French Chef Extraordinaire. UNT graduate and San Antonio native Andrew Weissman made his dream come true, once he knew what it was

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Talking with San Antonio chef Andrew Weissman is as refreshing as eating his pink Texas grapefruit and vermouth sorbet.

This international star of the highest culinary arts is as down-to-earth as he is professional.

In conversation about his remarkable career and his now-famous French restaurant Le Rêve - on the River Walk in San Antonio - he doesn't even utter the words "haute cuisine," or "nouvelle cuisine," for that matter.

Yet his restaurant, which includes New York strip loin, tournedo of beef, slow-roasted wild salmon and diver sea scallops on its menu, is the talk of the world.

Although Weissman made it big in a field other than the one he studied as a radio, television and film major at the University of North Texas, he says his college days and brief career in broadcast journalism eventually led him to his dream. Le Rêve, in fact, means "the dream" in French.

Weissman, a San Antonio native, admits that he was "just a happy-go-lucky guy" when he arrived at the UNT campus in Denton. A girlfriend who'd enrolled at UNT lured him to town, and so he enrolled, too. He tossed around various ideas for what to major in before he settled on radio, television and film.

After graduating in 1991, Weissman worked for the NBC bureau in Mexico City. When he found he didn't have enough work to keep him busy, he started cooking for news crews. The son of a working mother, he'd always cooked for himself, and he knew his way around a kitchen.

Weissman recalls that one day, after serving a meal to the crews, fellow journalist George Lewis told him that although he had eaten cuisine all over the world, Weissman's meal was the best he'd ever had. His comment was a wake-up call to Weissman.

"It clicked in my head that this is what really makes me happy," says Weissman. "I get a lot of joy out of cooking."

And the rest is culinary history.

Weissman left Mexico City and went back to his hometown to talk to his supportive mother about his dream - and take the first step toward it by attending the Culinary Institute of America.

He graduated first in his class. Then, hand-picked by one of France's most illustrious chefs, he headed for Europe. He was the first-ever CIA graduate to be chosen by this particular chef. His skills shone and he found himself working in France's best restaurants for nine months.

Back on the East Coast, Weissman worked for top restaurants, including Lutece in New York and LaGrange in Greenwich, Conn., before getting in on the ground floor with the now legendary Le Cirque 2000. He admits it was all quite a heady experience.

But something nagged at him. He wanted his own restaurant, and he thought, "Why not in San Antonio?"

Although Weissman was advised to drop the idea of putting a fine French restaurant in a city known mostly for its Tex Mex, he ignored the advice.

He had only one problem. He had the chops, so to speak, but he didn't have the money.

So he created Le Rêve on a shoestring, borrowing a few thousand dollars from relatives, chipping in what he could and fixing up a space on the River Walk that had been trashed deliberately by its previous tenants.

"The place was a dump," Weissman remembers. "Horrible. We redid everything."

Never one afraid to get his hands dirty in pursuit of a dream, he did a lot of the renovation himself.

"I was the general contractor," he says.

Today, his perseverance has paid off. Gourmet Magazine, the New York Times, Texas Monthly and many other publications sing his praises, some dubbing his Le Rêve the best restaurant in Texas. His customers call for reservations from all over the United States and the world.

"It's best to make reservations at least three months in advance to assure you can get a table when you're in San Antonio," Weissman says.

Obviously, it takes drive and pluck to do what Weissman has done. But it also takes creativity and resourcefulness with food.

"I believe in minimal manipulation," he told New York Times writer R.W. Apple Jr.

He likes to use local products, such as Texas pink grapefruit, but he also brings in the finest foods and wines from far and wide. Everything is as fresh as possible. And, everything is cooked fresh - never ahead.

For Weissman's customers, an evening at Le Rêve is a mouthwatering, leisurely experience never to be forgotten.

"We've hit our stride," Weissman says. "It's become a destination restaurant."

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108