By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Jean-François Chaufour, founder of Le Refuge, a beloved local French restaurant, died on May 1 from ongoing health complications. He was 67.
Chaufour opened Le Refuge at 127 N. Washington St. with his wife, Francoise, in 1983, seven years after immigrating to the United States. The restaurant – and his family – were his main passions in life.
“That was what he always wanted to do, was open his own restaurant,” Anne-Claire Chaufour-Fregnan, Chaufour’s daughter, said.
Chaufour was born on June 7, 1952 to Gisele and Roger Chaufour. He grew up in Tavers, France, the oldest of four siblings, then left home at 18 years old to work in the hotel industry. After working in England and Germany, he ended up at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in at Antibes, France, one of the most prestigious hotels in the South of France at the time.
“He was basically the chief of room service, so when he was down there, he actually was responsible when the Beatles came into town, when Sean Connery, when he was the 007 guy. It was different things like that. John Lennon actually sang him ‘Happy Birthday’ on the piano,” Anne-Claire said.
In 1976, Chaufour and his wife decided to move to America.
“Him and my mom left France with $1,000, two suitcases and one phone number in Georgetown,” Anne-Claire said.
The couple quickly put down roots in the restaurant industry, Chaufour working at Le Gaulois in Washington D.C. When they decided to open their own restaurant, Chaufour had a vision to create “a cozy restaurant where people could come and relax,” Anne-Claire said – essentially, a refuge.
“He never wanted a big restaurant,” Anne-Claire said. “He wanted to create a fine dining restaurant with a casual atmosphere, and his number one go-to was a menu that never changed. That menu has been the same for 37 years.”
The restaurant was Chaufour’s pride and joy. With Anne-Claire born just two months after its opening, the establishment has been family-oriented from the start.
“He put his heart and soul into that restaurant,” Shellie Fregnan, Chaufour’s longtime friend and AnneClaire’s mother-in-law, said. “The number of years that they have been there, and now they’re lucky enough to have Anne-Claire who’s taking it over. It was a family affair, no question.”
The interior of Le Refuge captures Chaufour’s passion for French culture, decorated with Beaujolais nouveau posters, bottles of wine, cheese boxes and other knick knacks he collected over the years.
“My dad was so French,” Anne-Claire said. “He smoked cigarettes, he drank wine, very laid back. And all of his employees could tell you he never yelled. He was super quiet and was always a gentleman. … He was very shy, and then, when he got to know you, he was actually quite the jokester.”
Anne-Claire joked that her mother was the loud one.
“During Bastille Day she’d come in and sing the Marseillaise and my dad would go, ‘Oh my God, there goes your mother again,’ My mom was really the personality that was expressed at the Refuge, but he was always there. He was always in the background cheering her on,” she said.
Chaufour often spent time working at the restaurant in the kitchen and front of house.
“The way they treated their customers, I think, was the key to it,” Shellie said of Le Refuge’s lasting success in Alexandria. “They went out of their way to make sure that they knew exactly what their customers liked. … It was just a very, very comfortable setting to walk into.”
Chaufour was also passionate about his employees.
“I think one thing that he was really proud of was that a lot of the people that worked for my dad back in the day opened really successful restaurants,” Anne-Claire said. “He really enjoyed other people being successful. That just makes him happy. It was never, ‘Oh they’re my competition.’ Oh my gosh, he was so proud of them.”
Chaufour was preceded in death by his parents, Roger and Gisele Chaufour, and his wife, Francoise Chaufour, who died of cancer on July 17, 2011.
He is survived by his three sisters, Marie-Christine Camus, Catherine Chaufour and Anne-Emmanuelle Chaufour; his daughter Anne-Claire Chaufour-Fregnan; his son-inlaw, Hugh Fregnan; his granddaughter Savanna Fregnan, four other grandchildren and several nieces and nephews.
Due to the coronavirus, memorial services will be held at a later time, but there will be a celebration of life at the Waterford in Springfield, Virginia and then Chaufour will be laid to rest in Tavers, France.