Alain Sailhac, a Celebrity Chef Who Never Sought the Title, Dies at 86

Alain Sailhac, a heralded French-born chef who received the top four-star rating from The New York Times at Le Cygne, a Manhattan temple of haute cuisine, in the 1970s, and later presided over the kitchen at Le Cirque, Manhattan’s high-wattage showcase for power brokers, celebrities and socialites, died at his home in Manhattan on Nov. 28. He was 86.

The death was confirmed by his wife, Arlene Sailhac.

As a child in southern France, Mr. Sailhac (pronounced say-yack) endured the Nazi occupation of his country, when food was scarce and his family of nine faced a daily struggle to find sustenance.

He went on to help define extravagantly priced culinary indulgence at some of the marquee New York restaurants of the 1970s and ’80s, including the “21” Club and the Plaza Hotel, in addition to Le Cygne and Le Cirque.

Mild-mannered and gentlemanly, though still a bon vivant who loved to travel and windsurf, Mr. Sailhac never sought recognition as a celebrity chef, colleagues said — indeed, he seemed to actively avoid it. Nevertheless, he took his place among the city’s luminary French chefs of his generation, alongside André Soltner and Jacques Pépin.

“Alain was a chef’s chef, a chef to his core,” said Terrance Brennan, the lauded chef and television personality who worked under Mr. Sailhac at Le Cirque. “He didn’t seek the limelight, or care too much about what was going on around him in the food world. He rode his bike to work six days a week, worked split shifts, and went home.”

His quiet pursuit of excellence made him a perfect fit at Le Cygne, run by Gerard Gallian and Michel Crouzillat in a two-story townhouse on East 54th Street, where the food, not the scene, took precedence.

“Its kitchen may not be the most ambitiously elaborate, nor its décor the most spacious and elegant in town,” wrote Mimi Sheraton in her 1977 review awarding the restaurant four stars, “but the food turned out at Le Cygne by the chef, Alain Sailhac, is currently the best haute cuisine French fare in the city.”

While passionate about French cuisine, he was not limited by it. “He was very much a classical French chef, but he very much understood other cuisines he loved,” Geoffrey Zakarian, the restaurateur, chef and television personality who worked under Mr. Sailhac at Le Cirque, said in a phone interview. “He was creatively using ingredients like soy and ginger in classic French dishes back in the ’80s.”

Which is not to say that his cooking was ever fussy or overthought. For him, less was often more. “Have you ever really tasted lettuce?” Mr. Sailhac said in a 1999 Associated Press interview. “Even lettuce can be so good if it is cooked very slightly in a drop of oil with salt.”

“Salt and pepper were his key seasoning ingredients,” Ms. Sailhac said in a telephone interview. “He believed dishes should be very simple, using the best ingredients and prepared with love. He used to say, ‘When you hear food cooking, you can hear it singing.’ It’s like it was talking to him.”

From 1978 to 1986, Mr. Sailhac and his team spun out a vast array of French and Italian concoctions at Le Cirque, Sirio Maccioni’s clubhouse for the powerful and fabulous in the Mayfair Hotel on Park Avenue. It enchanted presidents and royals, Hollywood stars, cover models and social doyennes, at “the beginning of the era of dining out as theater and intrigue, when restaurants were not just a place to have lunch,” the New York magazine restaurant critic Gael Greene once noted.

At times, royalty deferred to him. On one visit, King Juan Carlos I of Spain kept referring to Mr. Sailhac as “Chef Sailhac,” Ms. Sailhac said. “No, please call me Alain,” the chef said. “Well then, just call me Juan Carlos,” the king responded.

Richard Nixon was such a fan of Mr. Sailhac’s stuffed Dover sole, she added, that Mr. Sailhac christened it Sole Richard Nixon — at least when serving it to the former president, Ms. Sailhac said.

For all the cool elegance on display in the dining room, the kitchen was one of controlled frenzy. “I lovingly refer to Le Cirque as haute cuisine boot camp,” Mr. Brennan said.

Yet, Mr. Sailhac maintained order with the patient air of a professor. “First and foremost, he was a remarkable and gentle teacher,” Mr. Zakarian said. Le Cirque, he added, “was really a food university posing as a restaurant.”

Mr. Sailhac, left, with the star chefs André Soltner and Jacques Pépin, at the French Culinary Institute in New York City in 1999. The trio was hired as deans at the school in 1982.Credit…Jim Cooper/Associated Press

Alain Pierre Sailhac was born on Jan. 7, 1936, in Millau, France, one of six children of Jules and Julienne (Theron) Sailhac. His father ran a glove-making business, where his mother worked as well.

During the war, the German army requisitioned much of the food produced in the area for its troops, so Alain’s father would often sneak out on his bike at night to barter for food at local farms, Mr. Sailhac said in a 2014 podcast by the Heritage Radio Network, a food channel.

Food was so scarce that his mother bought a lot of offal, particularly lung, since it was often the only protein available. “She would make a stew,” he said. “It was not bad. She would make a little béchamel; there was no cream.”

Years later, even as he was turning out some of the more expensive dishes in New York City, he remained zealous about not wasting food, a lifelong lesson of his childhood privation.

At 14, Mr. Sailhac met a guest at a family wedding who was a chef. He regaled the teenager with stories of his work in New York and Singapore. Desiring a life beyond Millau, Mr. Sailhac became intrigued with the profession.

His father was not pleased. He expected his son to go into the family business, and insisted that only women cooked. Mr. Sailhac’s mother intervened, so his father took him to meet a friend who ran a local Michelin-starred restaurant. “You want to take my son?” Mr. Sailhac recalled his asking the restaurateur. “He’s stupid like you. He wants to be a chef.”

During his 20s, Mr. Sailhac worked as a chef on cruise ships, as well as in restaurants on Corfu, Rhodes and Guadeloupe. He moved to New York in 1965, where he made a name for himself at the restaurants Le Mistral and Le Manoir before eventually landing at Le Cygne.

In 1982, Dorothy Cann Hamilton, the founder of the French Culinary Institute in New York, hired Mr. Sailhac, and eventually Mr. Soltner and Mr. Pépin, as deans. The celebrated school, later known as the International Culinary Center, produced a string of star chefs, including David Chang, Wylie Dufresne and Bobby Flay, before closing during the pandemic in 2020.

Mr. Sailhac is survived by his wife, Arlene, and her son, Todd Feltman, from a previous marriage. His first wife, Hélène Delacroix, died in 1992.

Late in his life, Thomas Keller, the chef and proprietor of the critically acclaimed French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., invited Mr. Sailhac to a meal at his New York outpost, Per Se, and asked what he wished to be remembered for, Mr. Keller recalled in a Facebook post after Mr. Sailhac’s death.

“I want to be recognized as a good chef who was organized and had good taste,” Mr. Sailhac responded. “I’d also like people to remember that I didn’t throw anything away. Don’t throw everything in the garbage can. Use everything!”

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