Paul Laubignat, a celebrated French chef who brought fine cuisine and a flair for the dramatic to restaurants and workplaces across Minnesota, died Aug. 16 at a nursing home in Winsted, Minn. He was 66.
The cause was complications related to Alzheimer’s disease.
Many people called Laubignat “the Professor” because he loved to share creative cooking techniques and recipes with friends and customers. At his restaurants, Laubignat was the main attraction, charming diners with his sardonic humor and thick French accent, often venturing out of the kitchen to banter with guests and share his insights on food. For years he was a fixture at Nancy’s Landing restaurant in Waconia, where he transformed Sunday brunch into a one-man show for his theatrical style of cooking.
“People came not just for the great food, but because Paul was so much fun,” said Robert Pesch, who apprenticed under Laubignat and is now corporate executive chef at Darden Restaurants Inc. in Florida. “His personality made him a celebrity long before it was cool to be a chef.”
Laubignat was the sixth of nine boys born into a shopkeeper’s family on a small island, Ile de Noirmoutier, off the western coast of France. He left home at 12 to apprentice at L’Hotel Sofitel in Quiberon, France, where he lived in a small dormitory with other hotel workers.
As a child, Laubignat dreamed of living in the United States, and he got that opportunity in his early 20s when a chef’s position opened up at the new Hotel Sofitel in Bloomington. At the time, Laubignat knew almost no English and would serenade his co-workers by singing French songs in the kitchen.
His favorite dish was bouillabaisse, though he was also known for his sweet tooth. When he dined out and waiters came by his table with a dessert tray, it was common for Laubignat to ask for “one of each,” recalled his wife, Laura Anderson, of Watertown, Minn.
“Waiters would be shocked,” Anderson said, laughing. “[But] he just wanted to taste every one of them.”
Laubignat achieved local fame in the late 1980s, when he became part owner and head chef of Chez Paul, on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis. At the time, French cuisine was experiencing a resurgence, and Laubignat rode the trend by serving traditional “country French” food, such as a slow-cooked cassoulet. The restaurant hosted block parties on Bastille Day, and soon Laubignat was sought out to appear on TV shows and cater public events.
“With Paul, it was never just about the food,” Anderson said. “The food was just a conduit for bringing people together.”
In 1995, Laubignat’s family bought a large lakefront property in Waconia and converted it into a restaurant, Nancy’s Landing. The restaurant became famous for its Sunday brunch, which featured a different ethnic theme each week, French or Scandinavian or Moroccan. Laubignat would hold court at the center of the dining room cooking omelets and waffles to order while carrying on a lively banter with customers waiting in line.
“Paul was the quintessential entertainer,” Pesch said. “Chefs nowadays are not as interested in getting to know their customers personally.”
The demands of running a restaurant eventually wore on Laubignat, and his family sold Nancy’s Landing in 2007. He went to work for Taher Inc., a food service management company in Minnetonka, helping to create new menus for area businesses and schools.
He retired in 2012 to spend more time with his family and his expansive vegetable gardens at his 35-acre farm in Watertown. Laubignat always took care to plant several rows of flowers so he would have freshly cut bouquets to spread around the house and hand out to friends.
Services have been held.