Chef Moncef Meddeb, best known by Boston diners as the founder of L’Espalier, died in La Marsa, Tunisia, on March 26, 2019, at the age of 75. He had moved there in 2008.
Meddeb’s influence on the Boston restaurant scene runs deep; he spent decades in and around the city and opened numerous restaurants. Many local chefs with their own well-regarded restaurants today spent the early part of their careers working for him, and over the course of his own career, he garnered much critical acclaim, including a “Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America” nod from the James Beard Foundation in 1985.
“He should be remembered by the new generation of today and decades to come as the most talented pioneer of nouvelle cuisine,” said his sister Alia Meddeb, who owns Baraka Cafe in Cambridge. “[He] allowed the old generation to explore new ways and approach how one can express fully his or her potential in marrying cultures and vast flavors when in the mid-’70s in Boston, all special ingredients came from overseas. You can imagine how fortunate anyone felt being part of this journey that took us all to amazing grace land!”
She also spoke of his “decency, humbleness, and brilliant mind” and noted that he “was funny to the end.”
Meddeb arrived in the United States in the late 1960s. He had been living in the Tunis area earlier in the decade; his family moved back there from France. He worked at a bank in Tunis and ended up meeting a Peace Corps volunteer, Suzanne Owen, whom he married. When Owen finished her service, the couple moved to Connecticut to be with her father, and Meddeb spent a year at the University of Connecticut before transferring to Harvard and graduating with a major in political science. The couple divorced after Meddeb’s graduation, Owen said.
While Meddeb was at Harvard, he took his first cooking job, working at the now-defunct Harvard Square mainstay Casablanca, which closed in 2012 after nearly 60 years in business. He later worked at Kingsfield Inn — now the Inn on Winter’s Hill — near Sugarloaf, Maine, before returning to Massachusetts and working as chef at 7 Central in Manchester.
Meddeb opened L’Espalier in 1978; the restaurant, which moved through three Back Bay locations over the years, was a fixture of Boston’s fine-dining scene. It operated for 40 years, closing at the end of 2018, and Meddeb was at the helm for the first decade before selling it to his former sous chef Frank McClelland. In addition to McClelland, Charles Draghi was another chef who worked in Meddeb’s kitchen at L’Espalier; Draghi went on to open Italian gem Erbaluce in Bay Village, which he closed after a decade at the end of 2018.
Meddeb named L’Espalier in honor of his father, said Owen. His parents raised their family in Bobigny, France, outside of Paris, and Meddeb’s father took great pleasure in pruning the pear trees in the family’s yard in espalier form.
Following L’Espalier, Meddeb opened Le Midi, a lunch-focused restaurant in Boston. He also worked as chef at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Cafe for a time, and with his friend and backer Pierre Jospe, he opened 8 Holyoke in Cambridge, Aïgo Bistro in Concord, and several other ventures.
8 Holyoke, a Mediterranean restaurant, played a significant role in the Boston culinary family tree during its tenure. During Eater Boston’s Classics Week in 2015, chef Ana Sortun — who went on to achieve much success with Oleana, Sarma, and Sofra — shared a photo taken around 1995 at the restaurant, where she was head chef. The photo is a Boston food scene who’s who, featuring Paul O’Connell (Chez Henri), Jody Adams (Rialto, Trade), Jasper White (Jasper’s, Summer Shack), Steve Rosen (Salts, Rarities, and St. Cloud), Deborah Hughes and Mary-Catherine Deibel (Upstairs on the Square), Peter Davis (Henrietta’s Table), and Sortun, posing with a visiting Julia Child.
Further outside of the city, Aïgo Bistro made an impact on the dining scene as well and earned Meddeb rave reviews. In a 2006 review in Boston Magazine, critic Corby Kummer praised Meddeb’s “dishes of immaculate food that demonstrate easy mastery” and recalled how the chef had previously built L’Espalier into a restaurant “synonymous with personalized haute cuisine served in a gracious and composed, luxurious setting.” Dining at Aïgo, Kummer wrote, was “like having your own private chef who has done the tour of the world’s best restaurants and chosen to cook good food for you.”
“Moncef was a Renaissance man: funny, passionate, brilliant, an amazing raconteur, and an incredibly innovative, self-taught chef,” said Owen. “He and I had shopped in Haymarket most Saturday mornings and tried out Julia Child’s most exotic recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking on willing dinner guests in our tiny Cambridge apartment. Julia was later so taken with him that she invited him to be a guest chef on her TV show in California, Dinner at Julia’s. He prepared a lobster dish. Later, in his restaurants, Moncef’s North African and French gastronomic memories kicked in and catapulted him to five stars!”
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