Henri Borel stood by the phone at the end of the bar at Chez Henri on Tuesday night, taking reservations and greeting every customer. He is a hard man to miss and the local restaurant owner will be turning 90 in just over a week, officially on February 11.
Borel has served in the French Navy and worked as a steward for Air France; he has opened up numerous discotheques and night clubs in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, all before finally anchoring himself in The Valley and opening his restaurant Chez Henri, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014.
Interviewed at his Sugarbush Village restaurant on January 24, Borel said that he didn’t ever plan to travel the world or live in the United States; he just “let the wind push” him from place to place. The wind took Borel all over and he lived through some of the world’s most historic times.
He decided to join the Navy after D-Day because it would be “an interesting thing to do” and after the war he spent time in England and New Zealand. When he finally made his way back to France he saw a sign for Air France on Avenue des Champs-Elysees. They were looking to hire and Borel ended up working as a flight steward for 10 years.
He said it was beautiful to work for Air France and he traveled from France to Rio and after that he traveled between Martinique and Cayenne. He also flew to Tokyo, Saigon and Hong Kong. There are few corners of the world that Borel has not seen. Borel said he met a hostess that wanted to quit Air France and go to Sugarbush. He had been skiing in many of the places he had been traveling to and agreed.
When he was about to leave Sugarbush to return to Air France and life in the air, he was convinced to stay in the United States to open a club in New York City. He went on to open many different clubs under the name of Cheetah. It was designed to hold 2,000 dancers and it also had a stage for a band. The historic musical Hair was performed in the club prior to becoming a Broadway musical.
After New York they opened another club in Chicago that was located in the Aragon Ballroom, which Borel said was one of the biggest rooms in the U.S. They did the same thing and they ended up in the thick of the 1968 Democratic Convention. Borel said that the club was bombed, but it was not damaged as bad as other parts of the area. After Chicago, he was ready to move on again, but his business partners once again persuaded him to open one more club in Los Angeles.
At the Los Angeles club, Borel said he housed every artist that one could think of during that time period from James Brown to Jefferson Airplane. Jim Morrison even played there for free. The Doors had been playing at the Whisky a Go Go and Borel said they wanted to play at Cheetah while they were there, but the club did not have the money to pay the band, so they played for free.
Borel said he may have been a fan of the music, but he and his wife had rented an apartment above the club and they were sleeping on the floor. The bands would play late at night and into the morning providing Borel with too much of a good thing.
Borel did eventually leave the business and opened his restaurant in Warren, right next to Sugarbush, although a nightclub was attached to Chez Henri for some time, and he says his “crew “ at the restaurant and the people that come to dine there year after year are what make his time in The Valley so amazing.
If it were up to Borel, he said he would not even celebrate his birthday because his turning 90 is not as special as the people around him.
Sugarbush has planned a whole host of events in honor of Borel’s birthday. The celebration starts Friday, January 27, with an on-snow race on the NASTAR course on Racer’s Edge at Lincoln Peak from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Prizes will be given for the best time, best French fashion and best imitation of Borel. Proceeds from the race will be donated to the Warren Fire Department.
Starting at 3 p.m. Timbers Restaurant will host a birthday apres social featuring French wines and Champagnes. On Saturday, January 28, the birthday celebration continues in the Back Room at Chez Henri with 1970s dance music, a birthday cake, a cash bar and a toast from Borel’s friends and family.