New chef at Paris 66 Bistro is a Frenchman who's at home in Pittsburgh
It's never easy to fill the shoes of a dearly loved head chef, but Larry Laffont is doing that well at Paris 66 Bistro in East Liberty.
Laffont, 36, took over Cesar Dubs' position as executive chef in January after the owners of Paris 66, Fred and Lori Rongier, couldn't renew Dubs' working visa. Dubs, who hailed from Brittany, France, was the first chef at Paris 66 Bistro, which opened in June 2009.
"We could only sponsor Cesar for two years," says Lori Rongier, 44. "At the end of last summer, we knew we had to recruit someone to replace Cesar, and we wanted a French chef because it adds authenticity."
The Rongiers had known Laffont since 1999, when he worked at the now-defunct Le Perroquet and Fred Rongier had bartended there briefly. Laffont also had worked at Ibiza, Dish Osteria and Mallorca before moving to Tampa for another opportunity. Laffont flew up to Pittsburgh over Labor Day weekend for an interview after receiving a call from the Rongiers, and accepted the position, but couldn't start until January.
"Cesar did a magnificent job, but we are very happy with where we're going with Larry," Lori Rongier says. "Larry has more experience in different kitchens, and is bringing more expertise. We are still serving traditional French dishes, but now have more variety."
Appreciative diners eager to sample real French cuisine has kept Paris 66 Bistro busy since opening.
The charming eatery, sandwiched in a narrow space on Centre Avenue, seats 66, including 25 on the enclosed and heated outdoor patio, which is open year-round. French music plays in the background as customers enjoy the crepes, quiches, soups, salads, hors d'oeuvres, pizzas, sandwiches and pastries that Laffont and his crew make fresh every day.
Laffont, a native of Bordeaux, France, learned how to cook from his mother and grandmother. He wasn't sure what he wanted to do for a career when he was in high school, he says, but knew he loved food. After graduating from a French culinary school and then a French pastry school, Laffont moved to America to begin his career. The Mt. Washington resident has lived in Pittsburgh 12 years.
"The crepes are our most popular dishes," says the always-smiling Laffont. "I think Paris 66 has the best crepes in Pittsburgh. We are doing more dinner entrees, and sometimes do Italian specials, or Spanish tapas."
The one piece of advice that has stayed with Laffont all these years came from a master chef, when Laffont was an apprentice.
"He told me not to say anything for 10 years, and don't complain," Laffont says. "After 10 years, then you can open your mouth. If you want to learn, you must watch -- it's easier to learn that way."
Laffont's idol is Gordon Ramsay, the loud and raunchy British chef of "Hell's Kitchen" fame. But Laffont is as calm and composed as Ramsay is aggressive and insulting.
"The chef I trained with in France was just like Gordon," he says with a laugh. "And out of all the apprentices who trained under him, I'm the only one who stayed in the business."
Fred and Lori Rongier named the eatery Paris 66 for a couple of reasons: They both were born in 1966. Fred Rongier liked Route 66. He's a big hockey fan, and Mario Lemieux's jersey is 66.
In addition to running the restaurant, Fred sells BMWs. Lori serves as the weekday manager, and handles payroll, online marketing and other duties. They have four children, ages 4, 7, 16 and 18, and live in Highland Park.
The pace has been relentless since opening, Lori Rongier says, but they're more organized now than two years ago.
"There is really no way to prepare for the opening of a restaurant -- it's crazy the first six months," she says.
Lori, an Altoona native, met Fred while they were students at Penn State. After marrying, they moved to Fred's native France for 10 years. Their two oldest, Justin and Mallory, were born in France, while Chloe and Gabriel were born in Pittsburgh.
"I had an idea it would be a lot of work, but I wasn't born into a restaurant family like Fred was," she says. "But you don't know what you can do until you're faced with it."
Customers of Paris 66 vary in age and background, she says. Members of the French-speaking community visit, as do a lot of locals who walk to the bistro. They have a following among Korean and Japanese students, who she says love anything French.
While Rongier admits the past two years have been nonstop busy, she has no regrets.
"We try to thank everyone personally who comes through our door," she says. "The greatest compliment is when somebody leaves and says, "I love your restaurant, it's great." It's all worth it."
Executive chef Larry Laffont is sharing his easy and hearty Chicken Vol-Au-Vent recipe, with ingredients that can be found in grocery stores. Laffont says you can even use leftover roasted chicken, or crabmeat, in this dish, and it will be just as tasty as with the fresh chicken breast.
"With French cuisine, people know what to expect," he says. "French is more technical than other cuisines, and you have to know how to use the ingredients."
This simple dish takes just 30 minutes to prepare. Laffont suggests serving a Macon Village Chardonnay or a Pouilly-Fuisse with it.
• Puff pastry (purchased frozen and thawed according to package directions)
• 2 tablespoons blended oil
• 1 boneless chicken breast, diced (or can substitute jumbo lump crabmeat)
• 2 shallots, diced
• 10 white mushroom buttons, or mushrooms of your choice, diced
• 1/2 cup white wine
• 1 cup heavy cream
• Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
• 1 tablespoon parsley for garnish
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Cut the puff pastry into 4 triangle shapes, place on a cookie sheet, and bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until golden brown.
Heat the blended oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Saute the chicken, shallots and mushrooms for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces.
Deglaze with the wine, and then add cream and reduce until fully cooked. Season with salt and pepper.
Slice the pastries in half lengthwise, and place 1/2 on each plate. Pour the chicken stew over the bottom pastries and top with the remaining pastries. Garnish with parsley and serve immediately.
• Makes 2 servings.Additional Information:
Paris 66 Bistro
Cuisine: Casual French
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays for brunch
Entree price range: $11-$27
Notes: Beer and French wine available for purchase. Reservations highly recommended for weekends. Accepts most credit cards. Outdoor heated patio.
Address: 6018 Centre Ave., East Liberty
Details : 412-404-8166 or www.paris66bistro.com