A year ago, French expats Jean-Louis and Karen Dumonet were going to buy a property somewhere on the coast and open a bed and breakfast to enjoy their retirement in peace.
But this was before a friend intervened and spoke to them about a place for sale on Smith Street, a bustling commercial street in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, nicknamed “Little Paris” for its number of French restaurants frequented by the neighborhood’s French residents. “Jean-Louis sold me on the idea saying that we had more energy now, that we already had all the suppliers lined up to find the right products…” recalls Karen Dumonet. Their restaurant, simply named Dumonet, opened six months ago. “When I saw the space, I thought it could work. It’s a beautiful neighborhood,” says Jean-Louis.
The restauranteur couple, who have each left their mark on renowned hotels and restaurants, both in the dining room and in the kitchen, are not amateurs at this game. The duo, who have not left each others’ sides since they were at the Jean Drouant hotel school in Paris, opened Restaurant Jean-Louis Dumonet in Chateauroux (Indre) together in 1987. The adventure lasted just four years. “President Mitterrand decided to tax business meals. We lost 60% of our sales overnight. It broke the restaurant,” recalls Jean-Louis.
Encouraged by two friends who wanted to start a restaurant, the couple moved to New York. “We took the two kids, two suitcases, my box of knives and my kitchen jackets and we left,” the chef recalls.
In the US, Jean-Louis joined his two friends to open the Trois-Jean bistro on the Upper East Side. But Karen Dumonet, who also worked in the restaurant, had to leave her job following an accident. While she left to explore other horizons — non-profit and humanitarian — Jean-Louis worked his way up to the helm of various New York kitchens (Palladin at the Time Hotel in 2000, then the Carlyle, Saks Fifth Avenue, and the private Union Club in 2008).
Dumonet has finally given them the chance to have their own business, more than thirty years after their first joint project in the industry. With him in the kitchen and her in the dining room, they’re mirroring the teamwork of Jean-Louis’ parents: his father and mother managed several restaurants in Paris (Joséphine and La Rôtisserie) and an inn in the small commune of Lussac-les-Chateaux on the Vienne.
In the 58-seat space, which welcomes guests with a long wooden counter that belonged to the Sicilian restaurant that preceded it, French culinary classics reign supreme. The current dinner menu features cassoulet, tarte flambée, navarin d’agneau, and foie gras au torchon. “These are the things we made at my father’s house that I wanted to do again,” explains Jean-Louis. “The ingredients are few but they make good things.”
The restaurant is only open for dinner on weekdays and brunch on weekends to match the habits of this very residential area. “The building was built in 1948. Since then, an Italian restaurant and a Sicilian one have followed one after the other here. If both were able to survive, it’s because there was a habit, a desire to go there. There’s a place for us to do the same,” says Karen.
Six months after opening, do they regret giving up on the simplicity of opening a bed and breakfast? “It’ll be for the second retirement,” jokes Jean-Louis.