Appetite for perfection
Seven years after opening Le Mistral, French chef and co-owner David Denis is savoring the success of the restaurant, which offers Provence-inspired cuisine to diners in West Houston’s Energy Corridor area.
At a time when many large restaurant chains are cutting back, the upscale Le Mistral is expanding.
In the face of intense competition from Houston’s large and diverse restaurant community, including several offering French cuisine, the restaurant raked in revenue of $1.4 million in 2007, up from $1.2 million the previous year, Denis says.
The number of full-time employees has grown from just a handful to 40.
In fact, in order to meet demand, Denis recently purchased and built out a new location just a few doors down from the original.
His brother and co-owner, Sylvain Denis, a trained architect who also has worked at restaurants in France on the business side and as a sommelier, or wine steward, helped design the new location, which has more than doubled the restaurant’s size from 2,700 square feet to 7,000 square feet.
The restaurant’s offerings also have been expanded to include “a huge line” of catering, from “cooking in your house for dinner” to providing box lunches for corporate offices to serving up large offsite gala affairs.
Le Mistral also has a banquet room, a chef’s table in the kitchen that can seat up to 10 people for those who like to watch their food being prepared, a bar area, a wine cellar and a meticulously designed kitchen so well organized that the company that sold them the equipment is talking about using the layout as a display model for its products.
In the kitchen island model designed by David Denis, cooks face one another across large island counters. For example, one row of cooks prepares salads, facing another row of cooks preparing pastas. “No one is facing the wall. We are facing each other so we can communicate,” he explains.
The restaurant keeps track of orders with a state-of-the-art computerized system that can even track customers and their meal preferences by ZIP code.
But attaining today’s success wasn’t easy. When Le Mistral — named for the strong wind that blows across Southern France — opened in 2001, no customers showed up on the first day, David Denis says.
“The first year was really tough,” he says, adding that, in the restaurant business “you can eat your profit very quickly. You are paying bills daily. Sometimes the waiters were making more in tips than we were after paying all the bills. We were glad we were working at a restaurant so we could eat.”
To get the word out about Le Mistral, Denis hired a publicist to contact mainstream media, placed notices in church bulletins, blanketed nearby apartment complexes and large corporate offices with flyers and visited with the concierges of large hotels. Stories about the restaurant began to appear on local television stations and in local newspapers. Dining guides gave the restaurant rave reviews.
Denis then recruited his brother to be the manager and co-owner.
After three years of steadily building up a customer base, the teamwork began to pay off. While Sylvain Denis worked the front of the restaurant, David Denis cooked and also gave private cooking classes at homes in the Lakes of Eldridge Parkway subdivision. He also found the perfect place to recruit staff, bringing in some of the student chefs he had taught at the Alain and Marie LeNôtre Culinary Institute in Houston.
Determined to offer the authentic, fresh taste of provincial French food, Denis says he adjusts flavors, importing lamb from as far away as Australia to get the right flavor. “Every day, everything is fresh,” he says.
Today, the restaurant draws a large business crowd, with about 70 percent coming from the nearby corporations in the Energy Corridor.
Two regular customers, communications consultant Michael Crew and his wife, Roz, — self-described “foodies” — went to the restaurant by chance six years ago, and have been regular customers ever since. “At first, the kitchen was slow,” Michael Crew says, but when the appetizers came out, “they were phenomenal.”
“David came out of the kitchen to apologize for the wait and we asked him how he did it. We hired him to cater for business. I would tell him what I wanted and what I wanted to spend, and he would always create a great menu from scratch.”
Crew says he believes the food at Le Mistral is comparable to a fine restaurant in Southern France.
David Denis learned the art of preparing fine French cuisine from his mother and grandmother, who both owned and operated restaurants on the French Riviera. He also studied the culinary arts at the Ecole du Beausset in Beausset, France, and trained at the famed Hotel le Carlton International in Cannes.
At the age of 20, he was head chef at the Restaurant le Bois de Lune-Montvenix in Savoie, where he was responsible for all food preparation and financial management. He then became a chef at the Hotel le Gasthof Baren in Switzerland.
Then, during a working vacation in France, he met and began working for a prominent Houston family and, in 1995, came to Houston to work as the family’s personal chef.
But after five years, Denis decided to strike out on his own. He drew up a business plan and formed a corporation, raising capital from investors but retaining 68 percent of the equity. For start-up capital, he used $250,000 to buy equipment.
“I started with a list of just 10 wines,” he says. “I started small and just grew very slowly.”
To make Le Mistral stand out, the Denis brothers have combined their skills, offering wine dinners that highlight specially selected vintages for five-course meals.
However, David Denis says he wants to offer more than complex meals for the sophisticated palate. After all, he says, his competition includes every other restaurant in Houston, and there are plenty for people to choose from.
“I want to reach everyone, from the secretary making $35,000 to the business executive making $3 million a year. I want to offer the lunch special for $7.50, and the executive meal for $175.”
The most difficult challenge he faces, he says, is to stay consistent.
“Working 12- to 14-hour days, you must stay consistent and keep up your smile,” he says. “Don’t talk about politics or religion. You are not here to show your opinion. You are here to provide excellent service.”
This year, Denis expects revenue to double. Since opening the new location, revenue already has reached $500,000, he says.
Photo credit © Houston Business Journal