Warhol, Basquiat, Halston, Jagger…let’s call the whole thing off. But really, that was a casual evening for the now co-owner of Indochine – Jean-Marc Houmard – who’s been there since the beginning. Now, Houmard’s at the helm of one of New York’s most timeless spots, Indochine, as well as some of its hottest new spots, Acme and Tijuana Picnic. (He also recently opened the very cool Tribal Hotel in Nicaragua.) We figured he was a legend worth talking to about all things concerning the eighties, restaurant aesthetics and of course, details on Catherine Deneuve eating with one hand and smoking with the other. Read on for further details…
What’s your best celebrity memory from running the front of house at Indochine when the likes of Warhol and Jagger were dropping by?
For a boy who freshly arrived in New York City from Switzerland in the mid-eighties, every night was pretty much a “Whoa, I can’t believe I’m actually in the same room as Warhol, Basquiat, and Jagger” kind of night (actually, I was even more in awe of Bianca at the time – although Mick’s sighting wasn’t too shabby either). I loved watching Catherine Deneuve eat with one hand and smoke with the other one at the same time (Yep, you could actually smoke and eat at the same time back then!), or watching Halston hold court in one of the booths, but probably one of the most striking sights was Grace Jones regally crossing the dining room with sunglasses on and that cape hood she used to wear on top of her head. I can’t think of a more eighties iconic image than that.
Something at all your restaurants that screams ‘Jean-Marc’….
All my projects are very different from each other, from the cuisine of the restaurants (Vietnamese at Indochine, New Nordic at Acme, and Mexican at the just opened Tijuana Picnic) to the way they look, but I guess there is a certain vibe that links them together. Each project is very personal and my criteria is: Would I want to go to that restaurant or stay at that hotel? For me, the lighting is crucial and I agonize over it until it feels right. The music is also important and each property has a very specific and curated type of music to create a vibe that goes well with the decor.
What’s your approach in opening a new space like Acme? What are your priorities?
When we opened Acme three years ago, our goal was to create a space that felt warm and welcoming, as well as completely different from the prior Cajun joint that had been there for twenty-five years. We wanted the rooms on the ground floor and the lower level to feel lived-in and not overly designed, in a way old New York used to feel. With Tijuana Picnic, we wanted do something completely different, with a lot more colors and warm wood paneling, reminiscent of a place that could have existed in Mexico in the seventies.
Best advice you have ever received and from who…
My father told me a long time ago: Nice guys don’t win. He was probably right, but I’d rather not win than be a different person.
How do you keep Indochine timeless while also keeping it relevant?
Timelessness comes from consistency over many, many years. I think guests find a certain comfort in knowing that not much has changed since the last time they came to Indochine, be it last week or fifteen years ago. The room is exactly the same, the food is cooked the same way by mostly the same cooks over the last couple of decades, some of the front staff has been with us for many years, and I’m still there on most nights. That said, what keeps Indochine fresh and relevant is a constant but subtle evolution of the menu to keep it current with what’s going on in the food world, and the new staff that keep joining the team and maintaining the young and vibrant vibe. Nowadays, it is the children of the regulars from three decades ago who are our most loyal customers, and they appreciate Indochine for what it is now and not for the nostalgia of their wild youth in the eighties.
Can restaurants be time capsules? How so?
A restaurant that is a time capsule risks feeling like a theme park in the way some of those old Hollywood hangouts feel in L.A. They are fun, but only because of what they used to represent. The food is not good, the servers are old and cranky, but there is a charm that persists that keeps them going. I don’t feel Indochine is a time capsule in that sense. As much as it has a lot of history in the New York downtown scene and has become a bit of an institution, it still feels young and current. Most people who know nothing about the restaurant are very surprised it has been open for thirty years.
Advice to restaurateurs just starting out…
Are you sure you really want to do this??!
As much as I love it, most of the time, it’s a tough business and one has to be ready to make this a lifestyle, with long and late hours. What takes place outside the opening hours is as important and time-consuming as what takes place during service hours. The biggest mistake is to think the job consists mostly of hosting and having cocktails with friends (that’s the fun part!), but restaurants are businesses with slim profit margins and every detail has to be analyzed carefully in order to survive.
What’s the first thing you notice upon walking into a restaurant that’s not your own?
The lighting is the first thing I notice. A pretty room can seem drab and depressing if it’s wrongly lit.
How involved are you with the aesthetic of your spaces?
I am always very personally involved in the creative process of my new projects and if I use a designer, we need to be in total sync with our aesthetics. We don’t have to agree on everything, but the designer has to be willing to brainstorm with me, as I am a firm believer that two brains and two pairs of eyes create better things than one person alone. Everybody needs an editor to go to, and new ideas always come up when two people bounce ideas back and forth until something clicks. I feel that we did this very well at Tijuana Picnic with designer Rob McKinley. I love his sense of aesthetics and he came up with many ideas I would never have thought of, but the end design has some ideas of mine as well that I think made the space more personal and well rounded. In that same vein, when I designed the Tribal Hotel, I didn’t use a designer. The entire structure and every piece of furniture was designed and selected by myself and my friend, Yvan Cussigh. The only reason it turned out to be a successful design was because we had each other to bounce ideas off of and, even more importantly, edit out the really bad ones!
In terms of restaurant ranks, is there a job you used to do that you miss the most? What is it?
I was at the door for many years at Indochine in the eighties and early nineties, before becoming an owner, and there was something very satisfying about being in direct contact with every person who dined there, night after night. I don’t do that anymore, but I did run the door at Acme and acted as maître d’ for the first six months. I felt it was important that I understood every aspect of the restaurant; it’s only by being in the midst of things that it is possible to notice all the details that need to be addressed and tweaked.
What advice would you give to your sixteen-year-old self?
Believe more in yourself. You know as much as the people who make a lot more noise.
Who would you want to collaborate with that you haven’t yet?
My good friend Athena Calderone and I share a lot of similar interests in design and food, and I would love to collaborate with her on a project that involves either or both of those. Who knows: Another Tribal Hotel in Central America? That would be a dream.
What’s a go to weeknight recipe for you?
I rarely eat at home, especially during the winter, as I spend most nights eating in my restaurants. It is important to do that all of the time in order to give feedback to the chefs. In the summer, I cook a lot more, as I spend weekends with friends at my house on Fire Island, and cooking great summer meals is for me an intrinsic part of relaxing and getting away from it all. During normal weeks, I try to have some healthy food in my fridge so that I don’t have to snack on potato chips when I go home for a break. I eat at least four or five meals throughout the day and the one I have at home around 6pm usually consists of a salad. I like to mix cooked vegetables with leaves like radicchio and endive, so I usually roast a bunch of vegetables in the oven on Sunday that will last a good part of the week and that I can use for my salad snacks. Occasionally, I add a sliced blood orange to the mix and some walnuts. I make a simple traditional mustard vinaigrette (which can also keep for a week in the fridge), sprinkle some roasted pumpkin seeds, and eat this healthy snack while watching reruns of The Simpsons before going back out for my round of the restaurants.
What are your favorite cities for food? What restaurants do you love in each?
I’ve had great meals in many places in the world – and definitely in New York – but it’s funny how some simple meals can stay with you your whole life. Some of my most memorable meals include a fried fish from the Mekong river all the way up in the north of Thailand. I’ve tried to get my chefs to replicate it, but it’s never quite as memorable as that one. Or a vegetarian tajine that was prepared over a fire on a pitch black night in the middle of the Sahara. I’ve had many tajines in my life but that one has stayed in my memory as one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. There is also a whole fish I had recently in Nicaragua during one of my many trips down there this past year for the construction of the Tribal Hotel. It was on a deserted beach, accessible through a mud road and that fish was just perfection. I really wanted to get the recipe and put that fish on the menu in one of my restaurants, so I asked for it and was told: Fresh fish, salt, and pepper. Go figure!
In the same vein as ‘what is the new black’ in fashion what’s the new potato right now?
Mexican is definitely getting a lot of traction these days. Is that the new potato? I’m not sure, but it is definitely symptomatic of people craving simple and fun food that explodes with flavor.
*Jean-Marc Houmard, photographed at Indochine in New York, NY by Danielle Kosann. Get the recipe for Indochine’s iconic Spicy Beef Salad here.