It may not be the most common route to the kitchen, but Justin Focht had never worked at a restaurant, nor had he ever trained as a chef, before a few years ago.
Now, he is both the co-owner and head chef of Le Bistro Cafe in downtown Altoona. Le Bistro, which opened in 2009 in the old H&H Appliance building, is owned by Focht and his brother, James C. Focht II. Both are from Altoona.
Even the menu is a family affair.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Le Bistro Cafe co-owner and head chef Justin Focht prepares one of the restaurant’s Signature Stuffer sandwiches.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Le Bistro has a large patio, with entertainment on most weekends.
"I'm not formerly trained as a chef," Justin Focht, 33, said. "Most of [the recipes] came from my mother. Mom's recipes are incorporated here [and] my grandmother's recipes are incorporated here."
Even the Focht's father, James C. Focht Sr. - who helped open the restaurant and still owns the building - has chipped in.
"Dad likes to tinker around the kitchen and he tinkered around and came up with some things," Justin said.
Le Bistro Cafe
Address: 1213 15th St., Altoona
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday
Price Range: $6.99 (sandwiches) to $19.99 (filet mignon)
Specialties: homemade foods, "Stuffer"
sandwiches, wraps, steaks
Reservations: Accepted. Suggested when
special events are held downtown
Seating capacity: 115 in main dining areas including the patio, plus 100 in banquet room
In its short time, Le Bistro has become a unique dining destination in Altoona.
"We wanted to provide something different for Altoona," Justin Focht said. "When you come in here, it doesn't feel like you're sitting in Altoona."
Walking up to Le Bistro certainly feels a bit like being transported to a European cafe. Behind a tall white fence, you see the ornate white stone patio, decorated with clean grass (OK, astroturf) areas and large black streetlamps. The comfortable patio tables lead you into the main dining room - an open area with painted recesses in the ceiling. The main recessed painting is a version of Michaelangelo's iconic "The Creation of Adam" on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
In fact, art is everywhere you look. Altoona artist Pam Snyder did all the murals for the restaurant - from the exterior, to the dining room, to the huge, full wall mural in the banquet room.
And the Le Bistro staff is proud of their contribution to Altoona's art community.
"People enjoy coming in just to look," Justin Focht said. "In the fall, Penn State students do a project and come around and look at the murals downtown and all the paintings we have in here. Everybody loves coming in and looking at the artwork."
The look of the restaurant is eye-catching - and can surprise the unsuspecting, Focht said.
"Sometimes people are a little shocked in a way, I guess, because they weren't expecting what we've done in here," he said. "It's hard to believe that when this was H&H, they used to change tires and oil here [where the main dining room is now]."
But one loyal patron of the restaurant first visited there precisely for that reason.
Vincent Strate, 81, of Altoona, is a retired sales representative for Goodyear tires.
"One of the first reasons I went into Le Bistro was, in 1957 when I started with Goodyear, their shop was in the building that Le Bistro occupies now," Strate said. "They always sit us in a position where I always look up and say, 'This is where I started learning how to change tires.'"
Of course, if Le Bistro was just decor and art, there would be few repeat customers. Focht is insistent that his food be just as pleasing to the palate as his restaurant is to the eyes.
In addition to homemade breads and desserts, Focht brings in seasonal seafood and buys fresh goods from local farms and businesses as often as possible.
The menu itself is hard to describe in one or two words, by the chef's admission.
Appetizers range from classic dips and bruschetta to homemade hummus and grilled shrimp mac and cheese. The lunch menu is particularly popular, Focht said, with its wide selection of sandwiches and wraps.
Entrees include a large group of Italian dishes and a selection of steaks, among other dishes.
"It's a wide variety - Italian, seafood, steaks - that way everyone can come and get what they like," Focht said. "A lot of places you go, they specialize in only one thing."
The food has proven a hit with the restaurant's customers.
"Their food is always fresh - it's just good food," said Dawn McClellan, a Le Bistro regular. "You can tell that they really care about the product. And it's consistent - no matter what I order, it's always the same."
McClellan, 54, of Altoona, says she goes to the restaurant "probably four or five times a month." She enjoys the decor, as well.
"I think [the decor] is great. It's different," she said. "I love the patio - they have the best patio in town. It's a nice place to hang out."
Strate brings a large group of friends and family into Le Bistro every Saturday night.
"We were looking for a restaurant that had good food, was moderately-priced and good service," he said. "And Le Bistro has all of that."
Strate said he will usually order the same thing on each visit - either the Char-Grilled Filet Mignon or the Char-Grilled Chicken Breast. He's so consistent, in fact, that Focht already knows his preferences.
"He always says 'Which one tonight?'" Strate said with a laugh.
That familiarity with his customers is important to Focht.
"I like to come out and see the customers. If I have time, I'll come out and ask how everything was," he said.
That intimate atmosphere has kept Le Bistro growing. Downtown events like Mishler Theatre shows and summer music festivals are a boon to business, as are such events as the IlluxCon fantasy illustration convention. IlluxCon has partnered with Le Bistro each of the last two years.
A crowd is also brought in regularly by the restaurant's Friday and Saturday evening entertainment, including performances by local musician Zupe every other Saturday.
Eventually, Focht wants to restrict the main dining room attached to the patio to just lunch service and perhaps turn the area into a coffee and pastry shop in the mornings. That would move dinner service down into the spacious banquet room below.
But right now the restaurant is still a small operation. There's just Focht and one other chef in the kitchen and a three-person wait staff, with James Sr. pitching in when needed. Whatever comes in the future, Justin Focht knows that growing a restaurant takes time.
"Right now, we're just trying to stay busy with what we're doing," he said.
Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.