Chef Dominque Tougne, ambassador of French culture in Chicago, dies at 56

The Chicago culinary world and the 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 following a heart attack. He was 56 years old.

Long before the burly, balding chef resembling French comic book character Obélix opened Chez Moi ten years ago in Lincoln Park, he began his decorated culinary career as a teenager in northern Alsace, in France. He learned from celebrity chefs such as Joel Robuchon and Jacques Senechal, and once he arrived in Chicago he focused on preserving those culinary traditions.

Beyond his Chicago restaurants, he has also lent his recipes and expertise to La Voute, the French restaurant that opened in 2015 in the suburb of Homewood.

He emigrated to America in 1996 after Levy Restaurants recruited him to work at Bistro 110, a French restaurant next to 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 Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

Tougne spent 15 years at Bistro 110 and developed a reputation as an ambassador of French cuisine, winning favor with local French civic groups who adored his dedication to cultural preservation. In 2000, the James Beard Foundation nominated him for Rising Star Chef. Tougne has also been a pioneer, especially when it comes to serving customers with food allergies. He developed much of Levy’s allergy guidelines after one of his own children developed them. This was in the early 2000s when restaurants weren’t as keen to care.

Shortly after Bistro 110 closed, he teamed up with another French national, former Blackhawks goaltender Cristobal Huet, to open Chez Moi in 2012.

“His dedication to the French culinary art, his boundless generosity, and above all his genuine friendliness and joie de vivre will be missed by all of us,” read a statement from the Consulate General of France in Chicago.

The chef was known for being direct with his colleagues, and this included an aspiring chef named Carlos Gaytán. Before Gaytán became the first Mexican chef behind a Michelin-starred restaurant, he worked at the Union League Club in Chicago as a banquet chef. This position reported a lot to the executive chef; at the time it was Michael Garbin.

Gaytán, now the head of Tzuco, recalls 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 with no pedigree.

“I told him I do this every day,” Gaytán says. “And that he could intervene at any time.”

Instead, Gaytán has proven himself. After dinner, Tougne apologized to Gaytán for his doubts, telling him that he had never seen anyone work like Gaytán. Still so connected within the French community, he called Gaytán the following week and asked if he was interested in the chef de cuisine at Bistrot Margot, the French restaurant in the old town that lasted 16 years until its closure in 2015 on Wells Street. Gaytán said the job was on one condition: Tougne was to teach Gaytán the intricacies of French cuisine.

“I needed someone to teach me French cooking from the roots,” says Gaytán.

For the next four months, Tougne ardently mentored Gaytán every day from 8 a.m. to noon before the restaurant opened. Gaytán made good use of these lessons. His Michelin-starred restaurant, Mexico, blended French technique with Mexican flavor to great success before closing in 2018 in West Town. In return, Gaytán connects his mentor to culinary opportunities in Mexico as the two seize the opportunity to engage in cultural exchange.

“It’s hard to talk about it right now,” Ga​​ytán says, searching for words.

Tougne has taught French cuisine to countless chefs, 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. Although his heart has always been in the kitchen, management nudged him to work as a waiter at Bistro 110. But that didn’t stop Abou Jamra from poking his head into the kitchen, trying to soak up the techniques. Tougne respects this curiosity and, because of his kind demeanor, he served as an inspiration.

“You wanted to make him proud because of his origin and his lineage as a leader,” explains Abou Jamara. “It’s impressive. I can’t think of another chef who has had such an impact in Chicago.

Chez Moi and French Quiche are scheduled to reopen on Wednesday, August 3. Services will be held on Monday, August 1 at Drake Funeral Home.

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