After more than 25 years in the United States, Yakov Fleysher is looking forward to the next chapter for Bistro Le Bliss.
Yakov Fleysher made his first soup when he was just 5 years old.
The owner and executive chef of West Bloomfield’s Bistro Le Bliss, which fuses traditional Eastern European fare with French cuisine, boiled orange peels with different ingredients.
The then-5-year-old, who grew up in the former Soviet Union in a small city 20 miles outside of Riga, Latvia, called Ogre, fed the soup to his father. “My dad ate it, and he liked it,” he recalls with a laugh.
Encouraged by the response, Fleysher, now 42, continued to cook. By the age of 16, he was regularly flipping and serving up blinchiki, or thin Russian-style crepes for his family. “Whenever someone wanted crepes, I was supposed to make them,” he says. “Cooking was in my DNA.”
Fleysher’s great-grandmother was a chef. His great-grandfather also operated a kosher butcher shop. “Before the Soviets came to Latvia, my family was making kosher food and kosher meat for Jewish people,” he explains. “I was inspired by them.”
He likens his lifelong passion for cooking and the art of food to the Sanskrit word of “samsara,” a fundamental belief that life is cyclical and that all living beings are reborn. “I knew all my life I was ready to cook,” Fleysher says. “Life led me to it. It’s just the way it was.”
A New Future
As Bistro Le Bliss, which will celebrate three years in operation this August, gets ready to welcome a recently secured liquor license, Fleysher is already cooking up creative plans for how to remodel the restaurant to accommodate a new bar and eating area.
He also has new dishes in the works that follow Bistro Le Bliss’ traditional style of incorporating unusual ingredients into beautifully arranged plates. The restaurant plans to begin selling charbroiled sturgeon, roasted beet and herring tartare, and beef and herring carpaccio.
“They’re Eastern European with a French influence,” Fleysher says of the upcoming menu options. Yet these dishes aren’t easy to make; the chef and restaurant owner spends weeks, sometimes longer, developing and fine-tuning recipes.
“It’s trial and error,” he continues. “Every day, you think about your inspirations and create new combinations from them. After several tries, you come up with the perfect combination.”
It’s a practice that Fleysher has refined in his 37 years of cooking.
From his early years living behind the Iron Curtain to the culinary career that he built from the ground up in the United States, the self-taught and classically trained chef has taken bits and pieces of different life experiences to shape the dishes and cooking style that he’s known for today.
“You have to study your people, your customers,” Fleysher explains. “You have to know what they want and what they’re looking for.
“Everyone has different habits and different ways about food,” he continues. “People used to tell me, ‘Why are you opening a restaurant in West Bloomfield? It’s very difficult.’ And I would say, ‘No, it’s not. This is the clientele I know, and I know how they like their food.’”
Building a Brand
Since immigrating to the United States in 1995 and settling in Metro Detroit at the age of 17, Fleysher has steadily built a loyal clientele that follows him wherever his cooking takes him.
One of the first jobs he landed in Michigan was working as a dishwasher making $4.25 an hour. But his manager saw potential in the young man. “He pushed me to open my own restaurant,” Fleysher recalls. “He pushed me to go to college, and he was willing to pay for my education.”
Over the next few years, Fleysher attended Oakland Community College while refining his culinary skills. He cooked with chefs from Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Mexico, among others, learning about different cuisines as he prepared to open his own restaurant.
After nine years, he was finally ready. In 2004, Fleysher opened Cafe Rendezvous, a breakfast and brunch diner in West Bloomfield inspired by Eastern European food. Yet he realized there was more he wanted to do. Fleysher eventually sold Cafe Rendezvous in 2011 with the dream of opening Bistro Le Bliss, though he didn’t know at the time what the concept would be.
He only knew West Bloomfield was the right location for his second restaurant. “I was looking for a network of people [to cater to] and for some of these people, I’ve been making food for nearly 20 years,” he says of West Bloomfield clientele. “I was looking for a place with potential.”
He found it near the crossroads of Orchard Lake and Maple. “When I found this place, and it became available,” Fleysher continues, “I knew it would be perfect for French European bistro.”
Bistro Le Bliss opened Aug. 27, 2018, which also marked 20 years of marriage on the dot for Fleysher and his wife, Julie. For the couple, who operate the restaurant together, it felt like a sign.
The Fleyshers designed the restaurant with an open kitchen so Yakov Fleysher can see his customers while he cooks and they, in turn, him. The layout was intentional, Fleysher explains.
The restaurant has a loyal clientele that includes some customers who sit down every week for a hot meal. Most popular on the menu are the West Bloomfield onion soup, whitefish meuniere and beef stroganoff, though a regularly rotating menu keeps things new. Yet for repeat customers, Fleysher has their favorite meals already simmering before they even take a seat.
“You know who they are, what time they’re coming and what they’re going to eat beforehand,” he says of some Bistro Le Bliss customers. “For every single person who walks in, you develop a relationship with them.”
Path to Freedom
After more than 25 years in the United States, Fleysher is looking forward to the next chapter for Bistro Le Bliss. Yet like many other Soviet Jews who escaped the former Soviet Union due to antisemitism and limited opportunities, Fleysher carries a special appreciation for Jewish culture.
It’s one of the building blocks of Bistro Le Bliss, which caters to a large Jewish clientele and features Jewish-inspired classics, though often with Fleysher’s custom twist. Growing up in Latvia, Fleysher was surrounded by a small, but close Jewish community that often stuck together.
As the Soviet Union neared winter of 1991, which finally saw the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Fleysher’s friends began to move away. One by one, Jewish families immigrated to countries like Canada, Israel, Australia and the United States. Eventually, the Fleysher family was one of the last Jewish families left in Ogre. They, too, decided to leave Latvia for a better life abroad.
“We were the last of our family to immigrate,” recalls Fleysher, who had two uncles immigrate to the United States in previous years. The family felt it was finally time to go, as the collapse of the Soviet Union left the republics, including Latvia, in various states of chaos.
“It was like hypothetically, if the United States collapsed into 50 different countries,” Fleysher explains of the end of the Soviet era. “Everyone was grabbing whatever they could, because in the Soviet Union, everything belonged to the government.”
In the chaos, Fleysher was once physically attacked for no reason. But the family couldn’t leave right away. Applications to emigrate took months, sometimes years, and the Fleyshers waited more than five years until their request was granted.
Like many others, they were forced to leave everything behind in the former Soviet Union in order to exit the country. “When I came to the United States, all I had was a plastic bag full of pictures and a T-shirt signed by my friends,” Fleysher remembers.
Yet the entrepreneur had a dream, even from the young age of 17. “My plan was to be successful by age 30,” he continues. “By age 25, I opened my first restaurant.”
Fleysher always knew this would be the case, though. It was clear to him since the first soup he made for his father at the age of 5. “It just comes natural,” he says of cooking. “You have to be confident.
“Other chefs, maybe they will be afraid something won’t work,” he continues, “but you have to see the final product in your head already. And you just think and you change ingredients until you make it happen.”