Lemaire's former executive sous chef is now the award-winning restaurant's executive chef in the historic Jefferson Hotel. (Photo courtesy: The Jefferson Hotel)
It takes a capable chef to helm Lemaire, one of the state's most acclaimed and beloved fine-dining restaurants. Over the course of nearly 17 years, Walter Bundy helped lead The Jefferson Hotel's restaurant to national recognition, and now that the seasoned chef is preparing to open his own restaurant, Shagbark — slated to open this spring in Libbie Mill-Midtown — it's going to take a skilled chef to head Lemaire, the hotel's dinner room service and the restaurant's elevated bar bites. Fortunately, the Richmond institution didn't have to look far.
Patrick Willis was hired at Lemaire in 2009 as part of the first team to work the restaurant after its behemoth renovation. After roughly two years, he was promoted to the role of Bundy's executive sous chef, which he'd held the last four years; it's during this time, he says, that both his palate and technique greatly progressed under Bundy's watch and careful attention to Virginia products. Willis says that we can expect a few new menu items as early as next week, and it's this legacy that he plans to uphold in his new menu, and in his tenure as Lemaire's new executive chef, effective immediately.
"We're not going to change the concept; we're going to focus on Virginia products, fresh ingredients, local as much as possible," he says. "We've got wonderful purveyors here in Richmond and out in the western part of the state, and we love to use products out of the Chesapeake Bay, so we're really going to focus on that."
Willis began his career at The Fox Head Inn in Manakin-Sabot, where he worked evenings and weekends during high school, mostly as a dishwasher and handling some prep — it's where he learned organization and started using a knife, which came in handy at his next job: Goochland's Tanglewood Ordinary, a family-style restaurant. "It wasn't like working 40 hours a week, but it's where I got the passion for it," Willis says.
After graduating in Hospitality Management from East Carolina University, Willis spent time in the kitchen at CPW's, a family-owned restaurant in Greenville, North Carolina. It's here that he learned the basics of running a restaurant, from cooking and guest services to waiting tables and financial management. In 2009, his wife's career relocation moved the couple to Richmond, and after minutes of applying to work at Lemaire, Bundy was in touch.
"It's really hard to think about Lemaire and not think about Walter Bundy," Willis shares. "However, me and Bundy have been friends for six years, we've spent many, many hours together discussing food, discussing the culture of Richmond and what would make a good menu, and I feel like I can continue where he left off at The Jefferson, and just make it a smooth transition."
The feeling is mutual. "I have worked with Patrick for six years and it has always been a blast," Bundy says of his protégé. "He is always so professional, positive, and wants to put out the best product and ensure 100 percent guest satisfaction. He is a gentleman and a true leader. Lemaire will continue to be a success under his guidance! I am truly happy for him."
The new executive chef will gradually roll out his new menu items, which he hopes will still exemplify Lemaire's trademark high quality, affordability, accessibility and sophistication. Within the next 30 days, he says, much of the menu will be his own.
"I am thrilled to be the executive chef of Lemaire and I'm driven to elevate the food scene of Richmond, Virginia," Willis says. "I moved back here at a special time, during a rising food scene, and I'm thrilled to be a part of it. I want to continue to make Richmond a Southern-food destination."
Lemaire is located within the historic Jefferson Hotel at 101 W. Franklin St.