The son of a notable French politician, a member of the aristocratic De Villiers family, a comedian and a chef – Laurent De Villiers has been all of these things, and now he’s a Nebraskan.
These days Laurent goes by Lawrence, but that doesn’t mean he’s forsaken his heritage. He’s French through and through. You can tell by his accent, his general mannerisms and the fact that he owns The Normandy, a local French bistro.
His story is complicated. It spans continents and is marked by periods of rebellion, confusion, joy and renewal.
But Lawrence says his story really started went he met his wife, Renee.
The two met when Lawrence was doing volunteer work with a Catholic Franciscan order in the Bronx. Renee was working at a local shelter and the two quickly became friends. They were from very different backgrounds – Lawrence grew up in a high-brow, political family, Renee grew up in the small, laid-back town of McCool Junction.
After they started dating, Lawrence and Renee moved to Paris for a year before coming back to Nebraska and settling in Lincoln.
It was around this time that Lawrence noticed the lack of French cuisine in Lincoln. He craved it and realized the only place he could find it was in his own kitchen. So, he started small. He opened up a booth at the farmer’s market where he sold crepes and pastries and then started catering authentic French meals to his more eager customers.
Lawrence knew that he needed a full-scale restaurant, and Renee encouraged him to keep exploring this idea.
So, after a short stint in the Railyard’s Public Market, Lawrence bought a former bar and grill at the corner of 17th and Van Dorn streets and transformed it into his French bistro.
“It looked nothing like this when we moved in,” Lawrence said, looking around at his manicured dining room. “But it also took time.”
He was patient when it came to growing his business. He started with authentically French food that he catered to the palettes of Nebraskans and his atmosphere followed suite. In France, he said, you find a lot of small mom and pop shops that serve amazing food and that’s what he wanted to create in Lincoln.
He knew it didn’t need to be complicated, but it needed to be done right and that’s what he did.
Having a local restaurant in Lincoln is hard, it takes time, resources and lots of patience, but Lawrence does it for his family. He and his wife now have three daughters, and carving out a place for his restaurant and his family have become a major part of his story.
It’s a story he didn’t anticipate being his own, mostly, because it’s the opposite of so much of his early life.
Lawrence’s childhood was full of expectations. His family was wealthy and well-known and they hope he’d follow the same path, but early on Lawrence knew that wasn’t what he wanted.
He wanted to start something, run his own business, make and earn his own money – he wanted to be free of his family’s expectations. This search for freedom, along with marrying his wife are what led Lawrence to Lincoln.
It’s a place that’s vastly different from France, but also so different from his elite childhood. Lincoln has quickly become his home, and a chapter in his story that he’s proud to share with his customers.
“We’re not rich, but we’re making it,” he said. “I couldn’t find a better place to raise my children, for my marriage, for my relationships with people – we’re very blessed here.”