For French-infused cuisine in a comfortable atmosphere, locals know they don’t have to travel farther than Grafton’s Main Street.
Newcomers to the Unicorn might be surprised to hear a European accent emanating from the kitchen — but it all falls into place once they try the food. French expat Gerard LeGrand has been the man behind the menu at the award-winning restaurant throughout most of the last decade, turning out classic, seasonal dishes with delicate French touches that showcase a lifetime of experience.
“I’m the conductor, and he’s the head violinist,” laughs owner Gail Flanigan. LeGrand concurs. “She’s very knowledgeable about food,” he notes. “She tries to have specials, [dishes] that go with the seasons.”
LeGrand’s route to Grafton was a circuitous one, darting around the globe in true adventure-story style. It started with a three-year apprenticeship in a French restaurant at the tender age of 14.
“I had a very mean chef — but he was really good,” he remembers. “He was very strict; you had to do what he said, call him ‘chef.’ It was like being in the service.” LeGrand should know — when he was young, military service was mandatory for all French citizens. He ended up in the Merchant Marines, and traveled to South America, where he spent time in French Guyana, Martinique and Guadalupe before returning home.
Once safely back in France, a fellow countryman working the U.S. was looking for chefs to work at his restaurant in Chicago. LeGrand said yes.
“I didn’t speak English at all,” he says. “I couldn’t read it, couldn’t write it.” He worked among other French chefs at the restaurant, Champs Elysees, and eventually migrated among other French restaurants in the city.
During his travels around Chicago he bumped into a French guy planning to take over management of the restaurant now known as Chez Francois, in Vermilion. LeGrand once again said yes, and, by the late ’70s, he was building a life in Ohio. Throughout stints in Washington D.C., Los Angeles and Texas, LeGrand has always returned to Northeast Ohio, a place that’s become his second home.
“I got married, had a couple of sons. That’s probably why I [stayed] in Ohio,” he says with a chuckle.
Quick Bites with Chef Gerard
Hidden Talents: When LeGrand’s chef was mad at him, the young apprentice would flee to a nearby pastry shop and work there instead. He’s a whiz at making truffles and ice cream. “I almost switched to being a pastry chef,” he says.
Favorite Fusions: He’s inspired by Mediterranean cuisine infused with Italian and French flavors. One of his favorite dishes to make is a stuffed lobster tail wrapped in puff pastry, baked to a golden brown and served with a champagne cream sauce.
Palate Pleaser: His pork tenderloin with peach barbeque sauce is one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.
The Tool He Can’t Live Without: His knives. “I protect them like gold,” he says. “You need your knives, like a mechanic’s got to have his tools.”
From Apprentice to Master: LeGrand may have a softer presence than his imposing first teacher, but he’s serious about the kitchen. “I’m very professional,” he explains. “I try to teach people in the kitchen that the plate should always look good. No sloppy plates!”