Cyrano’s Café in the River Walk
Every dish at Cyrano’s Café on the River Walk is inspired by a recipe that Chef Didier Durand learned as a child in France. From authentic quiche Lorraine to good old-fashioned hamburgers, each item hints at a flavor that dominated his mother’s kitchen.
“Great food makes people happy,” he says.
On a sunny afternoon, he likes to bring this philosophy to life.
“Look what I’m having for lunch,” he says. “That’s a veal bratwurst with some caramelized onion, some sauerkraut — I love sauerkraut — and German mustard. It has a little sweetness and the bun is loaded with also caramelized onions on the top and the fries are, you know, hand cut. It’s beautiful. I’m going to bite into it.”
The bratwurst is one of many Midwestern favorites on the menu. Others include the roast beef sandwich and the mushroom Swiss burger. Although Chef Didier admits the items are “not what I had in France,” they do reflect his pioneering spirit.
Before opening Cyrano’s on the River Walk in 1999, one of the first venues in the area, he founded Cyrano’s on Wells in River North. Prior to that, he spent more than a decade cooking for some of the most popular French restaurants in Greater Chicago — including La Boehme and Yvette Wintergarden — as well as the world-renowned Michelle Garar restaurant in Southwestern France.
He came to America in 1986 to pursue a sous-chef position at Carlos in Highland Park, but was also motivated by the Hollywood Westerns he watched as a kid. “The movies inspired me,” he says.
“I was taken to a different world,” he remembers. “The country was so big, and the buildings… I love it at first sight and my love is still growing.”
At the time, American diners were expanding their pallets with a “gourmet mood” that Chef Didier found “quite exciting.” When Chicago banned foie gras in 2006, he continued to be “a big promoter” of the item and even suggested to Mayor Daley that the town be painted pink to celebrate the ban’s repeal two years later.
Today, his kitchen accommodates those with a taste for French cuisine by offering Salad Nicoise, traditional escargots and a trio of goat cheese with herbs.
In addition to the multicultural culinary enthusiasm, Chef Didier was also taken by the American work ethic. “If you want to work a little, you make a little,” he says. “You want to work a lot, hopefully you make a lot.”
In keeping with that truism, he has fashioned Cyrano’s riverbank dining section to extend from a cluster of shade trees into a tent surrounded by flowers trained to grow those in Clade Monet’s garden. “That’s an English breed from the 1860s,” he says, pointing at a pink climbing rose. “He’s going to take over this space.”
The ambience has helped make Cyrano’s one of the most popular locations along the river. It is also a source of pride for Chef Didier, who insists that, “I’ve paid my dues.” But it is not the only reason that he has remained in the area for so long.
“I find my love,” he says. “I got married in 1990 to a nice Jewish girl from Highland Park.”
Chef Didier’s wife Jamey is a sommelier who handles Cyrano’s wine selection. “She has great taste,” he says. “We have about six rosés by the glass and wine in the bottle from all over the world: some from Spain and New Zealand, and some from Australia.”
She has also helped expand Cyrano’s workforce.
“We have a daughter called Simone,” says the chef. “She’s actually helping me with the business here.”
Simone is not only an excellent addition to the business, he explains, but also a natural-born Franco foodie.
“She loves rack of lamb. She loves oysters,” he says. “My God, she is not vegetarian.”
His mother would be proud. She taught Chef Didier the first recipe he ever cooked, an apple tart baked with a secret ingredient. “In the dough,” he says, “she was putting a little duck fat.”
Daniel Patton | Staff Writer