Bertrand Hug's Mille Fleurs food still in demand after 25 years
By Lee Schoenbart
Before there was Bertrand Hug's Mille Fleurs, there was another — but in name only. And Hug was a regular.
Hug remembers what he said more than 25 years ago as if it were yesterday.
"It was called Mille Fleurs, but there weren't any flowers anywhere. I said, if and when I come in, I would put flowers on the table, flowers at the entrance, flowers everywhere," said Hug about the coveted restaurant lease and wine cellar he finally purchased from Lee Dodson in 1984. "I used to come here all the time as a customer, and I always saw the potential of the place."
Since bringing Rancho Santa Fe's signature restaurant to prominence all those years ago, Hug said his fondest Mille Fleurs memory took place on Jan. 3, 1985.
"I would have to tell you, and it still is, the day that I opened this because it was a dream that I had to be on my own, to have my own restaurant and this is the place I wanted to be," he said. "It was like a dream come true, such an accomplishment.
"I may have had 100 bucks left in the bank, but I had the restaurant that I was dreaming about. I just looked at it. Everything glimmered. Everything looked so good, and it was," Hug recalled.
"That was one of the joys of my life. The only moment like this that remains is when my son was born."
Hug said that the secret to Mille Fleurs' success is that he has the best people working for him and he always pays attention to detail.
"Not only have I been open for 25 years, but I've had the same chef for 25 years, Martin Woesle," he said.
"Everything that Martin uses here is of the absolute best quality. We have a very small refrigerator. We have no freezer. We don't have a microwave. We get everything every day and we buy from the very best. We only use Chino's Farm for our vegetables. We use Newport Meat because we know they have the best prime meat. It costs more money, but you get what you pay for.
"And there's a person that is instrumental in my restaurant — her name is Penny Payton. She's been here 25 years; she's my director of operations, my GM," he said.
"Every nine years or so, I redo the restaurant, no matter what," Hug said. "I spend a lot of money just so I can keep that freshness about it."
His son Julien Hug, Mille Fleurs' host since 2005, previously told this newspaper, "While our food is nationally acclaimed, also I think our staff is so down-to-earth. I've got some really talented staff that is very knowledgeable about food and wine, but also not afraid to entertain the guests. We make a lot of personal friendships here.
"A lot of our business, like 50 to 60 percent, is regular customers and people we're on a first-name basis with and they love coming out. Our servers end up making friends. We end up sitting down with the guests quite a bit ourselves – familiar, and yet, at the same time elegant.
"Pretty much the staff and I feel free to joke around and be fairly familiar with them," said Julien, "but it's what a lot of people come back for. We've got a lot of good relationships here."
To keep that freshness and the relationships strong, along with building Mille Fleur's clientele, father, son and chef introduced a Bistro menu in late 2008 and are now tweaking it with a continental twist.
"Now it's summertime," Bertrand said. "The Bistro comfort food, which is stews and meats and basically braised stuff, is not going to fly for the summer, so I decided — and I know people will laugh, maybe — but we're going to go Italian. With the Bistro menu, we're going to have an Italian menu.
"I know my chef is not Italian, I'm not Italian, but Mediterranean food is universal," Hug declared. "The idea is, my chef being the best, can cook anything. He's proven it. He cooks Italian at home all the time."
Hug said, "Not only will this allow me to keep things inexpensive, but it will give the people something new. We have five Italian appetizers and six main courses, besides our regular menu. Everything is in the low $20 and the appetizers are in the low teens."
About the bistro menu, and introducing the American burger to Mille Fleur's clientele, he recalled, "The economy blindsided us like everybody else. I also had to make myself more affordable to the people because it's a new fine-dining scene out there. Things changed so much that I created the bistro menu.
"Yes, I put a burger on the menu. It wasn't easy for me to relinquish the exclusivity of the place," Hug said, recalling his apprehension, "but when Martin makes a burger, we're not fooling around. This is absolutely a prime burger. He makes the best buns and a sauce with them and they are fresh. I don't know how to explain it; everything Martin makes is 'the best.'"
Hug said he could not predict the future for the Mille Fleurs family, except to say, "My son is in charge here and I just renewed my lease, so I'm definitely sticking around. I just exercised my next five-year option and I get another one to exercise after that."
The restaurant is at 6009 Paseo Delicias near La Granada.
Luncheon is served from 11:30 a.m. to 1:45 p.m., Tuesday through Friday. Dinner is served nightly from 6 p.m. and from 5:30 p.m. on Saturday.
For reservations and information call (858) 765-3085 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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