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.