Salute to the mother ship of fine dining in SC
Le Petit Chateau in Columbia changed palates and perspectives
Le Petit Chateau, the restaurant credited with introducing French cuisine to Columbia, South Carolina, was as physically small -- and as metaphysically majestic – as its name promised. It didn’t take more than half a dozen couples celebrating milestone birthdays, a few legislators entertaining their extramarital companions, and a gaggle of businessmen toasting a deal to fill the shotgun dining room, which sat only 48 people.
Which is to say everyone noticed when a naked man bounded from the front door to the kitchen around 6:30 p.m. on a Friday.
This was in 1974, when streaking was something of a national pastime, so guests weren’t shocked to see an unclothed University of South Carolina fraternity brother. Still, “the guy was a well-hung specimen,” recalls Tommy Moore, one of the employees who chipped in for his $35 appearance fee and the Mother’s Day card he carried.
The card was made out to John Windham, owner of Le Petit Chateau, always called LPC by devoted crew members who considered Windham “the matriarch” of their close-knit work family.
Windham was standing at the stove when the streaker stiff-armed the kitchen door, handed over the card and left. “It was the only time we’d seen John speechless,” Moore says. “He slid down the wall, fanning himself with his card.”
LPC guests that night got a glimpse of Windham’s identity as a gay man, which would become a more pronounced part of his public persona after 1983, when he sold his pioneering restaurant to manage his partner Alfred Burnside’s medical practice. For years, the Burnside Clinic was the only local treatment option for HIV and AIDS patients.
At LPC, former guests and employees stress, people didn’t much care about who was gay, who was straight and who wasn’t either. In a city where segregated country clubs with strict dress codes ruled the dining scene, LPC was a sanctuary of tolerance from which nobody was ever turned away, including a woman who wandered over from a nearby motel in a nightgown and fuzzy slippers.
As researchers conducted oral history interviews and collected materials for the LGBTQ Columbia History Initiative, launched this fall by Historic Columbia, the largely forgotten restaurant’s name kept coming up. For research director Kat Allen, Le Petit Chateau represents a chance to “trace back a cultural moment in Columbia and say, ‘This was owned by a gay man.’”
In short, it’s almost impossible to craft a complete history of a city’s restaurants without paying attention to its gay history. And in the case of LPC, Columbia wasn’t the only beneficiary of Windham’s worldview, rooted in compassion and a deep reverence for beauty: The restaurant helped build the runway for Charleston, 120 miles to the southeast, to develop into a culinary superpower.
“It was one of the greatest restaurants in the history of South Carolina,” says Philip Bardin, who in the late-1980s earned national acclaim as chef of The Old Post Office on South Carolina’s Edisto Island; Bardin never worked at LPC, but estimates he ate there 60 times. “I stayed up an hour last night, trying to find a copy of the original wine list: It was loaded with these wonderful Graves, wines you can’t get anymore, for like eight bucks a bottle. The food was spectacular. And everybody got along.”
We’ll return to LPC’s wine, food, and service, all of which were in line with what one would imagine when conjuring a restaurant rated among the state’s best. But when LPC adherents run out of words to describe the magic that saturated the restaurant, they’re usually caught up in the camaraderie that Bardin describes.
Lynn Talmadge joined LPC as a sous chef during her senior year at the University of South Carolina, where she was studying art. In 1975, she took over head chef duties from Windham, who also invited her to live rent-free in a farmhouse on 127 acres that he’d shared with Burnside before the couple relocated closer to town.
“We always had a big Sunday dinner,” Talmadge says. “We moved a dining room table into the field, and everybody would make a dish and bring a bottle of wine: We just had that philosophy of being kind to one another.”
Chef Frank Lee, who could always score a meal in the LPC kitchen, points out that the “joyful energy” which animated the restaurant was coursing through Columbia when LPC opened in 1970. It was palpable at local head shops and the vegetarian restaurant where he worked. It was the driving force for free weekly rock concerts at Valley Park.
Basically, LPC sprang from “a really sweet alternative scene,” in Lee’s words. What made LPC special was the melding of exacting kitchen techniques with a laid-back community which received the restaurant as a worthwhile happening.
To Windham, it always was a kind of art project.
Born in Farmville, North Carolina in 1942, Windham moved to Columbia in the 1960s to earn a degree in painting. But around the same time, he undertook a self-education in what was then known as gourmet cooking: He later told a reporter that his method was to read 30 recipes for a dish and then develop his own way of making it.
Presenting those dishes to the public so intrigued Windham that he enrolled in a restaurant management program at Northeastern University. Yet when he put together LPC, rather than calling on his graduate coursework, he asked a friend who designed sets for community theater to decorate.
Together, they hung Windham’s paintings on the wall, affixed black sound-muffling egg cartons to the ceiling and installed lights that would never cast a harsh glow.
“People looked good in there and they felt good in there,” says Moore, who took a server job at LPC during the restaurant’s first summer.
(According to Moore, “When I started, everyone up front was straight and everyone in the kitchen was gay: I wasn’t used to the whole gay phenomenon--it wasn’t on TV--but what a delightful way to get used to it!”)
Moore remembers an older “rural couple” tentatively coming into the restaurant, perhaps at their children’s urging. “I don’t know if they expected a snooty French waiter, but they immediately felt 100 percent welcome. And just because of John’s perfect lighting, the wife was gorgeous, and the husband was handsome. You could tell it was an exalted moment.”
“Le Petite Chateau really didn’t count as a restaurant,” Bardin says. “It was like a fantasy, really.”
Bardin was so entranced by the fundamentally romantic guest experience at LPC, from the generous table spacing to the reflexive wine decanting, that he proposed to his late wife there. But his first exposure to the restaurant was in the company of his mother, Ann Brodie, the legendary founder of Columbia City Ballet and longtime friend of Windham’s.
“He would close the restaurant after a final performance of Swan Lake or whatever, and he would pay for the wine, and all the dancers would be in there,” Bardin says. “It was fabulous. Oh my God: It was like going to Chasen’s after the Oscars.”
Windham’s fine arts patronage extended to giving a cultural education to the college jocks, dreamy hippies, and stoners on his payroll. He played classical music exclusively at LPC and called off service on the night that soprano Leontyne Price was scheduled to sing at Columbia Township Auditorium.
“John made everybody go to the performance,” Talmadge says. “You didn’t have a choice: It was just completely wonderful.”
The following night, there was an unexpected loud knock on the restaurant’s door. It was Price, who wanted to meet the fellow Southerner who had bought third-row tickets for his entire staff.
“They became fast friends,” Moore says. Windham started staying with Price when he went to New York, and when she came back to Columbia, he swapped out all the furniture in the hotel room reserved for her. Moore explains, “He redecorated because he wanted her to be comfortable.”
To honor his pal’s achievements, Windham invented Poires Leontyne: It became trendy in Columbia to order the dessert as a celebratory first course, and perhaps wind back around to a mousse or souffle.
“It was the essence of French food,” food writer Marion Sullivan says. “We loved that restaurant. Anybody that loved food went to that restaurant.”
Even though Windham was keen to change the menu as frequently as ingredient availability would allow it, guests pushed back when he tried to move aside their favorite dishes. There was no dispatching the chilled cucumber soup or steak moutarde, flambed with Cognac. The filet Monticello, stuffed with pate and anointed with truffles, was a fixture.
“He had real escargot which they fed on romaine lettuce,” Bardin says. “He had a salmon dish, salmon Hubert, that was poached in a dome and stuffed with caviar. The filet moutarde was what I would usually get: But the duck was just brilliant.”
Slowly, Windham shaped Columbians’ palates. One year into the restaurant’s run, Windham predicted it would take three more years for locals to get comfortable with LPC’s style. “Having the mistaken reputation of being high priced has been a handicap for Windham’s business venture,” The Columbia Record’s entertainment writer noted sadly.
By 1977, the city was ready for Hudson’s, opened by Malcolm Hudson, an LPC regular who bought wine from Windham. That restaurant was so impressive by national standards that it earned mention alongside Crook’s Corner in a full-color, two-page spread in Food & Wine Magazine.
Hudson hired Lee--who would go on to lead Slightly North of Broad, an enormously influential Charleston restaurant--on the grounds that he start eating the animal products shunned by the natural foods co-op where he sprouted alfalfa and made tofu. “We were pretty severe in our metric as to what was vegetarian,” Lee says. “We only used eggs when we made noodles for lasagna and wouldn’t use cheese that had rennet it.”
At LPC, those rigid rules never applied: Lee ate whatever appeared on his ersatz table in the kitchen, created by draping a napkin over a stool. He had his first softshell crab at LPC. He got acquainted with duck a l’orange and trout almondine: “They were always trying to ply me with more meaty items.”
In 1981, Hudson, Lee and Moore took an epic trip to France, intent on eating at eight Michelin 3-star restaurants and tracking down the wines they’d learned to love under the tutelage of Windham, who let his employees buy bottles at cost.
“Before I worked there, I was trying to get drunk on Boone’s Farm,” says Moore, who developed a special affection for Mouton Rothschild. When Moore opened a sandwich shop in Charleston, he sourced enough off-year bottles to keep the wine on tap.
That Charleston in the 1980s was already the sort of place where a restaurant would post a sign in its window touting Mouton Rothschild on tap is a direct consequence of Windham’s work. “There’s this spider web that comes out of LPC,” Lee says of its statewide legacy.
Windham died of prostate cancer in 2009. During his last several months, when he was too weak to get out of bed, he spent much of his time painting vibrant abstractions on small canvases for former LPC crew members.
They treasure those paintings, even if their real inheritance is the lessons that Windham subtly taught about treating people with dignity and respect.
They remember Windham rushing to bail out an employee, who after every Friday shift would transform himself into Diana Ross before going clubbing, when he was picked up for cruising. They remember Windham engaging lonely-looking diners in meaningful conversations and feeding every hungry person who wandered into LPC. And they remember trying to reciprocate his care whenever they could.
For at least part of LPC’s existence, its next-door neighbor was a foosball parlor, patronized by bored and surly teenagers.
“They thought, ‘There’s a bunch of gays next door; let’s get into recreational violence’,” Moore says. “They’re banging on the door, and we’re all dressed up to work: We start working our way out front, and the last person out the door was a Marine built like a brick wall. He came out and started unbuttoning his shirt and the thing just dissipated.”
He continues. “Those punks would have loved to punch John Windham. But it was a united front. We adored John.”
Talmadge, now a wine distributor, isn’t just referring to her professional trajectory when she says Windham changed her life. When she was hired at LPC, she was planning on a career as a high school art teacher.
“Obviously, I was involved with art, but his empathy took it a step higher,” she says. “He was almost my first love: If he wasn’t gay, I would have been walking him down the aisle.”
Correction: A review of Seabird published on Nov. 30 misattributed the restaurant’s pastry program; Jim Diecchio is wholly responsible for it. The Food Section regrets the error.
A tour de force. What an amazing piece.
Beautiful story line and would be so amazing to do oral history on Malcolm's French Culinary Exploration since he ended up staging, then working with Pierre Troisgros... and don't miss Frank's narrative about Malcolm's sipping and simultaneously deglazing with La Tasche and other priceless Burgundies.. Danny Haas and Frank have the dirt! Some of the best food in the history of SC came over Frank's exploratory 360 production line out at Wild Dunes while Malcolm was hanging out there with Frank back in the day.