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Pierre Franey was my mentor. People use the term loosely nowadays to describe almost any relationship involving guidance, but that doesn't really exhaust the word in relation to Pierre. I thought I understood the word myself, but it wasn't until Pierre had passed away in 1996 that I truly knew what a mentor does and what Pierre meant to me.
I first met him in 1984, when I was a cook at the restaurant Maurice in Manhattan. I knew that Pierre was considered the "godfather" of French chefs in America--he was in fact one of the first, bringing the legendary Le Pavillon to great culinary heights--and I was very shy when we met. I needn't have been; he embraced me immediately, in every sense, as he did with anyone who came across as straightforward, as I evidently did. I learned very quickly that for Pierre, being above board was vital--he couldn't stand phoniness.
We became good friends, a world-established chef and a kid hoping to be one himself. When I was put in charge of fish preparation at Maurice, Pierre was genuinely enthusiastic; we shared a love for all seafood, and we would talk for hours about its preparation. Food-talk was always a great bond for us (it began almost the minute I met him and continued to the end) and I never ceased to be excited by the clarity of Pierre's approach to all things culinary. His cooking reflected this clarity and his great integrity, as do his recipes, which are always true to their ingredients. Everything in them belongs, nothing is ever superfluous.
Pierre and I not only talked food--we cooked it. He would invite me to hishome in East Hampton where we'd cook and drink Burgundy and I continued to learn from him. One thing I saw was that Pierre always had his finger on the pulse of contemporary American cuisine. Though he was the country's elder statesman of French cooking, he instinctively understood American food and the needs of modern American cooks. It's no accident that one of his most beloved dishes was a wonderful chili whose simple deliciousness was only equaled by the perfect roast chickens he'd make. Pierre knew that great cooking wasn't about fancy ingredients--I would have been surprised to have been served even lobster in his house--but about fresh ingredients, organization and proper technique. If you've got these, then you cook, move along with ease and create memorable food.
When it came time for me to leave Maurice, Pierre very kindly helped me get another job. He did this in the most thoughtful way possible--he told me what not to do. Pierre counseled against the most "glamorous" jobs I was offered, and thanks to him, I went as chef to Marie Michelle, a then-new restaurant whose reputation I could help build. With his support, and that of his community of friends, I was able to make a success there, which set the stage for other forward career moves I made. Pierre always pointed me in the right direction then stepped back, so I could earn a place for myself, or not. Pierre's wise and compassionate advice--his mentoring--continued when I joined Restaurant Associates and became the chef at Tropica and at The Sea Grill, my current cooking home. We did many things together professionally, TV shows among them, and Pierre wrote the foreword to The Modern Seafood Cook, the book I published with Arthur Boehm in 1995.
Throughout, Pierre counseled me with his characteristic lack of ego--and it was that quality, that ability to remove himself and let the work speak for itself, that makes his books so valuable. The New York Times 60-Minute Gourmet is a perfect example. It was instrumental in helping a generation of Americans cook French-style food in a timely fashion. Many's the time I relied on the book myself; for example, Pierre's Soupe de Poisson found here on page 99--a simple layering of ingredients done with utmost culinary intelligence--has been a blessing to me when I wanted something wonderful to serve in short order. More to the point, I learned that simple ingredients when properly combined can create a finished dish that's greater than the sum of its parts. You will have a similar experience, I'm sure, when you make it!
When Pierre died I was devastated. I felt that I'd lost a father--and in a way I had. It was then I fully realized not only how much he'd given me, but how much he'd continue to give. Back when first I met Pierre, he already knew, and told people, that the next generation of important chefs in America would be Americans--a novel idea then. As Pierre supported my work, so he supported that of other American chefs for the purpose of furthering American cuisine. He was not only my mentor but a guide to other up-and-coming cooks, professional and amateur alike. And his work goes on, witness the book you're holding. I am grateful for that, for all he gave to me and still gives to cooks everywhere.
Chef, The Sea Grill
New York City