“When I was a kid, I was happy when all the family was together around the table,” says Serge Falcoz-Vigne, who took over as chef and General Manager at Saint Jacques French Cuisine in April. Every Sunday in his hometown of Grenoble, France, his family would visit one grandmother in the morning and the other at night—fueling a bit of a culinary competition between the two.
“The grandmothers would always make such good food, with the idea that they always wanted to make it better,” he says. “Food is love. Imagine, a grandmother waits, she thinks about the people who are going to come…She wants to do something to think about you and give you love. I try to do that with all of the customers every time I cook.”
His customers are feeling the love. Saint Jacques has garnered five stars and is rated number one in the Triangle on the review site OpenTable, based on feedback from 1,500 diners. The menu is classic French with a focus on fresh, local ingredients: duck confit with cassoulet, filet mignon with foie gras and black truffle sauce, Pamlico Sound shrimp and scallops in cream sauce.
“My vision for this place is to make a lot of people very happy,” he says. “To enjoy all the food and discover something, too—to wake up the curiosity of everybody.”
At 15, the now 48-year-old Falcoz-Vigne knew he wanted to become a chef. At this young age, he applied for and was granted special permission to apprentice at a local restaurant, working two shifts a day, six days a week while continuing his studies.
“I would do it again,” he says. “When I started, I didn’t even know the difference between a shallot and an onion. At this point in my life, what made me live, what made me present, was food… a good moment of joy and happiness, cooking, eating, sharing.”
He moved to Paris after receiving his diploma, dabbling in the city’s theater scene and honing his skills in the kitchen. In 1994, he and two friends bought Au Passé Retrouvé, a traditional French restaurant in the 15th arrondissement whose name loosely translates to “the re-found past.” He met his now-wife Samantha, a Raleigh native, at his restaurant, and when he sold it in 2007, the couple and their young son, Jack, moved to North Carolina and made the Triangle their home.
He worked as executive chef at 411 West in Chapel Hill, then Raleigh’s 518 West and, most recently, 18 Seaboard. Here, he found a growing community of world-class chefs; and much like the friendly rivalry between his grandmothers, this healthy competition pushes him to do better, to be a better chef.
He draws parallels between French and Southern cuisine—that food is best when it combines simple ingredients into delicious flavors, that good cooking takes time and can’t be rushed. The issue he takes with American food is the need for consistency, for assembly-line sameness.
“You know why? It’s Ronald McDonald. He teaches people you can have the same thing every day in America, everywhere in the world. But people don’t want to have the same flavor every day. Every time they come they want to have something they enjoy the same, but it doesn’t need to be exactly the same.”
He took over the restaurant this spring, a task he compares to restarting an old train. The parts were there, the cars in a graceful line, pointing in the right direction, but it needed to be repainted, refueled, restarted.
“Can you imagine all the energy you need to start a train?” he asks. “You have to use all your energy to make it work. The business needed a refreshment: change the carpet, change the paint on the walls, change the bar…the menu is changed, more French.”
Falcoz-Vigne says his menu is more authentic, truer to the dishes he cooked for decades in France and more beholden to fresh, local ingredients. But he’s not afraid to experiment, testing out dishes in the cool morning kitchen.
“Just by looking at the food, you know a lot about the guy who makes it,” says Falcoz-Vigne. “It’s like a crystal ball. If he’s happy, he’s going to make happy food. If you cook with love, people get it and they want more.”