Even at 12 years old, Jean-Claude Tindillier had a discerning palate.
One weekend, he ran away from his boarding school outside Paris, trekking 10 miles back to his parents' house on foot, because, as he told it, "the food was disgusting."
Tindillier grew up to become an eminent chef who traveled the world to cook for elite clientele — including the queen of England and three U.S. presidents — and spent the last two decades of his career in the Twin Cities, where he raised the standard of gourmet dining.
Tindillier died Nov. 7 in Sens, France, at age 87. While being treated for prostate cancer, he became ill with COVID-19, his family said.
"He was a giant," said Jeremy Iggers, the former Star Tribune restaurant critic who covered Tindillier's career in the Twin Cities. "He and the people he brought in really revolutionized the restaurant scene."
Born Aug. 27, 1933, Tindillier was raised in the hills above the Burgundy village of Etigny, where he lived with his grandparents under German occupation during World War II. From there, he watched American Gen. George Patton pass through on his way to liberate Paris.
Tindillier began his culinary training at 14, taking part in the French tradition of apprenticeships that would influence the generosity with which he mentored younger chefs later in his career. After getting his start at a restaurant in the Loire Valley, he cooked at restaurants and hotels in Caracas, Venezuela, and Beverly Hills and Coronado, Calif.
The arrival of the Americans in France had left its mark on Tindillier — both with a lifelong love of Hershey's chocolate the American troops brought with them and later the inspiration to join the U.S. Army, where he served as the private chef for the four-star general and senior NATO officer Cortlandt Schuyler (presidential meal No. 1: Eisenhower).
After two years in the service, Tindillier returned to cook in Los Angeles, including for an A-list private dinner (presidential meal No. 2: Kennedy). He later opened his own restaurant, and opportunities took him to St. Tropez, Paris and Guadeloupe before he came to Minneapolis in 1974 to launch two fine-dining restaurants at the new Hotel Sofitel — Chez Colette and Le Cafe (presidential meal No. 3: Ford). French chefs flocked to the Twin Cities to work under him and subsequently went on to establish their own restaurants here, such as Chez Daniel and Chez Paul.
In 1976, Tindillier was hired to open Chouette, a game-changing French restaurant in Wayzata that was among the first in the area to offer a strictly a la carte menu, as opposed to a buffet. While at Chouette, he was awarded entry into a prestigious association of French chefs, Maîtres Cuisiniers de France. The restaurant won national acclaim and initiated a metro-wide appetite for haute French cuisine.
"He seemed like someone who really helped bring a new flavor to town," said Gavin Kaysen, whose French bistro Bellecour opened at Chouette's address in 2017.
In the 1980s, Tindillier changed course, opening a gourmet takeout and catering company, Le Petit Chef. He hired a recent Macalester College graduate at the start of her culinary career. Their working relationship eventually turned romantic, and the couple married in 1996.
"He was very organized but extremely creative," said Toni Tindillier, his wife. His motto was, 'You can always build up but you can't take away,' and I think that was also the way he taught people."
Tindillier closed Le Petit Chef in 1995 and retired to his family's Burgundy village. He reflected often on the adventures his career had afforded him.
"He would always say to me, 'I lived through a period that young people don't understand,' " Toni Tindillier said. "He saw so many different stages of history."
Survivors include sons Jeffrey, of Carlton, Texas, and Christopher, of Livermore, Calif., and a grandson.