René Bajeux, a chef who felt his French culinary heritage in his soul and shared it with New Orleans, died Monday in Jackson, Mississippi, following a heart attack. He was 61.
The news was confirmed by his longtime friend and protégé chef Chuck Subra.
Bajeux was part of New Orleans' changing restaurant scene for more than 20 years. He operated his own namesake bistro and in later years moved around frequently among various large restaurants. But those who worked with him say his lasting impact is the way he inspired others.
“He was a phenomenal mentor,” Subra said. “You always wanted to exceed his expectations, not just meet them. But he didn’t drive with an iron fist. He did it by being present, by caring about what you did and showing you what you really could do.”
Born in Lorraine, on the French border with Germany, Bajeux grew up on a farm. He often cited that upbringing for his reverence for his raw materials as a chef. He later went abroad to pursue a culinary career.
Bajeux arrived in New Orleans in 1997 with impressive credentials. He had led resort kitchens in Hawaii and Beverly Hills, California, and had earned the professional designation of "French Master Chef." Initially, he was the chef for the Grill Room at the Windsor Court Hotel, then a standard-bearer for contemporary fine dining.
However, through the years, Bajeux became best known for the more rustic, hearty and traditional cooking of his homeland and his family heritage.
In 2001, he opened his own restaurant, Rene Bistrot, as part of the Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel. He served dishes like poulet grand mere (roasted chicken), steak frites, rabbit with spaetzle, and escargots under caps of puff pastry.
Robert Bray, then the hotel's manager, hired Bajeux to develop the restaurant and said the chef’s personal connection to the food was the anchor.
“It really appealed to him that he’d be able to take the food he learned to cook from his grandmother and apply it to the restaurant here,” said Bray, now New Orleans area manager for Marriott International. “He was never one for titles. He’d say, ‘I’m just a cook.’ But he could take ingredients that weren't the most expensive, and he was so talented he could make them into spectacular dishes.”
The restaurant opened a week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which caused the tourism and business travel markets to flatten. However, Bray said Bajeux's reputation soon filled the new restaurant with local diners.
Some of them were other European expatriates, like Willy Coln, a New Orleans chef (now retired) from Germany.
“At the time, nobody else was doing that kind of cooking here, so it was refreshing to find it,” Cohn said. Part of the draw, though, was Bajeux himself. “He had just a great, dry sense of humor,” Cohn said. “And he had just a big heart.”
Bray said that personality was a major part of Bajeux's success.
“All the people at the restaurant worked for Marriott, but their allegiance was mostly to René, and it was for the way he trained and taught them and looked out for them,” Bray said. “He would demand that you were awesome at your job, but if anyone needed anything he was the first to offer a hand, always behind the scenes with no fanfare.”
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However, Rene Bistrot never fully reopened after Hurricane Katrina.
Bajeux was also co-chef for a time at La Cote Brasserie, in the Renaissance Arts Hotel in the Warehouse District. In 2012, he opened a new version of Rene Bistrot in the former La Cote Brasserie spot.
In between the first Rene Bistrot and the second, Bajeux had a stint running La Provence, the now-closed French dining destination in Lacombe, and worked at the Rib Room and restaurants in the Caribbean and Texas.
By 2015, he was back in New Orleans when he was tapped by the local restaurant group Dickie Brennan & Co. for a different kind of role. Along with a few other veteran chefs, he served as a chef in residence, instructing rising culinary talent in the company and directing its charcuterie program.
This summer, he became executive chef at the Reunion Golf and Country Club outside Jackson, Mississippi.
Subra, who worked with Bajeux at La Cote Brasserie, said the chef had a special gift for teaching others.
“Everyone who worked with him, we were sponges,” Subra said. “We didn’t care about going in early, working late. We wanted to learn all we could. You’d leave, and your head would hurt from taking so much in. But he taught us all, and he taught me how to lead.”
The affable chef was often involved in community events, especially those tied to New Orleans' French roots. He was named King of the Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc and its 12th Night parade in 2013.
“There are a lot of very talented chefs out there, particularly in this town, and René was one of those, in the upper echelon,” said Bray. “But there was something else about him. His compassion, his playfulness; it set him apart from everyone else.”
Bajeux is survived by his wife, Penny, and their children, Remy and Clara.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
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