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La Petite passes from father to son

Raymond Renault was just 18 when he told his dad that he never wanted him to sell his popular downtown Fredericksburg restaurant.

The younger Renault, who practically grew up at La Petite Auberge at 311 William St., already knew that he eventually wanted to take over the family business.

More than a dozen years later, that day has finally come.

Christian Renault, who started La Petite 33 years ago last Sunday, turned over the reins of the operation to his son earlier this year and now serves as its consultant. He also continues to play his guitar at the restaurant on Wednesdays.

“Raymond is a very capable restaurant manager and a great chef,” said Renault, who decided to retire partly because of health problems. “I have no issues whatever with him running the restaurant.”

La Petite is something of a rarity in the restaurant business. Most restaurants, especially independents, fail in their first year of operation, according to industry experts. And 70 percent of those that do make it past the first year close their doors in the next three to five years.

Yet La Petite, which is known for such menu items as soft-shell crabs and curry chicken salad, has maintained a loyal patronage and is a mainstay in the downtown Fredericksburg restaurant scene. Several businesspeople profiled in The Free Lance–Star’s weekly Getting to Know column have named it as their local favorite.

Raymond Renault, who has worked as a chef in the restaurant’s kitchen for the past 10 years, said that he plans to continue making the dishes that customers have loved over the years.

“The curry chicken salad, if I did away with that, we’d have a lot of unhappy customers,” he said. “Also the crab cakes, soft-shell crabs and regional dishes.”

Still, Renault has put some of his own stamp on the menu, such as the grilled salmon served over arugula and cannellini beans at lunch. He also makes fresh pastas, including angel hair and ravioli, on occasion.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve modernized them,” he said of La Petite’s dishes, “but used a younger touch since I’m a different generation from my father. It’s a good mix as it stands.”

Renault’s career with the restaurant dates back to when he was 14 and started busing tables and helping with prep work.

“During my senior year [of high school] I needed a career for myself and decided to go to culinary school,” he said.

His father sent him to Johnson & Wales University’s campus in Norfolk, which offers a culinary arts program. He did an apprenticeship at Equinox, Todd Gray’s award-winning restaurant in Washington, while he was there, and then worked at Equinox for a year after graduation.

“Todd worked here at La Petite. That was his first kitchen job, so it was under my dad’s tutelage that he learned his career,” Renault said. “He returned the favor.”

Renault then began working side by side with his father in La Petite’s kitchen, with the goal of taking over one day when his father retired.

“I’ve learned a lot from my dad and he’s sent me in the right direction going forward,” he said.

Renault’s wife, Jessica Renault, is also involved in the family business. She helps with administrative duties and social media, including the restaurant’s website, which is relaunching this week.

The couple has a toddler, Giselle, but Renault said it’s too early to tell if she’ll be the next generation to run La Petite.

“That’s going to be up to her,” he said. “Much like myself, she’s going to be born and raised in this restaurant. She’ll do what she wants, and we’ll support her.”

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407