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Chef Dominique: Down-to-earth but with a big vision

La Voute Chef Dominique Tougne with his wife and
children at the grand opening of La Banque Hotel
and La Voute Bar + Bistro in June 2015.
(Photo by Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)

So how does an esteemed French chef, who has cooked in some of the finest restaurants in France and Chicago, find himself in the little town of Homewood? Some might say he’s crazy, while others would argue he’s found the best kept secret in the South Suburbs.

Chef Dominique Tougne believes  the latter.  

Born in Alsace, Tougne began his culinary career at age 14 doing the most menial of tasks, scrubbing kitchen grout with a toothbrush. After a month he upgraded from a toothbrush to a paring knife and was promoted to the task of removing the little green stems from the tops of strawberries — all day long. 

“When you are young, you’re talking about learning. I loved it,” he explained. That eagerness to learn stayed with him through culinary school in the Loire Valley, and while working his way up in some of the best restaurants in Paris. 

   Chef Dominique Tougne at work in the kitchen at La
(Photo by Rachel Lewis/H-F Chronicle)

In December of 1995 his ambitions took him outside of France for the first time. He arrived to a bitter cold New York City with no plans, no money and very little English in his vocabulary.  Later that year an “out-of-the-blue” phone call brought him to Chicago to meet with the Levy Restaurant Group. He would spend the next 15 years creating memorable dishes at Bistro 110 in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood until the restaurant closed in 2011. 

That spurred Tougne to take another leap and open his own restaurant, Chez Moi, in Lincoln Park in 2012. Since joining La Voute last year, he has been zipping back and forth between  the two establishments.  

The vision he has for the future of La Voute is tightly intertwined with Homewood itself.  It began when Tougne first met La Voute owner Claude Gendreau. 

“I met Claude and we had a good feeling about one another right away,” he said.  Whether through the commonality of their French roots, or the mutual respect of one determined dreamer for another, a vision was born to bring a Chicago-quality restaurant experience to Homewood.  

“Claude is a big promoter of this village … I see the investment he made here and he does it for the community, the people, for the right reasons,” he said. 

Though the extensive remodel of the empty bank took longer than expected, Tougne recounts his awe when the space was completed. 

“I said to Claude, ‘Look what you did. You took a place that was empty and you brought life back to it,” he said. “First and foremost, it’s a Homewood location, made for the Homewood people.”

  Chef Dominique Tougne  brings a supply of bread to
La Voute during the early weeks of the restaurant’s
(Photo by Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)

And though La Voute has had a phenomenal response from locals, his vision for the establishment is growing.  Many local residents already appreciate the pedestrian access to local shops, bars and restaurants and the convenience of the train. Tougne’s desire is to get all of Chicago clued into this south suburban gem.

“My dream is to become like a Lake Geneva of the south. Have people coming here on the weekends from the city. I think it’s completely possible. The potential is here.”

With the completed 40-seat patio set to open this spring, and the relocation of the Homewood Farmers Market to the newly developed Martin Square just outside their door, Tougne is ready for the hustle and the bustle. 

“Last year with the construction delay we couldn’t really use it the way we wanted. We are going to be available for people that just want to have tea, coffee or pastries,” he said. “And we will offer full service for lunch and dinner. We’ve added speakers for some atmosphere, and I cannot wait for the patio to be full speed.”

The “American with a French twist” cuisine continues to evolve, including preparing everything in-house and sourcing locally as much as possible.

“As beautiful as the space is, we wanted to keep it affordable with quality product and competitive prices,” he said. The menu will soon see a seasonal shift toward a lighter fare in preparation for the spring and summer seasons, such as grilled fish, salads and sandwiches, while continuing efforts to use as much local product as possible.

“Now it’s been six months, there is going to be time now for us to rethink our menu, revisit what we do and introduce new dishes,” he said, describing some compelling new flavor additions to the popular weekend Bloody Mary bar, including beet, carrot and green salsa.

“It looks like it will be a good year for us,” Tougne said, adding that by “us” he truly means the whole community. 

“For me, the thing I’m most proud of for the last 20 years, I have been able to create jobs for people to sustain their families,” he said.  “Everything else, no big deal.  At the end of the day, I’m a cook.”

This story originally was published in the February 2016 edition of the Chronicle.

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