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Chef Bertrand Hug is enjoying his 40th year at Mille Fleurs in Rancho Santa Fe

When Bertrand Hug was a student in Toronto, Canada, in 1971, low on money and struggling with English, he followed the advice of fellow students from France.

“Everyone tells me, ‘If you don’t have money, you should be a busboy,’” he said in a recent interview. “Be a busboy in a restaurant and that will support you.”

Hug took the advice to heart. After many rejections, he said, a fortuitous circumstance landed him a job at the city’s best French restaurant: The owner happened to be from the same rural region of southwestern France that Hug came from.

More than 50 years later, Hug is commonly known in Southern California as Chef Bertrand. He has owned and operated the acclaimed Mille Fleurs restaurant in the heart of Rancho Santa Fe for 40 years.

“I love what I do,” said Hug, who turned 76 in May. “I like being among people. I’m a people person.”

Hug worked his way up in the West Coast restaurant world, becoming managing partner of Le Côte d’Azur in La Jolla in 1973. The following year he married Denise, his wife of five decades.

He became involved in the ownership of other restaurants before taking over Mille Fleurs in the Village of Rancho Santa Fe on January 3, 1985.

Hug is committed to providing an elegant dining experience with a menu of French, other continental cuisines and California specialties prepared with the freshest ingredients.

The outdoor patio of Mille Fleurs in Rancho Santa Fe.

The outdoor patio of Mille Fleurs in Rancho Santa Fe.

(Courtesy of Bertrand Hug)

Mille Fleurs quickly attracted national attention. It was recognized in the 1990s by Gourmet and Food and Wine magazines as one of the best restaurants in the entire country, Hug said.

“There weren’t that many French/Californian restaurants at that time,” he says. “But we had different things coming our way. We were in Rancho Santa Fe, the wealthiest zip code in America at the time.

“We had a famous chef from Germany who (had) worked in the best restaurant in Munich. And all the vegetables came from Chino Farm, about a mile from here. And so we have built up quite a national reputation.”

Looking for a restaurant in a more metropolitan atmosphere, Hug bought the famous Mr. A’s in downtown San Diego and revitalized the building. It is coveted for the panoramic view from the top of a tall building near Balboa Park.

After selling Mr. A’s after 24 years, Hug said he is satisfied with overseeing Mille Fleurs going forward.

Over the years, he said, the atmosphere of Rancho Santa Fe has changed.

Back in the day, Hug said, Burt Bacharach would come over and play songs in the piano bar.

Crooner Tony Bennett painted Hug’s portrait. Philanthropist Joan Kroc, wife of late Padres owner and McDonald’s magnate Ray Kroc, was a regular. Hug said he remains a good friend of weight-loss expert Jenny Craig.

Today, in keeping with the changing times, Hug has reimagined the 5,000-square-foot restaurant to create more of a neighborhood feel.

“I’ve changed the plan of what I want to do,” he said. “Now we’re more like a local place that’s cheaper than a steakhouse and other restaurants in the area.

“I changed my menu to make it more of an elegant bistro, and that’s the trend now. So this is how I proceed. I serve gourmet food without the price tag.

“We can still serve the freshest food. It’s always been my motto and that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. Now that motto has been adopted by everyone: from farm to table.

“But this is actually what I’ve always done. We change the menu every day depending on what we can get.”

But as can be seen on the restaurant’s website, millefleurs.com, the menu houses such traditional favorites as Black Sea caviar, lobster bisque, asparagus and cauliflower veloute, escargot, duck confit, Atlantic Dover sole and prime angus steak frites.

In the dining room, the ‘delft blue’ Portuguese tiles, hand-painted with blossoms, from which the restaurant takes its name, meaning ‘a thousand flowers’, remain in place.

The ever-popular piano bar with experienced keyboardist Randy Beecher provides entertainment on weekends. Many of the employees have been in place for decades. The location still houses an extensive wine cellar that caters to the most refined palates.

Hug is excited about his current chef: Harrison Axelrod, who left a potential career in mechanical and nuclear engineering to pursue his passion for the culinary arts.

“We’re very happy to have him,” Hug said. “I don’t cook anymore, but it’s my menu. I don’t want to be leading. I want to serve great authentic food with good service. … I just want to have a place where I can go and my employees can work.”

For more information about Mille Fleurs, visit www.millefleurs.com

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