By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Hugo Fregnan, the chef who owned and operated local French restaurant Le Refuge with his wife Anne-Claire Chaufour-Fregnan, died from glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer, on Nov. 10. He was 45.
Fregnan is a long-time member of the local restaurant scene, having worked as a waiter, manager and chef of several eateries in Northern Virginia before joining Le Refuge, a restaurant started by his wife’s family and located at 127 N. Washington St.
Although he worked as a chef, Fregnan was also known for his ebullient, outgoing personality and ability as a people person.
“He was a really good chef and a really good cook, but if you look at his history, I don’t know that his cooking skills are what you’ll see first,” Stephane Grabina, Fregnan’s childhood friend, said. “That’s not saying anything bad. It’s just that he excelled in dealing with people.”
Fregnan was a social butterfly, as quick with a joke as he was with a pan and spatula.
“He was always the center of the circle. Wherever he went, that’s where the party went. He had that magnetic personality,” Grabina said.
Between his personality and ability as a cook and hospitality worker, Fregnan is well known in the local restaurant scene. Before coming to Le Refuge, Fregnan worked at Don Pablo’s Cantina in Arlington and Mango Mike’s Caribbean Restaurant in Alexandria, where he worked as a bartender in the early 2000s alongside Bill Blackburn, owner of Homegrown Restaurant Group.
“He got along with everyone. Everybody liked him, which isn’t always the case in the restaurant business,” Blackburn said.
Even then, Fregnan had an easy way with customers that made them feel like they belonged, Blackburn said. He was there no matter what a customer needed, the kind of bartender that, in the words of Billy Joel, was “quick with a joke or to light up your smoke.”
“Back in the early 2000s, everybody smoked and if somebody took a cigarette out of a box and put it in their mouth, no matter how busy the bar was, Hugh was there with a lighter within a second,” Blackburn said.
Fregnan, who went by Hugh, was born on Aug. 5, 1975 in Washington D.C. to Hugo and Richelle Fregnan.
His parents owned and operated Georgetown French restaurant La Maison des Crêpe, and Fregnan grew up above the restaurant, surrounded by French culture, cuisine and the small but tight knit French community in Washington D.C. and Georgetown.
In 1982, when he was 7 years old, Fregnan’s parents sold La Maison des Crêpe and moved to McLean, Virginia, where Fregnan went to elementary and middle school before attending Massanutten Academy in Woodstock, Virginia.
Before Fregnan started to become interested in the restaurant and hospitality industry, he was a natural entertainer and host. Fregnan was known to host well-attended pool parties at his parents’ house in McLean and continued the tradition with Chaufour-Fregnan and his daughter, Savanna, at their home in Springfield, Virginia.
The only thing Fregnan loved more than putting on a show, cooking and making people laugh was his family, according to those who knew him.
Fregnan and Chau- four-Fregnan’s relationship goes back to that tight knit French community in Georgetown. Chaufour-Fregnan’s parents and Fregnan’s parents were close friends and the two grew up together long before they reconnected and sparked a relationship years later.
When the couple got married on July 4, 2010, Fregnan became a new member of not only a family but a local institution. They began managing Le Refuge, which Chaufour-Fregnan’s parents opened in 1983, soon after, as Chaufour-Fregnan’s father, Jean-François Chaufour, gradually stepped back from the restaurant due to health issues.
“He was just this great, bubbly new member of the family who was so well-loved,” said Mary Wadland, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Zebra who has been a friend of the Chaufour family for 32 years. “Anne-Claire’s eyes just lit up when she was with him, and I thought, ‘Wow, that is just going to be one of the marriages of all time and last forever.’”
Fregnan worked as chef and co-owner of Le Refuge for the past 10 years and also helped establish a social media and online presence for a community institution defined by tradition. Although it took time, Le Refuge is now ranked number four out of 552 restaurants in Alexandria on Trip Advisor, and the restaurant was named a “Travelers’ Choice” on the site for 2020.
To his friends and family, it often seemed like Fregnan’s purpose in life was to bring a smile to the world around him, Grabina said. He did so with his mischievous, sometimes raunchy sense of humor and singing voice. He put the latter to good use during high school talent shows where he and his friends performed covers of Guns N’ Roses songs. His performances earned him the nickname Axl, in reference to Guns N’ Roses lead singer Axl Rose.
Fregnan will be best remembered as a loyal friend, family man and talented chef and restaurateur who made friends out of strangers and family out of friends.
“He was never without a smile or a quick joke, never stressed and always upbeat. He made friends fast,” Blackburn said. “He touched the lives of many in the Alexandria restaurant community and his untimely passing is a tragic loss to all.”
Hugo Richard Fregnan is survived by his mother, Richelle Fregnan, wife, Anne-Claire Chaufour-Fregnan, and daughter, Savanna Fregnan.