Sylvie Le Mer, a beloved San Francisco chef whose Mission District restaurant Ti Couz introduced a generation of San Francisco diners to authentic French crepes and helped establish the city’s distinctive style of modern, casual dining, died on Oct. 31. Le Mer was 60 years old.
In an email sent to some of Le Mer’s friends over the weekend, which was shared with The Chronicle, Le Mer’s nephew said the chef will be remembered for her “tremendous love” and “deep generosity.” Mission Local was first to report of the news of Le Mer’s death.
Le Mer died in the French city of Nantes, according to the email, which did not explicitly state the cause of death. A comment in the email indicated it might have been suicide.
“Her pain in this world got too unbearable and she decided to search for peace elsewhere. Her loss leaves us with a profound sadness and emptiness. We hang on to the tremendous love she gave us while she was here and to her deep generosity,” the email reads.
On Monday, dozens of people gathered for a vigil at the corner of 16th and Valencia, which is just a stone’s throw from the former location of Ti Couz, to remember the chef’s life. On Facebook over the last few days friends reflected on their personal relationships with Le Mer.
San Francisco author Lorrie Denise Sargent said Le Mer “was a profoundly spirited and loving woman” while Bay Area chef Marco Senghor, who spent part of his life in France, said she was his “mentor” after he arrived in San Francisco in the 1990s. Senghor opened his first restaurant, Little Baobab, in the Mission District in 1996, and it was Le Mer who helped him navigate the process of obtaining a liquor license for it.
Betty Traynor lived in the Mission District in the 1990s. She became friends with Le Mer while they were members of the the 16th Street Association, which was a group of local residents and business owners who worked to improve the neighborhood. Traynor said in an interview that the chef’s culinary work proved to be “the lifeblood” of the neighborhood for much of the decade.
“Her restaurant was one of those first places that brought in people from outside of the neighborhood to the area,” Traynor said. “At the time, there weren’t really any other places doing that.”
Le Mer opened Ti Couz in 1992, a time when San Francisco’s Mission District did not have the rich diversity of dining options it has today. Ti Couz closed in 2011 and was replaced by sports bar Giordano Bros. Before it shut down, Le Mer briefly extended the restaurant into the space next door with an oyster bar called Ti Couz, Too.
The original restaurant’s run in the city is most remembered for being an eclectically bohemian space, often populated by young, diverse crowds. The crepes Le Mer served were from homespun recipes based off her childhood in Brittany, watching as her grandparents used a round cast-iron pan on a tripod over the coals to make them. In a 1994 review of the restaurant, then Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer talked about the joy of watching staff at Ti Couz pour buckwheat flour onto a hot grill to make the crepes, before pulling them off “steaming like a hot, damp towel.”
The restaurant was also beloved for its seafood salad and hard Breton cider served traditionally in ceramic bowls. Those touches were part of how Le Mer also helped popularize a particular regional cuisine of France. In her “San Francisco Food Lover’s Guide,” restaurateur and food writer Patricia Unterman described the restaurant as “a real creperie like you might find in Brittany.”
What also made Ti Couz unique was the restaurant’s ambiance — it was French cuisine served without formality, high prices or white tablecloths, a forerunner to what would become a certain style of San Francisco restaurant that served quality food in a casual space.
Paula Tejeda, the owner of Chile Lindo empanadas in the Mission District, was also a close friend of Le Mer also as part of the neighborhood’s 16th Street Association in the 1990s. Tejeda said Le Mer’s legacy in San Francisco extends beyond what she accomplished with her restaurant.
According to Tejeda, Le Mer helped immigrants new to the city, especially from France, learn to navigate life in the United States. She offered them jobs with competitive salaries, and in her restaurant, rotated the staffs often so workers could learn more parts of the business, interact with customers and, if needed, improve their English, Tejada said.
“Sylvie was the epitome of what certain women bring to the table when it comes to having a business and using that business as a place to uplift the community around it,” she said. “It was her generosity and love for everyone that we’re going to remember most.”
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