by Guest Contributor Barbara Joy Cooley
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.
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 Porpoise Point.
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.