Nicolas Le Bec on the Secret to French Food Success in Shanghai

By Sophie Steiner, September 2, 2021

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Nicolas Le Bec moved to Shanghai from Lyon, France in 2012, leaving behind his two Michelin star restaurant Le Bec, one Michelin star restaurant Les Loges, wine company and multiple other concepts to return to his wife’s roots in China.

With 40 years of experience in the food and beverage industry across France, Japan, the USA, Mexico, Italy and Brazil, among others, he decided to open a totally new restaurant in the form of Bistro 321 Villa Le Bec on Xinhua Lu in 2014, as both the owner and chef.

Image courtesy of Nicolas Le Bec

1578805166.jpgImage courtesy of Nicolas Le Bec

Image courtesy of Nicolas Le Bec

Image courtesy of Nicolas Le Bec

Image courtesy of Nicolas Le Bec

Since then, he has opened two more venues along the same road, Le Bec 62 Epicerie & Caviste and Le Bec 178 Grand Comptoir, building a French foodie fiefdom along Xinhua Lu. We sat down with the critically acclaimed chef and restaurateur to understand how he’s maintained his success over the years and what makes Villa Le Bec the Shanghai institution that it is. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

How has Villa Le Bec’s menu, concept and vibe evolved over the years?
It hasn’t evolved much. We tend to stick with what works. The basic philosophy of the menu since day one has been to serve dishes made for sharing, which is the way most Chinese diners prefer to eat. This is why we also have chopsticks on the table, alongside a knife and fork. 

The second main philosophy is to always find the best ingredients in the market; from produce to proteins, we will only serve the highest quality items. The consistent level of quality, in our food, our wine, our atmosphere and our experience is what keeps so many of our repeat customers coming back. 

Image courtesy of Nicolas Le Bec

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced with building out the Villa Le Bec menu?
Aligned with our menu philosophy of always finding the best ingredients, we have learned that we must adapt to the market. That means in taste preferences and in ingredient availability.

This demands a lot of time for someone to always be looking for the ‘cream of the crop,’ and constantly thinking how to adapt the menu to our customers’ wants. This is true though for anywhere in the world. 

Along the same lines, to remain successful, all aspects of the restaurant must stay in harmony. Everything from the wine to the food to every glass, fork and napkin must be of the same standard, and the price must match the value.

To achieve this, I need to put myself in the place of the customer and understand what I would want to pay for a specific glass of wine – for example – given the whole experience. We want to ensure that customers walk into our restaurants and immediately feel that harmony and balance. 

DSC08697.jpgImage by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

When Villa Le Bec opened, it was one of the first French restaurants of its kind, but now there are many. How do you continue to stay relevant? 
It actually was a lot more difficult at the beginning than now. Back then, there was more choice as it used to be a lot easier to open a restaurant in Shanghai. Especially after COVID, the government is stricter and requires a lot more licenses – licenses for beef, licenses for oysters, license for sausages, etc. – and this can be prohibitive for smaller venues to open and succeed. 

At the time, the main competitors were bigger groups, like Jean George and Mr & Mrs Bund, but today, it’s all about the smaller wine bars and bistros. But, we are so established already, known and loved in the community; it’s easier to continue to be successful rather than trying to start something new.

Going forward, I think it will continue to be harder for new restaurants to survive. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

What are some of your favorite dishes on Villa Le Bec’s menu? 
When I created the menu, I wanted to focus on flavors that would appeal to the Chinese palate. We usually have over 300 customers daily, and we need to constantly adapt to appeal to this wide range of customers.

For this reason, we change the menu almost daily, rotating specials and offering new seasonal menus. For me, it’s less about a specific dish and more about the freshness of the ingredients used, coupled with good wine, good service and good company. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image courtesy of Nicolas Le Bec

What dishes do you miss most from home?
To be honest, I miss the wine the most.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

When you aren’t eating at Villa Le Bec, where do you satisfy your French food craving? 
I don’t eat at many French restaurants, or many Western restaurants for that matter. I eat out more at Chinese or other Asian cuisine restaurants. 

If I had to pick, I really like Polux. Really, anything by Paul Pairet, a good friend of mine. But, if I had visitors in town, I’d just take them out along Xinhua Lu to my three different venues. Maybe I’m biased, but I like my restaurants the best. 

We live in a generation where many restaurants are backed by an owner/investor and the chef is an employee. In this case, the passion isn’t always there. On the contrary, the smaller operations where the owner is the chef and the team is like family, this is where the higher standard can be maintained, and this is what I prefer. 

Image courtesy of Nicolas Le Bec

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

DSC08699.jpgImage by Sophie Steiner/That's

Any new projects in the works? 
None for the moment, but maybe down the line. *wink*

See a listing for Bistro 321 Villa Le Bec.

[Cover image courtesy of Nicolas Le Bec]

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