In Vino Veritas


Henri was anxious to see the Wild West, so he traveled to the west as far as St. Louis, working on farms or driving horse drawn cabs. In 1857, he returned to New York to convince his Uncle Morel to help finance his first restaurant at 95 Fulton Street, near Nassau Street. It had to have been a small restaurant that relied on the available fresh food of the day. The 25-cent plat du jour was the main menu item. True to his promise to Napoleon, Henri began to teach the American public to drink wine, at 15 cents a carafe.

By 1859, Henri needed more help to run his modest establishment. He sent for his true love, Marie Julie Grandjean of Aubonne, Switzerland. Family legend says that she arrived in New York clutching the family recipe book. They were married April 23, 1859. The marriage lasted until Marie's death in March of 1926. Marie took over supervising the cooking in the kitchen, leaving Henri to serve the wine. A 1935 newspaper article credits Madame Mouquin with introducing French onion soup to New Yorkers. A wonderful article on the Mouquin's appeared in the March, 1932 issue of The American Mercury, written by Benjamin de Casseres. He wrote that her recipe for onion soup contributed to making the Mouquin restaurant famous:

"It was the quickest pick-me-up after a night-of-it that my stomach has ever known. It saved hundreds of newspapermen, artists, and even judges of the Supreme Court from an early enforced sobriety. This thick redemptive mixture of onions, bread, and what else, Mother Mouquin? - not only put you back instantly on your feet, but also caused a delightful yelp of the belly juices for a carafe of vin blanc."

With Madame Mouquin in the kitchen, the restaurant prospered and soon moved to larger quarters at 149 Fulton Street, stretching all the way through the block to 20 Ann Street. The restaurant was near the Fulton Fish Market, and sometime during the Civil War, Madame Mouquin introduced bouillabaisse to New Yorkers. The rich seafood stew quickly became a popular Friday night special. Even though the menu selections were haute cuisine, one thing that made the Mouquin restaurant so popular was that the food was always reasonably priced and affordable.

Possibly to earn his United States citizenship, Henri enlisted in an all-Swiss militia of Company B in the Ninth Regiment of the 83rd New York Volunteers. In 1860, he was appointed drillmaster at Mercer Hall by General Arthur. Henri was part of the honor guard that greeted Britain's King Edward as he first stepped on American soil. King Edward waved aside the dignitaries assembled to greet him, saying he first wanted to shake the hand of the common American soldier. As the shortest man in the regiment, the honor fell to 5'6" Private Henri Mouquin, 23 years old and still a Swiss citizen at the time.

On May 26, 1861, the Ninth Regiment formed up on Wooster Street to assemble at the Washington Square Parade Ground. As reported in the New York Harold, 850 men departed for battle in the Civil War via the Jersey City Ferry. Private Mouquin was among those who kissed their wives and sweethearts good-by. A little over 200 of the original 850 men survived the fierce battles of the Ninth Regiment at: Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg to return home. In spite of the horrors of the Civil War, Henri made a careful note of the fertile land in Virginia, as well as the plentiful supply of oysters, fish, and canvasback ducks - stuff to feed a hungry regiment, or supply a fancy French restaurant in New York City.

He bought his first 12 acres of Virginia soil, near Williamsburg, in 1871, the same year as the Chicago Fire. Perhaps Henri thought of it as a refuge, should a catastrophic fire destroy New York City. He named his farm Archachon, after a resort near Bordeaux, France. Over the next 62 years, Henri expanded his farm to 1200 acres. A reporter for the New York Times described the estate:

"The fields are in an apple pie order quite foreign to the Southern Tidewater country, and the extensive woods are cleared of underbrush, combed and curried like a park and laid out in allees or rides with rond points where these converge just as you see them- on a larger scale, of course - in the forest of St. Germain-en-Laye. Thirty-odd of these allees there are, named after famous streets in Paris, and some of them run down to the waters of Queen's Creek, which is an estuary of the York River." "The house he built of lumber cut on the place and sawed in his own sawmill? The chimneys he set up with bricks made in his own brickyard?The rooms were lined with yellow pine in narrow strips laid on diagonally in patterns after a Swiss fashion of interior decoration?"

Sometime after returning from the Civil War, Henri and Marie also took up residence at a farm on Fountain Lane on Staten Island, NY. Likely the country residence also supplied fresh eggs, milk, and butter to the tables of the restaurant on Fulton Street. Their first child, Henri Fredrick Mouquin was born October 27, 1867. His siblings, Ida and Louis Charles were born later.

At age 33, the same Henri who drove a horse and carriage at a mad gallop to Geneva, still adored the sport. In 1870, he bought President James Monroe's carriage at auction for $900. The carriage was his most prized possession and he kept it in good order for 60 years, refusing to accept the automobile as a mode of transportation. Henri gladly accepted Cornelius Vanderbilt's challenge to a carriage race on Staten Island, and Henri (43 years younger) won the race.

Though Cornelius Vanderbilt reportedly loved his gin served with sugar, Henri offered him wine when he dined at the Mouquin restaurant. A wealthy man such as Vanderbilt would sometimes be offered a complimentary glass of wine with dinner. Later Henri would return to the table to ask if he enjoyed the wine. If the answer was affirmative, Henri did not hesitate to sell several cases, delivered to his customer's wine cellar. The wine importing side of the business grew. In his lifetime, Henri made over 100 crossings of the Atlantic to bolster his wine and cheese importing business.

Henri believed that "to dine without wine" was "piggery." If a customer ordered a meal and refused the offer of wine, he was often served "more bone than meat." The china in the restaurant was stamped with the motto "in vino veritas." The stained glass windows at the front of the restaurant sported the same motto.

In 1873, an economic panic caused many establishments to close. Years later, Henri related to a New York Times reporter: "My business was as hard hit as the others. They said I would have to close. I called my waiters and spoke to them hard words. I told them I could not pay them wages, but they might have commissions - each according to what he sold.

"I lost two-thirds of my waiters who could not sell. But I got others who could sell. So a waiter made for himself $18 dollars a week, not including tips - just a good waiter; the others made more. And myself! Soon I was making more money than before the panic!

"Do you know what is the cure for hard times? I will tell you. It is low wages. When wages are high, people are too proud to work. When the wages come down they are glad to work for what they can get.