Everyone loves Florent Morellet. When his eponymous restaurant fell foul to soaring rents in a neighborhood he was instrumental in making famous, celebrities and journalists rallied to help the bistro pioneer stay afloat. Alas, the inevitable closing was a sad occasion that left many including Sarah Jessica Parker in tears—but Morellet embraces change. He gave us a call late one Saturday afternoon and regaled us with his eccentric life story, and his brushes with Madonna, Maripol and Roy Lichtenstein.
How did you come to open Florent?
I grew up in the west of France, in Cholet, near Nantes. In 1978 I moved to New York and worked at La Gamelle in SoHo where I learned all I know about the restaurant business. I stopped working there in 1984 and I found the R&L restaurant, the future site of Florent, because a friend of mine was living next door to it. Opening the restaurant was so obvious because I was managing La Gamelle for so long––it was a natural transition. I had acquired quite a following so it was the right thing to do.
Was it hard to attract people to such a desolate area of town?
When I was opening, my father [the renowned contemporary artist François Morellet] was having a major retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum and I hosted a huge party for him. Because of that I had a list of hundreds of the coolest people in New York—I invited all of them! Friends worried it wouldn’t take off but it was packed from day one.
What was the crowd like?
We had a very downtown following. Madonna would come often since she was a fan of La Gamelle. Maripol would bring her and say, “I think she may be big so be nice to her!” And I rolled my eyes when she told me her name was Madonna! She ended up [being] such an ass but still came for her big table in the back, for the French fries and goat cheese salad. Roy Lichtenstein was one of my favorite people to dine at Florent. He was so gentle and the least difficult. When he died I cut out a map of the Principality of Lichtenstein and hung it where he used to sit as a low-key memorial.
Florent became the ultimate beacon for tastemakers.
It’s was never so much fashionable as much as it was a community, a family. It was a place where everybody was treated the same, no velvet ropes. The celebrities enjoyed letting their hair down and eating with regular people. We never made a big deal over celebrities, especially me as I never knew who half of them were. Christopher Reeve would come in the early days and someone would yell, “Look! It’s Superman at the bar!” Also, it wasn’t expensive and it was open 24 hours, so it was constantly a young and vibrant group in there. Sarah Jessica Parker was coming for lunch a lot near the end and was crying with the staff before we closed. It was very sweet.
How did you feel about the neighborhood becoming ultra fashionable?
I love change! New York is all about change so I didn’t mind at all. But it always had a cool edge to it, way before SoHo House and all of that.
Name the ultimate Florent highlight.
Bastille Day! The first time we did it was for the Bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989 and we had a small party in the restaurant. I got in period drag and everyone loved it. Annually it got bigger and bigger and near the end we would spend six months of the year working on it and made no money. But in the beginning this was a great way to get people to come to the restaurant during the high-crime times. That’s why we closed down the street, just for safety. We had the Guardian Angels as security!
What made you become such a strong activist?
It started small when I was head of the Gansevoort Neighborhood Association. Then I wanted to be a part of something bigger and joined Housing Works in 1996. I started working in AIDS activism in the mid-80s when I became positive. I rarely told people out right that I was HIV positive but if I got mad at someone I would yell, “Listen I am HIV positive and I am not losing one T-cell over you!” And they would leave and never come back.
What are you doing now?
I’m in a group show in Amsterdam and Italy this summer, and I am working on a memoir and on my cartography. I have loved making imaginary maps of places since I was 12 years old. I guess since my father is an artist I made maps my art. We also traveled a lot. I saw a lot of the world but making imaginary maps helped me explore my own world.