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La Provence closes after nearly 50 years

Chef Eric Hunter announces closure of the longtime French restaurant in Lacombe

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La Provence, the landmark French restaurant in Lacombe, has closed after nearly half a century in business.

  Its last regular service was in April. In messages to customers at the time, restaurant management said it was undergoing repairs. Last week, however, chef and co-owner Eric Hunter confirmed the restaurant has closed permanently.

  "Unfortunately, we just couldn't get the business to make it work," he said.

  Hunter and his wife, Jennifer Pittman Hunter, bought La Provence just over a year ago from chef John Besh, who earlier took it over from its founder, the late chef Chris Kerageorgiou.

  The Hunters continue to run the farm surrounding the restaurant, but Eric said he plans to put that property up for sale soon.

  Set in a rural stretch of Highway 190 between Mandeville and Slidell, the restaurant was the personal creation of Kerageorgiou, a chef from a Greek family who grew up near Marseilles, France. In 1972, he took over what had been a small hotel and cafe and turned it into an homage to the culinary traditions of his homeland, with the ambience of a French country inn.

  Besh, who grew up nearby in Slidell, worked at La Provence early in his career. He bought the restaurant from his mentor in 2007 as Kerageorgiou faced declining health. The older chef died a short while later at age 79.

  In the years that followed, the grounds around the restaurant sprouted more farm beds and livestock pens, producing staples for the La Provence kitchen and creating a showcase for farm-to-table food.

  In May 2017, Besh sold the restaurant to the Hunters, saying he was passing the torch to the next generation. The Hunters previously had run a restaurant in the Forth Worth, Texas area, and relocated to Lacombe to operate La Provence. It marked a homecoming for Eric, who spent much of his youth in Mandeville.

  Associations with its past owners, however, proved resilient, Eric said. Last fall, Besh was rocked by accusations of sexual harassment, and while Besh no longer was involved in the Lacombe restaurant, Eric said he believes the scandal hurt his business. In addition, he said, although the restaurant's menu had been evolving for years, he believes some of its regulars were still pining for the restaurant they remembered from Kerageorgiou's days.

  All employees were laid off when the restaurant closed, Eric confirmed. "It's a bad situation," he said. "We had to let people go who had worked here for decades."

  The Hunters still sell eggs from the farm and jams, sauces and pate from the La Provence kitchen at the Covington Farmers Market. Eric also has started a mobile barbecue business, B Hunter's Backdoor BBQ, which sells plate lunches at the Bayou Adventure swamp tour operation in Lacombe.

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