When the Vendée Came to Captiva
The Vendée is a department of France that has a few things in common with Sanibel and Captiva; the most obvious is beautiful sandy beaches. Tourists from everywhere visit these beaches. Birds nest in nearby mangroves along the coast of the Vendée, just like they do on our islands.
However, the Vendée produces fine chicken, duck, lamb,
brioche, a well-known raw cured ham, corn, wheat, and sunflowers – ah, those
beautiful fields of sunflowers! As you
would expect for a coastal area, oysters and mussels are exported from the
Vendée, too. Ham with white beans is a
famous dish from the Vendée, as is a garlic bread called préfou. And of course, the Vendée produces wine.
While Sanibel and Captiva long ago lost their agricultural
economies, the islands did experience, for a couple glorious years, the talents
of Chef Jean Grondin, another product of the Vendée. From 1985 until his untimely death in 1987 at
age 37, Chef Grondin lived on Sanibel and ruled the kitchen of a restaurant on
Captiva called, of course, La Vendée.
|Sunset on the coast of the Vendée.
(Photo by edmondlafoto from Pixabay.com.)
This is the story of how that restaurant came to be.
It begins with a Swedish man, Bengt Nygren, who didn’t like
the way florist shops did business in Sweden.
In 1960s, he started his own flower company, Nygrens Plantskola. The business grew and became a chain of 40
stores called Buketten. Bengt was known
as “The Flower King of Sweden.”
Hard economic times hit in the 1970s, leading Bengt to sell
his business in 1979. Bengt and his wife
Birgitta moved to Britain, and in 1980, they bought two lots of land near the
end of Coconut Drive on Sanibel, in the Wilcox subdivision also known as
Bengt hired an architect (I wish I could find out who) and
built a stunning and modern house on Dinkins Bayou, unlike any other home on
the islands. It is not a large house,
but it is graceful and unique. It is
easy to imagine the home furnished in a modern Scandinavian style.
Bengt entered into several business ventures with Chef
Albert Roux, who had owned two Michelin 3-star restaurants, including Le
Gavroche in London. When Bengt Nygren
wanted to start a French restaurant on Captiva, Chef Grondin – who had worked
at La Gavroche -- was recommended to him by Chef Roux. Chef Grondin had opened L’Orangerie in Los
Angeles, and in the early 80s he moved to Sanibel/Captiva to open La Vendée
with Bengt Nygren.
In April 1985, The Islander newspaper announced the opening
of La Vendée. The restaurant received
high praise and great reviews. Seafood
was the specialty, and the décor (with the help of Bengt and Birgitta Nygren)
was cozy, elegant French.
One of Bengt’s and Jean’s goals was to demonstrate that
great French food did not have to be expensive.
At La Vendée, a person could indulge in a complete, 3-course dinner for
$19. The menu, presented in French and
English, in September 1986 was: choice of escargots in puff pastry or creamy leek
soup with caviar for the starter course; grouper medallion with fennel butter
sauce or roasted chicken with sautéed potatoes, onions, and bacon, or duck
baked with peaches and bacon sauce for the main course; and a choice of
pastries for dessert. Coffee, vegetables,
and salad were also included.
La Vendée was a success.
Then tragedy struck.
On June 3, 1987, Jean Grondin died unexpectedly from a heart
attack while he was at his home on Sanibel.
Bengt Nygren announced that the restaurant would close and be sold,
because it had been built around Jean Grondin’s talents and capabilities. The Nygrens sold their unique Sanibel home a
couple months later and moved to the Virgin Islands.
The building that housed La Vendée, on Andy Rosse Lane,
would eventually become the home of other fine restaurants, such as
Bellini’s. Now the islands are blessed
to have an especially fine French bistro expertly run by Mari Vivet and Chef
Christian Vivet -- Bleu Rendez-Vous on Periwinkle Way. And for about 30 years, starting in 1979,
islanders and visitors were able to enjoy, during season, fine French cuisine
at Jean Paul’s French Corner, on Tarpon Bay Road. The owner, Jean Paul Cavanie, retired but
still lives on Sanibel.
Still some of us will long remember the short-lived but
memorable time when the young and talented Chef Grondin from La Vendée was here
on our islands. We won’t forget him.