Chefs in Conversation: Rob Feenie Interviews Michel Jacob

In the final weeks before Le Crocodile’s handover, chefs Rob Feenie and Michel Jacob look back

Sometimes you hear news and think, “Of course.” Like when chef Rob Feenie announced that he would be taking over Le Crocodile, the city’s longest-running (and perpetually critically acclaimed) French restaurant. It’s where Feenie started his illustrious career, before his own critically acclaimed restaurant, Lumiére; before winning Iron Chef; before redefining Cactus Club Cafe, under the watchful eye of the great Michel Jacob, so the reveal felt less like industry gossip and more like the natural order of things: the prodigal son, returning home.

After four decades behind the stove, Jacob is ready to hang up his chef’s whites for some much-deserved R&R; knowing he is leaving Le Croc in his good friend Feenie’s capable, downright-reverent hands will make the transition a little easier. In advance of the handover, we sat down at one of the restaurant’s round tables (topped with a crisp white tablecloth, naturally) for a conversation between two of the city’s most influential culinary minds. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

rob and michel in chef coats hugging and smiling outside of le crocodile
Photo: Jamie-Lee Fuoco

MICHEL JACOB:  We met in ’92. Le Crocodile opened in ’83, in a smaller room on Thurlow Street across from Kami Sushi. Rob was with us at the small property and then moved to the new property and was there for four years. There were lots of young chefs who did their apprenticeship here and went on to do very well, but when he came, he was already a chef. You could see that he was very driven. Every day he walked into the kitchen and cooked. Some guys take an hour to get going. I can’t teach that. At the time, he was very fit and in good shape.

Rob Feenie: I’m working on it again.

MJ:  We did some [bike] races together.

RF:  He beat me! Meeting him for the first time, I was scared. Especially because he’s from Alsace. I’d been to France a few times before, but the only region I hadn’t been to was Alsace. I was 25 or 26. He was kind of scary… still is, actually. 

MJ:  I don’t think I was scary. I don’t go to work and say, “What can I do to get this guy?‚ For me, there’s only one way to work: it’s the right way. If I ask you to make a bäarnaise or cut something julienne, wherever you’re from, Brazil or China, there’s only one way to do it. 

RF:  I relearned everything here. When I started here, I thought I knew everything, like any young chef. I think when I came here, I was like, “Wait a minute.

Jacob and Feenie flanking French legend Émile Jung
Jacob and Feenie flanking French legend Émile Jung of Au Crocodile.

MJ:  You show young chefs, you show them once or twice, but then if they’re making a mistake, you have to be strict. We have to learn to be focused every day. Not just on one day. 

RF:  Simplicity is much more difficult to achieve than complication. Anyone can read a book and make molecular gastronomy…  but that’s not real food. This is real food. It takes discipline to have it taste the same every time. That’s way harder than coming up with a totally different sauce every week.  MJ:  Rob was very driven. No smoking, no drugs. I knew: if this guy puts his head down, he’s gonna go. He doesn’t run that fast yet, but we’re gonna make him run faster. His parents weren’t sure at first about him being a chef, though. One afternoon, his dad came and sat at the table with Rob, and Rob said to me, “He wants to talk to you. He wants to try to convince me to stop cooking and be a firefighter.‚ But I said to his dad, “Give it one more year. I think he’s that close to being that good.‚

RF:  I call that my turning point. I remember the whole day. My dad said we were going to Le Crocodile for lunch; I didn’t know why, but it was because he wanted to talk to Michel. I think if Michel hadn’t advocated for me, I wouldn’t be here. He recognized that this is what I wanted to do, and that I had places to go.

MJ:  I knew when Rob left Le Crocodile that he was above average. And when he opened Lumiãre, he surpassed my expectations by 10 times. At the beginning, it was a Mini Me Crocodile, but after a year… whoa. He bought the right plates, everything. So I was really proud.

RF:  My parents aren’t alive today, and that’s the only thing I regret˛because this [takeover of Le Crocodile] would be a moment for them. When I started working for Michel, that’s when they knew this was my career. They would come here all the time. My mom was quite sick last year, and one of the last meals she had was here. Dover sole. She always had the Dover sole. When she still had her wits about her, she said, “Whatever you do, if you’re able to do something with Michel, don’t take it off the menu.‚

MJ:  We have people who come here once or twice a month, and they already know what they’re going to eat. Lots of young chefs change the menu every week. But if you look at three-star restaurants around the world, 50 percent of the menu has been there for the past 20 years. People come from around the world to taste that soup or that tart. You have to be consistent. If you’re not consistent, you’re not going to make it, and that’s number one. If you invite me to dinner and you make a leg of lamb and it’s tip-top, and then a year from now, if you do it again and it’s as good as I remember, I think, “This guy knows how to cook.‚

RF:  I come here all the time. I eat here with my family and friends a lot. It’s rare to have that. 

Santé! Chef Rob Feenie (left) and chef Michel Jacob on site at Le Crocodile.
Chef Rob Feenie (left) and chef Michel Jacob on site at Le Crocodile. Photo: Jamie-Lee Fuoco

MJ:  I know his children. I knew his mom and dad. For me, when I sit down next to Rob, I don’t see a chef, I see a friend. He even went to work at Au Crocodile in Strasbourg [the inspiration for this restaurant]. When we opened, I said, “I’m going to name it after the number-one restaurant from my hometown.‚ For Rob to go back there and experience the restaurant himself… that’s a brother.

RF: I don’t even call him Michel, I call him Chef. The way I cook at home in my spare time is the way he taught me. My kids have grown up at this restaurant, so they’re excited about the takeover. But they are also already criticizing me, like, “Don’t change anything!‚ Why would I change our favourite dishes? Maybe the plating or something minor I might change, but why would I change the sauce? The onion tarts? The foie gras bröläe? I know the whole menu by heart. 

MJ: I haven’t thought about what I’ll do when I’m done here. Every day I’m in front of a train and I have to run so it doesn’t catch me. Three hours after I said I was leaving, we had 3,000 reservations. Everybody wants to come one more time. People are coming in to hug me and say, “We’re going to miss you. Wow, you really did have an impact.‚

RF: It was surreal to stand where he cooks. Most of the time, I stood to the right of him. So it’s a bit daunting to actually stand there. I’m not here to replace Michel because I never will. But I want to take the foundation he taught me and the time I’ve spent in Alsace and with his family and mentors into this. What Michel is doing next month is what I’ll be doing next year, because it’s tradition.

MJ:  The only reason we’re open is because we do something right. It doesn’t matter if you have a shoe store or a garage or whatever. When you do something right, people will come. 

Jacob and Feenie at Le Crocodile back in ‘93
Jacob and Feenie at Le Crocodile back in ‘93

RF:  He’s behind the stove here every day. When the Michelin Guide came out two years ago, everyone was at the awards, but he was still here because he had a full restaurant. He was taking care of everybody.

MJ: We’ve had lots of movie stars, and people say, “Michel, why don’t you have pictures?‚ We had the birthday party of Quincy Jones, of Sean Penn. Richard Gere was here with Cindy Crawford, and she went in the kitchen. But I’m not nervous to cook for them. I’d rather put up a picture of the people who save money and come once a year. Those are my superstars, my heroes.

RF: Yeah. It’s good for business to have celebrities in your restaurant. It’s even more meaningful to have your neighbours, friends and family visit and eat.

MJ: It’s nice when you have a nice write-up in a magazine. But I don’t need that to tell me if I’m bad or good. Being a chef is instant gratification: you know right away. You make a plate and people say, “Wow, so good,‚ and you feel so good. In the kitchen, you send the soup, and if the soup has too much pepper, it comes back as fast as it went out. When you go to bed, you know if you did a good job.

Rob Feenie in Alsace at Au Crocodile, doing a stage with Chef Émile Jung in 1995.