Drive the route to Cave Creek at dusk, when the sky fills with glowing stars and the coyotes howl in the distance, and you'll find Cave Creek's own French restaurant, Le Sans Souci, and its diminutive owner, Louis Germain.
The place is so tucked away that it's easy to miss. The exterior doesn't look like much with its plain brick façade, but a step inside reveals so much more.
At the door you'll be greeted by Germain, who seems like a character drawn from a Colette novel. At 75, with thick black-rimmed glasses and formal black suit, Monsieur Germain cuts quite a presence. He is the type of culinary figure that every city ought to have -- someone with a story to tell. Germain and Le Sans Souci are anachronisms in a time of casual dining, slick decor and über-hip clientele. Instead, Le Sans Souci recalls an era of manners, etiquette and elegance.
Le Sans Souci, 7030 East Bella Vista Drive, Cave Creek, AZ 85331, 480-488-2856. Reservations are recommended.
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Germain always carries a black reservation book, and a quick glance reveals a well-worn page filled with penciled-in names. All the slots are full on this busy Saturday night. Germain is serious about his restaurant, and he keeps the place flowing. He glances at his watch as he ushers you to a table that seems distinctly chosen for you. He will glance at his watch many times this evening. There are tables to be cleared, diners to be seated, Grand Marnier soufflés to be baked and presented. It's hard work running a restaurant, harder still at the age of 75.
Le Sans Souci (French for "carefree") has three separate dining areas, each with its own distinct ambiance. I was taken to what we'll call the White Room, which is filled with baroque plaster columns, a crystal chandelier and an eclectic array of framed paintings and posters.
Germain speaks French, naturally enough, and it seems like the only way to address him. I ask him about his life, his dreams and his love of Arizona.
He was born in the French town of St. Georges, which is located along the Swiss border. He's a classically trained chef, and his dreams were to travel around the world and to one day own his own restaurant, both of which have long since happened.
Germain came to this country in 1953. After five years of working in the United States, he was granted citizenship. In 1958, he was working at the then-famous Perino Restaurant in Los Angeles, where he met none other than Phoenix's own Del Webb. (Can you have a discussion about Phoenix and not have that name come up?) According to Germain, Webb encouraged him to come to Phoenix and open a French restaurant. Germain also mentions how Webb described the many banks that were opening up in the Phoenix area, and off he went to fulfill his destiny.
His first restaurant in Scottsdale was called Chez Louis, and it was a landmark for more than 30 years. Chez Louis quickly gained a reputation for its fresh seafood. And it didn't hurt that the owner was French and quite a character.
When asked, Germain will describe the rich and famous people he has served over the years.
He tells a funny story about actress Eva Gardner. According to Germain, Gardner was in town visiting a Scottsdale health spa/fat farm called Main Chance. Germain says that apparently the food was health spa fare, in other words, not altogether appealing. Gardner sneaked away to Chez Louis to have a "real" meal.
Other celebrity diners over the years included Dr. Loyal Davis, a neurosurgeon, and his wife Edith, a stage actress. Dr. and Mrs. Davis were President Ronald Reagan's father-in-law and mother-in-law, who lived at that time at the Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa. Movie legend Jimmy Stewart dined at Chez Louis, as did Scottsdale's own Catherine Hicks, most recently of television's 7th Heaven fame. Many of the places and faces Germain mentions have long since disappeared.
Today, Germain's world is filled with Le Sans Souci, which has been open for more than six years, long enough for him to build a loyal following.
Along with the demands of a thriving restaurant, Germain enjoys spending time with his Swedish-born wife, Lotta. He met the fashion designer on a plane to Paris, and they married a year ago.
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When asked about what keeps him in Arizona, Germain mentions the beauty of the desert. And the horses. There have always been horses to ride and show. These days, though, his daughter is the one showing the horses.
It's never too late in life to find love, to work hard, to try new recipes. Every year, during the traditional holiday months of July and August, Germain closes Le Sans Souci and returns to his beloved Paris. There, he studies the latest French culinary innovations at the legendary Ritz Hotel on the Place Vendôme. Under Monsieur Maison-Neuve, one of the Ritz's acclaimed pastry chefs, Germain continues to tweak his culinary skills.
It wouldn't do to end this story without saying a few words about Germain's cooking. From the traditional French pâté and oysters Rockefeller to the luscious beef tournedos and lobster thermidor, all are delicious and decadent.
Drive the route to Cave Creek at dusk, when the sky fills with glowing stars and the coyotes howl in the distance, and if you look hard enough, you'll find a bit of France in the desert.