Chef Richard Blondin Celebrates 30 Years at The Refectory
Chef Richard Blondin will celebrate his 30th anniversary at Bethel Road's The Refectory in 2022.
The most famous international restaurant on Bethel Road is The Refectory Restaurant & Wine Shop, the beloved French fine dining landmark in a renovated schoolhouse and church. It was founded in 1976 under the name the Olde Church-House Restaurant and has remained a Columbus culinary institution ever since.
For most of that time, Richard Blondin has been in charge of the restaurant’s kitchen. In fact, he’s become an institution himself, albeit an unlikely one. On a recent Friday afternoon, the native of Lyon, France, sits in The Refectory’s empty dining room, talking about his career. The chef laughs when asked if he expected to stay in Columbus so long. “No, no, no, not at all,” he says.
In 1992, Refectory owner Kamal Boulos hired Blondin, a disciple of famed chef Pierre Orsi. Blondin had been in the U.S. just a few years, working in French restaurants in Dayton and Vail, Colorado. When he took the job in Columbus, Blondin didn’t speak any English, and he had serious reservations about the size of The Refectory, a spacious dining room with seating for some 150 guests. He would have to learn a new way of cooking, different from the practices he learned from Orsi and other masters in Lyon and Paris, and he wasn’t sure if he could manage the faster pace and such a large kitchen staff.
But he found a way, and in 2022, he’s celebrating his 30th anniversary at the helm of The Refectory’s kitchen, an extraordinary run in Columbus dining history. “I got over it, and I kind of had to change my style,” says Blondin, who learned to speak English by watching American TV. He also put down roots in Ohio. He met his wife, Jackie, while working at L’Auberge, a now-closed French restaurant in Dayton, and made many friends in Columbus. And even though he’s never fully made peace with the churn required at a large restaurant like The Refectory (“I believe that fine dining and volume is like cream and vinegar,” he says), Columbus has become his home, and he can’t imagine working anywhere else in the city. “My opinion is, this is the only true fine dining restaurant in Columbus,” he says.
Still, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t occasionally imagine himself leading a small bistro with a slower pace. Or long for ingredients unattainable in Ohio. Ever since he’s been at The Refectory, Blondin has been on a quest to attain red mullet, a Mediterranean fish common on menus in France but a rarity in Ohio. “It’s my all-time favorite fish,” he says. “It’s this blend of gamey and delicate, with super, super skinny skin. You can eat the skin with absolutely no hesitation. And it has lots of flavor.”
About 20 years ago, Blondin’s ship came in. When his prized order of red mullet arrived, Blondin scaled the fish himself, sitting on The Refectory’s patio. He says diners loved the meal, but no repeat performance followed. He was able to source red mullet one other time, but the fishes were so small he couldn’t serve them as fillets; instead, he used them in a bouillabaisse-style soup.
Yet he isn’t giving up hope. “As of today, I’m still trying to get this,” he says.
This story is from the May 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.