Some of the world’s most famous French chefs have come to Boston only to see their elite new restaurants collapse like a cold souffle.
Boston can certainly claim its share of successful, home-grown French restaurants serving everything from haute cuisine to bistro fare. But some of the biggest culinary stars of France, who have conquered cities such as New York, Paris, and London with popular restaurants, couldn’t keep the lights on in Boston.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant Market, though not a French establishment, was one of nearly 40 eateries in the award-winning chef’s international empire. The restaurant and its eclectic menu lasted just four years at the W Hotel Boston.
Guy Martin, the grand chef at one of the oldest and most revered restaurants in Paris, survived half as long at Sensing at the Fairmont Battery Wharf.
Now another celebrated French chef, Daniel Boulud, plans to follow in the footsteps of his countrymen and open Bar Boulud at Boston’s Mandarin Oriental hotel in September. In a recent interview, Boulud said he was unfamiliar with the demise of Market and Sensing but approaches all new restaurant openings with some apprehension.
“Do we worry?” said Boulud. “Of course we worry. But at the same time I want to make sure I don’t come with pretension or any other ambition than to make a very good restaurant for Boston.”
Boulud is a decorated international chef, celebrated in New York’s culinary circles. He is the chef behind restaurants in London, Singapore, and Montreal.
At his new Boston restaurant, Boulud said, he plans to offer his famous charcuterie bar with signature terrines and pates. The full menu will resemble that of his New York restaurant, which includes entrees such as a black olive gnocchi with cherry tomatoes and roasted fennel in a pistou sauce and a mustard-crusted monkfish.
Entrees will cost $30 to $40 and Boulud said Bar Boulud will be more casual than its next-door neighbor, the city’s much-hailed French restaurant L’Espalier.
Like the fanfare that surrounded the arrival of Market and Sensing, news of Boulud’s plans at the Mandarin has sparked excitement among local chefs and foodies. But Boulud may have to overcome at least one familiar business obstacle.
The world’s top culinary stars often license their restaurant concepts to local owners and hotels are common business partners. Market was organized in that manner and Boulud will do the same thing in Boston. It isn’t clear how the business relationship worked at Sensing, though that restaurant was also located inside a hotel.
Hotel restaurants can present a challenge attracting patrons, and licensing agreements may pit culinary ambition against a hotel budget, said Darren Tristano, an analyst with the food industry research firm Technomic of Chicago.
Tristano said hotels often view restaurants as a means to attract and offer a service to their guests, but not necessarily generate a lot of revenue on their own.
“At the end of the evening, it’s how many rooms did we fill up, not how much money did we make in the restaurant,” Tristano said. “A restaurant needs to be designed to succeed, not just be part of a hotel designed to sell rooms.”
Under most licensing agreements, the owner operates the establishment and benefits by using the famous chef’s name. The chef often helps get the restaurant off the ground and then acts as a consultant. His day-to- day involvement varies and he receives a percentage of revenues.
Tristano said the arrangement is appealing to chefs because it allows them to expand their personal brands in new markets and make money without having to operate the restaurant.
“Sometimes they help establish the restaurant, give themselves a pat on the back and are gone,” Tristano said. “They run back to their own restaurants and make sure those are doing well and don’t give it a second thought.”
Vongerichten had a very limited personal presence at Market and his restaurant group oversaw the operation from New York, where the celebrity chef remained with his 11 other restaurants. Martin continued to operate a handful of restaurants in Paris and Boulud also intends to stay in New York with his seven other restaurants.
Some hotel restaurant locations also come with union labor wage scales and work rules. That was the case at Market. Sensing became a union establishment six months before it closed. Bar Boulud will not operate in a union environment.
Tristano said increased union labor costs can be a disadvantage considering that restaurants operate on slim 3 to 5 percent profit margins and wages account for more than a third of total costs.
Business at Market and Sensing may have suffered due to their locations in the city. Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said restaurants in the Theatre District, including Market, struggle to attract customers who aren’t headed to a show. Hotel guests often want to explore more than just their hotel and gravitate toward restaurants in other parts of the city.
“At the end of the day, the truth be told, there wasn’t enough business coming through the doors,” said Matt Barros, the former chef de cuisine at Market.
Boulud should have no problem with the Back Bay location of his new restaurant, along bustling Boylston Street and smack in the middle of a vibrant dining area.
The chef de cuisine of the new Boston restaurant, Aaron Chambers, has been a chef in Boulud’s New York City restaurants since 2009, first at Cafe Boulud and then Boulud Sud. His wife, Shanna, just had a baby and the couple wanted to be closer to her family and hometown in Swampscott.
Bar Boulud will take over the space currently occupied by Asana, a restaurant that serves contemporary American cuisine. Asana will close this spring for renovations and Bar Boulud will open in September.
“Boston is a very vibrant active dining city,” said Boulud, whose daughter attended Tufts University. “They really go out and love to eat and drink and be merry. Every time I go to Boston it’s a good time. I hope I can be part of that.”Taryn Luna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @tarynluna.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect title for Aaron Chambers.