Roger André Fessaguet, renowned chef, educator and former co-owner of Manhattan’s acclaimed La Caravelle and Le Poulailler restaurants, died in Damariscotta, Maine on April 2, 2014 at the age of 82.
Mr. Fessaguet was born in Villefranche sur Saone, the Beaujolais region of France, on August 4, 1931. His parents, André and Renée Fessaguet, expected their son to become an engineer like his father or a lawyer. Mr. Fessaguet stubbornly pursued a career in the restaurant business, a decision he never regretted. His early culinary training was in Provence. Through a family connection he was introduced to Henri Soule, who owned the famed Le Pavilion restaurant in New York City. He soon immigrated to America.
Selling numerous possessions to finance his passage in 1949, he arrived in New York at age 17 abroad a liberty ship that carried 17 passengers. Mr. Fessaguet attended high school at night to complete his education. To compensate for his lack of formal education he became a life-long reader. With the exception of two years in the United States Marine Corps (1952 to 1954), Mr. Fessaguet worked at fabled haute cuisine restaurant Le Pavilion from 1949 until 1960. The staff also included Pierre Franey, Jacques Pepin, Robert Meyzen and Fred Decré.
During the Korean War Mr. Fessaguet was inducted by the U.S. Army. During his physical exam, an Army First Sergeant “volunteered” Mr. Fessaguet for the Marine Corps. Instead of serving in Korea, Mr. Fessaquet was assigned shipboard duty in the Mediterranean with the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet. Thus began his devotion to the U.S. Marine Corps. This affection, along with his sense of humor, would reveal itself during birthday celebrations when he would march unexpectedly into his dining room dressed in a tee shirt replica of a Marine Corps dress uniform. Part of his ensemble included a well worn saucepan as a cap and kitchen broom as his “rifle”. He would then proceed to delight startled guests by performing the Marines’ “manual of arms” and a French-accented rendition of the Marine Corps hymn, the “Halls of Montezuma”.
In 1960, Fred Decré and Robert Meyzen opened the La Caravelle restaurant, decorated with elegant murals of lively Parisian street scenes by French illustrator and student of Raoul Dufy, Jean Pagès. From the beginning, La Caravelle changed its menu daily as was customary in Europe, but an innovation for American diners at the time. Roger Fessaguet was its executive chef. Under his guidance La Caravelle’s kitchen prepared classic French cuisine such as quenelles de brochet, roast duck and soufflés. La Caravelle’s original staff was all trained at Le Pavillon and continued those high standards at the new popular restaurant.
From the beginning La Caravelle attracted national and international acclaim and the celebrities of the day. These individuals soon became the nucleus of the restaurant’s regular clientele. Politicians, artists, movie stars, celebrities all made their way to La Caravelle to enjoy its elegant cuisine. Joseph Kennedy, Sr. was a regular guest. When John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, Mr. Fessaguet was recommended and trained René Verdon as the White House chef at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy. JFK loved Mr. Fessaguet’s chicken in champagne sauce, which he made so often for the Kennedys’ airplane trips that La Caravelle re-named it Poularde Maison Blanche.
In 1968, Craig Claiborne gave the restaurant four stars in ''The New York Times Guide to Dining Out in New York,'' flatly stating that La Caravelle was ''the finest restaurant in New York on almost every count.'' In 1984, the restaurant’s ownership passed to Mr. Fessaguet and André and Rita Jammet as co-owners.
Mr. Fessaguet also was the President and co-owner of Le Poulailler in Lincoln Center from 1967 until it was sold in 1981. Located in the Lincoln Center, it was very popular with opera performers including Pavarotti and many symphony orchestra conductors after performances.
Mr. Fessaguet’s dislike of cheese was well known, which was unusual for a Frenchman. He maintained one could have an excellent meal without cheese. A belief he held all life. He was a vocal champion of Beaujolais, the wine of the region of his birth.
In 1991, Mr. Fessaguet received the highest civilian and military award of the French government, Chevalier (Knight) in the Order of the Legion d'Honneur. Roger Fessaguet was the first member of his profession to receive this distinction in the United States. He had earlier received distinction as Chevalier in both the Order of Mérite National' (1976) and Mérite Agricole (1971).
Other professional awards and distinctions included Chef of the Year 1969 (Maitres-Cuisiniers de France); Médaille d'Honneur, President of the Vatel Club, 1969-1987; Gold Medal, Societe des Cuisiniers de France, 1972; Gold Medal, Académie Culinaire de France, 1972; Medal of the Escoffier Museum, 1974; Médaille d'Honneur, Amicale Culinaire de Washington, 1977; and Honor Diploma of the Chefs and Pastry Chefs association of the Province of Quebec, 1978.
Mr. Fessaguet was the founder and editor of Toques Blanches, the only French culinary publication ever published in the United States. For many years Mr. Fessaguet was a correspondent of the French language newspaper in New York, the France Amérique, owned by the Le Figaro in Paris. After retirement from La Caravelle, Mr. Fessaguet began a new career as an instructor in culinary arts and dining room service at Boston University and at The French Culinary Institute in New York. He was passionate about both writing and teaching stressing the contribution of excellent service to the dining experience.
In addition to food, wine and the Marine Corps, Mr. Fessaguet’s other great passion was his beloved cottage, Finistere, on Maine’s rock bound coast. His Maine cottage provided the perfect sanctuary from the stressful existence of the highly competitive New York restaurant business. He left his mark on the area with his donation to the Long Cove Point Association of a parcel of land leading to the water. The water access, thereafter named “Fessaguet Landing,” allowed safe and direct water access for the benefit of the association.
His first wife, Anne Marie (Annick) Corre, died in 1985 after 26 years of happy marriage. They enjoyed many years in New York and Maine. His marriage to Miriam Showalter in 1991, ended in divorce in 2010. He is survived by his cousin Madeleine Joye of Chassieu, France. Mr. Fessaguet spent the past twenty years in West Palm Beach, Florida, returning to his beloved Chamberlain when he could. He returned to Maine in June, 2013.
Mr. Fessaguet will be remembered as one of a handful of French entrepreneurs and legendary chefs who opened Manhattan haute cuisine restaurants in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, offering classical cuisine in upscale settings with the service and amenities expected by luminaries in politics, business, society and entertainment who frequented the establishments. He made a gift of the culinary memorabilia of his long career to Johnson & Wales University, Rhode Island.
There will be a Wake from 5:00-7:00pm, on Tuesday, April 8th at the Strong-Hancock Funeral Home, 612 Main Street, Damariscotta, ME. A Funeral Mass will be held at 11:00am, on Wednesday, April 9th at St. Patrick’s Church in Newcastle. He will be laid to rest in the Flushing Cemetery in New York, on Friday, April 11th. If desired, a donation in his memory, may be made to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, 825 College Blvd, Suite 102, PMB 609, Oceanside, CA 92057.
Arrangements are under the direction and care of the Strong-Hancock Funeral Home, 612 Main Street, Damariscotta, ME. Condolences, and messages for the family, may be expressed by visiting: www.StrongHancock.com.
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