New York’s elite entertainment, fashion, and art crowds have been dining at French-Vietnamese restaurant Indochine since its doors first opened in 1984. This iconic spot has remained a perennial success story, serving some of the finest Asian cuisine in Gotham, and it continues to be the place to see and be seen. While bold-named patrons have included Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, and Catherine Deneuve, the restaurant is also a draw for today’s hip, young crowd including Julia Reistoin-Roitfeld, Kaia Gerber, and Karlie Kloss. Indochine owners Huy Chi Le and Jean-Marc Houmard met when they both started out working at the restaurant. In 1986, Swiss-born Houmard had come to New York for a law firm internship. He worked at Indochine as a waiter during the evenings and he worked his way up. Le, a former law student in Saigon, began as a busboy and later became a manager and chef. In 1992, when the previous owner ran into financial issues, Indochine was up for sale. The two friends bought the restaurant with some business partners, and they have been at the helm ever since. Houmard and Le talked to us about the annual Lunar New Year party for their staff, Indochine’s expansion to Dubai, and an enviable business partnership that has spanned decades.
Jean-Marc, you and Huy have been business partners for over 30 years, what makes your relationship work? How do you divide the responsibilities?
JMH: I’m more in the front of the house, dealing with staff and customers. But we speak every day about the restaurant, from what happened the night before to what challenges we are dealing with in the weeks or months to come. Huy deals with the kitchen problems and comes up with ideas for new dishes. He also keeps a close watch on the financial aspect of the restaurant– something that is crucial to the life of any business. I look at the reservation book every single day and speak with the reservationists and managers about the night’s lineup, the table allocation, etc. I try to stop by most nights to greet the regular customers and VIP tables that have been coming for many years to the restaurant, which is important to ensure the continuity. Customers always like to be recognized and greeted by someone they’ve known for 10, 20 or 30 years.
How is Huy’s management style different from yours?
JHM: Huy is more direct and speaks his mind very clearly. I am somewhat more diplomatic. (I am Swiss after all!) I try to guide people through dialogue and more gentle coaxing. I think both approaches work at the end and we complement each other well in that regard.
Indochine opened in Dubai in 2019. Are you and Huy involved in this project?
JMH: Yes, we opened Indochine in Dubai with local partners who already were running a well-known New York restaurant transplant. I spent six weeks there with the two partners in late 2019, finishing the last touches on the space, adjusting the lighting, and styling the restaurant so that it somewhat matches the idea of the New York version. We had an amazing opening party that was sponsored by Gucci, with an amazing international fashion crowd. But unfortunately, the pandemic arrived just three months later. After a difficult year, things are luckily back on track now. We are very happy that it’s been voted one of the best restaurants in Dubai by several publications.
Indochine has an annual Lunar New Year party for your staff, please tell us about this.
JMH: It started with the kitchen staff cooking a special meal for themselves to celebrate the holiday, but then the front of the house started coming too and now we need a huge table to accommodate more than 50 staff every year. It’s become a tradition that we all look forward to.
Huy, your lovely wife, Michelle is a pastry chef at Indochine. How did you meet your wife? Are your two sons interested in following your path?
HL: We met through a mutual friend about 25 years ago. After the two boys became more independent, Michelle started spending more time at the restaurant taking on different duties in the pastry department as well as in the sourcing of special ingredients. She is now very active in the kitchen. The boys are still in college– time will tell if either one may eventually be interested in the restaurant business. I would never put any pressure on them to get into something they don’t want to do.
What are some of your favorite memories of the Lunar New Year? What are some of your family’s traditions?
HL: I like to celebrate the traditional way with my family and my staff. The last few years being so busy, I had to simplify the celebrations a little bit, but I still keep the main rituals alive. I like to pray at noon to the gods with burning incense to show my appreciation of everything I have received. I usually do that right outside the back of the restaurant. Then, we prepare for the big banquet we have with the current staff as well as old staff members that we invite every year. Later, we have another feast with my family at home, and at midnight I pray again to welcome the new gods into my household.