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Journalist Rudolph Chelminski, who befriended Loiseau three decades ago and followed his rise to the pinnacle of French restaurateurs, now gives us a rare tour of this hallowed culinary realm. The Perfectionist is the story of a daydreaming teenager who worked his way up from complete obscurity to owning three famous restaurants in Paris and rebuilding La Côte d’Or, transforming a century-old inn and restaurant that had lost all of its Michelin stars into a luxurious destination restaurant and hotel. He started a line of culinary products with his name on them, appeared regularly on television and in the press, and had a beautiful, intelligent wife and three young children he adored—Bernard Loiseau seemed to have it all.
An unvarnished glimpse inside an echelon filled with competition, culture wars, and impossibly high standards, The Perfectionist vividly depicts a man whose energy and enthusiasm won the hearts of staff and clientele, while self-doubt and cut-throat critics took their toll.
France is a country where Latin hyperbole often colors judgments and pronouncements, but this time the population was truly shocked. More than a big story, this was an event of national and even international proportions. For several consecutive days Loiseau’s death—no, not Loiseau’s death, Loiseau’s suicide, that was the part that was so staggering—continued to be the lead story in papers and prime-time TV shows from one end of the country to the other, shouldering aside George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, and Donald Rumsfeld. For a nation that virtually defines itself by food, where restaurants are solemnly appraised, ranked, and debated the way football and soccer clubs are in less enlightened societies, where provincial chefs bathe in an esteem equal to that of the philosophers and essayists who strut and fret and solve the problems of the world in the Paris limelight, the news was inconceivable, a contradiction in terms.
This was not just some local notable, a mere politician, ecclesiastic, captain of industry, or other such inglorious personage. This was Bernard Loiseau the chef, arguably the most famous in France (and therefore the world), a man whose name-recognition score among the French general population—nine out of ten—was of presidential proportions. He was a cult figure of worldwide reputation, one of the gods of the trade, a man in the prime of life at the top of his profession, one of only twenty-five in the country then holding the coveted honor of a three-star rating in the Guide Michelin, the sole and true arbiter of the restaurant business. His hotel-restaurant complex at the gateway to the great Burgundy vineyards was more than luxurious. Simply put, it was perfection, or about as close to perfection as our poor human condition allows: thirty-two opulent suites of noble wood paneling, artisan tile, and polished marble, where authentic period furniture stood, cheek by jowl, with all the latest electronic gadgetry, Jacuzzis, and walk-in showers vast enough for a basketball team; a beautiful English garden custom-made for thinking green thoughts in a green shade while contemplating the swarm of infinitesimal bubbles aspiring heavenward in a flûte of champagne; a spa, workout room, and hammam; heated indoor and outdoor pools; an eighteenth-century billiards table; a library; a kiddies’ playroom; one enormous fireplace in the bar-lounge and two smaller ones in intimate sitting rooms; and a monumental wooden staircase built by the compagnons du devoir, wrapped around a panoramic elevator. And, of course, there was the dining room—or, rather, three of them: two smaller ones for conferences and parties and the main one, a gorgeous hexagon overlooking the garden, where up to one hundred guests sat with a geometric latticework of wooden support beams above their heads and waxed stone pavés beneath their feet.
All of this was served by an ultramodern kitchen—a chef’s glittering stainless steel dream equipped with every imaginable tool, machine, and instrument—and a twenty- five-strong cooking staff dedicated to turning out the signature cuisine des essences that had made the boss of the place a household name wherever in the world gourmets gathered to talk about great meals they had enjoyed or would be enjoying the day after tomorrow.
Bernard Loiseau had everything: a talent and drive that seemed inexhaustible; an eager young personnel that was entirely devoted to him and whose easygoing skill and aplomb was the envy of the trade; the (frequently jealous) recognition of his peers and the highest professional awards; the légion d’honneur personally pinned onto his lapel by the president of the republic in a gilt salon of the Élysée Palace in Paris; the respectful attention of journalists, universally intrigued by a personality so forceful and charismatic that he had achieved national stardom on radio and TV. The icing on the cake was his slim, attractive, and highly intelligent wife, Dominique, and the three bright, healthy young children she had given him. All this and he does away with himself! How could this happen? It was simply incomprehensible.
But of course there was more to it than the simple void of an enigma. Under the surface of Loiseau’s brilliant success there lay a vast insecurity nervously cohabiting with a vast ambition. There was the ideal of a venerable tradition to be worthy of, or even surpass: the excellence in hospitality that over the years had made the French provinces synonymous with a warmth of welcome that put the snarling Parisians to shame and reconciled countless millions of visitors with the Gallic nation. There was a madly obsessive perfectionism in chasing that ideal. Obviously there was also human frailty. And there was the curse of Saulieu.
Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of the tragedy, though, is this: Everything considered, it was not so surprising. Such a thing could have happened before, and it could happen again, because the world of haute gastronomie française in which Bernard Loiseau had been stewing for thirty-five years is a very particular, very peculiar kind of pressure cooker. To grasp a bit of the pleasures and satisfactions—but also the constraints, vexations, and pain—of that world, it is helpful to jump back in time. Half a century or so will do.
Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté luxe, calme et volupté. It was with this bewitching phrase that a French writer, paraphrasing Baudelaire, had described another country inn 150 miles to the south of Saulieu in the mid-fifties. The place in question was the hotel- restaurant called La Pyramide, in the textile and leatherworking town of Vienne, lying on the banks of the Rhône south of Lyon. The owner and guiding genius of La Pyramide was a figure of near-legendary reputation, even in his lifetime: a huge, towering presence named Fernand Point. You can make a good case for saying that the story of Bernard Loiseau began there, because Fernand Point and La Pyramide remain, today still, the benchmarks against which French provincial inns, their proprietors, and the indefinable aura called style are inevitably measured. You cannot understand the saga of Bernard Loiseau—or, I daresay, the French themselves—without understanding something of Fernand Point, because, in this curious, toilsome line of business that they handle better than anyone else in the world, he incarnated the best qualities of a wonderfully talented, frequently endearing, but perpetually maddening people.
By today’s standards, La Pyramide of Point’s time probably would not be viewed as particularly plush. A three-story country manor faced with russet stucco and roofed with the rounded tiles characteristic of the southern half of France, its ground floor was almost entirely occupied by an airy, generously proportioned dining room, while outside, a wide terrace overlooked a sun-dappled garden interlaced with red clay pathways over which soared a magnificent stand of platanes, the plane trees that are to France what the great elms had been to America before the blight laid them low. It was in a corner of this garden that Point ritually began his day around 10 a.m., enveloped like a Christo wrapping in an immaculate white cloth as Monsieur Chazal, Vienne’s number-one barber, proceeded with his matutinal shave. Close at hand, in one of the garden’s several stone vases—this one left purposely free of flowers—a magnum of champagne exhaled its vapors over the shoal of cracked ice in which it bathed. In Point’s hand was a Baccarat crystal flûte that ever and anon he raised to his lips.
“I enjoy a cup of champagne upon rising and a cup in the evening before turning in,” Point used to say. “Nor do I fear to drink others between the two.”
Point loved life, loved his trade and his restaurant, loved eating and drinking, and loved people—the perfect qualities to make an aubergiste. He instinctively understood that a great provincial restaurant was not a place for Parisian humbug and vanity but rather a refuge from the pressures and travails of workaday life, an island of tranquility where clients could snatch a few hours of civilized pleasure—precisely the luxe, calme et volupté that La Pyramide came to represent for two generations of French gourmets—at the cost of a few judiciously spent francs.
In 1933, when the Michelin guide first began ranking French restaurants in Paris and the provinces with its system of one, two, and three stars, La Pyramide fell quite naturally into the top three-star category. Point’s cuisine was a personal, freewheeling derivation of the grand old Escoffier tradition, simplified and trimmed of the palatial ostentation common to big-city hotel restaurants where it held pride of place, and where he had learned the trade as apprentice, commis, and sous-chef. At the upper end, Point was perfectly capable of strutting his stuff with showpieces like turbot à l’amiral, which required two sauces, one based on white wine and the other on red, or the even more complex filets de sole Brillat-Savarin, a creamy lobster mousse jacketed in sliced truffles, surrounded by poached filets of sole on puff-pastry croustades, each filet topped with a lobster tail scallop and a ruinously thick slice of T. melanosporum, the black truffle that does for French cuisine what a Wonderbra does for an ambitious ingénue.
This was good, grand old nineteenth-century stuff, just right for eliciting an oh, là là chorus as the maître d’hôtel waltzed to the table with the platter, but it was relatively rare for Point. The dishes that are identified with his heritage today are the simple regional specialties that he brought to an apotheosis: gratin of crayfish tails, roast truffled chicken, foie gras encased in brioche. He did not fear to go simpler still, with various omelets, trout au bleu or just a hot Lyonnais sausage served with cubed potatoes. Whatever the dish, though, Point was intransigent when it came to total freshness; nothing was stocked, nothing prepared and left over from the day before. He insisted that his cooks begin each day with a naked kitchen and start all over again, and he took pleasure in patrolling the cooking premises, reaching high up on shelves and into cupboards to ensure that some wise guy hadn’t squirreled away a work-saving container of fond de volaille or glace de viande. Point’s stubbornness meant a lot of finicky handwork for the kitchen crew, but it guaranteed that only the freshest produce and top quality confections found their way onto his clients’ plates.
Paul Bocuse, the ageless emperor of the French restaurant scene and Point’s favorite apprentice, remembered the great man doing his daily marketing, selecting his fish, flesh, and fowl to be delivered to the cooks waiting in his kitchen while his wife, Mado, penned the day’s menu in blue ink in her fine, strong script.
“It was la cuisine du moment,” Bocuse explained. “In the big Paris restaurants where I worked afterward, the chef ordered provisions to fit the pre-established specialties already printed on the menu. Each morning the maître d’hôtel would come into the kitchen with a ritual question: ‘What should we push today?’ There was always food left over from the night before that they had to get rid of on a priority basis. Monsieur Point would have none of that. He made a fresh, clean start every morning.”
Bocuse learned Point’s lessons well and went on to apply them with tremendous success in his own restaurant in Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or on the banks of the Saône just north of Lyon. So well did Bocuse apply them, in fact, that he eventually surpassed his master in notoriety, and became the greatest international star of French cuisine of the postwar period—precisely the model that Bernard Loiseau chose to emulate a generation later. Bocuse’s version of la cuisine du moment became a founding pillar of what was soon to be known as la nouvelle cuisine française. Much more than delicate little portions of pretty food on oversized plates, much more than sauces written in disappearing ink or the precious creations and daring (usually silly) combinations of ingredients by chefs who took themselves for artistes, the secret and soul of nouvelle cuisine lay in the simple act of following Point’s insistence on cooking according to the day’s market, cooking it at the last minute, individually for each client, and cooking it perfectly.
It was in Vienne under Point that Bocuse and a host of his brothers in arms learned the sophisticated simplicity that was to become the guiding principle of modern cooking. Point, a man who enjoyed maxims and aphorisms, never tired of telling his young pupils that it is the simplest dishes that are the hardest to master. To this end, he devised an infallible test for any passing professionals who entertained the idea of perhaps going to work for him: he asked them to fry an egg. Faced with the invariable failure, Point would cry “Stop, unhappy man—you are making a dog’s bed of it!” And then he would proceed to demonstrate the one and only civilized manner of treating an egg:
Place a lump of fresh butter in a pan or egg dish and let it melt—that is, just enough for it to spread, and never, of course, to crackle or spit; open a very fresh egg onto a small plate or saucer and slide it carefully into the pan; cook it on heat so low that the white barely turns creamy, and the yolk becomes hot but remains liquid; in a separate saucepan, melt another lump of fresh butter; remove the egg onto a lightly heated serving plate; salt it and pepper it, then very gently pour this fresh, warm butter over it.*
“Du beurre! Donnez-moi du beurre! Toujours du beurre!” Point insisted: “Butter! Give me butter! Always butter!” As nutritionally incorrect as the battle cry may ring today in our cholesterol-obsessed times, he was only underlining an essential truth of the trade: French cuisine lives and breathes butter. Much fine cooking can be done without butter, but not the great syllabus of the French classics. Even Loiseau, who would go on to create a mini-revolution by largely eschewing fats with his cuisine des essences, had no choice but to sneak the magic ingredient into many of his dishes, if only by a discreet back door. Butter is elegance, suavity, and depth of flavor, even if you refuse to pronounce the B-word in public.
An astonishing number of figures in the pantheon of modern French cuisine spent their formative cooking years under Point’s influence. Louis Outhier in La Napoule, Alain Chapel in Mionnay, François Bise in Talloires, and Claude Peyrot in Paris all went on to hold three Michelin stars; Maurice Coscuella in Gascony and Pierre Gaertner in Alsace made it as high as two stars, and still others contented themselves with one. But the most important of Point’s pupils were three of the brightest three-star names associated with the nouvelle cuisine phenomenon: Paul Bocuse and the Troisgros brothers, Jean and Pierre. All three were to have a direct, indelible impact on Bernard Loiseau.
Of the three, it was Bocuse who bonded most thoroughly with Point, who considered him a surrogate son. Point and Bocuse’s father, Georges, had toiled together in the same kitchen brigade of the Royal Hotel in Evian on Lake Geneva, but it was more than professional coincidence that brought mentor close to pupil. Point and the young Bocuse were both geniuses of cooking, both gifted with a sunny, sybaritic optimism and the natural, easygoing charisma of the born leader—and both shared a fiendishly active sense of humor. When Point honored a guest by inviting him into his kitchen for a preprandial drink, he brought him to the garde-manger, jammed him against the table with his great tum, and engaged him in loud, friendly conversation. A henchman, more often than not Paul Bocuse, crouched under the table with pot and brush, and whitewashed the victim’s heels for his return to the dining room. Whenever a guest asked Point to prepare one of his famously succulent picnic baskets for the road, the guest became a potential victim: Point made sure that among the hard-boiled eggs there was always one that had been left treacherously raw.
The man had not an ounce of malevolence in him, though, and the pranks he inspired or committed were pure reflections of his enjoyment of life.* Peering amiably down from his height of six feet four, he addressed his clients as “mon petit” or, if he happened to be facing a member of one of the royal families that habitually took nourishment in Vienne, “mon petit prince.” Accepting a free drink from Point could be hazardous, as a number of postmen and delivery boys discovered when they tarried for ten or fifteen minutes under the great man’s friendly and time-consuming conversation—just long enough for Bocuse, the Troisgros brothers, or for Coscuella to paint his bike bright pink. Point became so notorious around town for his pranks that one afternoon—by bad luck, April the first— the local firemen laughed and hung up when he called them to extinguish a blaze in an upstairs bedroom. By the time he was able to persuade them that it was for real, the room was destroyed. Hoist by his own petard, Point could only laugh at the joke.
Food, on the other hand, was not a matter of levity. A famous tale, now ennobled high among the legends of French gastronomy, has it that shortly after the war Point forcibly expelled from his restaurant a couple of luckless Americans who came up with the unfortunate idea of ordering Cokes with their lunch. There was none of the vile brew in his place, anyway, but a principle was a principle—he personally threw the Yanks out of the place. Many years later Mado Point, then a widow, told me the story wasn’t true, but I still like to think of her denial as a bit of ex-post-facto diplomacy.
Far ahead of his time, Point was intractable about the incompatibility of smoking and eating. Living in an age when smoking was not just socially acceptable but actually viewed as a mark of distinction, he left standing orders with his staff to immediately deliver the bill and a cup of coffee to any client who lit up between courses. “Oh, we thought you had finished,” he would explain innocently. During the war, his intransigence frequently landed him in trouble with the authorities. Most memorable was the time he was haled before a collaborationist kangaroo court for frequenting the black market to buy a bucket of the crème fraîche he needed for one of his most celebrated specialties.
“No one,” he roared incontrovertibly in his defense, “has the right to betray a gratin dauphinois!”
Unlike his skinny, marathon-running, wheat germ-chomping successors of today, Point entirely looked the part of the great traditional chef. Big and fat and triple-chinned, he was an imposing, pachydermous figure who flowed around his restaurant with stately grace. “My weight is confidential,” he used to say, “but if you wish to obtain my volume, you have only to multiply the surface of my base by my height and divide by three.”
For all his fame and exposure to the press, though, there is only one image of Point that perfectly captures his presence—a marvelously clever photo taken of him one day in the fifties by Robert Doisneau, the chronicler par excellence of the artists and artisans of an old French way of life that has mostly disappeared today.
On assignment for some now-forgotten newspaper story, Doisneau arrived at La Pyramide at about eleven in the morning for his appointment with the great man. “Come in, young man, come in,” said Point, and before Doisneau quite knew what was happening he had a glass of champagne in his hand. “You are here for the photo, is it not?”
He was—and it was love at first sight, because nothing delights a photographer more than the instant flash of recognition that tells him exactly how he should compose his picture. Lemme see now . . . Point, La Pyramide . . . Of course—Point the pyramid! Doisneau grabbed a wide-angle lens, got down on the ground, and shot upward, filling two thirds of the frame with the vast expanse of the regal tummy encased in a black suit and vest, sloping upward and back toward Point’s eternal polka-dot lavalière necktie and, above that, to the august countenance of Monsieur Fernand himself, gazing downward at these baffling photographic shenanigans.
Thrilled, Doisneau knew he had a great picture, and he wanted to get it developed and printed before Point figured out how he had been used. But that was not reckoning with his subject’s totalitarian ways.
“On ne part pas de chez Point sans déjeuner”—“No one leaves Point’s place without eating lunch”—he decreed, so in the same morning Doisneau had the picture of his life and the lunch of his life, without laying out a sou for either. “I was afraid they would be mad at me when the picture came out,” Doisneau told me many years later, “but they loved it. Madame Point asked me for a blowup and invited me back for another free meal.”
Grace and generosity like that was typical of la maison Point. At any one time, it was said in those days, a third or even a half of the guests—and “guests” is exactly the right word—in his dining room would be eating for free, because above all things, Fernand Point enjoyed making people happy. His pupils, and then the pupils of his pupils, carried the master’s style of warmth, largesse, and good humor right on into the twenty-first century, most notably through the example of Paul Bocuse and Jean and Pierre Troisgros—all the way through, in fact, to Bernard Loiseau, spiritual grandson of le grand Fernand.
Worn out by too much work, too much champagne, and too much good living, Point died in 1956, a mere fifty-six years old. So many eminent doctors and professors of medicine had lunched and supped for free at his table that he was attended at his deathbed by a veritable all-star team of French medicine.
“I have been so well cared for,” he whispered with one terminal wisecrack, “that I am certain to die in perfect health.”
By the time Point went to his reward, Paul Bocuse had returned to the family inn in Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or and Jean and Pierre Troisgros had heeded their father’s call to give up the pleasures of Paris, where they had been rubbing shoulders with the gentry in places like Maxim’s and the Hôtel Crillon, and come back to Roanne to run the kitchen of the Hôtel Moderne. It had all the looks of a professional demotion, because Roanne, a manufacturing city on the Loire northeast of Lyon, is an exquisitely undistinguished kind of place, but papa was a boss who brooked no refusal. Year by year, as the young chefs gained confidence and progressively imposed their personal touches on the cuisine they had learned from Point and the brigades where they had labored in Paris, they began catching the attention of the locals. The word passed to the gastronomic grapevine that some extraordinary things were happening, and almost immediately the alerts reached Paris—the grapevine works with lightning speed where food is concerned in France. Soon the Michelin inspectors were nosing around, and soon the stars began to fall: a first one for the Troisgros brothers in 1955 and then for Paul Bocuse in 1958, at a time when his guests were still eating with stainless-steel silverware, wiping their mouths with paper napkins, and walking out into the courtyard for the toilets. More stars and greater distinctions were on their way just over the horizon: Nothing could stop talents like Bocuse and the Troisgros boys.
Things were shaping up fast. As France headed into les trente glorieuses, the thirty glorious years of economic expansion from the sixties to the nineties, the concomitance of vastly increased spending power, and the advent of a Europe-wide automobile culture, opened the floodgates to a new age of gastronomic nomadism: Dawn was breaking for the country inn. Before the Second World War, the automobile had been the virtually exclusive privilege of the wealthy—the torpedoes, phaetons, and limousines that in the thirties crunched the gravel outside of Point’s gateway belonged to princes, movie stars, industrialists, and other such monied swells. The forties brought war, death, and deprivation, while the mostly chaotic fifties saw the start of rebuilding the national order. By the sixties, though, France had set a determined course for the same socioeconomic development that in America had made the private car a truly popular item that rapidly changed from an affordable luxury to a mundane necessity. By the mid-sixties the entire country was madly, passionately, on the road; the government of Charles de Gaulle had launched a major construction program of autoroutes, the limited-access superhighways that today crisscross the country; and French drivers were already carving out the reputation that they still proudly uphold today as the worst menaces on the entire European highway system.
Ornery as they are, though, French drivers also have a pronounced tendency to get hungry, and if there is one thing that a Frenchman or Frenchwoman enjoys more than driving at breakneck speed, it is lunch at a snail’s pace. Nor do they disdain dinner, if truth be told. As the trente glorieuses began, then, the flow of automobiles turned into a flood, and French ingenuity was inventing ever more creative ways of commemorating something or other to create the ponts—bridges—that turn ordinary weekends into minivacation getaways to the résidences secondaires that five out of six French people seem to possess.
The roads, the gas stations, and the autoroute toll stations were booming, though, and opportunity knocked loud and clear for the hotel and restaurant trade. Suddenly thousands of automobilistes began discovering the wonderful but obscure little mom and pop country inns located in out-of-the-way places that until then had been the quasi- confidential clubs of wealthy gourmets who toured for pleasure, salesmen who traveled for work, or the lucky local notables who took their succulent cuisine for granted—places like Darroze in Villeneuve de Marsan deep in the southwest, where commercial men on tight budgets might find themselves before unimaginably generous portions of foie gras or, if the season was right and the market not too dear, steaming plates of ortolans*— bunting—the tiny birds that were reputed to be France’s greatest single delicacy before they became protected and disappeared from menus; like La Mère Blanc in Vonnas, where Madame Blanc herself, aided by a couple of village grannies, served mountains of scarlet crayfish in a peppery nage—mouthwatering potato pancakes and sautéed chicken in a cream sauce so delicious as to suggest some arcane conspiracy theory; or, indeed, the Hôtel Moderne in Roanne, soon to be rebaptized in the name of its gastronomically sainted owners, where the Troisgros family was cooking chicken with vinegar and a profusion of garlic cloves, salmon with sorrel, and grinding up thousands of darling little thrushes into a pâté† that caused grown men to shed bitter tears for not having known the address earlier.
As the gastronomy of the road became a profitable way of life, the mom and pop bistros expanded and took on more personnel, and with the passing years, grew progressively more luxurious; a new generation of energetic young cooks spotted opportunity and set up their establishments. Soon there was hardly a village in France without a restaurant serving true French food—not always necessarily sublime, but light years above the pizza and burger chains that are doing their best to blight the landscape today.
One of the first of this new breed of entrepreneurs of top-quality eating, and one of the smartest and most admirable, was Jean Ducloux, a tough, wisecracking, no-nonsense character from the little city of Tournus on the river Saône, approximately halfway between the vineyards of Burgundy and the golden hills of the Beaujolais. Ducloux, too, shared a chunk of history with Bernard Loiseau, even if he was old enough to have been his father, because his path had taken him to the very same kitchen in Saulieu where young Bernard was to make his professional life and where, after nearly three decades of flailing and fighting, he would choose to end it.
Along with Bocuse and the Troisgros brothers, Ducloux was the third leg of the trio of chefs whom Loiseau took as models and mentors. Amiably presiding over his Restaurant Greuze (two Michelin stars) well past his eightieth year before finally selling it and taking a well-earned retirement in 2003, he became something of a French icon, as indelibly identified with Tournus as the fortresslike St. Philibert church, a Romanesque masterpiece that is the city’s architectural pride and joy. He was a man of the old school, this Ducloux, and he had learned the trade the old way, the hard way—what is known as l’école des coups de pied au cul—the school of kicks in the ass. Not lucky enough to have the professional benevolence of Fernard Point close at hand, he had been delivered, still in shorts and his voice not yet broken, by his mother to the doorstep of a celebrated restaurant in Dijon on the day he turned thirteen.
Few among us can set a precise date to the end of our childhood, but for little Jean Ducloux, it happened on the first of September 1933, when he began his apprenticeship under Monsieur Henri Racouchot, chef and owner of the Trois Faisans. The very next morning he was hauling fifty-pound blocks of ice two flights upstairs to the cold room, then doing the same for the garbage cans, up from the basement and out to the sidewalk: fifteen of them in all, weighing between seventy-five and eighty pounds apiece. It is always the latest apprentice who inherits the worst chores, and he holds on to them until the next kid comes along. Bernard Loiseau was to get a similar welcome to the real world some thirty-five years later.
Apprentices of Ducloux’s time worked from eight in the morning until ten thirty at night, with half a day off every week—unless, of course, they were held in for some egregious professional misdemeanor such as speaking without permission. The boys were unpaid, of course, but a long-standing tradition allowed them to earn a few coins by loading tubs of disgusting old kitchen greases into the restaurant’s handcart and lugging them to the local soap factory. The handcart was something of a sacred relic for the Trois Faisans’ apprentices, as the central instrument in a famous bit of heroics that had occurred ten years before Ducloux’s arrival on the scene. Two brothers, the Parizot boys, who had been apprenticed there together, were dispatched to deliver a catered meal to a private Dijon home, using the very same handcart. Bad luck: They tipped the cart over en route. Faced with the truly horrifying prospect of returning to the Trois Faisans and telling the chef the dreadful truth, they somehow managed to scrape the quenelles de brochet, the lobster, and the filet of beef off the sidewalk, artfully rearrange it all back in the original containers, and deliver it up to the client. No one was the wiser; the client paid and sent his compliments to Monsieur Racouchot.
Ducloux spent two years at the Trois Faisans learning the basics of the trade, graduating from gutting fish and plucking partridges, pheasants, and larks, to preparing the fumets, the classical fish stocks used for poaching various types of seafood, and clarifying the fonds de cuisine, rich broths of meat trimmings simmered with aromatic herbs—then, as now, the fundamental building blocks for the sauces that set French cuisine apart from all others. Although apprentices never actually cooked any dishes—that was reserved for the big guys, the chef, the sous-chefs, and the commis—little Jean could at least feel that his work had contributed to the specialties that gourmets in Dijon were devouring in those days: the classical, inimitable tournedos Rossini, a nouveau riche fantasy of food heaven, all beef and truffles and foie gras aswim in Madeira sauce; thick Châteaubriand steaks with unspeakably seductive béarnaise, as yellow and unctuous as the egg yolks and butter that had built its velvety consistency, speckled with green flecks of tarragon and underlaid with just enough of the sharp, acid bite of vinegar, shallots, and white wine to give it the character of the aristocrat of sauces; quenelles de brochet, the lovely, tumescent pike “omelets” traditionally served with a creamy, pinkish sauce of the reduced essences of crayfish; hot, meaty pâtés, drenched in sauces derived from the very same fonds de veau that Jean had been clarifying; Homard Gaston Gérard, a lobster first brushed with olive oil and seared in a hot oven for ten minutes, then flambéd with cognac in a vegetable mirepoix and cooked on the stove for ten minutes more in a bath of the most excellent Burgundy that a judge, doctor, or wine merchant could afford.
It was good, rich, rib-sticking stuff in the grand old tradition of the Troisième République, when appetites were appetites, bellies were ample, and no one had heard of cholesterol—the same kinds of dishes, no doubt, that Toulouse-Lautrec and his friends might have been consuming in the gaslit restaurants in the Paris of the Belle Époque thirty or forty years earlier.
On October 15, 1935, Monsieur Racouchot signed a document certifying that after two years of practice, Jean Ducloux had reached the stage of ouvrier cuisinier—qualified kitchen worker. You didn’t rise to the giddy rank of chef or sous-chef—not even commis (assistant)—so easily in those days. You had to get some experience first, and you worked your way up. As fate had it, Ducloux’s next stop along the road of experience was the restaurant La Côte d’Or in Saulieu.
He was fifteen when he got there, and proud to be considered worthy of working in an establishment that was already a landmark of French haute gastronomie under its famous chef, Alexandre Dumaine. The building Ducloux saw when he walked up the hill from the station was a long, rectangular, three-story structure with a high tiled roof pierced by four chimneys, a stucco façade interrupted by four spacious arcaded windows, and a wide, triple-doored entryway, also arcaded. All in all, it was a sturdy, reassuringly comfortable kind of place, of the sort that commonly fronted on the main highways throughout France. Like the even larger Hôtel de la Poste across the street, it dated back to the eighteenth century and had been originally built as a post house to accommodate the many horse-drawn coaches that used to follow the old Route Nationale 6 (R.N. 6) from Paris by stages down to the Mediterranean via Fontainebleau, Sens, Auxerre, and Avallon. Saulieu had been a ville étape, or staging city, from earliest history, and the R.N. 6 faithfully followed the trace of the Romans’ Via Agrippa. At each stage, coachmen could rest, water, and stable their horses for the night, discharging their passengers to the potluck victuals and the straw mattresses of the town’s several inns, before leaving again at the crack of dawn the next morning.
It was a long, slow slog down to Avignon, Marseille, and Toulon, but the better-quality post houses made the trip bearable. As it had been in the eighteenth century, it was a very definite advantage for Alexandre Dumaine’s place to be located in Saulieu, because the R.N. 6 ran smack through the middle of town and, as the private car became more and more commonplace, the logic of the road dictated that Saulieu, at 250 kilometers from Paris, would be a natural stopover point—for lunch if the voyageurs quit the capital in the morning, or for dinner and the night if they took their departure in the afternoon. Dumaine knew what he was doing when he bought the commerce from a retiring fellow chef. For locating a hotel-restaurant, Saulieu was a nearly cast-iron guarantee of a steady flow of customers, unless it repelled them with food that was absolutely horrible.
It wasn’t. In fact, it was very, very good. Dumaine had been around the gastronomic establishment for many years before finally settling in Saulieu—notably in the vacation spots of the French North African colonies and aboard the big, prestigious ocean liners that had already made him something of an international star. The man knew a thing or two about fine cuisine and didn’t exactly discourage headline writers from referring to him as Alexander the Great. Within only a few years of arriving in this otherwise godforsaken little town of 3,000—in fact in 1935, the very year he hired young Jean Ducloux—Dumaine was visited with the trade’s equivalent of a papal blessing: three Michelin stars. Thus anointed, he became an official member of the Holy Trinity of French provincial cuisine.
That little phrase wasn’t a joke. Once again, it was the logic of the pre-autoroute roads, the distances between stopping points, and the presence of three great chefs that turned three otherwise unremark-able towns—Saulieu, Vienne, and Valence—into centers of pilgrimage for those of the ingestive inclination. If Saulieu was Dumaine and Vienne was Point, Valence, approximately midway between Lyon and Avignon, was André Pic, a pure Escoffier man (ballottine of stuffed pigeons and truffles, woodcock terrine, poularde à l’ancienne) who bore a remarkable resemblance to Oliver Hardy, and who had earned his third Michelin star one year ahead of Dumaine. Point, Pic, and Dumaine were the three great heroes of drivers who frequented the north-south axis of gastroland.
By the thirties, of course, the internal combustion engine had replaced horsepower, but the role of the aubergistes on the Route Nationale 6 remained remarkably similar to the old days. Chefs along the route could not hope to make a decent living from local customers alone—especially in Saulieu, by far the smallest of the three cities—so they relied on attracting travelers. France being France, they could buy most of their ingredients from the farms, villages, and open-air markets in the immediate vicinity of their restaurants, and their short daily menus reflected what they found: Cuisine du terroir—regional cooking—was king in those days. It was usually uncomplicated stuff, but in the hands of the men of the Holy Trinity it could be dazzling.
From day to day, Dumaine could never know whether the flow of cars and buses would bring him ten customers or fifty, so he laid in just enough victuals for a basic tourist menu, reserving complex creations for much more expensive gourmet dinners or, if he intended to really flex his culinary muscles, for special meals on command. On his first workday in Saulieu, Jean Ducloux discovered the autocariste menus for clients arriving by bus from Paris. There were three of them, priced at 18, 20, and 30 francs, and at first sight they might have appeared almost laughable compared to the sophisticated big-city cooking he had known at Les Trois Faisans. At 18 francs, the bottom menu offered:
Mixed hors d’oeuvres
Baby peas à la française
Selection of desserts
The big menu, the 30-franc treatment for the big appetites, added a trout meunière and a feuilleté of crayfish tails after the hors d’oeuvres, and a pâté en croûte after the roast chicken. It was unpretentious country fare, the ingredients were irreproachable, and they all came from Saulieu and its environs.* Reminiscing years later, Ducloux dispelled any doubts about the comparison with Les Trois Faisans: “These dishes were masterpieces.” You will never impress food snobs with green salad and roast chicken, though, and Dumaine, being much closer to Paris than Point or Pic, was more frequently called upon to custom-build special meals for the rich and famous,† the sorts of things that no mere autocariste would ever see for their 20 or 30 francs. Charlie Chaplin, for instance, was partial to a deluxe version of Dumaine’s pâté en croûte, featuring woodcock, truffles, and foie gras, while Curnonsky, the food chronicler known as “the prince of gastronomes,” ordered his own version of pochouse, an elaborate freshwater fish stew cooked with white wine, the sauce thickened not with flour but “mounted” at the last minute with fresh, sweet butter, garnished with poached eggs, and served with grilled croutons, very lightly garlicked, please. Edouard Herriot, mayor of Lyon and president of parliament, habitually took a special pâté of pike and crayfish, served with a reduction of a white wine fumet. The khedive of Egypt liked to set his royal choppers into a ballottine d’agneau, a stuffed and braised shoulder of lamb, much more proper for the Muslim that he was than the roast suckling pig stuffed with boudin noir—black blood sausages—and boudin blanc—white veal sausages—that two aristocratic ladies, Louise de Vilmorin and Countess Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec, were not afraid to challenge with their noble appetites.
During the war, times were tough and victuals were scarce. La Côte d’Or vegetated, surviving as best it could. Toward the end, with the Allies advancing toward Saulieu from both the north and the south, the countryside was in a panic: There were no more markets and peasants were zipped up tight in their farms, waiting it out (forget meat). Hardly anything was available at all—and just then Dumaine unexpectedly inherited a guest of great mark: Marshall Henri M. Philippe Pétain himself, head of the collaborationist regime installed by the Germans after France’s terrible defeat of 1939.
On August 20, 1944, Pétain arrived in a black limousine with a small presidential entourage, escorted by an SS detachment. The pathetic remains of the Vichy government were on their way to a brief exile in the castle of Sigmaringen, across the German border on the other side of the Black Forest. Meanwhile, Dumaine had to feed his imposed guest. Scrounging around, he came up with enough material to make a decent menu for Monsieur le Président’s last dinner in France:
Fruits from the neighbor’s orchard
Within a few years of the German surrender, France’s lush, heaven-blessed countryside was yielding up its bounty once again, and Dumaine could return to the kind of cooking that had made his reputation, notably his famous poularde à la vapeur, a truffled Bresse chicken seasoned inside with salt, spices, and marsala—truffle slices under the skin, whole truffles all around it—steam-cooked on a tripod over a rich meat broth of beef, veal, chicken, and salt pork. But when he had the chance for a truly big blowout, he set himself and his assistants to work on an oreiller de la belle Aurore. It was quite an operation—just the thing to impress the Club des Cent.
Le Club des Cent is France’s snobbiest and richest eating club, limited to one hundred members, as its name indicates. It was founded by journalists, but over the years, as the expenses of its outings grew ruinous, the journalists slunk away, making room for the clique of bankers, stockbrokers, and publishers that forms the club membership today— men who can afford to pay for the kind of treatment to which they are accustomed. Just such a treatment was the oreiller de la belle Aurore with which Dumaine titillated their fancies. Imagined by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755–1826), judge, politician, and writer, whose Physiologie du Goût is one of France’s great humanist documents, the oreiller was a pâté that could be served either hot or cold,* but one of such fiendishly complex construction that it required two days of work for seasoned professionals to put together.
It is shaped like a pillow (oreiller means pillow); Brillat-Savarin’s mother and sister were both named Aurore. So there you are. The following is a very abridged description of what Dumaine put into it.
Filets of hare, partridge, chicken, and duck; fresh ham, veal, and pork. All these meats to be cut into strips not more than 2 centimeters thick. Scallops of foie gras, truffles, and pistachios.
White: for the chicken, veal, and ham, with chopped shallots, white wine, a tablespoon of anise, and a teaspoon of lemon syrup; olive oil. Marinate for 24 hours Brown: for the partridge, duck, and hare: cognac, Madeira, and olive oil. Marinate for 24 hours
White, made of veal, chicken, and pork
Brown, made of partridge, duck, hare, and pork
Gratin, made of salt pork, chicken livers, and foie gras, flambé with cognac and flavored with Madeira
The various ingredients were artfully layered in a mold, alternating meat, stuffing, and more truffles, then oven-cooked in a bain marie, unmolded, and then encased in a pâte feuilletée, cooked again to brown the pastry shell, then injected with a rich broth of forest game and left to cool.
When finally served and cut open by a suitably ceremonious maître d’hôtel, Dumaine’s entire dining room turned fragrant with the intoxicating perfume of truffles and meat broth. “Close the windows!” cried one anguished club member, alarmed at the prospect of losing the least atom of goodness.
In today’s cooking crowd, a dish like this is generally viewed as a museum piece, a reminder of the grandiose traditions of pompous nineteenth-century masters like Carême and Escoffier, whether or not it is delicious—which it is, of course. Rare are those who dare venture into that terrain in these rock ’n’ roll days of postmodern experimentation and gimmick. Times change, and tastes change with them. Ironically enough, the same Alexandre Dumaine who was viewed with almost reverential awe just a couple of generations ago would doubtless catch hell from both sides of the critical divide today. His set-piece creations like the oreiller would be hooted as wildly complicated and pretentious, while his simpler menus would be dismissed as primitive. Jean Ducloux remembered another lunch that the master put together for the Club des Cent:
Filets de truite Florentine
Coq au Chambertin
Timbale de morilles chatelaine
Mousses d’écrevisses au Cliquot
Coupe glacée aux fraises
Corbeille de fruits
If this was cutting-edge stuff in the early fifties, today it would certainly earn condescending smiles. A consommé with croutons? You can get that in Tashkent and Toledo. While it is hard to go wrong with a profligate heap of morel mushrooms or a well-handled and well-garnished mousse of crayfish tails, the idea of trout filets florentine—on a bed of buttered spinach and covered with a sauce mornay—would immediately set the eyes rolling. (A mornay contains flour, and if that was not shocking enough, the preparation would have been sprinkled with grated cheese and browned under a salamander grill.) And as for Dumaine’s coq au chambertin, well! That was merely a high-class coq au vin, wasn’t it? Any restaurateur of quality daring to serve a coq au vin today—or a boeuf bourguignon, or a sole normande—would deserve a medal for heroism. Dumaine’s cheeses would probably pass muster, but the idea of just strawberries and ice cream for dessert would be something akin to culinary outrage. You have to try harder today. People expect more, and better (whatever the current definition for that happens to be).
And there’s the rub: Fashions change, and nothing goes out of fashion as fast as fashion. Dumaine retired in 1964 and sold La Côte d’Or in a full blaze of glory, before he suffered the ignominy of going out of date. Bernard Loiseau, cooking in the very same kitchen forty years later, was destined to ride an exhilarating wind of triumph when it was his turn to be perfectly in tune with the latest avatars of taste and fashion, doing his part to change them and even, for a few giddy years, seeming to dictate them. But, slowly and imperceptibly at first, then accelerating and suddenly running out of control, out there beyond his ken, they twisted away from him and changed once again. And poor Bernard fell off the top of the world.
Posted January 3, 2006
This well-written and thought-provoking biography allows the readers to go behind the swinging door of high-brow French haute cuisine and take a keen look at the boiling passions and heartbreaking dramas that are brewing there every day, driving some towards the summint and others towards the abyss. The book contains rich details and deeply satisfying, mouth-watering descriptions of endlesss lunches, dinners, recipies and culinary inventions. The first-person approach to this biography creates an irresistibly engaging intimacy that swoops the reader right into the book and, above all, makes him/her care about the spectacular and tragic life and death of the Great Chef. The sole drawback of this vibrant book is that sometimes it is too much of a good thing: Too many descriptions, excessive repetitions of facts, and over-the-top use of French phrases that are often not translated into english, thus alientating the nonfrancophones among the reades.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 2, 2005
I enjoyed this account of French cuisine but found it tedious at times. Chelminski is a wonderful writer and his style alone got me through much of the book. If you prefer a fictional take on haute cuisine then you must read Little Kingdoms by Michael Lubarsky. This is by far one of the best novels in recent years.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 29, 2012
No text was provided for this review.