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James Beard Award-winning Michelin Star Chef Claude Le Tohic.
James Beard Award-winning Michelin Star Chef Claude Le Tohic.

A master chef of France is making his foray into one of America’s fastest-paced foodie destinations.

BY STEPH KEAY

As San Franciscans, we are fortunate—spoiled, even—to live, work, and play in a globally-recognized culinary arena. Home to nearly 880,000 people, stretching just under 47 square miles, The City is a veritable food mecca.

In a word, San Franciscans are hungry: for culture, innovation, advancement, and, to fuel all this boundless ambition, food that is nothing short of exceptional. With more than 5,300 places to dine, San Francisco has more restaurants per capita than any other major city in the U.S. One could eat an entire day’s allotment of meals within a single city block. Our insatiable city boasts seemingly endless options. Whether you’re an entrepreneur or a restauranteur, it takes drive to survive.

So, who better than James Beard Award-winning Michelin Star Chef Claude Le Tohic — the only active U.S. chef honored with the Meilleur Ouvrier de France award —to head up ONE65, the city’s most ambitious restaurant project in recent memory?

Artichoke burrata salad with haricots verts, fennel, and Marin greens, served at ONE65 Bistro & Grill.
Artichoke burrata salad with haricots verts, fennel, and Marin greens, served at ONE65 Bistro & Grill.

“It’s like Formula One,” says Le Tohic, of the highly revered, peer-juried designation for which contests are held only every four years. Also known as MOF, the Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France features a grueling cuisine-gastronomie division evaluated by a panel of more than 30 chef-judges with unnervingly precise standards. Since its debut in the 1920s, only 200 candidates have walked away successful. Le Tohic has had his eye on the prize since realizing at a young age that he wanted to be a chef. “I wanted to try it one time … and I guess I didn’t need to go a second time,” he chuckles with relief. “But I never would have imagined that I would be here, right now, in San Francisco.”

Le Tohic moved to the Bay Area three years ago to begin developing ONE65, a multi-level culinary concept housing four distinct modern French culinary dining experiences under one roof. Seated across from me today, Le Tohic is outfitted in a heather gray t-shirt with “DETROIT” printed across the back. It’s a rare moment he isn’t in his chef ’s whites—but if he were, it would sport the famous blue-white-red collar bestowed on chefs who achieve MOF status. Though it may be less well-known than the Michelin rating system here in the U.S., it testifies to his unending passion for perpetuating the tradition of French cuisine.

Caviar served with carabineros shrimp tartare and strawberry gazpacho
Caviar served with carabineros shrimp tartare and strawberry gazpacho—one of three caviar compositions on O’ by Claude Le Tohic’s tasting menu.

Passion, in fact, is something that comes up often as we tour the grand 1908 French Beaux Arts building located at 165 O’Farrell Street. This six-story destination in the heart of San Francisco’s Union Square district is Le Tohic’s vision of “celebrating modern French cuisine without pretense, offering a full range of menus for every taste, every hour, every occasion.” It is home to ONE65 Patisserie & Boutique on the first floor, ONE65 Bistro & Grill on the second and third, Elements at ONE65 on the fourth, and O’ by Claude Le Tohic on the fifth and sixth floors.

“You have to put a lot of passion in what you do. I use a lot of this word—passion—because it’s true. People say, ‘You don’t take any days off.’ I say, ‘No, I’m here every day because I care about what I’m doing.’” This indomitable drive is apparent in every aspect of ONE65. Despite the varied concepts, each floor features the same level of hospitality, quality, and attention to detail. “All different, but the same spirit,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.

Chef Le Tohic at work.
Chef Le Tohic at work.

Le Tohic was born in Brittany, France, where he grew up working in his family’s crêperie. He attended culinary school in Vannes, accepting an apprenticeship at the Michelinstarred Les Hortensias upon graduation. He later joined the kitchen of Chef Ghislaine Arabian at Le Restaurant, a two-Michelin star eatery in Lille, followed by the honor of being named chef de cuisine at Jamin, working alongside Chef Joël Robuchon at the Michelin 3-star restaurant in Paris. In 2005, Le Tohic was personally selected by Chef Robuchon to open Joël Robuchon and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

A dish of steamed scampi, ossetra caviar, shellfish gelée, and coral mayonnaise from the a la carte menu at O’ by Claude Le Tohic.
A dish of steamed scampi, ossetra caviar, shellfish gelée, and coral mayonnaise from the a la carte menu at O’ by Claude Le Tohic.

Le Tohic incorporates bits and pieces of this incredible journey into ONE65, which he calls “the project of my life.” Cider, a staple in Brittany, is imported from Normandy, and Bordier butter is flown in weekly from his hometown. However, Le Tohic also likes to tie in modernity with tradition. For one, he is thrilled by San Francisco’s abundance of fresh ingredients. Le Tohic spent a decade in the arid desert, where “you have to do with what you receive.” Despite the logistical challenges, his work earned Joël Robuchon at the MGM Grand the only 3-star Michelin rating in Las Vegas. ”[In San Francisco], you can go to the market. You have so many farmers. Just this morning, I got an email that spiny lobster is coming in, so boom—I want to get spiny lobster on the menu!”

They say that life is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re going to get. But if you’re at ONE65, every chocolate is made in-house using all-natural ingredients, a bite-sized work of art akin to a gleaming cabochon. They are made in a temperature-controlled room on ONE65’s second floor where, today, a chocolatier is carefully hand-dipping sumptuous pumpkin-shaped chocolates the size of grapefruits into a rich, orange-hued cocoa butter. These will be used for an upcoming seasonal cocktail to be served two floors above at Elements at ONE65.

Chocolate lollipops line the counter of ONE65 Patisserie & Boutique alongside other delights, all made in-house.
Chocolate lollipops line the counter of ONE65 Patisserie & Boutique alongside other delights, all made in-house.

Most recently, he has been spending time at ONE65 Bistro & Grill with his team’s newest addition: Pascal Kamin, a charcutier hailing from Besançon, France, a city northeast of Lyon known for its outstanding comté. “I’m very interested in the way we work with charcuterie from France, so I spend a lot of time with him. So [my work] is never finished.”

Le Tohic is surprisingly approachable for a chef of his stature. He leads with ease, greeting his team by name, tasting as he moves throughout the open-concept kitchen of ONE65 Bistro & Grill. On one side is a row of bar seats, where guests are encouraged to converse with the chefs while they dine—selecting from a menu that includes Pascal’s housemade charcuterie, half-smoked salmon, and melt-inyour-mouth sous vide porchetta finished in the kitchen’s Josper ovens from Spain. Known for its ability to reach temperatures as high as 300°C (572°F), the dual oven-grill allows foods to retain an incredible amount of moisture while also imparting a brilliant smoky flavor. It’s charcoal fired. In fact, you’ll find no gas at all in the bistro’s kitchen, which was designed around induction cooking for greater safety and precision. “You do not see cooks’ burns … they all look good!” Le Tohic quips, gesturing to his forearms in reference to the battle wounds sported by most chefs working in open-flame kitchens.

The half-smoked salmon, served with wasabi beurre blanc, bell peppers, and roe from ONE65 Bistro & Grill.
The half-smoked salmon, served with wasabi beurre blanc, bell peppers, and roe from ONE65 Bistro & Grill.

“You have to create good ambiance when people walk in. We don’t yell in the kitchen, everything is Zen.” Le Tohic takes a similarly minimalist approach to food. “I don’t want to get more than three flavors on a dish. Simple flavor, but well done, is the most difficult thing to do. The more simple, the more you have to be precise.”

Trevin Hutchins, Bar Director of Elements at ONE65, glides into the kitchen, sharply dressed in a waistcoat with papillons (butterflies) printed on the back. It’s fitting, as the talented mixologist from Portland, Maine, flits back and forth between floors throughout the evening. We are introduced under the bright lights of the bistro no more than 30 seconds before Chef Le Tohic and I make our way up one floor, entering Elements only to be greeted immediately by Hutchins, again—this time behind a dimly-lit, black and gold quartz bar, Parisian shaker at the ready.

A seasonal vegetable tartlet.
The tasting menu at O’ by Claude Le Tohic opens with a beautifully-plated amuse-bouche. Seen here: A seasonal vegetable tartlet.

The interconnectedness of ONE65 lends a unique whimsy, with dumbwaiters and back stairwells allowing for seamless transit behind the scenes of this behemoth of a building. Cocktails go down, plates come up, bar directors exist in two places at once—well, almost. This Wonderland-esque encounter is an appropriate introduction to Elements, where drinks from one’s wildest dreams are a reality. Accompanied by esoteric names like “All Bark & No Bite” and “Fortune Favors the Bold,” these bohemian cocktails by Hutchins are designed around the four ancient elements: air, water, earth, and fire. The air-inspired “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board” features two and a half inches of elevated foam flush with the sides of the glassware, topped with a sleek pandan leaf. As for the other libations? Think gunpowder, tree branches, and hollowed-out books. Elements’ cocktail menu is a trove of delights to be discovered, along with its extensive selection of fine wines and whiskies.

ONE65 Bistro & Grill’s soju-cured salmon served with beet and a curry cauliflower remoulade.
ONE65 Bistro & Grill’s soju-cured salmon served with beet and a curry cauliflower remoulade.

On the fifth and sixth level of ONE65 is O’ by Claude Tohic. Taken from its address on O’Farrell, O’ is also partially inspired by “eau”—French for “water.” Perfect for a city of discerning tastes, O’ offers a complete vegetarian tasting menu in addition to its regular tasting menu, plus à la carte options. The level of attentiveness when it comes to customer satisfaction at ONE65 is extraordinary. For repeat guests at O’, Le Tohic creates custom tasting menus so they can try different dishes. The day prior, he is asked by a bistro guest for the truffle pasta from dinner service at O’, unavailable on the brunch menu. He made the truffle pasta for her. “We have to make people happy. So, whenever they ask, we never say no. We say yes. We make it happen.”

A row of chocolate raspberry fingers, one of many tempting desserts from ONE65 Patisserie & Boutique.
A row of chocolate raspberry fingers, one of many tempting desserts from ONE65 Patisserie & Boutique.

The sixth floor of ONE65 offers a variety of private dining spaces, including an 8-seat chef ’s table with a window peering into O’s state-of-the-art kitchen. A bottle of Dom Pérignon gifted to Le Tohic by Thomas Keller is displayed on the wall. Opposite are framed accolades and photos, including an image of the opening team. “I told everyone, ‘The opening is the most difficult part, so let’s put a picture in this kitchen. We’ll stay here forever.’ I think it’s important.” It’s touches like these that give ONE65 its character. This could have easily been another purely profit-driven, large-scale development, but with Le Tohic at the helm, the project comes straight from the heart.

Fruit tartine with mascarpone, ricotta, and seasonal jam from ONE65 Bistro & Grill.
Fruit tartine with mascarpone, ricotta, and seasonal jam from ONE65 Bistro & Grill.

He is pensive a moment. “Let me show you something that I like very much,” he says, putting on his black rimmed glasses. After a few seconds, he slides his phone over. It’s an Instagram post of a quote: A chef must think like a scientist. Organize like an accountant. Inspire like a warrior. Move like a dancer. Paint like an artist. And cook like a grandma. When ONE65 opened, he told chefs: “When you cook, you cook like [you do] for your girlfriend. Your mom. Your love.” His lilting accent drives home the sentiment. “The plate and everything you put on the plate will be different. So, think about that. Because you’re not just cooking for guests, for people—you’re cooking for someone that you like.”

Matcha cake, rhum baba with passionfruit and vanilla whipped cream, and opera cake are featured in the pastry counter of ONE65 Patisserie & Boutique.
Matcha cake, rhum baba with passionfruit and vanilla whipped cream, and opera cake are featured in the pastry counter of ONE65 Patisserie & Boutique.

When asked about the best part of his job, what he looks forward to most, one might think it would be tasting (“On Friday, they made me try seven different desserts!”) or perhaps the possibility of a Michelin star rating (“I would be happy to get it, for me and for the team. It’s a hard effort everyone put into this project.”) But in fact, it is this: “When I see guests leaving the restaurant with a big smile. At the end of the day, we are here for that—to make the guests happy.”

Chef Le Tohic creating a masterpiece
Chef Le Tohic creating a masterpiece.
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