Friday, May 6, 2011

The time a famed French chef wagged his finger at me.

The time a famed French chef wagged his finger at me. ©Joel Baumwoll

My education in the world of haute cuisine began, thanks to my beau frére, in Paris.  Bob Hamburger is an ardent Francophile.  His trip itineraries were diligently researched and recorded in a thick pile of 3x5 index cards.  These contained such information as the place to get the best french fries, the most comfortable accessible toilets, who made the best eggs and more.

Each restaurant was chosen from a larger list of candidates, until only the best of the best remained.  As we entered each, a smaller pile of index cards was produced, informing us of the specialties de la maison, and dishes that were available nowhere else in the known universe.

Bob had a fear of eating someplace and discovering afterwards that he had not ordered the famed dish with a name like  "truffe au foie gras avec morelles, sauce Chateau Yquem par Lawrence Ferlingetty."  The thought that he might leave without having experienced the ne plus ultra of dishes drive him to such lengths of study.

We, mere tourists, happily went along for the ride.  My brain, of course, was soaking all this in, for the day that I would be the  tour leader.

On this particular day, we were slated to dine at Dodin Bouffant, a three Michelin star restaurant in Paris, run by a celebrity chef, Jacques Manier.  Manier was known for his delicate preparations and innovative use of steam (vapeur) in cooking. He had produced a cookbook Cuisine a la Vapeur (The art of cooking with steam).

As we arranged ourselves about the large round table in a corner by the window of this second floor dining room; out came the cards.  We were informed that the lobster bisque was highly regarded, the haddock was superb, and a dish called a "seafood omelet" was not to be missed.

We decided to have the bisque, each chose a fish and a seafood omelet was ordered "for the table" so we could each have a taste. Satisfied we had ordered well, we sat back and enjoyed the lovely white Burgundy, a bit smug that we Americans knew the ropes among the Michelin stars.

The bisque arrived, and it was unctuously delicious.  Rich with cream and butter, chunks of sweet tender lobster meat, delicate herbs, I spooned and slurped every drop from my bowl.

As the dishes were cleared we reminded the waiter we were expecting a seafood omelet before the entrees.  He seemed troubled and left after arranging the plates for the next course.

Several minutes later, Bob noticed a tall, dignified man striding into the room.  "There's the great man, himself," Bob informed us, pointing to Manier.  The chef was scanning the room, and then locked in on our table.  

He walked directly over, much to our surprise, and said in a lovely French accented English "Good evening..  You are enjoying your meal?"  Heads bob up and down enthusiastically.

"Well, I wish to tell you, your meal is on the wrong track."

Horrors! What breach of culinary etiquette had we committed?  Oh woe.  Oh no!  Our first big league meal on the trip, and we were getting a failing grade of "F."

"I will explain," he continued.  "You order the lobster bisque, no?"  And you order the seafood omelet, yes?"

"Yes" we mumble, like third graders caught chewing gum in class.  We sit, looking up at the noted chef, waiting for the word of our transgression.

"The sauce on the omelet is the same as the lobster bisque.  So if you have one, you do not need the other."  

Then wagging his long index finger back and forth in the universal "no-no" sign he finishes "It is redundant."

Redundant!  Wow.  Too much of a good thing.  

They did serve the omelet, and the man was right.  It was like eating second helpings of the soup.  Redundant.  Not that that ever stopped me going back for seconds in the lower levels of cuisine I was used to habitating.

Look at Thanksgiving dinners--vertitable orchestrations of redundancy.

But the man was right.  And we learned a lesson that night.  Thereafter, after ordering a meal, we would always ask the captain "is our meal on the right track?"  

And several times we were advised to change an appetizer or second course because the herbs in the first course would not work well in our mouths with the sauce of the second course. 

The late Jacques Manier taught us that the French do know a thing our two about how to eat, and we would do well to pay attention and not be bashful about asking for their advice.

Our meals have tracked well ever since with nary a derailment.

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