Seattle’s restaurant industry is grieving for Chef Thierry Rautureau this week, whose restaurants Rover’s, Loulay, and Luc helped a growing Seattle find its culinary identity in the late ‘80s. Rautureau had long suffered from pulmonary fibrosis, an autoimmune disease that affected his lungs, and died on Sunday, October 29. He was 64.
Born in 1959 in the Muscadet region of France, Rautureau was the son of farmers who lived on a seasonal diet, in a community where people mainly ate what they grew. At 14, he left for Anjou to apprentice at a restaurant, and later traveled throughout France while still a teen to continue training in traditional French cuisine. By 20, he’d moved to the United States after responding to an ad in a Nantes newspaper for chefs wanted, first working in Chicago and later Los Angeles. He landed in Seattle in 1987, after buying Rover’s in Madison Valley. He actually purchased the restaurant while only visiting, at the tender age of 28, although the chef had been cooking professionally for half of his life by then.
For Seattleites of a certain era, Rover’s was the very epitome of fine dining — the fanciest, hautest, most white-tableclothed restaurant in what was then still a mid-sized blue-collar town. The menu combined French classics with PNW ingredients, focusing on local seafood and produce, and went super hard on the wine pairings. But thanks to Rautureau’s friendly, flirtatious personality, dinner at Rover’s was far from stuffy. The Chef in the Hat, as the city soon knew him, took great pleasure in schmoozing with his diners, and it seems like just about everyone in the industry has a lovely, charming anecdote about him as a result.
Judy Holman, owner of Raven’s Brew Coffee, remembers going to Rover’s one night and chatting with Rautureau, which wasn’t unusual, “as he always spoke with everyone.” Midway through the prix fixe meal, though, her party realized they hadn’t seen a menu, and asked for a copy, only to be told, “The Chef is cooking for you.”
“Suddenly, we recognized that our courses didn’t look the same as other tables,” she says. “We were flabbergasted. The Chef, Thierry Rautureau, was cooking just for us? For us? No fee, no upcharge, just a pure desire to delight his guests.”
“He used to be a regular at a few places where I’ve run the bar throughout Seattle, so I’ve been lucky to befriend him,” says Karuna Long, the owner of Oliver’s Twist. “Thierry was ALWAYS smiling. The last time I saw him, he just gave me such uplifting remarks about how he’d read about my COVID-lockdown pivot to the Cambodian menu and how it embodies everything he’s gotten to know about the resilience of Khmer people. ‘Seems that even in the darkest of times in the history of your culture, people like you seem to always find your way back out of it,’ he said. I’ll always cherish that last encounter with him.”
“Thierry was warm and easygoing, and he knew how to live the good life: fun times with family and friends, world travel, eating delicious food, randomly bursting into song,” says Rachel Belle, host of the Your Last Meal podcast, who met Rautureau while working at KIRO radio, where the chef co-hosted a show with Tom Douglas. “I’ll miss his enthusiastic ‘Hello, Rachelle!’ and being kissed on both cheeks! Wherever he is now, I hope he’s smiling and eating lots of Moroccan food.”
In 2010, Rautureau opened a new bistro, Luc, a few doors down from Rover’s — the project, named after his late father, marked a return to the simple French standards of his childhood in Muscadet. After Rover’s closed in 2013, he opened Loulay in the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Seattle, named for his hometown of Saint-Hilaire-de-Loulay, where he was offering more PNW-tinged French cuisine. Both Luc and Loulay closed in the early 2020s, casualties of the COVID-19 shutdown. His only remaining restaurant, LouLou Market and Bar, opened in SeaTac Airport’s Terminal B in 2021, serving light bites and wine.
Throughout the aughts and 2010s, Rautureau made frequent television appearances on the Food Network and PBS, among other networks. He also amassed about 20 awards among his trio of restaurants over the decades, including a James Beard Award in 1998 (he was nominated three other times). The government of France honored him with the Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole in 2004.
There’s no overestimating the impact Rautureau had on what we think of as modern Seattle cuisine, as Rover’s appeared in the spotlight in an era when the population was just starting to explode and the city was still finding its footing as a major culinary player. Early on, Rover’s served our particular brand of fancified local seafood, adorned with hyper-local farm-to-table ingredients, and those touches soon became the gold standard in Seattle. For many, Rautureau also dispelled the caricature of the French chef as a tyrannical despot. This guy was, by every account, a total peach who wanted people to love French cuisine the way he did, and he succeeded in teaching them how.
As a testament to his sense of humor, The Chef in the Hat!!! is a registered trademark, with three exclamation points, as it often appeared at the bottom of Rautureau’s menus.
Chef Rautureau is survived by his two sons; his wife Kathleen Encell-Rautureau, who gave him the hat; and a worldwide legion of friends and fans.