Le Crocodile: A Staple of Fine French Cuisine with a West Coast Flair

When you dine at Michel Jacob's Le Crocodile, you don't just have French cuisine with West Coast flair, you have a culinary experience that Jacob has dedicated his life to perfect.

"There are 20 restaurants that cook as well as we do," Jacob said. "So why go back to Le Crocodile?"

According to Jacob, it's a multi-faceted answer that includes top-notch service, ambience, decor and --above all-- consistency.

"In the restaurant business, you're only as good as you were the day before," Jacob said. "When I talk to business men or VIPs they say, 'The only reason we choose Le Crocodile is because we know you guys will make us look good.'

"The number one thing is always consistency."

The consistent, high-quality cuisine is what's made Le Crocodile a staple of fine cuisine in Vancouver for the past 30 years. During that time, Le Crocodile has seated the likes of Sean Penn, Pierce Brosnan, Al Pacino, Steven Spielberg and the King and Queen of Norway.

But Le Crocodile doesn't boast of its celebrity clientele with photos on its walls or preferential treatment in the kitchen. "Just because the other guy is a movie star doesn't mean he's going to get different food," Jacob said. "We are very consistent."

"And why would I want a picture with these people?" They're here once to shoot a movie and then they're gone. If you come here every month for the past 20 years, I should take a picture with you."

And Jacob knows who frequents Le Crocodile.

For nearly every lunch and dinner rush since its doors opened, Jacob has been at the helm of the kitchen, ensuring that every sauce has just enough lemon and that every plate --not just those for VIPs or regulars-- lives up to the highest standards of French cuisine: his own.

"I'm obviously very demanding of my staff, but I'm also very demanding of myself," Jacob said. "Your staff is only as good as you are, but you're only as good as your staff.

Jacob's staff have quite the reputation to live up to.

Born in Strasbourg, France, in 1955, Jacob started cooking at the age of 10 and earned an apprenticeship at Johnny Letzer's Zimmer at the age of 14. It was the last year apprentices were taken in so young. Aspiring chefs in France now have to wait until the age of 18. Jacob's talents quickly took him to several restaurants across Europe, including the Guinness family's Ashford Castle in Ireland.

Despite succeeding in Europe, Jacob had dreams of heading west. Jacob soon got a work permit to Montreal and found himself working at the Four Seasons in 1977. Jacob spent three years at that restaurant and met another chef who changed his path.

"One of the chefs was from Japan and I always wanted to go work in Japan," Jacob said. "I wanted to work on my ice carving technique and presentation, so I sent my CV and I got a permit to work for one year in a Tokyo hotel."

But before he could head east, Jacob had to go west.

"I had to go to the Japanese consulate in Vancouver to get my visa," Jacob said. "I came from Montreal with my two suitcases and stayed in a motel on Robson street.

"I thought I'd leave the next day to Japan."

It would take a bit longer than that since the Japanese consulate told Jacob that they'd need four-to-six months to process his visa. It was the spring of 1980 when Jacob landed in Vancouver and he didn't get a call back from the Japanese consulate until October.

A few things changed for the chef during those months; aside from finding a job, he found love. "During that summer I met my wife to be, Helene," Jacob said.

The one day in Vancouver turned into a lifetime.

Jacob saved up to open the original Le Crocodile on Thurlow and Robson and was met with instant success. Le Crocodile quickly outgrew the confines of its original establishment and moved to its current location on Burrard street in 1993. During that time, Jacob saw numerous restaurants rise and fall and witnessed Vancouver's dining scene evolve into what it is today.

"When I came here, it was a meat and potato town," Jacob said. "Everything was overcooked and well done. "Montreal and Toronto were ahead of us in terms of restaurants and cuisine, but now, in 2014, I think Vancouver is ahead of them."

One of the reasons for this, Jacob says, is the Asian influence in Vancouver. "Asian cuisine is similar to French and Italian cuisine in that we eat everything," Jacob said. "We eat the tongue, the tail, the eyes, everything. Asians have a very high level of food appreciation so they elevated everything in Vancouver. "When they came and ate at restaurants, if it wasn't done right they'd send it back because they knew what it was supposed to be like. Their cuisine is very high-end, they know how to cook."

And the scene continues to change.

Jacob has had several young chefs apprentice at his restaurant who were born and bred in Vancouver, a novelty to the area. These young, active chefs take inspiration from across the world and apply them to Vancouver-specific ingredients.

Like Jacob, many of these young chefs take a shot at opening their own restaurants. Unlike Jacob though, many of these new chef-owned restaurants have been moving away from the downtown area due to increasing rent costs. While this has pushed many new restaurants to the east and the surrounding neighbourhoods, Jacob and Le Crocodile are staying put where they are.

"I've been asked on a monthly basis to open up another restaurant," Jacob said. "But one restaurant is always better than the other and I can't be everywhere at once. Being in the restaurant business, as you know, you give good times. You make people happy."

Jacob and Le Crocodile are one and the same, the experience will never be recreated. Eighty-five percent of people that come in ask, 'Is Michel here?'" Jacob said. "Le Crocodile is my life, it's what I do."

Source Credit:     Text by Alexander Villegas

Lloyd Bruce Magazine