August 22 2014

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Spring Rolls With Warhol, And More From Indochine


The first time Jean-Marc Houmard waited on Andy Warhol at Indochine, he accidentally brushed his hand while serving a pot of tea. This anecdote, one of many included in the new book Indochine: Stories, Shaken and Stirred (Rizzoli), edited by Houmard and Maer Roshan, sums up the place’s enduring appeal: glamorous enough that the famous go there to rub shoulders, mellow enough that they do so over tea. (And spring rolls, usually.)

Houmard co-owns the restaurant now, and has kept it as congenial to boldfaced names and bohemians as it’s always been. There’s certainly a healthy mix of them among the book’s contributors, from Salman Rushdie and Susanne Bartsch, who contributed reminiscences to the oral history, to artists Kenny Scharf, Ruben Toledo, and Ross Bleckner, who chipped in new work inspired by the restaurant. Indochine comes out next month; tonight, it will be fêted at Bergdorf Goodman at an event co-hosted by Linda Fargo, Richard Johnson, Narciso Rodriguez, and Veronica Webb. Here, Houmard talks to about Indochine’s quarter-century as a hot joint in town.

What was your first impression of Indochine?

It’s funny to remember, because I’d heard about Indochine and gotten the idea that it was this grandiose place. And then, when I came for the first time, it was so non-grandiose, like, the door was just a door, and the room was small and a little scruffy, somehow. But there was something undeniably glamorous, too; the people were glamorous. The hosts, the bartenders, the people eating in the booths. You couldn’t quite put your finger on it, but Indochine was just, in some way, incredibly cool.

As I understand it, “cool” wasn’t really a thing in restaurants back in 1984.

Well, first of all, there weren’t many good restaurants downtown. But Brian McNally, the original owner, he used his connections to people all over the city and got them to come. The East Village cool kids, the Soho artists, the uptowners who went to Studio 54. People would come to eat at Indochine for that mix.

Why do you think they’ve kept coming?

I think we’ve kept the restaurant pretty discreet. People feel comfortable at Indochine, you know? There’s not that trendy feeling, like, OK, I’ve really got to get myself ready for a night out at the hot new restaurant. And it’s never a zoo. But I also think we’ve managed to stay relevant because we are always adding new people to the mix—some people come because they’ve always come, but our staff is young; they all do things besides work at Indochine, like they’re designers or stylists, and they bring in new crowds.

For all the talk of discretion, Indochine is definitely known as a place for celeb-spotting, and the photographs and stories in the book certainly testify to the fact that pretty much everyone who’s anyone has eaten there over the years. Is there anyone who’s come to Indochine that’s made you star-struck?

Meeting Andy Warhol was a big deal. And Catherine Deneuve—I was a kid in Switzerland reading about her, and then I come to New York City, and there she is? That was crazy. And of course, because I was young and new to New York, I was impressed all the time. Those early years at Indochine are the most vivid, for me.

What made you decide to do the book?

We thought about doing a book five years ago, for the 20th anniversary, but we didn’t get our act together. Someone had asked us to put together a cookbook, but it seemed like, eh, another cookbook? We felt like there was something more unique in the fact that so much downtown culture had gone through Indochine over the years, and wouldn’t it be better to try to capture that mix? Dig up old pictures and so on. But that took a while.

The photos are a no-brainer, but what inspired you to commission the artwork?

The same impulse—to capture the spirit of the place. Indochine has always had a lot of artists coming, and we thought it would be fun to ask some of them to create work inspired by the restaurant. About 90 percent of the art in the book was done for it, specifically; the rest was pre-existing work we felt was relevant to the history of Indochine, like Anh Duong’s portrait of Anne McNally, who helped Brian come up with the concept of the restaurant.

Who hasn’t eaten at Indochine that you wish would come?

Queen Elizabeth. Or the Pope—that would be something. But, joking aside, the celebrities are a bonus, but it’s the young kids who come that make me the happiest. Sometimes I worry that we’re just running on nostalgia, but then some young kid, new to the city, shows up and thinks the place is cool for his own reasons, and I’m reassured. It makes me feel like, OK, it’s been 25 years, but we can keep going.

Photo: Courtesy of Indochine