So how long does it really take a chef to open his own restaurant? According to fortysomething Pascal Oudin, who says he came to the United States from France when he was 24 years old to do just that, it takes two decades. And how much does it cost? “My life savings, my wife's savings, my kids' savings,” Oudin jokes.
He's kidding, but he's also serious. “I've never signed so many checks in my life,” he muses. “My wife keeps telling me we need to open soon. But it's what I want to do. I came here to be my own boss.” After decades of intention and chat, Oudin's contemporary French restaurant, Pascal's on Ponce, is scheduled to debut at the end of this week in Coral Gables. “It'll be something when I put the first plate on the table,” he sighs.
Oudin's story also reveals much about the mechanics of the restaurant industry itself. To fulfill his dream, the chef literally had to invest everything -- not just money, but time and reputation. For starters he's personally overseen and helped with the renovations to what was formerly Thoa's on Ponce (and before that The Bistro), construction that has taken about four months. “My body aches right now,” he admits. “Too much construction and cleaning. I was the guy on the site every day. If someone comes in with the flu right now, I'll probably catch it.”
This get-'em-dirty hands-on approach is a far cry from one of Oudin's most recent and memorable positions as executive chef of the Grand Café, the nationally acclaimed fine-dinery he opened in 1994 at the Grand Bay Hotel. “There I would go into the kitchen for a half-day, then come back later,” he says. “Sometimes I didn't see the kitchen for three days. I got the fame and recognition, but there were a lot of people behind me. I had six or seven people cooking for me on the line. I had a pastry chef,” Oudin recalls, despite the fact that he trained as a pastry chef and is more than capable of making his own sweets. The rest of his time was taken up with corporate meetings, food-and-beverage management -- in general being the biggest cog in the well-oiled corporate machine known as a luxury resort hotel.
Oudin is not bitter about the Grand Café experience (the hotel unexpectedly decided to close the restaurant in 1998, and it became Bice not long after); in fact he's grateful for it, because it brought him a lot of national attention from magazines such as Esquire and food-and-travel correspondents like John Mariani. But he's eager to get back to the line and intends to be the sole chef (with three cooks) at Pascal's on Ponce. “[The Grand Café] was a lot of status but also a lot of pressure,” he says. “This country can put some chef on top of the world who's not even good. But when the media writes something good about me, I'm going to meet those standards.” As a result of living up to his image, however, Oudin says he put far too much pressure on himself, became stressed out, and lost too much weight.
He's also relieved to have put the style of food that brought him so many kudos -- tropically influenced cuisine with a French edge -- aside. He says, “The Florida stuff I'm trying to put behind me. No more plantains, no more yuca, no more jicama. I've had it. It worked for me at the time  to be competitive with Norman [Van Aken], Mark [Militello], and Allen [Susser]. But I had to push myself to introduce the tropical in my style.
“It was always my intention to open my own restaurant and go back to French food,” Oudin continues. “Before it was business. Now I don't have to do [New World cuisine] anymore. I can bring back to the Gables what isn't here anymore. I'm classic; I cook vegetables like we do in Europe. It's the right way to cook, the way I've been trained. Like you see in New York. Classic but also moderne.”
Indeed he's wagering that old customers will remember him not just from his executive chef days at the Grand Café but from the other major hotel restaurants he opened here, including Dominique's at the Alexander and the Aragon Café at the Colonnade. Dominique's, where in 1983 Oudin introduced Miamians to $32 Dover sole, was the classic side of him; the Aragon Café, which he started after returning to Florida a couple of years later from Washington, D.C., where he had moved, had a more progressive French menu. Judging by the fare Pascal's on Ponce will at least preliminarily offer -- terrine of muscovy duck and pistachio with petite salad; veal rib eye au jus with braised endive and mushroom fricassee; and red and blackberry mille-feuille with vanilla cream and passion fruit aspic -- we can probably expect an eatery similar to the Aragon.
We shouldn't anticipate another Grand Café, though. “There's a lot of pressure personally and professionally, because people know my background. They think I'm going after Grand Bay number two, but that's not what I'm after,” Oudin insists. “There I was taking the food to a level that was too high. I was in a fast property.” Nor are we going to be looking at another Norman's. “I want to be more relaxed, to be myself. I want to be a midrange neighborhood restaurant, not the place you come for your ten-year anniversary.” To that end Oudin just might succeed. His prices for entrées, with the exception of two meat items, are all under 20 bucks.
Certainly the number of seats -- only 55 -- will enable him to get to know his customers by name, something he could never have done during his three-year stint in the early Nineties at EuroDisney just outside Paris, where he oversaw six restaurants and 1500 diners daily. And he wasn't involved enough to his liking at his most recent post, executive chef with a proposed partnership in the works for Sweet Donna's, the country-style eatery that just folded in the Shops at Sunset Place. He notes, “The Grand Café had closed and Las Vegas was calling but I said to myself, I'm 38, what am I going to do, move my family to Las Vegas?”
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So he went to work on the country-store concept, but in the end it was a no-go. “We opened about a year and a half ago, and it was very strong at the beginning,” he explains. “We got some good press, maybe because of curiosity. People were saying, “What is that guy doing there?” But the owner had picked the wrong location, and he recognized that. If we'd opened on Kendall Drive, it would have been perfect. Last November we sat down and looked at the next ten years and said it's not going to work, so I left.”
This time around, with Oudin firmly in charge of his own destiny, he will initially be the victim of curiosity once more. Indeed it does seem that Oudin and his wife, Ann-Louise, whom he met at Dominique's and who is the mother of his two children, are not the only ones eager for his venture to launch. “The phone, it's not ringing off the hook. But people are calling, wondering if we are open yet,” he says. And it's not only diners. The former owners of both The Bistro and Thoa's on Ponce have been dropping in to check on his progress. The Zagat Survey has already inquired as to his status, and Food & Wine has been nosing around as well. He tells everyone-- consumers, previous proprietors, journalists -- the same thing: “I don't want a big-money machine or fame. I just want to go to each table and talk. I have a ten-year lease. I'm here to stay.”
Despite his Miami history, his reputation, and his intentions, Oudin will be challenged by what every first-time chef-proprietor faces: running the business end of a restaurant. No matter how much experience you have in food-and-beverage management for major hotel groups, it's undeniably different when the dollars and cents are your own. Oudin is now at a point in his personal finances where he says, “I need to get back on my feet. I need the returns.” He's not necessarily talking in terms of profit; he needs to earn enough to pay his bills, his rent, and his staff. Plus, by opening in a previously failed location -- Thoa's on Ponce attracted positive attention from the media, but won few regular diners -- he's got a jinx to scoot around. And debuting in August, typically the worst dining-out month in Miami, makes it even harder. But it's pretty clear that in marketing terms, he's giving Coral Gables something it needs. In the end it could add up to happy returns all around.