It began as the saddest of celebrations, but it ended up as a happy farewell. Squirrelly, Jr., my mother, J Squirrel, and I went to La Tourelle for Bastille Day. We knew this might be our last chance to be hosted by the owners, Glenn and Martha Hays.
During dinner, however, we had a chance to talk to Martha about the past, the future, and the realities of the restaurant business. We were pleased to learn that Glenn and Martha will hold on to the reins at Tuscany, the new incarnation of La Tourelle.
Glenn and Martha made the difficult decision to rebrand their restaurant, their baby, after thirty years in business because of finances. While their French bistro, Cafe 1912, is a success, the level of business at La Tourelle has gradually fallen off. In spite of special dinners and private parties filled with people singing the praises of the place, repeat business from those events has not been strong.
The expenses of running a restaurant are tremendous. Fire insurance alone is $500 per month. Labor costs also take quite a chunk. Unpredictable crowds mean that staffing needs are inconsistent. Servers get few shifts or are on call, putting stress on them and their pocketbooks as well as on Glenn and Martha who have to try to retain talented servers.
One of the reasons we love La Tourelle is the staff. We have been on evenings when the place was short staffed and there was a struggle to get everything out. We have been there on evenings when everything was clicking beautifully. Regardless of the situation, the staff have always been warm and welcoming.
Warm welcomes have also come from Glenn and Martha, the combined face of La Tourelle. Unfortunately, because of the financial realities of owning two restaurants, La Tourelle hasn’t always had that face. Martha says:
When Erling was here, he greeted guests, he was the face of La Tourelle. Until recently we worked day jobs to pay the bills. After Erling left, there was no face of La Tourelle. I think that hurt us.
In the last year, Glenn and Martha have both retired and have attempted to give La Tourelle a face. We have enjoyed having them there, but it still hasn’t helped business. Martha is looking forward to a more casual place with Tuscany. “I am thinking paper on the tables. I have had enough of turning tables over the years.”
The legacy of La Tourelle goes far beyond crisp linens though. Of course the name Erling Jensen stands out in the Memphis restaurant scene. Before Jensen was the chef at La Tourelle, there was Gene Bjorklund. Since Jensen, there have been several excellent chefs, including Jensen’s former chef de cuisine, Justin Young. There was Cullen Kent, now chef at Cafe Society. And there was Lynn Kennedy-Tilyou who brought attention to La Tourelle when she appeared in Michael Ruhlman‘s book, The Soul of a Chef.
Success hasn’t been limited to La Tourelle’s chefs either. Jeff Dunham was the first waiter when the tower room opened. He is now the chef/owner of The Grove Grill.
Dave Krog, now executive chef at The Tennessean in Collierville, is also a product of La Tourelle. After La Tourelle, Chef Krog went to Chez Philippe and Madidi where Morgan Freeman sang his praises to the world. We recently had a chance to talk to Chef Krog about his experiences at La Tourelle.
I did my apprenticeship there. I was there for two and a half years. By the end, I was the sous chef.
It seems like pretty much every hotshot chef in town has come through La Tourelle. When you leave there you’re either highly respected, or you’re cooking at Chili’s. It all depends on you and what you make of the opportunity.
Sadly, history doesn’t sustain. A legacy is not, in itself, enough to pay the bills. It will be interesting to see the birth of a new place, but it will also be bittersweet, sitting at our usual table having risotto rather than potato dauphinois.