When I was first trying to find my way around the professional kitchen, I ventured away from my Southern roots, because that was all I knew about food. I always wanted to travel. I remember reading a book when I was about nine years old and it painted a glorious picture of Kashmir, with ornate houseboats in Dal Lake—those written words made me want to travel. I have never been to India but am still enchanted with the idea.
As I started to cook in my late teens, I wanted to learn more about every cuisine that seemed exotic and grand. I remember making my own wonton wrappers and reading all the Time Life cookbooks that made me feel I was visiting all of those places. In my early twenties, I was trying to emulate the likes of Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, and Jean and Pierre Troisgros; I was a total convert to French food.
Many, many years ago my early travels brought me to Alaska, then Paris. When I returned to the states my first job as a chef was at the Tower Club in Anchorage, Alaska. As remote as Alaska felt, I seemed to be cooking frequently for interesting visitors. One memorable meal I prepared was a dinner for Walter Cronkite and his lovely wife, Betsy. I was pleasantly surprised when I realized he loved food and knew good food. He immediately started comparing restaurant notes when he heard I had been in France. He knew all I did about what was going on in France with Nouvelle Cuisine and much more—he had been dining in France since World War II. He was quite the gourmand, and it was that evening that I heard the name "Fernand Point" for the very first time. Mr. Cronkite told me how much he admired Fernand Point and what a magician he had been in the kitchen.
Until that evening I did not know that the chefs I was looking up to, when they were my age, were trying to win the approval of Fernand Point. Chef Point's passion and ability helped him establish restaurant La Pyramide, which he opened at age 26, as an international gastronomic mecca. He was also a very strong believer in the use of regional, seasonal ingredients.
The Cronkites shared stories of many Michelin three-star restaurant meals with me, but I will never forget the story Mr. Cronkite told me about Fernand Point. I remember a story (not sure whether fact or fiction) that when a young cook would come hoping to gain a place in his kitchen, this intimidating master would ask the young cook to fry an egg. He said from that alone, he could judge whether they would ever make it in the kitchen. From the moment I heard this story I had great respect for Chef Point. Mr. Cronkite reported to me that Chef Point said there was only true way to fry an egg: He would melt some butter over extremely low heat, then carefully slip an egg into it. Covering the frying pan, he would then cook the egg slowly until the white was perfectly set from the mild steam generated by the process but the yolk remained perfectly liquid.
Fernand Point was known to keep a small cream-colored notebook in which he journaled his thoughts on cooking and his life in the kitchen. This notebook became known as Ma Gastronomie. Here are several quotations taken from the book:
• "The cuisinier loses his reputation when he becomes indifferent to his work."
• "La grande cuisine must not wait for the guest; it's the guest who must wait for la grande cuisine."
• "Inattention never pays off in the kitchen."
• "When one thinks of la grande cuisine one cannot think of money; the two are incompatible. La grande cuisine is extremely expensive—but that does not mean one cannot do very good cooking with inexpensive ingredients."
• "In all professions without doubt, but certainly in cooking one is a student all his life."
• "The best cooking is that which takes into consideration the products of the season."
• "Wines that are too old are not suitable for cooking. Fire cannot give them back the strength they have lost."
• "One of the most important things that distinguish man from other animals is that man can get pleasure from drinking without being thirsty."
• "Every country, every region, has its local specialties about which it's rash to say, 'they're not very good,' because nature supplies every taste."
• "As far as cuisine is concerned one must read everything, see everything, hear everything, try everything, observe everything, in order to retain in the end, just a little bit."
When Mr. Cronkite was the anchor of CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981, he was often described as "the most trusted man in America." After my evening with him, I knew I trusted his passion and knowledge of good food. Everyone we ever meet in life leaves us with something; the best gift to me is to be left with a memory. My memory of my evening with Walter Cronkite is when he told me I was the first woman chef he had met. He enjoyed the meal and said, Come here I want to give you a big hug. He said, "You are the first chef I have ever been able to put my arms around." His wife, Betsy, quickly said, "Walter, she is the first chef you ever wanted to put your arms around."
P.S.: The perfect toast to go with the perfect egg. Heat a cast-iron skillet—medium heat—and add a pat of butter. Immediately place sliced bread in skillet, brown, and turn over and toast to your liking. Bread toasted in a cast-iron skillet if the best. If you just want toast without an egg, add cinnamon sugar and let it caramelize slightly. It is heaven.
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