After almost three decades, Indochine is still the fashion and art world’s A-List clubhouse. The French-Vietnamese eatery’s main man, Jean-Marc Houmard, gives us insider secrets.
SCENE: When Indochine opened almost 30 years ago, did you realize that it would become such a downtown destination for fashion and art world regulars?
Jean-Marc Houmard: I worked there as a server in 1986, then as a maître d’, until my partners Huy Chi Le and Michael Callahan, who also worked there since the start, acquired it in 1992. Indochine was an immediate success as soon as its doors opened, and we’ve been very lucky that the chemistry between the food, the room and the vibe still make magic on most nights.
SCENE: How do you seat the room? Is it hard to crate the perfect mix?
Houmard: The four booths on the right have that very special patina that only 27 years of countless, illustrious derrières rubbing against them can create! The booths do act a bit like a stage, but offer privacy and intimacy at the same time, which is why everybody wants to sit in them.
SCENE: The staff wears their own clothes and has a great rapport with the customers. Is that part of what keeps the regulars coming back?
Houmard: I do believe that the staff has a lot to do with that: the room is comfortable, the light flattering, the food consistent, but the personality of the restaurant that makes it a special place for customers comes from the staff, no doubt. I feel lucky that a lot of the staff have been with us for many years, which created a special rapport with customers over the years. And then there are the new kids who, once in a while, take an available spot and keep the place fresh, which is equally as important.
SCENE: When you opened, French-Vietnamese cuisine was exotic. Did you know that the menu would become so trendy all over New York City decades later?
Houmard: French-Vietnamese cuisine was a staple in Paris but pretty much unheard of in New York in 1984 (roll spring rolls into lettuce? how novel!). It only makes sense that this kind of food has become so popular since Vietnamese food is light and fresh and fun to share, which makes every meal festive but informal.
SCENE: How has the new generation of 20- and 30-somethings (and younger) found Indochine and what do you think attracts them?
Houmard: What is amazing is that we have a whole new generation of customers who were not even born when the restaurant opened, who don’t know its history, but find it cool, which is what keeps Indochine relevant. It is not nostalgia that keeps people coming back; although I hear the words “classic” and “institution” a lot from our regulars, the new kids don’t care; they just like the food and the vibe. I feel very blessed that we were somehow able to remain youthful because of them.
SCENE: 28 years later, what is your favorite part of running New York’s most popular restaurant?
Houmard: Not everybody knows who I am, and it is always a great feeling to overhear strangers comment to each other on their way out about what a great time they had. It’s not an easy business, but those little moments are what make it worth it.
SCENE: Where do you see Indochine in the next 20 years?
Houmard: I think the key to longevity is to keep the place as it is, but slowly make small changes that people don’t even notice. I think New Yorkers appreciate being able to know what they are going to get at Indochine: know that the dishes they love will be available, know the people greeting them, and know they’ll probably have a good time.