The Aesthete: Indochine, If These Fronds Could Talk
Take a stroll down memory lane with Indochine co-owner Jean-Marc Houmard on the restaurant’s 30th birthday
Bianca Jagger, Calvin Klein, Kate Moss, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol — innumerable icons have frolicked at New York’s Indochine for three decades of decadence, beauty and notoriety. Since 1984, the institution has remained a bastion for fashion’s elite, art world superstars and the crème de la crème of New York downtown society.
Opened by restaurateur Brian McNally, Indochine has accomplished the next-to-impossible—maintaining its reign as an eatery and playground for the cool kids of the moment, without pandering to the trends and whims that rule its patrons. Its retro décor has proved perpetually chic, a constant (and often copied motif) amid the chaos of an insatiable city always hungry for the new and the now.
Jean-Marc Houmard, the magnetic, soft-spoken Swiss who came to New York for a law internship in 1985, fell in love with the boîte the first time he found himself amid its legendary palm fronds. Under McNally’s tutelage, Houmard worked his way up from server to maître d’ to owner, when along with Huy Chi Le and Michael Callahan, he purchased it from McNally in 1992.
Now, on its 30th birthday, Houmard dishes on how Indochine remains forever young.
The Aesthete: How does it feel to go from server to co-owner of one of New York’s greatest restaurants?
Jean-Marc Houmard: About a year after I came to Indochine for the first time as a guest, I started working here. I couldn’t believe that I was actually working here… Brian McNally created this place and it was kind of scary to take over, like orphans, who are suddenly the masters of the place. The thought that I would someday own Indochine had never crossed my wildest imagination.
Indochine has always had an air of exclusivity, has it changed over the years?
If there’s an air of exclusivity it’s happened organically. Anybody can make a reservation. There can’t be a door policy at a restaurant, but of course, we have so many regulars that you save some tables… Prime spots are reserved for those loyal people who’ve been coming here for years.
If you could define a dress code for the restaurant, whether it’s enforced or not, what would it be?
Either be chic or be interesting. I love when people go all the way… those people will get a prime table, just because it makes the room interesting, it’s fun, and people made an effort, and I think that effort should be rewarded. The most fabulous outfits are always on Malcolm Harris, he wears these terrific gowns and veils; he has a regal air.
Please describe your best “Power Table,” moment.
The first night when I started working here, Andy Warhol was hosting a big table—that was definitely a moment I will always remember: coming from Switzerland and being in the same room as Andy! At another booth was Bianca Jagger, at another table was Halston, it was one of those nights when I said, “Wow, I’m in New York—it’s like what I’ve seen in magazines and I’m in the same room as these people.” That was a pretty special moment.
Indochine’s fully stocked bar awaits the evening crowd.
Go ahead, namedrop your regulars…they won’t mind.
I don’t really want to name names because the ones I don’t mention get upset.
Have you ever been star-struck in your own restaurant?
There have been legends here. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward came a year before he passed away. Hubert de Givenchy, these names that you grow up as a kid knowing as just names, and then here they are, in your restaurant. It’s kind of amazing.
Best-selling dish? Best-selling cocktail/drink?
The classics, the spring rolls, the ravioli, the spicy beef salad—those are the classics from Day One. The Indochine Martini, it’s a pineapple and ginger infused vodka.
In a city that feeds on the new and the now, what’s your secret?
It’s not a formula, it’s just a bunch of things that need to click … from the food, to the room that works with lighting that’s flattering. The booths have a sense of privacy but at the same time are a stage… If you have Mick Jagger sitting in one of them you notice him, but at the same time you respect that he’s in a booth… it’s his private area.
What is it about the palm fronds?
It’s iconic. If you see a picture of someone with our mural leaves, you just know it’s at Indochine, you don’t need to read the caption. It’s like the Stork Club of the ‘50s. [It’s about consistency.] Martin Whatoff, a British man who comes three times a week at 4 in the morning, has been doing the flowers since Day One. Marlene has been our reservationist for 30 years. She handed me my application form when I came here for a job.
Editors’ Note: Interior photos used with permission from Indochine. Celebrity guest photos used with permission from Indochine published 2009 by Rizzoli International, New York. Top photo: Andy Warhol, Jacqueline Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel and Kenny Scharf at the opening of Indochine in 1984. Jean-Marc Houmard in front of Indochine’s famous palm fronds (photo by Karen Gfeller).