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Le Cirque Through the Eyes of Eight French Chefs

Le Cirque will be closing at the end of the year. This restaurant has been a shrine to French gastronomy in New York since 1974, and helped kickstart the careers of two generations of French chefs living in the United States. Eight of them shared their memories and experiences of Le Cirque with France-Amérique.

Alain Sailhac, dean emeritus of the New York International Culinary Center, executive chef at Le Cirque from 1978 to 1986:

“There were only two guys in the kitchens when I first arrived at Le Cirque on July 15, 1978. I had to recruit a 30-person kitchen brigade in less than two weeks! Working at Le Cirque was an extraordinary experience, but it was crazy. We had 600 covers per day and hosted banquets with 150 people. I served caviar over ice sculptures, I served Richard Nixon English sole stuffed with vegetables. He had lunch there every two or three days. The atmosphere was electric!”

Daniel Boulud, restauranteur, executive chef at Le Cirque from 1986 to 1992:

“I modernized some of the classics at Le Cirque, and also added a few new recipes that have since become my signature dishes, such as the sea bass paupiette and the sea scallops in black tie. That was when the public started getting curious about chefs from my generation. We wanted to change the old codes of French cuisine that were upheld in New York. My objective was to get four stars in The New York Times and make Le Cirque one of the best restaurants in the United States. After achieving my goal, I opened my own restaurant, Daniel, where the original Le Cirque was first located.”

Jacques Torres, chocolatier, pastry chef at Le Cirque from 1989 to 2000:

“Sirio [Maccioni, the restaurant’s founder and owner] was a real charmer, and Daniel [Boulud, who was then the executive chef] was going from strength to strength. Le Cirque was the restaurant to work in if you wanted to make a name for yourself in the United States. I headed up a team of 11 people — the biggest pastry staff in the country. I entertained customers with elegant and whimsical dishes such as creations made with sugar on the theme of the circus, chocolate clowns and monkeys, and chocolate ovens and saucepans. It was an incredible springboard, but it’s tiring always being under the microscope, constantly waiting for the judgement of food critics. I went on to leave Le Cirque and open my own chocolate store.”

Sylvain Portay, executive chef at Le Bilboquet in New York, executive chef at Le Cirque from 1992 to 1996:

“I was executive chef at Le Louis XV in Monaco before I arrived in New York. We used to do 30 covers for lunch and 60 for dinner. At Le Cirque it was 120 covers for lunch and 250 for dinner! Working there was a real challenge, adapting traditional cuisine to such a large clientele. The first year was difficult, but it got easier and I ended up adding some of my own dishes to the menu, including braised veal cheek, ricotta and truffle gnocchis, and foie gras raviolis.”

Alain Allegretti, restauranteur, executive chef at Le Cirque from 2000 to 2005:

“I went from Nice to New York. It was a whole other world! Le Cirque had a new approach focused on the customer instead of the chef. We had to serve them what they wanted to eat, as if they were at home. Half of the menu was made up of the leading standards such as sole meunière, veal paupiette, and ossobuco, and I was given the freedom to express my creativity and innovation in the other dishes. All in all, it was a great experience.”

Christophe Bellanca, executive chef at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in New York, executive chef at Le Cirque from 2006 to 2008:

“Le Cirque had just reopened in the Bloomberg Building on 58th Street, and its New York Times rating had dropped to two stars. I worked 115 hours per week in the hope getting the food critics to come back. Sirio [Maccioni] really gave me everything I needed to express my culinary identity. He taught me to be flexible, and to put my chef’s ego to one side. But he never said no when I wanted to buy exceptional products. After all our efforts, the newspaper wrote a very positive article — three stars! — and that rebooted the machine.”

Olivier Reginensi, corporate chef at Maison Kayser, line cook Le Cirque from 1993 to 1994 and executive chef in 2012:

“I experienced two different eras at Le Cirque. I first discovered the restaurant on 65th Street, the legendary dining room, and Sirio [Maccioni] on the door welcoming the New York smart set. I was then appointed executive chef in 2012. Sirio told me ‘we have to revamp the cuisine at Le Cirque, and go back to how it was before.’ I tried to relaunch the Provençal dishes Daniel Boulud had championed during his time. Unfortunately, it wasn’t received well, and I was thanked for my service after a negative review published in The New York Times.”

Raphaël François, owner of Le Desales in Washington D.C., executive chef at Le Cirque from 2013 to 2015:

“The Maccioni family gave me the chance to realize my childhood dream of living and working in the United States. A few months after I arrived, The Daily News criticized the old style of service and the antiquated dress code, but complimented the modernity of the dishes. I was 33. It was difficult to impose my style without offending regular customers; it was a balancing act! Le Cirque is a difficult restaurant, after all.”


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