Meet the Hugos: Michelle and Florian Hugo Run Their Dream Restaurant in NYC

    The heavy rains in New York City did not stop the busy restaurant Maison Hugo from serving lunch to their most esteemed patrons. Guests shuffled into the Upper East Side space from the street, ready to satisfy their big appetites with the eatery’s modern French cuisine. At the front of the house, Michelle Hugo welcomes customers with a smile on her face. The petite Filipina has been living in New York for the past 27 years and began this business with her husband, French chef Florian Hugo in 2015. Florian is busy with food preparations at the back, where he and his team prepare everything from scratch. Out of the kitchen comes reborn classics such as Gougeres (or freshly baked cheese puffs) and the Grand Marnier Soufflé, which are served on tables covered in classic white linens.

    The dynamics between husband and wife are remarkable. They have a quiet understanding, allowing the restaurant to move like a well-oiled machine. One mind stays focus on the business, while the other performs gastronomical artistry. Together, they create a dining experience loved by New Yorkers—if a packed restaurant on a stormy day is any indication. It is the proper stage to shine for these soul mates, who happen to have met at the right place at the right time. 

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    Michelle and Florian the bar of their Upper East Side restaurant Maison Hugo

    The Boy from Provence

    Florian’s childhood was spent entirely on the French countryside. The Provence native dreamt of being a diplomat in his youth. His Great Great Grandfather Victor Hugo is the famed literary icon, who penned the novel Les Miserables. “Although I enjoy writing, I certainly didn’t inherit his writing skills! When I was thinking of what I’d do when I grew up, I always had a dilemma between studying for an intellectual job or a manual job, since I had affinities for both. My mom was always an intellectual, teaching for the most part of her life. My dad took over my grandfather’s line of work, as a goldsmith,” he shared.

    The chef found his love for the culinary arts at the tender age of 12. “I didn’t eat anything from the school cafeteria, so my mom decided I had to cook for myself for every lunch,” he reminisces. As he got older, he followed a path towards a career as a diplomat, studying law and political science at Aix en Provence. After an eye-opening lunch at Troisgros in Roanne, Florian had an epiphany. “I had an incredible culinary experience. I discovered French cuisine could be creative, imaginative and daring.” Although it would take him several years to outweigh the pros and cons of following his newly realized dream, Florian took the leap of faith and decided he would become a chef and restaurateur.

    A Delicious Life Calling

    “My desire to please people, to travel and mostly to create special celebrations through the art of cooking eventually pushed me to study the culinary arts,” he reflects about the period of his life when he left law and decided to enter the world of food. He traveled to Ecully, Lyon, where he enrolled to study culinary at the Institut Paul Bocuse. Life was good for the young cook, who flourished in his artistry. He found interest in re-interpreting classic French dishes. Eventually, he began work with acclaimed Chef Alain Ducasse, where he helped open 14 restaurants (at different levels in the kitchen) in Paris, Monaco, London and New York.

    The Business Savvy Filipina

    Thousands of miles away from the French countryside region of Provence, a young Filipina girl named Michelle Consing was attending college in Manila. The daughter of a politician-journalist, Michelle was raised to have an emancipated mind, becoming a woman’s right advocate at 18 years old. Her thirst for success brought her to New York City, where she dabbled in several industries before finding a job with a Saudi-based investment firm. Her work took her around the world, and eventually to meet the young Hugo in Paris.

    In December 1999, Florian found himself in Paris. Through common friends, he met the charming young girl named Michelle. Successful and driven, the Filipina was working in investment firm Saudi Economic Development Co (SEDCO), ran by the controversial Bin Mahfouz family, the second richest family in Saudi Arabia. He was intrigued by her drive, but the ambitious chef’s mind did not stray from his ultimate goal: to open his own restaurant by the time he was 40. Little did he know that Michelle would become his wife and business partner. 

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    Michelle and Florian met in Paris. They opened Maison Hugo together in 2015.

    Their instant connection sparked an immediate romance. The savvy businesswoman shared the same vision as her future husband. Their aspirations grew together and they worked towards a common goal: a modern French brasserie located in the Big Apple. As they dated, Michelle found a job with the Italian Trade Commission, where she promoted Italian products in the United States. Her focus was on fashion, food, wine and luxury items—the right training before owning a European restaurant in a chic neighborhood.

    A Family Affair in the House of Hugo

    Michelle and Florian married and had a daughter. In 2014, the New York residents decided it was time to put their experience into practice, and finally developed their own restaurant venture. Maison Hugo opened its doors at 132 East 61st Street on October 2015. “We wanted a restaurant that represents us—homey but fun, with the concept of mixing the classics, the modern and very healthy choices on the menu,” mentions Michelle.

    “We applied the same philosophy we have when hosting our guests at home,” continued Florian, who makes everything using fresh ingredients in the kitchen. “We like to say it is an extension of our own home. We want our guests to feel very comfortable, not rushed, and feel the warm hospitality and not just a robotic experience. We are involved in every aspect of the operation on a daily basis, as if we were hosting a dinner at our place every day.”

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    Maison Hugo has a homey feel to it. The owner's want their guests to feel as if they were throwing a dinner party at their own apartment.

    The Hugos keep restaurant operations a family affair. Florian stays in the kitchen, creating French dishes with love and exciting the taste buds. Michelle manages the eatery’s day-to-day operations, often staying at the front of the house to assist the busy crowd. She moves through the room as if it were her living room, giving wine and food recommendations to her cherished guests. When school’s out, their 12-year-old daughter Ella-Rose helps in the restaurant. She even designed the children’s menu herself.

    Food That Comforts the Soul

    Dishes at Maison Hugo is the chef’s take on modern French cuisine. It comforts the soul, and is served in an unpretentious manner—although the plating remains to be attractive and the flavors are mouthwatering. Some of Florian’s reborn classics include the previously mentioned cheese puffs and Grand Marnier Souffle. Other dishes reflect his background in modern cooking like the Saumon Cru à l’aneth (Salmon crudo with dill sauce), the Tarte Flambée de thon (Tuna tarte flambée), the Raviole de Cèpe au Foie Gras, and the Coquilles Saint Jacques with celeriac purée, oven-dried grape, bacon and spiced port reduction.

    The lunch menu at the eatery shines brightly, as well. It is suggested to order the Escargot Ravioli, which comprises of a deliciously seasoned piece of escargot wrapped in a deep-fried dumpling. The Tuna Tartare is a best seller, even getting props from a prestigious New York-based magazine. Florian’s secret: “Always use fresh products, and always cook from scratch!”

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    The Escargot Ravioli is a must have at Maison Hugo

    GOUGERES

    Freshly baked Gourgeres

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    The scallops dish is tender and flavorful

    Lady Boss Empowering Others

    Michelle has not let go of advocating women’s right just because she’s busy with a business. It has become a lifelong commitment since she decided to become an advocate during her schooling days. “I’m humbled to be one of the ambassadors of the Womensphere Foundation, the one big thing that’s been keeping me busy aside from running the restaurant and motherhood,” she shares about the organization that is, according to their official website: “dedicated to empowering women and girls to lead, create our future, and transform our world”. She closely works with founder Analisa Balares and a team of “brilliant and inspiring individuals committed to making a difference.” Future plans include organizing a Womensphere Emerging Leaders Global Submit at the United Nations this fall. They plan to bring together inspiring women to share stories that empower others.

    In the Hugo household, Michelle tries to instill the same mindset in her daughter, “I feel so blessed to have such a close relationship with my daughter, she just turned 12 yet she and I have gone so far in our discussions about current events, politics, diversity and cultures, and topics such as feminism (believe it or not)! I have always encouraged my daughter to not only use her words, but to make sure she is heard. If she wants to see change, she must take part in it!”

    It’s All in the Dynamic

    Days begin as early as 6:30AM, as Ella-Rose’s parents prepare her to go to school, before Florian and Michelle take a short walk up to their restaurant. The rest of the day is filled with preparations for both lunch and dinner. Florian begins his long day in the kitchen, while Michelle deals with numbers, e-mails and reservations. Like any business, the going gets tough, although the husband and wife tandem have developed strong dynamics that help them get through it.

    “Though my husband and I are almost inseparable as we live and work together, I believe in the importance of making room for individuality. Supporting one another doesn’t always mean being part of one’s dream or passion. Support can also mean giving that space and freedom to evolve,” she says. Because of their bright attitudes and mutual understanding, the two allow each other to focus and shine at what they do best. Their purpose at the restaurant can surely be felt by diners enjoying the homey atmosphere and top-notch cuisine.

    It is no surprise that Maison Hugo has become a buzzed-about spot in its tiny corner at the Upper East Side. Its owners give it enough care and attention, assuring that no spoon, fork, knife or champagne flute is out of place. With a successful business, Florian and Michelle are looking into expanding. Florian shares, “We are connected internationally and are looking into possibly opening a concept in Manila; maybe a French-Filipino spin-off of our New York concept.” One thing’s for sure, the house will be well-built.

    SEE MORE PHOTOS FROM MAISON HUGO…

    Text and photography by Chino R. Hernandez
    Portraits and additional food shots courtesy of Maison Hugo

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