Heather Chestnut spent three years in France in the late 1980s, and it never left her mind.
“I loved the food. I loved the country. I became, after that, a real Francophile, I guess,” said Chestnut, who today lives in a beautiful old home in Schenectady’s GE Realty Plot.
Her dream has been to open a French restaurant, spurred in part by her love of cooking French food and the lack of French dining options in Schenectady and the greater Capital Region.
Her mother always dreamed of opening a restaurant, but didn’t have the training or financial wherewithal to do so. Chestnut has both, so she’s going for it, asking Schenectady officials for approval to open a French restaurant called Chez Nous — “Our House” in English — at 707
Union St., just a block up from the row of restaurants and bars on lower Union Street.
“I figured this is my last chance,” said Chestnut, 59. “I’m either going to make it or not make it. And if I try and fail, I’ll at least know I tried. But I have a lot of confidence right now that it would succeed, because there aren’t any French restaurants around.”
She and her husband, Andrew, have signed a contract to purchase the vacant Victorian building across from Union College. The building is owned by Walter Supley, a Saratoga Lake resident who rehabbed the old German Methodist Church nearby.
They would install a commercial kitchen in the back, a handicapped ramp, antique furniture, bluestone walkways and perennial gardens outside.
The restaurant would include 60 seats plus an outdoor dining area, employ a dozen people and be open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday and brunch on Sundays.
Their proposal will go before the city Planning Commission and the Schenectady Historic District Commission later this month.
Chestnut learned to cook at a very young age from her mother and has spent most of her life in various restaurant, catering and hospitality positions.
She took cooking classes while in France and last year graduated from Schenectady County Community College’s culinary arts program.
She served as head chef at Bethesda House from 2008-10.
“I’d love to do some traditional things but do them with a flair,” she said. “I’m very into the farm-to-table concept and introducing people to French foods, like really good crepes and steak frites and coq au vin and trout almondine.”
Inspired by the unusual menu items at The Epicurean in Latham, she hopes to feature unusual specials when she can, like skate wing smothered in butter and capers.
Chestnut would serve as general manager and maitre d’ while her husband would handle the business end.
The proposed restaurant is just a block from popular lower Union Street restaurants such as Marotta’s Bar-Risto, The Bier Abbey and Café NOLA, among others. Chestnut hopes the new restaurant would spur more development up the street toward Nott Terrace.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to turn a nice, vacant building in a nice location into something,” she said. “We would be extending Restaurant Row, basically, and maybe even more development will come.”