Chef’s Restaurant & The French Connection
By Mike Billoni
When you walk into the renovated Chef’s Restaurant on Seneca Street in Buffalo there is a banquet room that seats 35 on your immediate right that is dedicated to the famed French Connection from the early days of the Buffalo Sabres.
“When we were designing the addition to Chef’s Restaurant in 2010, Rene looked at this room and said, ‘For all the time we spent in the restaurant with you and your father, you should name this room after the French Connection,” said Louis John Billittier, who co-owns Chef’s Restaurant with his sister, Mary Beth after the death of their father, Lou, in 2000.
“I liked the idea and I had a lot of memorabilia from when they played so I put most of it on the walls,” Louie Billittier said. “A lot of the pictures are ones people have never seen before. This is more than a tribute to these guys for all the years they spent here.”
Lou’s most memorable item in the room is a large photo of the French Connection dressed in tuxedos from when Perreault was inducted into the Hall of Fame. The French Connection presented it to Lou’s Dad during an Alumni game in 2000. “It was four months before my Dad died and he was very sick but he wanted to be there with those guys. My father really loved that experience,” Louie John explained.
Another memorable photo at Chef’s Restaurant was one with Louie John, his sister and his dad with the French Connection in their hockey uniforms in 1997. “It was 1997 and we were rolling out our brand of bottled sauce so we used the Connection in our Chef’s Restaurant television commercials. Those were some fun times for all of us.
“After the commercial had run for several years, Rico and his wife come into Chef’s Restaurant for dinner,” Louie John said. “Rico comes up to me and says, some women and man come up to me in the Boulevard Mall and says I know you. You are the guys from the Chef’s Restaurant commercials who sings.” Rico replies, “No, I play hockey.” To which the man, “No, you were on the commercial singing. You are a singer, right.”
Chef’s Restaurant opened in 1923 and in 1941 young Louis Billittier was hired to wash dishes by then owners Gino Silverstrini and Lee Federconi. Lou worked his way up to busboy, then waiter, eventually earning the title of restaurant manager and in 1950 he became sole owner. The basic history of Chef’s Restaurant comes down to a happy story of a local boy who made good in his hometown. Chef’s restaurant has always been a place where Family and Friends meet to eat.
Lou became a father figure, advisor and friend to the members of the French Connection from when they arrived in Buffalo in the early 1970s. “Back then there was always one of them in my dad’s office asking for advice or just talking to him,” Louie John remembers.
“A perfect example of their love of my father was when he died. The three of them were in Western Canada doing some promotion when they heard he died,” Louie John said. “Rene called me and said, ‘You are not burying your father until we get back there.’ I said, Yeah, okay and went on with our plans. They immediately left Western Canada and took two planes into Toronto where they rented a car so they could make it to the wake on time. That was impressive.”
Richard Martin was responsible for missing the official dedication of the French Connection Room at Chef’s Restaurant last year. He kept postponing it and then suddenly on March 13, he died.
“Rico stopped in the restaurant the day before he died and I got him to sign a French Connection jersey that I was going to use for a charity event,” Louie John said. “The next morning I was shopping at Wegmans when Tickets (Danny Gare) called . He said, ‘You are not going to believe this but Rico just died.’ Stop it, I said but it was true. I immediately called Rene and he had already heard the news and he told me his own brother had just passed away that day. It’s funny I had a phone message from Rico the night before he died.”
A week after he died, Louie John called Rico’s wife to ask if it was okay that they dedicated the new room at Chef’s Restaurant in honor of the French Connection. He explained that he was going to ask the Sabres new owner, Terry Pegula, to step in for Rico. She was fine with it. Louie John called the Sabres and Pegula said he would be honored to participate. “Terry was great and at the end of the ceremony I gave him the framed French Connection signed jersey and a Captains of the Aud framed autographed photo,” Louie John said.
Louie John met Pegula and his wife, Kim, soon after they purchased the Sabres. “They came to Chef’s Restaurant having dinner one night and I told the server to tell them, welcome to Buffalo and dinner is on us,” he said. “The server came back and said Mr. and Mrs. Pegula would like me to come to their table to thank me. I go back and here comes this women running towards me saying, “I’m Kim Pegula and thank you so much.
This was awesome for you to do this for us. She was so sincere about it. A week later I received a hand written thank you letter from them. What class.”
Chef’s Restaurant association with the French Connection and the Buffalo Sabres began when the Knox brothers were awarded an NHL expansion franchise in 1970. The long-time trainer of the American Hockey League Buffalo Bisons who followed the team into the NHL, Frank Christi, was responsible for sending players to Chef’s. He was a friend of Lou’s and when the players started coming into town Frankie explained that they were not making much money and they needed a good meal. Lou welcomed the players, including Perreault, with open arms and he never charged them for a meal.
Louie John was a 15-year-old student at St. Francis High School who worked at Chef’s restaurant in his spare time. He and his father used to watch games that year by standing on the ice at the Zamboni entrance. “It was a great experience,” said Louie John. “I got to meet all the players.”
During the second season when Martin joined the team, Louie John was in the kitchen washing dishes when Christi called in a panic. They had just fired the stick boy for the visitor’s bench and he needed one immediately because Minnesota was in town for a game that night “He asked if I was around because he needed me on the visitor’s bench,” he explained. “I didn’t know the first thing about being a stick boy and next thing I know, I am in the dressing room with the North Stars. Early in the game Bill Goldsworthy broke a stick and I am trying to find one for him and he starts yelling at me. It was horrible. “
“It was a great experience,” said Louie, who was a stick boy for seven seasons. “I worked for all of the great players—Gordie Howe, Phil Esposito, Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky.”
The Billittier’s were close to Richard Martin from the time he was drafted by the Sabres in 1971. “That year my father would open Chef’s Restaurant on Sunday’s just for the players. They all loved my father,” Louie explained.
Robert, who would tell everyone Lou was like a second father to him, joined the Sabres in 1974 after a trade with Pittsburgh.
Just like any father, Lou wasn’t afraid to scold a player when they deserved it.
“One time in the Aud,” Louie said, “they had these cage-like tunnels for the players to walk under to get onto the ice. Well, Rene was coming through and there were a bunch of screaming kids above. We were standing right there and Rene said, “These f…. kids, what are we f….. animals in a zoo for Christ’s sake. My father grabs him by the jersey, pulls him over and says, “If it wasn’t for these kids you wouldn’t have a job.”
Rene just looks at him and then skates off. After the first period, he says to my dad, “Hey, I thought about what you said and I want to talk to you after the game.”After the game Lou was in the locker room when Rene came up to him to say, “I want to apologize to you. You were right. I was out of line to say those things. “” From that day on, they became best of friends.”
A similar event happened in Chef’s Restaurant with the Buffalo Bills’ Hall of Fame defensive end, Bruce Smith. “Early in his career, Bruce, who used to come in every week, was seated alone eating his lunch when a young boy came over and said, ‘Hey, would you sign this autograph?’ Bruce looked up and responded by saying, ‘Get the f…. away from me.’ My father heard about it and storms over to his table, goes right up to him and says, ‘Get the f…. out of my restaurant,’ Louie said.
“I am in the kitchen thinking, ‘Oh no, he is going to get pummeled.’ Bruce responded by saying ‘I will sign the autograph’ and my Dad says, ‘You are God damned right you will.’ So Bruce signs the autograph for the young boy. When Bruce was done eating he went up to my father and said, ‘Mr. Billittier can I tell you something I just want to apologize. I had a tough day at practice. My dad responds, ‘You had a tough day at practice. How do you know that kid didn’t have cancer’ My dad was giving him a big lecture.
“Bruce listened and said, ‘You are right. I was wrong. I’ll tell you what, I am going to be here at Chef’s Restaurant every Friday for lunch throughout my career so we had better get it hashed out now,” Louie said.
Bruce was true to his word. He was in Chef’s Restaurant every Friday like clock work and his order was always the same—one-half loaf of Italian bread and a soup bowl filled with sauce for dipping. Then he would have an extra large platter filled with spaghetti parm. Bruce also flew both Lou’s to the four Super Bowls so they could prepare his Friday lunch. When Lou died, Bruce called Louie John and he sent a large bouquet of flowers.
“My father had that way with the players where he would yell at them but they all respected him for it,” Louie explained.
“Another time we were standing by the door to the ice and Rene comes by and whacks my father on the ankle before he goes onto the ice. He scores two goals that period and he tells my dad he was stay there because he is going to whack his ankles before every period,” Louie explains. “After a few games my Dad says, ‘This sonofabitch, I have black and blue marks all over my ankles.”
Now it is Louie John in his father’s shoes with the Sabres players. “It is exciting for me,” he said. “I know these players on a first name basis. I’m very fortunate and I consider many of these players (alumni and current) as half-brothers. “
Chef’s Restaurant Celebrates 90 Years
Chef’s Restaurant has been a fixture on Seneca Street in the City of Buffalo since 1923. On September 11th, 2013 those ninety years of excellence was celebrated in style. Owner’s Mary Beth and Lou Billittier Jr. threw the world’s biggest pasta dinner outside of Chef’s Restaurant under two huge tents that held over 900 hungry patrons.
Chef’s Restaurant has been a longtime spot for the movers and shakers of Buffalo as well as professional athletes, especially the Sabres. Many of those folks were on hand as huge bowls of rigatoni and salads were served at $10 a plate. Proceeds from the banquet went to the Wounded Warriors Project.
The Master of Ceremonies for the event was former WKBW-TV personality Dave Thomas who’s real name is David Boreanaz, father to television actor David Boreanaz of “Bones” fame. Dave, who did weather, hosted Rocketship 7 and Dialing for Dollars at Ch 7 was a long time friend of Lou Billittier Sr. Dave “Thomas” is also known as Dave “Roberts” in Philadelphia where he became the main weather anchor at WPVI in Philadelphia after leaving Buffalo in 1978.
Boreanaz was also one of the regulars at Chef’s Restaurant back in the 1960’s and 70’s along with fellow personalities Irv Weinstein, Rick Azar and Tom Jolls. In fact, Dave was credited for coming up with the idea for Chef’s iconic “spaghetti parm” while sitting at table #1 in the original restaurant.
A formal ceremony was held in the middle of the sit down, family style dinner and first featured a tribute to 9/11. Next came a walk down memory lane as a video featured some of the faces and moments that have made Chef’s Restaurant more than just a restaurant to eat a meal. The finale was a massive confetti explosion, much to the delight of the hundreds of appreciative Chef’s Restaurant regulars.
Caterer Manny Lezama created a podium sculpted out of ice as well as an ice sculpture of the trademark “Chef” and a five foot cake of the same iconic image.
The event that kicked off the 90th Anniversary celebration was Chef’s Restaurant Media Meatball eating Contest won by Carl Russo of 97 Rock back in August.
Chef’s Media Meatball Eating Contest
Lou Billittier’s “Bald For Bucks”