Posts Tagged ‘Chef Roger Fessaguet’

Memories of Chef Roger Fessaguet

Posted 04 Apr 2017 — by S.E.
Category Warms My Heart

Tonight I quietly dedicated service in the Bistro to Roger Fessaguet one of the most important chefs in the history of New York City and one who deserves to occupy our memories and hearts. April 2nd was the third anniversary of his passing and I think of him every year on this day.  For 20 years Roger was chef at New York’s four-star La Caravelle restaurant on West 55th street (near 5th avenue) starting when it opened in 1960 until his retirement from the kitchen in 1980.  Back in February of 2012 I spent three days with Roger at his home in West Palm Beach Florida recording his stories and blanketing him with the respect and compassion he deserved at such a late stage in his life.

Roger Fessaguet, Jim Griffin, Jean Jacques Dietrich

We were brought together by my mentor and good friend Chef Jean Jacques Dietrich – a lifelong  friend of Fessaguet. Dietrich lived with me when he first started teaching after retiring from the New York Athletic Club and we have remained close ever since. It was Dietrich’s idea to visit with Roger and record a bit of his history – an act of deep respect and love from one great chef to another.

Prior to visiting Roger time was spent reflecting on what life might be like at the end of a long career in foodservice. What happens when the world no longer pays attention after decades of adoration? What is life like when the spotlight dims then darkens – is there sadness or joy, bitterness or grace? What do the best chefs in the world value most after a career has ended and the sun begins to set on a life well lived.

Roger never expressed regret for being a chef and remained fulfilled by a magnificent career even later in life. He spoke at length about his great chef friends including Pierre Franey, Jacques Pepin, Jean Jacques, and Andre Soltner.  He loved reflecting back on life at La Caravelle, sharing wonderful memories of his staff and customers like Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, Salvador Dali, and others. An intellectual, he kept meticulous records and documentation including thousands of pages or recipes, reservation books, floor plans, sales records, menus, and memorabilia. Reviewing and sharing these materials brought him great joy. And he loved talking about his late wife Anne Marie who shared his journey until she passed away in 1985. Fessaguet had no regrets, he loved being a chef, loved the Franco culinary community and culture of New York in the 1960’s, remained a captivated culinary intellectual until the day he died and never stopped loving his beautiful wife Anne Marie.

One of Fessaguet’s Chef’s Knifes – West Palm Beach Florida 2012

Of the many anecdotes and stories shared by Fessaguet my favorite is his description of finishing a summer night of service at La Caravelle and jumping into his Porsche with Anne Marie for a high-speed 390 mile ride to his beloved cottage in Chamberlain, Maine. He and Anne Marie would roll the windows down in the car and floor it while driving north, scanning for police all the way to the cottage. Arriving around 5:00 in the morning, I can only imagine the two of them collapsing into bed with the sun just rising over Muscongus Bay and Haddock Island.  When Roger told this story his posture softened, his eyes sparkled, and his heart grew warm. He loved his cottage in Maine.

Fessaguet’s beloved “Finistere” Cottage, Long Cove Point, Maine

(this painting hung over Fessaguets sofa in West Palm Beach Florida)

He also made me laugh when I asked him about the restaurant name “La Caravelle “ and he joked about how so many people got the story wrong. Most, including the New York Times, incorrectly claim the restaurant was named after the small sailing ships used by Christopher Columbus – Fessaguet found this funny. The restaurant was actually named after the Caravelle jetliner built by French firm Sud Aviation in the 1950’s. It was on one of these aircraft that Chef Fessaguet flew for the first time – that the aircraft was French built made it all the sweeter. Such a fitting name for a restaurant that took flight the minute it opened in 1960.

Chef Roger Discusses the Culinary Brigade at Le Pavillon Restaurant

Roger was a great man and I remain thankful for having known him and for the tremendous impact he made on our profession. Few chefs have been as influential or demonstrated as much professionalism. Today we all stand on Roger’s shoulders, he is a true pillar of American gastronomy and he lives on in the many generations of chefs that are prospering today because of the path paved.  Great chefs never fade away – they live on in the many generations of chefs whose lives they impacted and whose professions they improved. At 82 years of age, the last trip he took prior to passing was back to Maine for one more visit to his beloved cottage. One last visit to the cottage filled with Anne Marie’s spirit and such joyous memories – the cottage purchased through the blood, sweat, and tears of hard work at La Caravelle. Roger never returned to Florida – he passed away shortly after visiting his cottage in a nursing home in Damariscotta. Rest easy friend.

Thanksgiving: Thank a French Chef

Posted 23 Nov 2011 — by S.E.
Category Warms My Heart

It’s about more than Turkey although this guy was cool to look at when he crossed my path

There are so many things in life to be thankful for but today I reflect on and give thanks to those professional Chefs from France who, starting in the mid-nineteenth century, paved the way for modern American gastronomy. My gratitude was triggered earlier this week when I spent time looking through the original reservation book from La Caravelle Restaurant formerly located in the Shoreham Hotel in New York City. La Caravelle operated from 1960 until 2004 but its greatest renown was during the tenure of Chef Roger Fessaguet from opening in 1960 until he retired in 1988. It was Fessaguet who meticulously preserved the reservation books, menus, recipe books and artifacts from La Caravelle that I so respectfully had the chance to hold and review. The first reservation book from La Caravelle is a hefty 10” x 18” with a hard green canvas cover. Inside, written by hand in red pencil on the top of the first page, is the date “September 21, 1960” with luncheon reservations written by hand in blue ink in the left column below and dinner reservations in the right column; some reservations having been highlighted in yellow.  As I flip through the pages I notice that from the day the restaurant opened (a Wednesday night no less) Fessaguet didn’t close once until Thursday November 24th 1960 – Thanksgiving Day. He went 64 days without a rest, surely working fifteen hours a day (50+ covers at lunch, 80+ covers a dinner), every day for two months; a cool 105 hours per week.  Fessaguet was a culinary athlete with an exceptional pedigree and conditioning for the time including more than a decade at the famed La Pavillon.

Chef Roger Fessaguet is last on the right, front row, seated at the table (Vatel Club of New York)

Most agree that the opening of Le Restaurant du Pavillon de France at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, a restaurant run by Maître d’ Henri Soulé and Chef Pierre Franey, marked the launch of fine dining in America. When World War II broke out in Europe Soule and Franey, in the U.S. for the fair at the time, remained in New York as refugees. On October 15, 1941 they opened La Pavillon as a permanent restaurant at 5 East 55th Street at Fifth Avenue. Within a few short years La Pavillon was recognized as the best restaurant in the country.  Eight years later in 1949 Fessaguet arrived in the United States as a fresh seventeen year old from France via Liberty Ship and found his way from Baltimore, his place of disembarkment, to the kitchen of La Pavillon in New York. Fessaguet remained at La Pavillon from 1949 until 1960 except for a two year stint serving as a Marine in Korea.

Chef Fessaguet Portfolio (the card titled “The President” was left after a dinner by John F. Kennedy)

At twenty eight years of age he jumped at the opportunity to join Messieurs Fred Decré and Robert Meyzen, also from Le Pavillon to open La Caravelle. Decré and Meyzen chose the name La Caravelle, a wooden boat with three sails used in the 15th century to explore the world, to convey the idea of new promise, an idea fitting when you consider how Fessaguet arrived in the United States. La Carevelle was one of what would be several restaurants that were spawned from La Pavillon in the 1960’s and Fessaguet, Decré and Meyzen quickly rose in restaurant rankings nationally eventually becoming the favored restaurant of Ambassador Joseph Kennedy and his son President John F. Kennedy too. Within the first three weeks of opening Ambassador Kennedy’s name appears multiple times; he dined for five days in a row during October 1960. That Jackie Kennedy tapped Fessaguet to find a chef for the White House during Camelot isn’t surprising. Fessaguet initially offered the job to a young chef Jacques Pepin but Pepin chose another path and Rene Verdon ultimately received the nod.

La Caravelle Reservation Book, November 24th, 1960

(photo courtesy of Richard Gutman, Culinary Arts Museum, Johnson & Wales University)

So here I sit reflecting on contemporary American culinary culture, the influence of the San Sebastian set and Spanish culinary innovation (all that foaming and spherification), of the great chefs of Italy and the rising influence of Asian and Latin chefs. It seems that French chefs are no longer at the center of things today but their influence is so enduring. The culinary arts are headed to new levels in America and we owe a debt of gratitude to those early French Chefs who stormed our shores in the mid 20th century and remained. Within two generations of their arrival a whole new generation of American chefs were cultivated under their tutelage both here and back in France and those chefs (David Burke, Larry Forgione, Alfred Portale, Barry Wine etc.) took hold of the New York restaurant scene and never looked back. These are such wonderful shoulders to stand on; ones that we should remember, respect, and offer a nod of gratitude every once in a while. Heureux Thanksgiving mon ami.