HELL'S KITCHEN — Chez Josephine, the beloved Theater District restaurant, will remain open for normal business after losing its owner, restaurateur Jean-Claude Baker, on Thursday, according to the restaurant's staff.
Baker, who named his restaurant for his “adoptive mother,” the performer Josephine Baker, was found dead in his East Hampton garage in an apparent suicide, according to reports.
Richard Hunnings, a close friend, confirmed his death. He was 71.
The French restaurant at 414 W. 42nd St. reopened Friday, staff said, and would keep serving French cuisine after Baker's death.
Baker was in the restaurant five days a week, charming guests and old friends, said Hunnings, Baker's friend of 28 years.
“What’s Chez Josephine without him?” he said. “We’re all hoping it can go on.”
Hunnings hoped Baker would be remembered not only as an extravagant and flamboyant host but for his kindness and generosity.
He said that at the height of the AIDS crisis, Baker would host a Valentine’s Day dinner for people living at Manhattan Plaza, where many residents were actors.
“He would do dinner for all the people who had AIDS and their partners,” said Hunnings. “And it was really marvelous.”
Baker would invite in passersby who caught his interest, one of whom, Hunnings said, ended up dying of AIDS in Baker’s apartment. Baker organized a funeral strewn with rose petals and a dinner afterwards at the restaurant, Hunnings remembered.
The restaurant was open over the weekend, staff said, and regulars stopped in to pay tribute to Baker.
“Jean-Claude didn’t have a partner, so who do you express your condolences to and share your sadness?” Hunnings said. “So they were coming in and really expressing condolences to the staff.”
While his friend was always “mercurial,” Hunnings said, Baker’s depression had worsened in recent months and he was lonely.
“He had a thousand friends,” including Sopranos actor Michael Imperioli, who was once a waiter at Chez Josephine, Hunnings said. “But that’s different than having someone special, your own person.”
He says friends are planning a funeral for later in January , and a memorial near his birthday in April.