Posts Tagged ‘Classical French Cuisine’

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. 

Daube De Boeuf at Bistro Jeanty

Posted 14 Apr 2010 — by S.E.
Category Full Service

I had a dining experience in March that was so delicious that it brought back a long forgotten experience from my earliest days as a cook. The trigger was the initial smell of the beef daube at Bistro Jeanty in Yountville, California. The beef daube was so incredible that within seconds it brought me back 25 years to the first time I tasted the dish as an extern working 200 miles west of Yountville in South Lake Tahoe.

In 1986 I was on my internship at a casino in Lake Tahoe and tasted my first classical beef daube prepared by Chef Hans Jordi. Chef Hans, at six feet six, was so tall that he had to take his chef hat off to walk around the kitchen. His stride was wider than the wingspan of a small aircraft and he spoke as fast as he walked. His sharp Swiss accent and corresponding attitude was not for the faint of heart. To say he was demanding as the hotels executive chef is an understatement. However, if you paid attention and spent 2-3 hours per day working beyond your normal shift, he, in turn would spend time sharing classical recipes with whoever was willing. That we worked for free 2-3 hours per day was the norm back then. This was the 1980’s when we cooks were paid at the cashier stand in the casino and offered free drink tokens with our pay.

Table at Bistro Jeanty

 Many, after a couple of drinks, never even made it out of the casino with their compensation. It was a different time, but that’s another story. Beef daube was one of the dishes Chef Hans shared and one that I took great pleasure in learning to make. More important, Hans drilled classical techniques and cuisine into our heads over the entire span of time that I worked for him.

Being prepared was essential to keeping up with Jordi so each of us carried a copy of Louis Saulnier’s Le Repertoire de La Cuisine in our knife roll just in case he tossed out a reference to a classical dish or query regarding the proper ingredients for a specific classical French garnish. On a regular basis he would offer up a classical term and expect us to recite the proper description and corresponding ingredients without hesitation. When it came to classical sauces he expected us to know them all, from Aioli (garlic infused fresh mayonnaise) to Zingara (demi-glace with tomato, mushroom, truffles, beef tongue, ham, cayenne and Madeira). Get one or two of these mini examinations correct and you were eligible for the classical cooking lesson later that day. Get them wrong and you were sent packing.

So it was Chef Hans Jordi’s face that flashed through my mind as I tasted the beef daube at Bistro Jeanty. It always amazes me how food aromas or flavors can unbind the various layers of prior experience that are laminated together like a piece of plywood in long term memory. How is it that food experiences

Daube De Boeuf

become such powerful memory markers and memory triggers? I hadn’t thought about Chef Jordi in 20 years and now, with the smell of Bistro Jeanty’s beef daube wafting in the air, it was like Jordi was standing over me (all six feet six of him).

Bistro Jeanty slow braises their beef daube to the perfect state of fork-tenderness. For $18.50, you get a good portion of daube paired with mashed potatoes, buttered peas and carrots. The moderately thick, gelatinous glace that serves as the base for the dish is so wonderfully done that the liquid alone, with a baguette, could be a meal. Note that the beef daube was not my entrée; it belonged to the guy sitting next to me. I had ordered the Pork belly with lentil and foie gras ragout ($15.50) and was halfway through the dish before I was offered a taste of the daube. I rinsed with red wine and then water and tasted a fork full of the daube. After my second bite, I traded the remainder of my Pork belly for what was left of the daube, both were outstanding.

Chef Philippe Jeanty’s cuisine is as good as it has ever been. He had some tough times last year, closing his new venture “Jeanty at Jack’s” in San Francisco in May. Some in the food business said that his absence in Yountville and

Pork Belly with Lentil and Foie Gras

 the distractions in San Francisco resulted in a drop in the quality of the food and service at the Bistro Jeanty. I disagree. I think Chef Jeanty’s cuisine is as good as ever and that he is preserving the art of classical French bistro cuisine that few in the U.S. can duplicate. The classical preparations he features daily have become scarce in the U.S. and the level of execution he sustains, even scarcer. Eating at Bistro Jeanty was a joy not only because of the memories it brought back but also the fact that it preserves such an important cuisine and aesthetic for all to enjoy. I left Bistro Jeanty completely sated and fondly reminiscent of my life as a cook in prior years.