Lessons From A Legendary Chef

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Photo gnondpomme/Flickr CC


A recent reference in the numerous stories of how to eat in Paris in recession days, and a reference to the recent price of poulet vapeur for two--$267--brought me back to when my husband, the late Norman Zinberg, and I ate the very same dish on our honeymoon, in 1956, for a fraction of the price, probably $25, as it was created by the legendary founder of the Hotel de la Cote D'Or, Alexander Dumaine. Then it was called poulet de Bresse demi-deuil, chicken in half mourning, an effect created by slipping slices of black truffle under the chicken's skin.

The bird was weighed, a carefully calibrated amount of consomme and julienned vegetables was added, and the precise steaming time calculated. Woe unto any diner who arrived minutes after Mr. Dumaine whipped off the cloth from the rim of the earthenware casserole, releasing the most fragrant aromas throughout the meal as one casserole after another was unsealed. It had to be eaten immediately!

"Might we stay at the Hotel for five days and begin to learn?"

Even taking inflation into account, this was affordable for a graduate student and young assistant professor, though we had indeed pooled several wedding checks for a month-long eating adventure across Italy and France. Thanks to Joseph Wechsberg's compelling article in the New Yorker earlier that year in which he described Dumaine's ascent to the pinnacle of French cuisine on the death of Fernande Point, we were determined to visit this gastronomic temple. Calling upon the skills of a French friend, we asked him to write to Dumaine saying that we knew little about food (which of course, I did not believe but should have) and even less about wine. "Might we stay at the Hotel for five days and begin to learn?"

To my amazement, Madame Dumaine answered promptly in the affirmative, warm and enthusiastic, as no one had ever before made this request. We embarked on the culinary experience of a lifetime. Time was not an issue. In the evening we met in the small bar with M. Dumaine and his wife, who served as the interpreter, where we drank 1918 Armagnac and discussed the next day's menu.

At Dumaine's stern suggestion, the main meal was to be eaten at midday; a light supper would suffice--a slice from the Morvan ham impaled on a silver spike on the sideboard, asparagus, and tomato salad, all from the local countryside. Mr. Dumaine was politely appalled by my insistence on finishing each of his "light" suppers not with his prized melon but with Poire Belle Helene, lightly poached pears with vanilla ice cream, accompanied by a wooden pitcher of an ethereal chocolate sauce, which I managed to empty every night.

We drank great quantities of wine, with Dumaine choosing all local, young, and very inexpensive wines for us with two exceptions: a 1937 Mersault with a steak and a vintage champagne with a chocolate souffle. Each of the dazzling main dishes was preceded by an equally elaborate, richly sauced fish course including glistening trout and quenelle de brochet--an ethereal mousse of pike made painstakingly by hand, forced through a chinois, a fine-meshed sieve, before the appearance of the Cuisinart.

Presented by

Dorothy Zinberg

Dorothy Zinberg is a Lecturer in Public Policy and a Faculty Associate in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. For 10 years a biochemist at Harvard Medical School, she later received a Ph.D in sociology at Harvard. For almost 40 food-filled years, she was a friend and neighbor of Julia Child’s in Cambridge.

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