After working in restaurants for 55 years, French chef Jean Dupon is retiring. On Sunday, October 12, he will close the doors of Le Grenier, his signature second-story restaurant on Main Street, Vineyard Haven, where he has been the chef for 36 years. Le Cave, his two-year-old French style bistro, downstairs from Le Grenier will close September 8.
He has a purchase and sale agreement for the building and a deposit in hand from Steve Bowen, owner of neighboring sandwich shop Waterside, The Blue Canoe on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven, and a restaurant, Parkside Market in Falmouth. The sale is scheduled for November 28. Mr. Bowen told The Times he plans to open a seasonal, family style, old school Italian restaurant upstairs in May called La Soffitta. “We are trying to maintain some continuity with Le Grenier which means attic in French,” he said, “la soffitta is attic in Italian.” He said he will probably open a year-round casual eatery downstairs.
“I just turned 71 and I’m done,” Mr. Dupon said to the Times recently, in his locally recognizable French accent. “Even if the sale does not go through, I will shut it down and wait until something happens. I do not want to spend another winter like last winter here on the Vineyard.” Referring to the harsh weather, he said, “It was horrible.”
He plans to spend part of the year on the Vineyard where his three grandchildren, his son Jean-Marc Dupon, and daughter-in-law live, and where he will be closer to his daughter and two grandchildren in Malden. He will spend part of the year in Florida with his two sisters.
“I will miss the customers,” he said. “It is really rewarding when you have made something that contributes to somebody’s happiness and satisfaction, especially here when they are on vacation.”
He has served celebrities and the families of presidents but never a president, and once had to ask two well-known comedians to leave because they were so rude to their dates.
“I have met many, many people,” he said. “I am dealing with three generations now. Grandchildren of people I served years ago are now eating here. I have so many memories. I have kept all my reservation books for the last 25 years and many of the entries bring back memories.”
At 16, while a high school student and soon after his family moved to Malden from his native France, Mr. Dupon got his first part-time restaurant job at the French restaurant where his stepfather found work. “When we came here I was the only one in the family that spoke any English,” he said. “The only place to work when you only speak French in this country is in a French restaurant where people speak French.”
He worked in a half dozen or so French restaurants in the Boston area, gaining experience until becoming a chef for some of Boston’s finest establishments. He eventually opened his own restaurant called Fromages Import, a small cheese and gourmet food shop in Harvard Square where he sold 250 types of cheese and cooked lunches.
In the late 1960s Mr. Dupon received a phone call from Martha’s Vineyard from an Eleanor Pearlson, a realtor who owned Tea Lane Associates, an up-Island real estate business. “She must have been in my shop,” he said, “but I didn’t know her. She talked to me about the Vineyard for about a half an hour and asked me if I would consider opening a shop on the Vineyard. I had never been to the Vineyard.”
“I drove down. She met me at the ferry. I spent the whole day with her. It was March. I don’t remember seeing another car on the roads the entire day. She showed me Martha’s Vineyard like I have not seen since. I fell in love with the Vineyard.”
That day he signed a lease with Ms. Pearlson for space in a building she owned near Beetlebung Corner in Chilmark, where the Chilmark Tavern is now.
That summer, he opened a shop similar to the Cambridge shop and operated it for five summers, while camping in a tent at Webb’s Camp Area, an Oak Bluffs campground that closed in the late 1990s.
“What was there not to like about summers on the Vineyard, Jungle Beach, Lucy Vincent Beach? I was in my twenties, separated from my wife. It was beautiful, free this and free that. How can you not enjoy that?” His parents managed the Cambridge shop while he was on the Vineyard.
In 1973 Mr. Dupon opened a full service French restaurant in Lexington called Le Bellecour, the same year he got his American citizenship, which he needed in order to get a liquor license. He gave up the shop on the Vineyard. “I don’t even remember living during the five years I had Le Bellecour. It was work, work, work. I got sick of it.”
He sold the restaurant, bought a trailer and spent the next seven months with a friend traveling the entire outline of the United States, 70,000 miles. “I thought about living on the West Coast, but I came back east because of my family and kids.”
A friend from Boston Mr. Dupon had introduced to the Vineyard, Tony Matta, bought the Vineyard Haven building and opened Le Grenier in 1978. Mr. Matta asked him to run it. “I took the job. A girlfriend and I used to go to the beach every single morning. It was paradise. One time we took a picnic to Lucy Vincent beach we got back after a little wine and too much sun. I fell asleep on the floor about three in the afternoon. At six I heard a knock on the door. People were lined up to eat. I never did that again.
“By the next year I had the reputation as the best restaurant on the Vineyard.” He signed a five-year lease that ended in 1985 when he purchased the building and the business from Mr. Matta.
From 1981 to 1992 Mr. Dupon also ran the French bakery downstairs called La Patisserie Francaise. “Wow, we were so successful,” he said. “We were the only place that made croissants on the Island. I remember one Sunday we did over 2,000 croissants by hand. I once had five bakers.”
The two businesses were a success. He paid off the building in 2005, bought a house on the Island, and satisfied a lifelong passion to learn to fly. He bought a plane which was destroyed in a crash on an Oak Bluffs beach three years ago when a he ran out of fuel due to a faulty gauge near the end of a trip back from Hyannis. He and his passenger walked away unscathed.
“I sometimes kid that I am Afro-American,” Mr. Dupon said. His father was in the free-French Air Force in Dakar, Senegal, then French West Africa when he was born in 1943. After the war, the Dupon family lived in Dijon and Lyon. Tragically, Mr. Dupon’s father was killed in a car accident. The nine-year-old Jean was a passenger in the car, and after a two-week recovery in a German hospital the young Dupon was sent to the first of two French military schools.
“The first military school was awful. The second military school was an air force school and I loved it. That was when I decided I wanted to be a pilot.”
He was pulled out of school against his will when the family moved to Malden, where he spent three years at Malden High School.
At 18, Mr. Dupon applied and received a provisional acceptance to the United States Air Force Academy. “I even had a room assignment,” he said. “A week and a half before I was scheduled to report the SAT scores came in,” he said. “I scored in the high 700s in chemistry, math, physics. In English I got a 450. Half the words I had never seen in my life and that kept me out. I was so depressed. I decided if I couldn’t fly I wouldn’t go to school. If I had known what it meant to go to MIT or Harvard I might have tried. I didn’t know.”
He married at 19 and soon became the father of a girl, nine months to the day from the date of their wedding, he said.
“This has a been a hard life, the restaurant business is really hard, a lot of hard work,” Mr. Dupon said, “but it is all I really know how to do. I quit the business twice. Once I parked cars in Boston for six months. I began to miss it. I love to cook, but I was fighting it. It is like an addiction.
“The restaurant business is hell on a family life unless the two of you are really made for it, and it’s in your blood — although there will always be problems. The restaurant business is always a love-hate relationship.”
He said that the upside of the restaurant business is pleasing the customers, and the relationships he has developed with employees over the years.
“Many employees have gone through these portals,” he said. “Some of them, because of their experience here, have become chefs.
“When I used to work under French chefs, they were the worst — old men with attitudes. Most of them drank a lot and would treat you like dirt and some it rubbed off on me.
“I remember one time, I was quite young, 19, I was in charge of lunch and there was a Canadian waitress in her fifties who was like a mother to me. We had a disagreement and I hit her with a chicken. Tears poured from her eyes. I went over and hugged her and we both cried. That day I swore I would never treat an employee like I had been treated by other chefs.
“This has been my philosophy here. I may be the chef, or whatever, but I will do the dishes or serve a customer. In my restaurant we are all equal, this has been the most rewarding part of what I do.”
“When I started I was so shy you couldn’t get me out of the kitchen. I would never talk to a customer. I would step out the back door rather than have to meet a customer, but that has changed 180 degrees. I am now willing to talk about my life and my work and I am ready to move on.
“I will miss the customers and my employees.”