HARLEM — Chef Alain Eoche wants diners at his new French restaurant Chéri to feel as if they were guests in his home.
The space, a former hair salon on Lenox Avenue, looks more like a giant, comfortable living room than a restaurant.
A long dining table is on one end next to the garden and two comfortable chairs sit in front of a fireplace with a television above. A large piano is in the middle of the restaurant.
The menu at the three-month-old establishment consists of a $32 two course dinner that Eoche, 54, dreams up on a daily basis. Most nights, he can be found out in the dining room conversing with patrons.
"My job is to make people happy," said Eoche. "I cook everyday as if I'm cooking dinner for my friends."
The restaurant is a dream come true for Eoche who closed his second Paris restaurant, Le Réconfort, two years ago to follow his long-time dream of moving to New York. As he moved into his 50s, Eoche thought it was time for him to stop dreaming about living in New York and finally do it.
Originally, Eoche saw himself opening an establishment in SoHo, one of the places he was familiar with from his annual visits to the city. But a friend advised him to check out the burgeoning restaurant scene in Harlem.
Chéri is located on Lenox Avenue between 121st and 122nd streets along with other favorites such as Sylvia's, Red Rooster, Settepani, La Bodega 47 and the hamburger joint Harlem Shake.
The wide avenue and historic buildings of the Mount Morris Park neighborhood add ambience.
"The people of Harlem welcomed me," said Eoche. "This community is very special."
Though all of his training to be a chef came on the job, Eoche always knew cooking for others was in his future. When he was 14, Eoche began organizing dinner parties for his friends.
"Instead of going to parties like the other kids, I would think up a menu and invite my friends over for dinner," he said.
Eoche developed a love of cooking from his mother who saved money specifically to get good food for her family.
Today, Eoche says he follows the same pattern for his guests, purchasing organic vegetables and grass-fed organic meats.
When he wakes up in the morning, he's not sure what the main course of the day will be. It depends on what he can get at the market and what vegetables are in season. He doesn't like to buy in bulk and shove things in the freezer.
Some of the restaurant's main dishes have included a pork tenderloin with ginger sauce with mashed potatoes prepared with olive oil or scallops cooked in a butter sauce with champagne braised shallots. Appetizers included zucchini stuffed with ratatouille and goat cheese.
Eoche would prefer for guests to eat the main dish he prepares but, for people who may have allergies or may be vegetarian or just not in the mood for what he has made, he has a couple of standby dishes such as a large salad or the $19 brie burger made with herbs, olive oil caramelized onions and herb mayonnaise.
"As a French chef I never cooked a burger in my life but now so many people come for the burger," he said.
He attributes that to the way he cooks. "I try to reproduce my food not using a recipe but from my memory of the taste," he said.
"I like to cook and make people happy with my food but, for me, it's not enough. I'd feel trapped in the kitchen. My job is not just to give you food. I just didn't want a restaurant, I wanted to create an ambience."