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August 16, 2012

Le Chalet Français: Four-star restaurant on a one-lane Thurman road

By Persis Granger

 

Le Chalet Français was created within the shell of an old farmhouse built in the early 1800s by Josiah Barton at the location now known as 102 Combs Road in Thurman. Could Josiah ever have envisioned what the future would hold for his farm?

Not in his wildest dreams. The property use changed from farming to tourism in the 1930s, when Joe and Fran McMahon opened Fra-Jo Lodge, later changing the name to Birch Mountain Lodge. An ad in the June 30, 1946 Brooklyn Eagle proclaimed, “July and August, $35 weekly. In the quietude of the Mountains.” That ad was nestled with pitches for many area vacation spots—The Pebloe Hotel (Brant Lake), Twin Streams Ranch (Stony Creek), Friends Lake Manor (Chestertown) and  Holiday Dude Ranch (North Creek). The time was ripe for a good restaurant in Thurman.

Enter Camille and Madeleine Desmaisons. Camille, at the age of twelve, had been apprenticed to a chef in France and had advanced to become internationally acclaimed. He worked winters at The Colony Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, serving a distinguished clientele that included such notables as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the John F. Kennedys, many Hollywood stars, the Shah of Iran and countless others. In 1950 they bought Birch Mountain Lodge, renovated it, and in summer 1951opened it as Le Chalet Français.

A community that celebrated special occasions with potluck suppers and old-fashioned country cooking, was now seeing haute cuisine up close and personal. Residents were working with men and women from other cultures, serving guests who oftentimes arrived in limousines so long they could barely navigate Combs Road’s sharp curves.

Chalet Francais at its Prime

The restaurant’s location was not publicized. Prospective diners were told to call ahead, and call they did: Glens Falls’ social elite, judges, Albany politicians, show business icons—and some locals swear that every president from Truman through JFK phoned, as well. The calls were taken by Madeleine, who took the order for entrées over the phone, and later selected appropriate accompaniments and wine to be served with them. Guests then were given directions to Thurman, where they could follow a series of blue and white “Le Chalet Restaurant” signs, which went up every spring and came down every fall. Once seated, the table was theirs to enjoy for the evening.

 

French Star at Chalet Francais

One day Neil Campbell, whose home was on adjacent property, encountered on his way home from work on that road some strangers with a flat. When they told him they were on their way to Le Chalet Français, he drove them there in his vehicle, took their tire to be repaired, returned to the car and put it on, and then drove to the restaurant to drop off the car and keys. Camille greeted his neighbor warmly and asked if he needed anything. When Neil explained that he had come to return keys to one of the guests, Camille led him to the appropriate table and made the introductions: “Neil, meet Miss Natalie Wood, Mr. Robert Wagner, and Mr. Otto Preminger.”*

Cordon Bleu Awarded!

Camille and Madeleine sold the restaurant in 1972, and it struggled along for a few more years under new ownership, never to return to the celebrated status it enjoyed under the Desmaisons. It is now a private home, once more bearing the name “Birch Mountain Lodge”.

*Neil’s daughter doesn’t recall the incident above, but says, “I remember the day Fred Astaire almost ran over my dog!”

This article is based on stories in The John Thurman Historical Society’s March 2011 Quarterly, which is available for purchase by emailing PersisGranger@aol.com or by phoning 623-9305.

Note:  The John Thurman Historical Society will be hosting “Tour Thurman:  A Guided Jaunt into Homes and History” on September 15, 2012.  The building that housed Le Chalet Français will be on the tour.

© August 16 2012, Warren County Historical Society.

The Chalet Français article was written by Persis Granger.

Reused with permission of author.

 

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