Bertrand Hug: A former busboy who brought sophistication and style to San Diego County’s restaurant industry
But the economy is a big challenge. ‘This is by far the deepest recession any of us have experienced and it’s going to change fine dining itself well into the future,’ says Hug
By Kris Grant
He owns two of the finest restaurants in San Diego County and is roundly saluted by his industry compatriots as having elevated the regional dining experience to one deserving of national attention.
His name is Bertrand Hug, but hardly anyone uses his last name, which kind of rhymes with fugue–uh, but to those who savor fine food, Bertrand is all that need be said.
Bertrand is celebrating his 25th year of ownership of Mille Fleurs in Rancho Santa Fe and his 10th year of the former Mr. A’s, the just-uptown-from-downtown 12th-floor establishment with the showstopper view of San Diego Bay, complete with nose-to-nose encounters with incoming flights to Lindbergh Field. It’s been Bertrand at Mr. A’s for a decade now. Gone is the heavy red, almost bordello look of the former establishment, replaced with a lighter, more contemporary sophistication.
Both restaurants have consistently scored tops in fine dining in readership polls of local newspapers and magazine; Food and Wine magazine named Mille Fleurs one of the top 25 restaurants in the nation. Bertrand has, of course, been named restaurateur of the year of the California Restaurant Association’s San Diego chapter.
It’s fortunate that Bertrand requires only six hours of sleep per night because when he’s in town, he’s working and playing hard from sun-up to midnight – and that’s seven days and night a week.
His day starts with an early morning gym workout and by 8, he’s at his office above Milles Fleurs, where he gets down to the work of running two restaurants.
That workload includes inventorying all the food, and especially wine. “My passion is wine and pairing it with food,” he says, estimating that his current inventory of some 600 wines is worth about a half million dollars.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Bertrand tastes wine — about 50 wines per morning — so that he can change and update the wine list twice a week. “When people order a bottle of wine at my restaurants they can be assured it is on the list.”
The morning is also an important time for communicating with his chefs — Martin Woesle, who has been the chef at Milles Fleurs for 25 years, and Stephane Voitzwinkler at Mr. A’s. “We need to know exactly where we’re at,” says Bertrand. “Martin changes the menus every day, and we’ll talk about the specials we had for the past two days and what sells and what doesn’t sell. We’ll say ‘this isn’t working, so let’s replace it.’
Bertrand says it’s possible and desirable to change the menu daily at Mille Fleurs, as his loyal and mostly local (North County) customers expect it. It’s a different set of circumstances at Mr. A’s, where the menus change seasonally and specials are offered. “We’re serving far more meals at Mr. A’s, like last night, we did about 160 at Mille Fleurs and 300 at Mr. A’s.”
Bertrand will also share ideas with Woesle each morning. “I’ll say, ‘here’s something that I saw in a magazine, or here’s something I saw in New Zealand.’ And Martin will tell me what he’s just snared at Chino’s.”
Aah, Chino’s. Bertrand says he doesn’t think his restaurants would have been nearly as successful without the presence of the little farm stand that is just a mile down the road from Mille Fleurs. Woesle starts each day at the farm stand, snaring luscious produce in peak form. Twenty-five years ago Woesle was a lone chef at the farm stand; now he’s joined by dozens of San Diego (and Los Angeles) chefs who frequent the farm. Bertrand says it’s the Rancho Santa Fe soil of the farm, “sandy, loamy, black rich earth,” that reminds him of his father’s farm in France. “We are so lucky,” he says. “That land inside the Rancho Santa Fe covenant is priceless. Plus, the Chino’s family really knows what they’re doing; they only harvest at ultimate ripeness.”
The Road to San Diego
Bertrand was raised in the southwest of France, living with his mother after his parents divorced. He has a degree in economics from the University of Toulouse and planned to be a banker, interning at a French bank and then journeying to Canada to pursue a master’s degree in economics at the University of Toronto. But three weeks into his classes he realized he couldn’t understand his professors. “My English skills weren’t as good as I thought they were,” he says.
And with money quickly dwindling, Bertrand took a job as a busboy in a French restaurant, Auberge Gavroche, one of Toronto’s finest. Then he moved onto Washington D.C., working again as a busboy at the tony La Nicoise in Georgetown and Annapolis, Md. where he was now a bonifide waiter at The Galleon.
And that’s where he met La Jollans Susan Figi and later Norman Eisenberg. “He kept telling me how good it was in La Jolla,” says Bertrand. “He had plenty of rich clients and said he could get them to open a restaurant if my two friends and I would come out and run it. I was the manager, another was the waiter, another, the chef.”
And so it came to pass that in 1973 Bertrand managed his first restaurant in La Jolla, Le Cote d’Azur on Prospect. Since then he has managed, co-owned or owned six restaurants in the county, including Mon Ami in Solana Beach, Bertrand’s in Leucadia (where he had a falling out with the owner and left; the restaurant closed within six months), Le Mediterranean and La Maison du Lac.
“But I always had my eyes on Mille Fleurs and made several offers to buy it,” Bertrand advises. He was successful in his bids in 1985.
Bertrand and Denise, his wife of 35 years, just spent three weeks in New Zealand and Australia and he came back with a book full of notes. “I love to steal ideas and adapt it for our region. That’s what being creative is all about. And it makes travel all the more fun.”
At noon, Bertrand goes downstairs to join “the Lunch Bunch” – an invitation-only group of gentlemen who have gathered at Mille Fleurs for weekday lunches for years and are not only loyal repeat customers but close friends of Bertrand. Last year he took the group to his hometown of Boussac, France.
At 1:30 p.m. you’ll usually be able to find Bertrand on the course at the Del Mar Country Club. “I’ve got to club my frustrations out,” he quips. Then it’s a shower and change into his suit for his drive Downtown “at the worst possible time,” he says, referring to the late afternoon commute to Mr. A’s, where he personally greets his dinner guests. His gregarious personality is captivating in its humor and warmth, not to mention his breadth of knowledge in food and wine. His son, Julien, 35, who started working as a dishwasher in his young teen years, is the host at Mille Fleurs.
Bertrand leaves Mr. A’s around 8:30 p.m. and closes out the evening at midnight, where he’s been shaking hands and sharing stories with late-night diners at Mille Fleurs.
Just after the clock strikes 12, he arrives home to Denise and his two dogs, dog tired himself. And seven days a week, he’s rising and shining six hours later.
But Bertrand is getting out of town more and more these days, and he quips that he has to keep Denise happy by taking her on trips. The couple will be going to Palm Desert in May for a golf tournament that Bertrand competes in annually and then they’ll be off to St. Bart’s, the French island in the Caribbean frequented by the rich and famous. St. Bart’s is also known as the “culinary capital of the Caribbean” with a number of sophisticated yet casual restaurants and cafes.
And, yes, Bertrand will be taking notes.
Trying economy dictates more casual offerings
Bertrand says he’s been through a number of economic downturns, but nothing compares to today’s situation. “I survived 1974 — the gas crisis. Do you remember those gas lines? That was tough on business. Luckily, I had a vibrant bar. Then there were the recessions of 1982, then ’89-’90 and ’92.”
That last recessionary year was a painful one for Bertrand. “I opened a second Mille Fleurs in Palm Desert that year. I had guaranteed the lease with a mortgage on my house. And then it was this big depression and the Canadians — the snowbirds — weren’t coming down. I was lucky to be able to sell it and get out with my wallet. I called it my Desert Storm.”
But even Operation Desert Storm doesn’t hold a candle to the current economic market. “This is far deeper reaching,” says Bertrand with awe. “I have a lot of colleagues in the business and we compare notes. This is by far the deepest recession any of us have experienced and it’s going to change fine dining itself well into the future.”
One of those colleagues is George Hauer, owner of George’s at the Cove. “I don’t think of Bertrand as a competitor; he’s a close friend,” says Hauer, who opened George’s just a year before Bertrand purchased Mille Fleurs. “There’s three million people living in this county so there’s plenty of room for fine dining experiences.”
Hauer tributes Bertrand for being the first for bringing a more sophisticated dining experience to San Diego
“Bert had an outside dining perspective, having worked in Washington D.C .and France,” Hauer says. “When he and Martin opened Mille Fleurs, they set the bar at a different level.”
Hauer said that Bertrand came to the restaurant scene in San Diego knowing more about the food and wine side of the business than he did. “His mom was a great cook and his father was a farmer,” Hauer says. “But I knew more about the business side of running a restaurant (Hauer worked for Continental Restaurant Systems from 1970 to 1984, a nationwide chain of 7,000 employees, before launching George’s at the Cove.) And so we have shared with each other, have learned from each other.”
Like how to stay afloat in trying times.
The $200 per person tab doesn’t exist anymore in San Diego, Bertrand says. “It used to be that amount at Mille Fleurs; we have a five-star chef and business people made it a point to drive up there.”
Those days are long gone, for a couple of reasons, says Bertrand. “Restaurants haven’t gotten better and traffic is now a problem. Even in 2000, it only took 30 minutes to drive up to Rancho Santa Fe; now during the day it’s no less than 45 minutes.”
After comparing notes in 2008 with Hauer and Kip Downing, owner of Pacifica Del Mar, Bertrand knew he had to make changes at Mille Fleurs to keep customers coming in. He introduced Mille Fleurs Bistro, with less expensive entrees such as coq au van. The bistro menu items are also available in the bar. A Tuesday tapas menus features “petits plats,” small plates, inexpensively priced, but still very sophisticated: beets and herring; burgundy escargots, lobster spring roll are among the offerings.
A prix fix menu — $40, has been wildly successful, says Bertrand. “It’s a hell of a deal, and always offers something elegant.”
And finally, he offers a special burger, such as a lamb burger, that changes each day in the bar.
Bertrand says the prices customers pay for wine have mirrored the recession. The average price went from slightly over $100 per bottle in 2005 to $60 or $70 a bottle. “And now buying by the glass has become important.”
Low-priced options have likewise been introduced at Mr. A’s. Its patio and bar menu includes such offerings as “our famous truffled fries” for $7; fresh swordfish steak sliders, $9.50, and Maine lobster strudel at $16. Several of the offerings are even less at Happy Hour, where beers are $3 and $4; wines by the glass, $6 and well drinks, $5.
Quality in all its nuances
Bertrand says Mr. A’s is very demanding on him. His search for quality is also his downfall, he admits. “I’m always looking over my shoulder,” he says. “I must stay on top of all things, like the décor.”
He’s just completed a redesign of Mr. A’s. “I changed the décor, changed all the colors and we did it without the customers even noticing as we were refreshing the design. Before, it was light yellows; now it is all earth tones with beautiful Brazilian woods, new carpeting, chairs and brand new special lighting.”
Bertrand redoes everything in his restaurants about every seven or eight years. “I remember a restaurant in Pacific Beach that was wonderful, but they never changed anything. And suddenly it became boring and the people were gone. Mr. A’s was on its last legs when I bought it. Remember Star of the Sea Room? Remington’s? They didn’t upgrade, weren’t paying attention and now they’re gone.” He winks. “It’s important that people see that I care and that I’m not pocketing all their money.”
The money has come in over the years, despite the current economy. “Oh my God,” he says. “If anyone had told me that one day I’d make more than $100,000 a year, I would have said, “No way!’”
But there’s still a bit of the farmer in Bertrand, who, given his druthers, would eschew the four-star restaurants in his travels, preferring a local bistro. “I’m a country boy at heart,” he says, with a penchant for “peasant food.” “I love stews, chicken, a plain beautiful roast. And a beautiful salad. I have a salad with every meal — as long as it’s Chino’s lettuce and a good vinaigrette.”
He’s most proud of the fact that he’s been able to provide for himself and his family. That “family” has grown to include a staff of loyal and long-term employees, like Penny Patton, his director of operations, who’s been “instrumental in my success. I’m completely disorganized,” Bertrand confesses. “I can throw 20 pieces of paper at Penny and say, ‘We need to do all of this,’ and I know it’s been done. I have three waiters who have been with me for 28 years, busboys for 10 years. At Mr. A’s, 75 percent of the waiters have been with us since we took over the restaurant.”
He’s not sure what his next culinary move will be. “I’ve always tried to help my key employees who want to grow up but I don’t know yet,” he says. “The time is right to do something else; but unless something really strikes my fancy, I’ll stay put.”
Bertrand says that his true inspiration is to make people happy, to share his thirst for life and to share his joys with them. “That’s what keeps me going,” says the most genial and jovial of hosts.