Lessons From A Legendary Chef


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.

Knowing that we would be in a semi-stupor following the midday meal, Madame Dumaine arranged outings for us each morning--a visit to a Gothic church as a guest of its abbe; an introduction to the local vintners and several private tours of vineyards and wineries; and a memorable trip to the Hospice de Beaune. The hospital is now a museum, but then was still a functioning hospital built in the Middle Ages, with nuns in habits with cornettes, starched, white flying sails perched on top of their heads, right out of Madeleine. As a physician my husband (and I) were invited to tour the wards filled with patients in the original heavily draped beds, he commenting that the linens appeared not to have been changed since the doors first opened.

Madame Dumaine took her teaching assignment seriously. She explained that there were no flowers on the tables because the scent interfered with the aromas of the food, and Mr. Dumaine liked his small kitchen--a 28-foot narrow galley, where with a few assistants, he cooked everything himself. Sadly, he was a diabetic and in later life when we met him, could sample little of what he cooked. (The sadder tale of his successor, Bernard Loiseau, associated the restaurant with tragedy: Loiseau is the chef who committed suicide after the Michelin guide was rumored to be about to demote the restaurant by a star--rumors that proved to be false. Happily, it flourishes today, three stars intact, under the care of Jacques Lameloise.)

The hotel was ghastly. We were the only guests as the serious, often elegant diners who filled the restaurant twice a day were usually en route to or from Paris and the Riviera, stopping only to eat. It was not unusual to see portly, well-tailored gentlemen by themselves, eating for hours with great concentration, pausing only to exchange a few words with the Dumaines. Upstairs, the four badly furnished rooms were painted a hideous green, the toilet had a noisy pull chain and was located down the hall, and the mattress had obviously done duty at the Hospice. But we thrived on the care and magical food for four days.

On the fifth, our New England stomachs gave out, and we were forced to leave early for London. Only the tasteless but more familiar Oxo cubes and unavoidable puddings--England was a wasteland for food in the 50s--settled our stomachs. Once recovered, we quickly returned to the joys of French cuisine and entered a new world of sensuous delight in looking for local produce, cooking, and feeding friends. The Dumaines had done their work well.