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Dallas’ Finest: Chef Jean LaFont, R.I.P.

The opening spread of D Magazine's April 2002 article "Best New Restaurants in Dallas." Jean LaFont photographed at Le Rendezvous by Kris Hundt. Many thanks to Gwen Watel for sending a picture of the article.

One of the finest and most influential chefs in Dallas, Jean LaFont, passed away late this afternoon. He was 72. According to his good friend and former student Mercury Chef Chris Ward, LaFont died from cancer which was detected around Christmas.

LaFont was a gentle, caring, immensely talented man who influenced many people during his 35 years in Dallas. There are many chefs and restaurateurs in Dallas who owe their careers to LaFont.

In the early 70s, Jean LaFont was working at the Rainbow Room in New York when he was lured to Dallas by Phil Vacarro to oversee his growing empire of restaurants that included Arthur’s, Old Warsaw, Les Saisons, and Mario’s. LaFont eventually moved to the Pyramid Room at the Fairmont Hotel and never-to-be-forgotten Oz in 1974. Over the years, LaFont continued to cook, consult, or both with many restaurants.

The only thing he failed to do successfully was retire. “When I see a restaurant I just always want to be in the kitchen,” LaFont said in a phone interview last year. “It’s very hard to let it go from your system.”

He tried to retire several times beginning in 2000 but he kept popping up in Dallas kitchens. In 2002, he took over at Le Rendezvous in Preston Royal. In October 2004, then Dallas Morning News Restaurant dining critic, Dotty Griffth wrote: “Venerable chef Jean LaFont has come back more often than Cher and Mickey Rooney combined. At least Mr. LaFont returns to what he knows and does best: fine French cuisine.”

Griffith was referring to LaFont’s, a restaurant in Addison he opened with Al Amadeus. Then came LaFont’s Steakhouse in the old Morton’s space in Addison. Between his travels, LaFont returned to Dallas and consulted on many high-profile restaurants. In 2003, Mico Rodriquez threw a party to honor names from the pantheon of Dallas dining: not only LaFont but also Riviera owner Franco Bertolasi, cellar master Tony LaBarba, chef George Patrice, chef Ewald Scholz, restaurateur Phil Vacarro, and chef Rene Weibel. D publisher Wick Allison wrote this account of the evening.

In D Magazine’s 30th Anniversary Issue (October 2004) I summarized the significant role LaFont played during his then 30-year career in Dallas restaurants. More specifically, his ability to take classical French cooking to another level when he was the executive chef of Oz in 1974:

THE WIZARDS OF OZ: Sous chef Guy Bernal (left) and executive chef Jean LaFont put chic substance, like duck with fresh peaches, on the menu at the stylish Oz. (1974)

When Oz opened in the nosebleed country on LBJ, it changed everything. For the first time, you were where you ate. But behind the glitz and glamour of the tri-level, mirrored, neon-lit club, there was a serious kitchen, run by French chef Jean LaFont, that produced highly imaginative, mostly French-style food. We raved breathlessly about “quenelles so light they take your breath away.” Food became part of the definition of hip. And it’s been that way ever since.

41 comments on “Dallas’ Finest: Chef Jean LaFont, R.I.P.

  1. He was an amazing human being, unsurpassed in culinary technique as well as generosity of spirit. And he never lost his curiosity or spirit of adventure. The last couple of times I saw him, we went to Snuffer’s and Cavalli’s. He was just as concerned about and delighted by the quality of the hamburger and pizza as he would have been with any haute cuisine dish. An elitist in the positive sense, and never a snob. It was such an honor to know him.

  2. I am truly sorry to hear this news. I had the privilege to meet Chef Lafont once, as a cook in my first kitchen job. It was one of those experiences which helped me to
    understand what it takes to live “the life”, to be truly dedicated to your vocation and avocation. His influence on Dallas chefs, including the first to ever have given me a chance, to accept me into his kitchen, will always be remembered by those whose careers were touched by Monsieur Lafont.

    I fear that many readers may never have heard of Chef Lafont. Is it any wonder. then, that one of the cuisines painfully missing from the Dallas scene is fine French?

  3. I consider it an honor to have known him. He changed my life as well as so many others
    I will miss his smile, the twinkle in his eyes, and serving him his glass of white wine with a splash of red wine.
    …………..
    Gwen Watel

  4. I recall a very special memory of Chef LaFont during a very brief time as a wine educator at Tony’s Wine Warehouse.

    A friend and a group of people were coming to celebrate a birthday and he decided to whip up a baked Alaska…..he tasked me with a quick errand to the local grocery for a pound cake and when I returned, I had the unique priviledge of observing a master in action…whipping, piping, instructing and demonstrating step by step. In that tiny kitchen he created a beautiful work of culinary art in a matter of minutes. It was facinating and the best part was the love he gave to the effort.

  5. It was with great sadness to learn the death of a grand friend and mentor.
    I will miss him as well as the Dallas foodies.
    “Au revoir mon ami Jean”

  6. I will also miss this wonderful, gentle, talented man who I had the great pleasure of knowing since his tenure as chef at OZ.
    Over the years, whenever his name came up in conversation, I would always recall a wonderful “Lobster a la Nage” he made for me and my then wife one evening at OZ. He made “romance” an understatement with that dish.
    I was humbly honored to have Chef LaFont as a guest in my home for a men’s luncheon I prepared for friends one Saturday, many years ago. He was so complimentary of the food and kept us all in stitches with his wonderful stories.
    Chef LaFont was well loved by many in Dallas. We shall all miss our dear, jolly friend.
    Repose en paix mon viel ami.

  7. A tru perfectionst in all aspect of hospitality industry.well creative. Should have retiered sooner than loosing life.
    OZ Was a masterpeice. I know, I was there many times.

  8. he was a food writer’s delight, warm, affable and always quick with a quote — some more printable than others! what a loss, but how wonderful to have known him.

  9. My heart just sank, Jean Lafont left us.I had met Jean in 1974 when I came to Dallas and he was opening The OZ Club and restaurant. Jean was a true Chef but overall he could cook like nobody else and cooking he did with a passion that he only could put in his work.Thank you Jean for keeping the torch lit on the Dallas food scene for all these years.I will miss you but will never forget you.

  10. Jean LaFont was a wonderful father, as well as a world class chef. I thank you all for the wonderful coments, It does help a lot!

  11. M. LaFont,
    I am so sorry for your loss. Is there any way those of us here, who share your grief, could further assist?
    DB

  12. Jean Lafont’s Family, (sons and daughters) will be arriving in Dallas tonight and tomorrow, any questions about when or where service will be held, can be sent to myself (Jean-Pierre LaFont 1-971-207-0684). Thank you again for all the kind words

  13. we always can learn how to cook the best french food from a REAL MAESTRO***** in the kitchen at home or restaurants. Jean you are simply the BEST and see you soon with all your friends & family in your last kitchen called paradise! tous ensemble te disons…a tout a l’heure jeanot pour ton pastis et petanque! ~with love~ georges et toute ton equipe qui t’aime.

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  15. Jean Lafont, was like my father he will always be . Mr . Lafont was with us since we arrived in USA with my family . We at Citrus Bistro will miss him , Jean Lafont was The Best chef , the best friend and best Daddy ,
    condelence a toute la famille Mireille and les autre ……..de la part de Citrus Bistro . Chef Didier Viriot .

  16. Jean was one if my dearest friends. I was so fortunate to have him in my life. I was the lucky one that spent so many days with him over the past ten years. He was a remarkable man and blessed me with his incredible passion for cuisine. We go back to the opening of Oz in 1974 when he hired me as the first American in his kitchen. From there, I followed him to The Old Warsaw and worked under Christian Gerber and Cherif Brahmi.

  17. Four years ago next week Jean and son Jim spent the day preparing for my 80th dinner party in Jim’s kitchen. As you can imagine, it was splendid.

    Jean was a special man, loyal to his friends and just as importantly, loyal to his profession. He wore his enormous skills like a royal robe. Our family was blessed to be a part of his life.

  18. I worked under him for 8 years beginning in 1979. he was my mentor. I wished back then that ‘I knew’ as much about food that he “Had Forgotten”. He was a very demanding, tough, but fare man. I will always think of you fondly. You will be missed.

  19. Jean was a veteran of French cooking, he always cooked with love and passion a Classic French Cuisine and I always thought of him as a mentor as Julia Child or Jacques Pepin. I will miss him as many Chefs and Restaurateurs in Dallas.
    Jean will always remain in our hearts.

  20. 29 years a go, Jean was the first chef to give me a chance in the USA,I was with no papers and was not speaking English at all. He trust me and give me a chance to work at one of his restaurants at Dallas. I will miss you Jean, please make the meal enjoyable where you going , at Paradise heaven, I am sure they will appreciate you, like everyone as appreciate you on Earth.You will be miss but never forgotten.
    Eric Chopin

  21. I first met Jean while working for French Express back in the mid 80′s. I was afraid of all those guys in the beginning ! In 1989 he was the best man in my wedding, we shared many wonderful meals, fun stories, and lots of wine . He was a legend. Rest in peace , LaFont . Our thoughts and prayers are with your family

  22. My heart goes out to the La Font family. Jean became our friend when Francois and I first came to Dallas. French chefs seem to always seek out other French chefs. Jean loved his craft and that is how it should be as he then passed that passion on to others. You live on in many hearts and many kitchens Jean.

  23. I am deeply sorry to find that Mr lafont had passed away, I have lost a great true friend and I will never forget Jean. Repose toi en paix mon Ami, que dieu te benisse.

  24. In 1974 I came to America to work under Jean LaFont for the opening of OZ restaurant. From that point on, he became my mentor and friend for 38 years.
    There is not a restaurant in this city and beyond who is not in debt to the talents of Jean LaFont. All the chefs he trained so well owe a lot to him. We are forever grateful.

    Cherif Brahmi

  25. Pingback: Funeral Services Set For Chef Jean LaFont | SideDish

  26. It is a sad day for me ,the end of a era in traditional French cuisine.Jean introduced French cuisine in Dallas over 35 years ago ,i had the privilege to know him and be his friend.He was a master in French cooking and put Dallas on the map of the best restaurants in USA.
    Adieu mon ami,you will be missed but not forgotten.
    Herve’ Lequien.

  27. This message was emailed to me from Howard Pierceall:

    I tried to leave a message and do not know if it went through.I worked with Chef LaFont in the late 70’s at Arthurs and the Vacarro group.My sympathies go out to his family and friends. If any of the old crew are still around I would like to hear from them. I see one in this blog Chris Ward.

  28. He was my dad’s oldest friend. I’ve known him all my life. He was there when my daughter Haylie was born and every occasion afterwards; baptism, communion, Christmas, Thanksgivings, birthdays, my wedding and recently in the hospital. The nicest man you can EVER meet. He will be missed in our family.

  29. When LaFont said “my friend, you come work for me in Dallas,” I came from New York and have been here ever since. I would have been nothing in the kitchen without him. My condolences to his family and to all his friends who loved him. He will be forever missed.

  30. Every so often a person of immense spirit touches your life. Often times you do not recognize or appreciate it until after they have gone. Jean La Font was to me and will always be — the Father of my kitchen.
    Yes, he taught us culinary technique and the intricacies of Haute Cuisine but he was more than that – he was culinary mastery personified.
    But, what I will miss most about the man is the times we sat exhausted from preparing a flawless meal together and sitting around a dozen or more half consumed bottles of wine – some good, some great, some not so good but still appreciated, and simply talking about his past – about his life and about his passions. The stories of who he graced with his meals were endless as was his service to my Parish, Prince of Peace Catholic Community.
    You cannot learn from a book or even most of the finest Chef’s schools what Jean taught us. Viva La Font!

  31. me ciento muy triste y consternado ante lamentable perdida de mi gran amigo y maestro la font gracias por todo.

  32. Jean and I worked together on several occasions. He was always very serious in the kitchen, whether we were in heavy catering production or making a curry for the staff. His passing is truly a loss to the profession and certainly to the city of Dallas. There are very few Chefs who have or will ever possess the depth on knowledge and passion that defined this man and his craft. Once, while cooking 300 turkeys for Thanksgiving, elbow deep in bones and fat , he looked at me and said, ” I am glad to be a Chef”. I will never forget this man.

  33. Un grand homage à mon oncle Jean LAFONT , qui nous à quitter si brutalement , il à était un grand chef en Amérique et reconnu du monde entier . Son petit neuveu mickael de france !

  34. Pingback: Funeral Services Held Today For Chef Jean LaFont | SideDish

  35. Jean was a great professional as we all know. French cuisine is the cuisine of the west, and he was a master of it! As a Chef today I breath and work with my hands the way he taught me. I will love this man, kind, to all people, a true leader in the kitchen, not the bullshit Chef of today back in kitchen arena, food channel bullshit…you know what I mean. The man was unblemished and pure to the heart. He deserved all the kudos not this new wave of chef…”.never will there be a Chef like Lafont…with much love Chef…you were the best