From The Valley Reporter December 24, 2014
Chez Henri celebrates 50th anniversary
By Lisa Loomis
"Everything is an accident in life," said Henri Borel, owner of Chez Henri Bistrot in Sugarbush Village, referring to how he ended up running the popular French restaurant for 50 years.
Borel didn't plan to run a restaurant that generations of the same families would frequent and he didn't necessarily plan to be in Vermont. He was in Los Angeles running a restaurant and had planned to go to Vail to do the same for ski season when Sugarbush founders Jack Murphy and Damon Gadd offered him space for a restaurant where Mutha Stuffers is currently located.
Borel was no stranger to the restaurant business. He had run Ski Club 10 (currently known as Club 10), the Sugarbush Inn and a successful restaurant at The Alpen Inn before heading to Los Angeles.
"They said they had a restaurant for me and I said no because the rent was a crazy New York City rent and everyone who'd been there went bankrupt. I was still in LA and they called me and said they'd give me the ski school storage room and that's where we are today," Borel recalled.
He and his late wife Rosie had no money, he said, so they started scrounging the equipment and furnishings for their restaurant. They built furniture; they knocked down walls to make the arches. They found the onyx bar top and found an espresso machine that is still working 50 years later. There was no fireplace so they created one.
The restaurant opened just before Christmas in 1964 and Borel reports that procuring food 50 years ago in Vermont was harder than it is now.
"It was very hard to make the menu because there was no food in Vermont! I wanted to offer a green salad and I'd have to order a case of iceberg lettuce. I had to get mussels from a customer in Boston and pastries from a friend in Montreal," he said, recalling that Ole Moseson used to bring him smoked salmon from Norway, but only for his personal consumption.
To get unsalted butter he found a dairy in Barre and talked her into making him unsalted butter.
"I used to buy bread in New York City, then LA. We had no storage space so we stored our food outside. Now we have so much food! We had only burgundy and Chablis wine when we opened and Mehuron's didn't sell alcohol, but it was the only place you could get vegetables," Borel said.
What alcohol they could serve, at least until the 1960s, was limited to wine until voters voted to lift the prohibition on selling hard alcohol.
"I'd lived in Africa, South America and Hong Kong by that time. Nothing shocked me. Then I came here and we couldn't buy alcohol," he said.
"Everything is so much easier now. Life is improving. People complain that it is getting worse, but it's not. It's getting better," Borel continued.
In 1971, he was joined by Bernard Perillat (who was in Montreal at the time) as his partner and in 1975 they bought their building, tunneled under the building to the basement of the building next door and opened The Back Room at Chez Henri which was a popular disco and after-dinner destination for several more decades.
Asked what was next for Chez Henri, Borel, 87, said, "I'll never stop. Why would I? I can ski every day. Compared to most people of my generation, I'm in great shape."
Both Borel and Perillat agree that the best part of the business is the variability of their tasks. They greet and chat with customers, they seat customers, they bartend, they order wine, they shovel snow and they repair broken sinks, toilets and stoves. Perillat was trained as a chef and also runs his own restaurant, Bistro du Lac, on the New York side of Lake Champlain in the summers where he is the chef several nights a week.
Borel was raised in a hotel that his grandfather owned and ran and the food and hospitality business rubbed off on him.
"I was sent to hotel school but left after six months because they couldn't teach me anything," Borel explained.
Borel got to Vermont via a circuitous route that started when he joined the French Armed Forces in 1944. After the war Borel set out to see the world. He went to England to improve his English and then accepted a job in the merchant marines. That work took him to South America, Seattle, Panama, New Zealand and beyond. On leave in Paris he was lured away from the water into the skies as an air steward with Air France.
That work took him all over the world and also introduced him to skiing. He then went skiing in the French Alps with Olivier Coquelin who later brought Borel to Sugarbush. Coquelin came to Warren to manage Club 10 at the end of the 1950s. When he left, after several years of running the club (whose members helped Sugarbush attain the nickname Mascara Mountain), he tapped Borel to replace him.
He agreed to take over Club 10 and, with his 6-month-old daughter and wife, moved into a room at Club 10, planning to stay for the season, or maybe a year. That gig led to the Sugarbush Inn, The Alpen Inn and helping Coquelin open the first disco in New York City.
Gadd and Murphy approached him about the ski school storage room, offering him free rent and insurance. He and Rosie agreed and the rest, as Borel would say, was an accident of life, but one that he is thoroughly enjoying 50 years later.