There are a few blockbuster moments in the life of a major American restaurant. Opening day, of course. A rave review, or a James Beard award. In a pinch, National Rosé All-Day Day. The hire of a new chef ranks right up there, and is usually announced with as much fanfare as the publicist can muster. Learning about a new chef by stumbling on his bio, buried deep on the restaurant website, isn’t how it’s done.
But for months, that was as much notice as the Mansion on Turtle Creek put out about its new executive chef, Sebastien Archambault. Archambault, a second-generation French chef who was actually born in Lubbock, has been behind the stoves since May 1. Since then, he has been rewriting the menu of the legendary Dallas restaurant, dish by dish. Archambault started with the tasting menu, keeping the format of a seasonal seven courses, and tackled the a la carte menu next. At this point, more than half of the dishes are his, including a starter of crisped pork belly with watermelon and pickled watermelon rind, and an extravagant presentation of lobster and chicken, enhanced with bourbon and sweet corn. His full menu is expected to debut Aug. 3.
There’s plenty to brag about on the chef’s resume. Until this spring, Archambault was executive chef at the Park Hyatt in New York City, a position he held since its opening four years ago. But he has cooked all over the globe, after growing up in the kitchens of his father’s three restaurants, including one in the Dordogne, the bulging confit-and-truffle belt of southwest France.
After culinary school and training with Alain Ducasse in Paris, he helmed Blue Duck Tavern at the Park Hyatt in Washington, D.C., RH restaurant at the Andaz West Hollywood, and a casual spot called L’Epicerie Market in Culver City, Calif. He earned a Michelin star as the co-chef at Le Pirate in Corsica, and for two years after that, was the executive chef at restaurant Champs Elysées in Mexico City.
“My cooking is all about respecting the ingredients and not putting too many flavors in the dish,” Archambault says, in an accent as thick as a good crémeux. He is a spirited presence in the formal dining room, settling in to chat before dinner service begins. “Instead of a dish with 10 flavors, and you get a little flit here and a flit there, you have to be direct. I want dishes that punch with flavor.”
Wherever he cooked, Archambault says he recalibrated for his new locale. And like the biologist he originally studied to be, before veering into restaurants, he used his under-the-radar months in Dallas to study the dining habits of the local inhabitants. “They don’t like to wait 45 minutes for a dish, they don’t want to feel lost looking at a menu with too many words they can’t recognize, and they want some adventure,” he reports. “It’s a sophisticated palate here.”
Archambault is really a newcomer, despite being born in Lubbock in 1975. His father — who was originally an engineer, before he veered into restaurants — was recruited by Texas Instruments and moved from France to Dallas and then Lubbock. His parents opened a French restaurant there called Le Crepe Suzette, and for a couple of years, his father was an engineer by day and a chef by night, while his mother ran the front of the house.
By the time Sebastien was a year old, his family moved back to Le Bugue, their hometown, and went into the restaurant business full time. A lifetime later, Archambault calls Dallas “the new California,” because the energy reminds him of what he found when he moved to L.A., with new arrivals coming from everywhere and a vibrant dining scene. Sebastien’s wife, Martine, and their two children are set to join him this week. The two met in culinary school — she is now a private chef — not that they have ever cooked together professionally. “No, no, no,” he says. “The only time was when were in school. We did one dinner together and halfway through the salads we had to separate. We had different ways of doing things, there were arguments all the time!”
Archambault has been expanding his Texas larder with ingredients including cheese from Latte Da Dairy in Flower Mound, olive oil from Texas Olive Ranch in Carrizo Springs, and red wattle pork from Legend Meats in Gorman. “I’m excited to use flavors from here — we’d never do chicken with bourbon and corn in France — so the cooking is really modern American with French influences,” he says. “That’s the direction we’re going.”
He will oversee menus throughout the property, including poolside and in-room dining. But of course, the focus will be the Mansion, the elegant restaurant that helped launch the careers of some of Dallas’ biggest names, from Dean Fearing and Avner Samuel to John Tesar and Bruno Davaillon. In recent years, Tesar and Davaillon each elevated the cooking to earn 5-star reviews from The Dallas Morning News. But since Davaillon’s departure in 2015 — to open Bullion, his own showplace restaurant downtown — the Mansion’s kitchen has struggled to maintain its status. In October 2016, after a yearlong search and with much to-do, Tom Parlo was named executive chef. But Parlo’s menu missed the mark, and last year The News’ former critic Leslie Brenner demoted the Mansion to just two stars. Parlo left in January.
“It’s been a little heartbreaking for me to see the tumbles and turns they’ve had over the years,” says Fearing, whose tenure as executive chef lasted 21 years. “They’ve had three chefs in three years and that’s a lot. For a place like the Mansion, they should have someone who would stick around, who would love the place and make it their own.”
Neither Parlo’s departure nor Archambault’s arrival was announced. “We purposely held off in order for Sebastien to settle into his new position and allow him time to create his own menu,” says Tracy Fitz, the Mansion’s director of sales and marketing. “We wanted someone to continue the heritage and to move it forward. And we wanted him feeling empowered to do so.”
Still, for three months Archambault was able to roam the kitchen and dining rooms, putting new dishes on the menu, posing for occasional selfies with the regulars, and not be noticed. In a town where the slightest ripple in the restaurant world can cause an explosion of headlines, it’s hard not to wonder if this is also another gauge of the Mansion’s slipping relevance, and the high stakes set on Archambault’s success.
For now, Archambault is busy tracking down sources for local produce. Down the road, he’d like to grow his own vegetables and have products made specifically for him, like the aged goat cheese that’s in the works with Latte Da Dairy. He bought a Big Green Egg and plans cookouts on the restaurant’s terrace once the weather cools down. His family is set to arrive and the new house in Frisco is freshly painted and ready. And the chef, perhaps a little nervously, is finally stepping into the limelight.