A Taste of Paris in the Desert Le Sans Souci Restaurant
Writer Shannon Severson
Photography by Carl Schultz
A quaint Western town at the edge of the desert seems an unlikely place to find a celebrated, authentic French restaurant, but Le Sans Souci is a Cave Creek institution that has been pleasing diners for nearly 25 years-and it has a very special history.
Owner and Chef Jose Rivera is a shining example of how hard work, loyalty and a never-ending will to learn can propel a person from busboy to top chef and business owner.
As I sat with Rivera, a steady stream of customers approached to give the chef big hugs, to praise his mouthwatering lamb chops, to inquire after his family, and to excitedly tell him when they plan to return.
This is a chef with an ardent fan base. One customer even painted his portrait, which now holds a place of pride in the restaurant’s entry.
“It keeps me young,” he says with a smile. “To walk in and see smiling people and have them call you to thank you for your work-they make me feel good. That’s where the energy comes from.”
Rivera grew up as one of seven children on his family’s ranch in La Lagunita, a tiny town in Santiago Papasquiaro, Durango, Mexico. Along with raising livestock, his family made cheese. In this environment, he learned how to work as a team in and out of the kitchen.
“I learned how to cook early,” says Rivera. “My mother would have us join in to make hand-made tortillas and shape the cheeses.
“When school was out in the summer, we would follow my father through the ranch picking weeds. Being in a team is part of what my parents taught us.
“My entire family lives in Arizona now and they love my restaurant. My parents are proud of me, but I tell them I’m proud of them because their kids all have strong families. It’s what they taught us.”
Rivera began his career “at the very bottom” of the kitchen hierarchy of the Royal Palm, where he met Louis Germain, a Swiss pastry chef and renowned restaurateur, first as the owner of Chez Louis in Old Town Scottsdale and later as owner of Le Sans Souci.
Germain took immediate note of Rivera’s on-the-ball work ethic. After only four months, he approached Rivera with a proposal.
“He was surprised by how much I was on top of things,” says Rivera. “I was always helping anyone new and working as a team. He told me his plan to start a new restaurant and said, ‘You have experience, you’re young and hard-working. When I start my restaurant, I want you to come with me.’
“I wasn’t sure if it was just talk,” explains Rivera, “but when he bought this place, he came to my house and said, ‘Are you still coming? Will you keep your word?’
“I knew if I had given my word, I would go, but I had two jobs, and Le Sans Souci was very far from my house. I didn’t think my car would make it. The next day, Louis came back to my house with a blank check so I could buy a car.”
In his 70s, Germain converted a residential home into the restaurant that stands today. Le Sans Souci opened June 20, 1995, just one month before the birth of Rivera’s oldest child. Rivera learned the recipes, often on the fly, that Germain had carried with him through the years.
On one occasion, he recalls Germain receiving word that a good customer would be coming to dine and wanted a soufflé. Germaine was going to be out of town at his summer home in Colorado and no one else knew how to make soufflé. He asked Rivera to come to his house, wrote the recipe down, and the pair made it together.
“He said, ‘We will make it once and you will be OK,” Rivera recalls. “I said, ‘No problem.’ I did it and the soufflé came out nicely.”
Rivera was never afraid to learn, and continues that spirit to this day. He has no formal culinary training; he learned on the job with Louis and other chefs who have been influential in his career.
Over the years, he was often asked to train recent culinary school grads on the ins and outs of a restaurant kitchen. He holds most of the recipes in his head, but he’s begun to write some down so he can train new chefs, just as his mentors did for him.
“If we care about what we do, we can do anything,” says Rivera. “You just need the basics. School is good, but learning in person is the best.”
When Germain was ready to retire, he wanted Rivera to continue his legacy. The pair had worked together for 23 years.
“He trusted me and wanted me to have the restaurant, but I didn’t have the money,” says Rivera. “I had some savings, but not enough. Everyone said I needed to find a way. They knew I wasn’t one to give up and that I work hard. My brothers and family, cousins and brother-in-law all raised the money together to help me buy the restaurant. I told them it would be a loan.”
It was 2013, and times were tough during the recession. The restaurant was far from town and some wondered if he would make it. Rivera’s restaurant industry knowledge helped him work with every ingredient to its fullest. In today’s climate, he knows that implementation of restaurant pos systems can help keep on top of what is wanted most from customers, which can help business operations in case of lean times happening again.
Customers brought in extra friends when they knew times were slow. His wife, Norma, and their five children worked in the back and front of the house to make it through the lean years. They still number among the restaurant’s staff.
His eldest daughter, Maria, handles much of the marketing for the restaurant and even his youngest, now age 10, loves to be in the kitchen with his dad. He may just aspire to be a chef someday.
“He has the palate, which is very important,” says Rivera. “It’s good that my children grow up here. They can see me working and how I do things.”
If you have a soufflé or peach melba at the restaurant today, it’s likely made by Norma, who Rivera affectionately calls “Mama” because of the love and dedication she has for her family. She has learned many of the recipes that reflect Rivera’s and Germain’s combined 75 years in the restaurant business.
His mastery prompted a former boss of his to ask for his Bordelaise sauce in a cup instead of served daintily spooned over his New York steak.
His personal favorite is Béarnaise sauce. In fact, chefs who he worked under, including Germain, regularly insisted that Rivera be the only one to cook for them, such was his innate talent for turning out culinary excellence.
Over the years, Rivera has added items that he senses will meet the demands of his clientele, including a children’s menu to please families, and happy hour offerings that include both chicken tenders and frog legs.
The restaurant guest book contains signatures and glowing compliments from patrons who have come to dine from Paris and The Netherlands to Brazil and Australia.
With this history of delicious success, what is next for Rivera and Le Sans Souci?
“I always dreamed up refreshing the restaurant a little more,” he says. “Upgrading the patio because people so enjoy it, maybe adding a fireplace. I want to keep the place in good shape and give the best to people.”
He also sees himself training, and learning from, the next generation.
“My servers are all young people, and it reminds me of Louis and me when I started,” he says. “I like working with young people. We learn from the old and the young. There’s joy in learning something new.â