Those who cook become stars. Those who toil at other tasks in restaurants rarely have such luck. “Many of my friends say to me, ‘Look at what you have done.'” Le Coze said, uncharacteristically at rest on a patio overlooking the Caribbean Sea outside her sprawling home on the private island of Mustique. “I have the same answer: ‘I worked. That’s it.'”
If fame has eluded her, the rewards of her success have been numerous: a Légion d’honneur from France, the home on Mustique, apartments in New York and Paris, the house where she grew up in Brittany.
She has purposefully forgone much that others prize. She never married and never desired children, preferring romantic relationships that lasted no more than four or five years. She recently took a two-week road trip through the United States with her current boyfriend, and returned enamored of the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. Unexpected, indeed, for a woman with a polished palate, but not the most unusual aspect of the relationship.
She met this boyfriend 35 years ago in Saint-Tropez, but had no further contact until he phoned her at Le Bernardin 10 years ago. She wasn’t there. They met shortly afterward for dinner in Paris. She didn’t see him for another two years, when they happened to be waiting at adjoining gates at Newark Liberty International Airport. They reconnected. Who says flying has lost its romance?
“My life has been strange,” Le Coze allowed.
When she was 15 and brought boyfriends home to meet her parents, “I told them I have a boyfriend and that’s it. At 18 I said to them, ‘I will not get married, I will not have children, I will have lovers.’ My parents thought they had a very unusual daughter.”
The reason, she says, was the infidelities of the men in her life: “My father cheated on my mother. My brother had so many women.”
Her lifelong passion, it would seem, was none of the men in her life, but her beloved restaurant.
She thinks it’s more than that. “It is not possible to have passion for 30 or 40 years,” she said. “That is something you have for four or five years. It is the same with the restaurant as it is with a man you meet. After passion comes love.”
‘She Sees Everything’
She never aspired to be a cook, and could not have become one even if that had been her dream. “I am a disaster,” she said. “The only thing I can do is steam vegetables.”
Le Coze was, in the early years of Le Bernardin, a constant and striking presence in the dining room, poised and perfect, attired in Chanel outfits, earrings, bracelets and necklaces. She daringly broke with the prescribed dining room etiquette of the era by perching on the arm of a chair across from her customers, extolling sea-urchin butter poured over raw sea urchins, or sea scallops still alive in their shell, awaiting the stove.
These days she prefers to remain in the background. She is primarily the financial overseer of the restaurant and, as always, remains obsessed with orderliness and quality control. She often works from her home office on Mustique, but when she is in New York she is known to spend 18 hours a day at her desk.
Mandy Oser, the owner of Ardesia Wine Bar in Hell’s Kitchen, worked with her at Le Bernardin for nine years. “I think about Maguy often when I think about how to run my business,” she said. “I absorbed everything: Look over profit-and-loss statements. Know how much you spend on napkins. Get your hands dirty with unsexy details.”
Le Coze said running a restaurant is two-thirds about business, one-third about the kitchen. Then she reconsidered, conceding that the kitchen of a culinary landmark like Le Bernardin deserves more credit. Surprisingly, Ripert agreed with this uneven division: “I’d say it’s 60-40, and she gets the 60. An expensive restaurant is very complex to run. If it is only about the food, you can go to a food truck.”
Having said that, Ripert happily proceeded to catalog his partner’s idiosyncrasies. He walked around the conference room of Le Bernardin, pointing out untidy piles of books, guides and plaques that had accumulated while she was in Mustique.
He shook his head. “I guarantee this is not going to fly,” he said. “She’s very particular about how she wants Le Bernardin to be run. When she’s been traveling for a week, she comes into the office, looks for shoes under desks, plastic knives and forks in drawers. It drives her crazy. She’s very neat. Everything has to be a certain way.”
Somewhat in admiration but more in wonder, he praised her uncanny ability to stumble upon the unseemly or inappropriate. “She sees everything,” he said. “Basically, she has a sixth sense. If we are at a meeting, looking at a contract, she for some reason will open to the right page, see when something is wrong. If there is a mistake, she finds it.
“If she is eating, she will always choose the dish that is not the best. Bingo, she orders it. If she goes into the bathroom, it will be right after a client throws paper on the floor. She always arrives at the moment when something is wrong. I don’t know how she does it.”
Le Coze is also a woman of rigorous self-discipline, dedicated to physical fitness. She keeps dumbbells in her office on Mustique, and works out every day, there or in a local gym. She walks daily for at least an hour, except in New York, where she never has enough time, so she compensates with two-hour strolls through Central Park on spring and summer weekends. She does not suffer the slow-footed gladly.
“When we walk, I am always slowing to look at things,” said one of her best friends, Marianne Tesler, who runs marathons. “She walks with determination, says to me, ‘Ahh, you’re too slow.'”
Ripert claims to be a faster walker, but concedes he cannot swim with her. “In 10 minutes she is so far ahead I give up and go on the beach,” he said. Trying to walk to an airport gate with her is futile: “In an airport she walks at the speed of light.”
From the Quai to the Pantheon
Born 18 months before her brother, Le Coze was the boss of an inseparable childhood partnership, until he turned 14 and took over. They left for Paris in 1964, after high school. “When I was 21 I had just one thing in mind, having fun,” she said. “I left Brittany for the life I didn’t have with my parents.”
In Paris she worked as a model at a fashion house, posing in the latest designs for customers. She was tall enough at 5-foot-7 to become a runway model, but lacked the self-confidence.
“I was beautiful,” Le Coze recalled. “But I was too shy to go to the big names in the fashion industry, intending to do the big shows.” Gilbert worked for a hairdresser, fetching sandwiches, moving cars and making more money in tips than she made modeling.
They returned to Brittany in summers to help their parents operate the hotel. Asked what she learned about business from them, she emphatically replied, “Nothing! My brother and I learned nothing from our parents.
“When we opened our first Le Bernardin in Paris in 1972, we did not even know how to count. We had no education in how to run a restaurant. You do not learn from cooking in the kitchen with your father, as Gilbert did, or working in the dining room with your mother, as I did. After two years, we were almost bankrupt.”
That tiny Le Bernardin, seating 25, was on the same quai as La Tour d’Argent and named after “Les Moines de Saint-Bernardin,” a song their father sang to them when they were infants. Gilbert Le Coze cooked, aided by a dishwasher. Maguy Le Coze ran the dining room with one waiter. They never locked the wine cellar; residents of the apartments above the restaurant would come by and help themselves.
The place received a fine review from Minute, a weekly newspaper with a circulation of 250,000. Believing that this guaranteed success, the Le Cozes started having the fun they had promised themselves. Soon they got a second review, “a disaster,” she said, from the influential Le Monde.
What made it worse, she recalled, was that the critic republished his views under different names in six or seven other newspapers and magazines. The Gault & Millau guide added to the onslaught, awarding them a score of eight out of 20, a devastatingly poor rating. She recalls one line in that review: “Send them back to the end of the quai.”
The Le Cozes returned from the fish market one morning and saw a sign on the restaurant window offering the contents for sale: They had failed to pay their taxes, and the government stepped in.
“We used the money we made in the summer working for our parents to pay the taxes, little by little,” Maguy Le Coze said. “And that’s when we started to change.”
Gilbert Le Coze redid the menu, his uncomplicated but thoughtful cooking aided by the growing popularity of nouvelle cuisine. A consultant taught Maguy Le Coze how to control costs. They began weighing the fish that arrived from the market rather than simply paying whatever was asked.
The two were invited to the apartment of the renowned chef Michel Guérard, who subsequently invited the food critic for L’Express to join him at Le Bernardin. A review appeared shortly afterward, praising Gilbert Le Coze’s cooking as well as Maguy Le Coze’s “tasteful interior” and “seductive smile.”
Dancing on the Tables
Maguy Le Coze claims to have been entirely different during those Paris days — going out to nightclubs, dancing on tables and banquettes. Her lifestyle would have stunned the staff of today’s Le Bernardin, she said. “This is the Maguy you do not know.”
In August, when the restaurant and the rest of Paris closed, she would go to Saint-Tropez while her brother went home to Brittany. She dressed in cowboy boots and short shorts. “That was my license one month a year to go crazy,” she said. “But when I came back to Paris in September and a customer would say to me, ‘We saw you in Saint-Tropez,’ I would say, ‘No, you must be wrong.’ When I am back in Paris, I am running the restaurant and I am different.”
Eventually, she and her brother moved Le Bernardin to a bigger space near the Arc de Triomphe and earned two Michelin stars. Yet Maguy Le Coze remained fascinated by the idea of a restaurant in New York, which she had visited twice in the 1970s. “To me it was a vision, a spiritual thing, if you believe in those things,” she said.
In the early 1980s, 10 friends each promised to invest $100,000 in a small restaurant not far from the Lipstick Building in Midtown. Four eventually backed out. Two years after that, she and her brother received an offer from the Equitable insurance company to open a much grander establishment on 51st Street west of Avenue of the Americas, then considered a risky area for a restaurant.
Once plans were finalized, Le Bernardin went up in fewer than six months. The feat was made possible by “overtime, overtime and more overtime,” said her friend Gail George, the wife of the late Philip George, who designed the interior.
The restaurant opened in January 1986, and later that year the Le Cozes sold its Paris sibling to the chef Guy Savoy. Three months in, the Le Bernardin in New York received a four-star review from The Times, a rating it maintained even after her brother’s death in 1994.
Gilbert Le Coze died in an ambulance of a heart attack suffered while working out at a health club. He was 49.
Getting Maguy Le Coze to speak about him is difficult; getting her to express her feelings after his death is impossible. Friends say she never totally recovered from the shock.
She recalled, more sad than angry, “After Gilbert died, every other restaurant tried to take people from us. They said, ‘She is not here for long.'” Nobody left, and under Ripert, who took over as chef and several years later became her business partner, the restaurant thrived.
From 1994 until Le Coze redecorated her New York apartment two years ago, the only photographs on display there were of her brother.
“She and Gilbert were like one person,” George said. “Maguy was always fussing over him, adored him like I have never seen anyone adore a younger brother. None of Maguy’s boyfriends back then lasted long. As long as she and Gilbert had each other, they didn’t need anybody else. She provided the asset of a wife without being a wife.”
Life in Black and White
In January, this very private woman was drawn into a very public lawsuit filed by a former server at Le Bernardin.
The plaintiff alleged that she had been sexually harassed by both the kitchen staff and the wait staff, and that Le Coze had strongly suggested she lose weight after the birth of her daughter. The litigation came at a time when the restaurant industry has been troubled by a multitude of accusations that employees have been verbally or physically abused.
The woman dropped her lawsuit in May; her lawyer said no settlement had been made. Le Coze would not comment on the suit, citing the advice of her lawyer. She said she barely knew the woman who sued and “doesn’t recall working directly with her.”
“Why would I be ashamed of a woman being pregnant?” she asked. “I do not have children, but my friends have children. It is not reasonable that I think like that.”
She said she has never been harassed in a restaurant. “Never once, I swear, never.” She attributes this to her demeanor, which she describes as, “Stop, don’t go any further, don’t try.”
At work she is frank, sensible and at times relentless, but she professed not to be overly demanding of her staff, merely confident that she knows what is right and wrong.
“For me, there is black and white,” she said. “Never gray. Gray is not my life. I am a strong person, strong with myself and with others. You don’t come from a small village in Brittany and open one of the top restaurants in New York if you are a weak person.”
Le Coze said that becoming the boss of Le Bernardin was not easily accomplished, and that she has no intention of giving up the job.
“Absolutely no retirement,” she said. “I am still young.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.