Gilles Epié, Out to Conquer the American Capital

The waiter pours a fragrant drizzle of olive oil over some lavender-honey ice cream decorated with tiny pink flowers. The droplets melt into the granita, which is nestled on a bed of white chocolate pannacotta adorned with ribbons of candied lemon. The creator of this delicate concoction is none other than Gilles Epié, the French chef who has just taken over the kitchen at L’Avant-Garde in Washington D.C.

A new adventure has begun for this Michelin-star chef, who has spent the last three decades displaying his talents on both sides of the Atlantic. Now 64, with a lined face, tattoos, and chunky skull rings, Gilles Epié looks more like a rock star than a Michelin-Guide celebrity. Despite countless awards and recognition, this Nantes native from a humble background has retained the passion for cuisine passed down by his mother, the queen of cream puffs. At the age of 14, his parents sent him to a vocational school to train as a chef for large-scale institutions. While there, he learned how to prepare 25 chickens at a time – not quite the gastronomical heights he had dreamed of!

The teenager later visited the new restaurant that Paul Bocuse had just opened in Nantes. He bumped into Roger Jaloux, the sous-chef, and fearlessly declared: “I’m here for a job.” Jaloux took him under his wing and taught him the trade. Epié then worked with a series of leading names, including Michel Kéréver, Jean-Pierre Coffe, and François Clerc, becoming a sous-chef for the latter. Their recipe for caviar-stuffed parcels was an international hit! When Clerc acquired Le Pavillon des Princes in the Bois de Boulogne, he handed the reins of the kitchen over to Epié. “François told me, ‘Do what you want,’” he says. “I was just 21!” Six months later, he became the youngest chef to be awarded a Michelin star.

After working in several restaurants in Paris and Brussels, Epié set out for the United States without speaking a word of English. Thanks to his friend Alain Ducasse, he met a Japanese artist who had just purchased L’Orangerie, a fine-dining establishment in Los Angeles that had found itself in a rut. Within a year, he had brought the restaurant up from three to five stars thanks to his Provençal menu, and was named “Best Chef in America” by Food & Wine magazine. Countless celebrities flocked to eat there, including Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, and Elizabeth Taylor. Frank Sinatra even celebrated his 80th birthday at the restaurant!

“When I stepped into the dining area, I felt like I was in a movie. All the Hollywood greats were there,” says the chef. He played soccer with Rod Stewart and struck up a friendship with Slash, the former guitarist of Guns N’ Roses, who brought in all his musician friends. Gilles Epié “is a very generous chef and he makes people happy,” said Slash in an interview with French newspaper Ouest-France. “He impresses me. I’m proud to see everything that he has achieved.”

Among the long list of celebrity customers, Richard Gere and his girlfriend at the time, Elizabeth Nottoli, came for dinner one evening. So the legend goes, it was love at first sight between the French chef and the Elite model, and the pair were soon married. Together, they organized unforgettable private parties for the stars. At rapper Eminem’s home, during a Hawaiian-themed event, they transformed the tennis courts into a beach by shipping in tons of sand. However, their most unbelievable feat remains New Year’s Eve at the turn of the millennium. The soirée hosted for a music producer cost one million dollars, and included more than 300 pounds of caviar and 200 cases of Champagne!

A Culinary Rock Star

Gilles Epié has an endless supply of stories. He has cooked for almost every celebrity, from Robbie Williams and Catherine Deneuve to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, along with every French and American president – including Donald Trump. He discussed fishing with François Mitterrand, who used to send him flowers after every meal. French composer Maurice Jarre set his menu to music and lyrics. And Sharon Stone even gave him a massage! But just say no if she offers you one, according to the chef. “She really pummeled my back!”

Gilles Epié and his wife celebrate the opening of Frenchy’s Bistro at Charles-de-Gaulle Airport, April 2013. © Vincent Capman/Paris Match/Getty Images
Gilles Epié (center) with the team at L’Orangerie in Los Angeles, 1995.
On the dessert menu at L’Avant-Garde is a millefeuille with “grand-cru chocolate” and pistachio cream. © Rey Lopez/Eater DC

However, things changed after 9/11. The United States “turned inwards,” and the couple returned to France. In 2005, Gilles Epié invested in Citrus Etoile, a stone’s throw from the Champs-Elysées, which soon became the place to be for the French showbiz elite. He also took part in two reality TV shows, and opened a brasserie called Frenchy’s Bistro at Charles-de-Gaulle Airport. For the launch, Paris Match photographed Epié wearing a tux and a bow tie enjoying a Champagne-soaked picnic with his wife on the wing of an American Airlines Boeing!

He sold Citrus Etoile in 2017 and returned to the United States, initially settling in Miami before moving to work at Montage Beverly Hills in Los Angeles. But in a devastating blow, the restaurant closed during the pandemic. The chef and father of four decided to start making takeout dishes at his home, but his neighbors complained about the masses of people turning up. The virus be damned! Gilles Epié was restless! He packed his bags for Hawaii and took charge of the eight restaurants at the Turtle Bay Resort. But this experience was short-lived. The job was enormous – with 75 chefs to manage – and too impersonal, although the island was the perfect place for sushi, his favorite dish.

Before too long, he was contacted by Joanna and Fady Saba, a French-Lebanese couple and owners of L’Annexe, a chic cocktail bar in Georgetown, a historical neighborhood in Washington D.C. They asked him to take over their new restaurant, L’Avant-Garde. He therefore set off for the East Coast, accompanied, as ever, by Elizabeth Nottoli and their two cats, Elvis and Ziggy (named in tribute to David Bowie). The family is now very happy in Washington. “People here are Francophiles, and they’re educated about food,” says the chef. “Maybe because they’ve traveled.”

Every evening at 7 p.m., the restaurant leaps into action. Standing with his arms folded, Gilles Epié carefully watches the chefs working and the tables being waited on in perfect synchronization – and in almost perfect silence. There is no frenetic agitation, clattering of pans, or shouting. Meanwhile, the menu is proud to be staunchly “Franco-French,” featuring caramelized foie-gras beignets with a Port reduction, grilled octopus ringed with harissa and baby potato aioli, beef and red wine matelote, and bouillabaisse topped with a puff pastry dome which releases its irresistible aroma when pierced. “We have brought Provence to your plate,” says the maître d’, poetically.

Gilles Epié dreams of simplicity – “the hardest thing for a chef” – and has had enough of trendy, expensive restaurants which leave diners hungry. The Nantes native wants to cook what he loves, just like at home, putting his all into it. This explains the chicken and fries, a dish inspired by a mainstay Sunday meal from his childhood. “The only secret to cooking,” he says, “is passion, respecting the product, putting your heart into preparing poultry, with real jus.” Far be it from us to contradict him. One of his arms is tattooed with a koi carp, a symbol of bravery in Japan – and the sign of the yakuza.

Article published in the February 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.