The Michelin Man
A Sample Chapter
The photographer ran past a fire-damaged building, crouching to protect his camera from the rain, a bag of equipment slung over each shoulder. Hurrying along a service alley stacked with empty crates, boxes, ladders and stacks of firewood he ducked into the entrance of what had been a royal hunting lodge before the troubles.
Suddenly the scene exploded. It was immensely hot, there were fires everywhere, a brigade hurried this way and that, orders were shouted, orders were acknowledged.
With no hesitation the photographer dropped his equipment bags, raised his camera to his face and began shooting the chaotic scene. Within seconds his shirt was soaked with sweat and stuck to his skin, but he continued shooting.
Slowly it dawned on him that, despite the heat, despite the frenetic activity, despite the number of people scurrying around in the cramped space, it was not really chaos. He could discern a pattern, here there was a system.
More orders arrived from the front and were shouted out. “Un carré d’agneau, un homard.”
Our entrance into the kitchen of La Grande Cascade seemed, at the moment anyway, as dramatic as a scene from Stalingrad. After parking our car we were gestured around the back of the building by the maitre d’, led under the construction scaffolding set up to repair damage from a minor fire a few weeks ago, and escorted through the service door. It was raining, we were wet, and when we hit the heat and hubbub of the kitchen we were momentarily stunned.
There, a dozen cooks — chefs de parti, sous chefs, commis — and cleaners were hard at work on lunch service. Chef Frédéric Robert was at the helm, standing at the counter assembling one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, Carré d’agneau de Lozère frotté au piment d’Espelette, rack of lamb rubbed with a chilli pepper from the Basque country.
Under his white chef coat Chef Robert wore slim-cut black jeans and black shoes. He looked a bit like Anthony Bourdain, but his features were more French; the mouth wider, the lips fuller, the nose more Gallic and pronounced. He was tall, imposing, slender and fit, with salt-and-pepper hair suitably long and slicked back.
On the stainless steel work surface he placed a clean white plate. Picking up a plastic bottle from a tray of prepared sauces and condiments he squeezed out a small dot of pistou one, two, three, four, five times to form an arc of dots on one side of the plate. Then with a bottle filled with a red pimento coulis, sort of a strained and thickened red pepper paste, he plopped five red dots alternating with the green. One of the commis passed to Chef what looked like a Vietnamese spring roll; a pastilla d’epaule confite, confit of lamb shoulder mixed with spices, then rolled in phyllo pastry and deep fried; inspired by the traditional Moroccan pastry-wrapped meat pie. Chef gently, carefully placed it at the base of the arc, at the other side of the plate.
Next to that he stood a thin courgette, a tiny zucchini, blanched and cut in half, gluing it in place with a little squirt of another special sauce – a proud green tower standing watch over the pastilla. With a spoon he placed four dabs of what Chef called marmalade d’aubergine (eggplant marmalade) in a smaller arc paralleling the red and green dots. Then out of nowhere he plucked a roasted and stuffed cherry tomato, with its top perching like a lid, and found a place for it at one end of the pastilla.
It was a beautiful dish, colorful and with an appealing mix of flavors and aromas. But Chef wasn’t done. He finished with the dish’s namesake, carré d’agneau, rack of lamb. Three small pieces of lamb, coated in a unique ground chilli pepper grown only in the Basque country of southwestern France, cooked to perfection and each piece speared with a bone from the rib. These found homes between the dabs of marmalade d’aubergine.
Chef turned, placed the finished plate on the passe, the spotlessly clean counter where finished plates are deposited, ready to be picked up by the servers, and called out, “Service!” sur-VEESE. A tuxedoed server set the dish on a tray and, with a small damp sponge, gave the perimeter of the plate a final wipe so it would arrive at the table looking perfect.
This kind of attention, we discovered, was given to each and every dish that goes out of Chef Robert’s kitchen.
A young kitchen helper accidentally dropped a silver platter making a large crash. Chef yelled at him and moved his leg in a kicking motion. Then realizing his action, and perhaps that he had an audience, he laughed. It’s no secret who is the Chef, the boss in this kitchen.
A bottle of ice-cold Vittel water appeared with glasses for us hot and thirsty rubberneckers. Little cups of espresso were served. As we quickly slurped our cups we marvelled that, in the midst of the controlled frenzy, the kitchen manager remained sitting at his desk, calmly writing up the week’s work schedule.
We didn’t have time to marvel long, though. The next order came in and Chef called it out. (“Un torteau.” “Oui, Chef.”) Emietté de Tourteau au Naturel, crémeu de chou-fleur en fine gelée iodée, caviar Baerii d’Aquitaine. The description of the entrée is, aptly, a mouthful. You might translate it as “fresh crab cake with creamed-cauliflower icing on a bed of veal jelly with caviar from Aquitaine.”
It was Alexandre, the sous chef, who grabbed a plate to start this dish. But this plate came out of the refrigerated case beneath the passe and arrived on the prep counter already filled with a gelée, set solid and as flat as an ice rink. The gelée was only about the thickness of a wooden kitchen match.
This gelée was made every morning from veal stock and gelatin, heated on the stovetop, allowed to cool, then placed in an ice bath so the gelatin would start to set. At just the right point, while still liquid, the mixture would be poured onto the plates and in a matter of five minutes solidified into these tiny, perfect ice rinks of a beautiful, rich copper color.
Sous Chef Alexandre was a tall, solid fellow with buttery soft skin and a full beard. His hands were sure and steady as he reached for a round cutter — about two inches in diameter and height — and cut a hole in the gelée dead-center on the plate. Using a large spoon he carefully lifted out the round piece of gelatin and discarded it. In a stainless-steel bowl with straight, angled sides he mixed together torteau (shredded crab meat), grated lemon, chives, and olive oil, tasted it for seasoning, and filled the same round cutter nearly to the top with the mixture. He tamped it down and then spooned on crémeux de chou-fleur, cauliflower purée mixed light as a feather with mascarpone cheese, to fill the cutter to the top, levelling it off with the back of a knife.
While the dish was being constructed Chef Robert was ordering staff around. “Watch out, move back. Let these journalists do their job.” A line of staff formed at the passe, watching Alexandre prepare the dish. He knew he was on the spot, but his performance was stellar.
From beneath the counter he next retrieved a large butane torch. With the blue flame no closer than a hand’s-breadth from the cutter, he applied heat to set the crab and cauliflower cream, the heat also allowing the cream to melt into the crab mixture, using his other hand to keep the cylinder turning, so no one spot overheats.
The mixture now set, Alexandre slid an oh-so-thin spatula beneath the cutter and precisely placed it into the hole he cut from the gelée. With the gentlest of twists and a shudder of a shake, he slowly lifted the cutter, leaving behind a perfectly formed cylinder of tourteau and crémeux. Chef Alexandre paused along with the rubberneckers to admire what he had created. The group of staff, including waiters and management, gave him mock applause.
From a cooled and latched storage box Alexandre removed a flat tin of Baerii caviar from Aquitaine. (The supplier of the caviar lauds its medium grain, dark color and flavors of hazelnut and seafood.) Using two spoons he formed quenelles of caviar in the distinctive football shape. With the hands of a surgeon (or, in this case, perhaps a sturgeon), he placed three quenelles of caviar around the plate on top of the gelée surrounding the tower of tourteau.
Picking through a plastic clamshell of Fleurs de Bourrache Chef next decorated the tower of tourteau and the caviar quenelles with flowers and a small leaf. Not quite satisfied with the look of the dish, he produced another plastic squeeze bottle and embellished the surface of the gelée in a pattern of white dots of citron coulis.
Standing back to allow some photographs – snap, snap, snap – he called out, “Service!” A lift of the plate, a wipe, and into the dining room.
Another plate plunked on the counter, another signature dish being prepared: macaroni au céleri rave, foie gras et truffe noire, gratinés au parmesan. This is La Grande Cascade’s famous macaroni stuffed with black truffles and foie gras. This dish was created by Jean-Louis Nomicos when he was chef du cuisine at La Grande Cascade and we’d already eaten it at his eponymous restaurant in the 16th Arrondissement. We wondered if there would be a difference between his and Chef Robert’s.
Five four-inch tubes of hand-made pasta, looking more like penne without the stripes than macaroni, had been stuffed with a finely-chopped mixture of foie gras, truffles and celeriac. Alexandre, still at the counter, used a light-bodied fish spatula to dip the pasta into a béchamel sauce, being careful that the tubes didn’t break and that every tube was completely coated. He placed the pasta tubes side by side on a metal tray and sprinkled them liberally with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese before popping the tray into the salamander, a high-temperature broiler, to brown. That’s where the “gratinés” comes from in the menu description. Once browned, Alexandre gently removed them to a dinner plate and finished the dish with an artistic spoonful of a white reduction sauce and two large spoonfuls of brown veal reduction sauce.
More large spoons were passed around by Chef and we all sampled the pasta. It tasted of the earth; simple, hearty fare elevated with luxury ingredients. Surprisingly, it was also crunchy thanks to the celeriac. This was the first food we’d eaten that day and it tasted wonderful. But, better than Jean-Louis Nomicos? Probably not.
With the frenzied activity in the kitchen we hadn’t noticed that lunch service had ended, the last plats had gone out. The staff — all of them: cooks, chefs, commis, trainees — had started applying that same level of intensity to cleaning the entire kitchen and within minutes — three? five? — everything was spotless. The floors flooded and squeegeed, cutlery neatly stowed, plates stacked, the extended stovetop and prepping area not only shining but completely empty of the chaos of pots, pans, sauces and spills that was there only a few minutes earlier. There’d be no hesitation in eating off the counter, or the floor for that matter. That’s how clean it was.
We grabbed bags, lenses, and coats and hurried after Chef as he gestured us into the next room, the pastry kitchen, where the last of the desserts and coffees were being prepared.
There was time to watch two young women trainees — both with “Ferrandi" stitched onto their chef’s coats — put together a couple of desserts for lingering diners. Poêlée de cerises noires aux épices, fine arlette was beautiful fresh cherries, spiced and served with arlette, a thin, crunchy, cinnamon-flavored pastry. Abricot aux parfums citron-basilic, comme un vacherin, freshly sliced apricots served on little meringue bowls filled with vacherin cheese and a quenelle of ice cream on top. The dish wasn’t complete until perfect little dots of apricot purée formed a rectangle around the assemblage.
“Ferrandi” referred to École Grégoire-Ferrandi, a professional training school located in the 6th Arrondissement of Paris. In addition to teaching design and restaurant management, the school also has a large culinary training school, École Supérieure de Cuisine Française, that some of the chefs we’d met cited as the best in France. Part of the program is apprenticing in a work environment; the luckiest students get into Michelin restaurants and the chefs are glad to have them.
Before the Ferrandi desserts go out the server wiped the plates around the edges with a small sponge soaked in a light vinegar solution. Even the espresso received a wipe down before delivery. The server cleaned the interior of the cup to get rid of any smudges or drops that might naturally occur. It was a metaphor for this place — the forty-six-foot-high waterfall outside is nature tamed, and the delicate touches inside the restaurant corrected for any natural imperfections in the food. Nature is tamed. Culture floats to the top.
Pastry Chef Nielsen was from Belgium. He stepped to the work counter to reveal the secret of the construction (and we’re using that term on purpose) of The Bomb, La Grand Cascade’s surprising signature dessert. Perfect red spheres, the size of softballs, are made of white chocolate, shaped into hemispheres on half-round stainless-steel forms. Once they are set, the open sides of the hemispheres are rubbed on a plate of liquid sugar to form perfect edges and to make them sticky. Chef Nielsen demonstrated how he joined two halves together, perfectly and exactly, holding them in place for thirty seconds until the adhesive set. Then, with the slightest of flourishes, he displayed a shiny red sphere. An empty sphere.
How, we couldn’t stop from asking, do you get the goodies inside? With the smallest of nods Chef Nielsen placed the ball on a plastic cup, to keep it in place. Lighting another kitchen torch he heated up a small round cutter, using it to make a neat hole in the top of the ball; twisting ever so slightly, with the gentlest of pressure, letting the heat do the work. Into the hole he spooned fresh strawberries, strawberry compote, cream and strawberry sorbet, sealed the hole with a wafer, and then turned the ball over so the plugged hole was on the bottom.
The fillings of La Bombe change with the season. At the time, we were in strawberry season, but La Bombe can be made with anything: apricots, peaches, cherries. The only rule is that everything must match: apricot means a yellow ball, apricot ice cream, and so on.
“Alors,” Chef Robert said with a clap of his hands. “Alllons-y.” He grabbed an espresso from the server and strode across the kitchen. We grabbed our things and hurriedly followed.
“I’ve always worked in Michelin-star restaurants. I don’t like simple cooking.”
Chef Frédéric Robert balanced his espresso as he unlocked the door. We’d followed him out of the kitchen and up a set of stairs to the back of the building, passing a jumble of dining chairs in need of repair; past banquet tables and highchairs; past the photocopying machine, to his office. We could smell the residual smoke from the recent fire.
We stepped inside his small office with piles of papers on a desk, halogen lamps forming pools of bright light. Above the desk, lining the wall, was a series of photos held up with push pins and tape.
“It’s my wall of memories.”
Right out of cooking school, and during the thirty-five years since, Chef Robert tied his champagne cart to a Michelin star, cooking his way through the top kitchens of Paris and working up from a lowly commis making omelettes through all the stations in a classic French kitchen — commis de sauce, garde-manger, chef de partie sauce, poissonnier, sous chef — to become the head of the kitchen, chef de cuisine, at La Grande Cascade. His resumé reads like a gourmet’s guide to the best restaurants of Paris.
With a ruler, he pointed to a photo of him next to another chef, both smiling for the camera. “C’est Joël Robuchon,” he says. “Et, ici,” he moved the ruler to the right, “Paul Bocuse.” Then him with Japanese dignitaries and next to that a photo of him leaning over a rugged and handsome older man; the man was French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, famous for Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless. In the second row of photos was a group shot of the entire brigade in front of La Grande Cascade.
Frédéric Robert was born 1962 in the city of Paris. At sixteen years old and failing at school his father said to the young lad, “Time for you to get a trade. What will it be?”
Frédéric thought he might like to work in a restaurant. Since his family had recently moved to Rouen in Normandy he enrolled at the local hotel school. On the first day students were required to choose between learning the front of house or the kitchen. Once chosen, your fate was sealed, there was no changing your path of study in the second term. He liked the suits the servers wore so he chose front of house. Every day he dressed up in the waiter’s outfit and learned about hotel management and restaurant service. But every day he would also pass the kitchen and eye the toques, knives, and chefs’ whites. Those were even better outfits. He wanted to change, however he knew it was impossible. This is France, after all: rules are rules.
Then, at the two-week mark, young Frédéric had a coup de chance, a stroke of luck. A student in the kitchen wanted to switch to the front of house and, with a bit of French administrative juggling, Frédéric changed out of his waiter’s suit and into a chef’s coat, and thus began his thirty-five-year journey as a chef. Something happened to him when he began to cook; he transformed from a lazy teenager into a committed young man, and an aspiring Michelin chef.
After graduating from cooking school Frédéric made his way back to Paris to land an apprentice position at Hotel de Crillon on Place de la Concorde, across from Jardin des Tuileries. Crillon was the pinnacle of luxury in 1980 and was the choice of movie stars and celebrities — that year, for instance, Jackie Onassis, David Niven and Yul Brynner came to stay. The hotel restaurant, Les Ambassadeurs, had held Michelin stars for seventeen years. There were fifty people working in the kitchen. The young chef had dropped anchor in the world he would never leave.
His first job at Les Ambassadeurs was making breakfast. Every day he started at 6 AM, going down into the kitchen to crack eggs, make omelettes, and arrange baskets of croissants. An apprentice is in a kitchen to learn and to experience kitchen life, so during the following two years he worked every station — fish, meat, vegetables, prep. By the time his apprenticeship ended he had been promoted to commis de sauce, the assistant to the chef saucier (the cook in charge of all the sauces) — a heady achievement for a young chef.
It's only a twenty-minute walk from Les Ambassadeurs in the 8th Arrondissement to restaurant Le Grand Véfour in the 1st Arrondissement, but on that walk in 1983 Frédéric climbed the Michelin ladder a notch — from two stars to three. There he took his position behind the piano as the chef de partie sauce. Located on the garden courtyard of the Palais Royal, Le Grand Véfour was another celebrity favorite and, during his three years behind the stove, he cooked for the likes of the Aga Khan and Prince Rainier of Monaco. But it was three years later that he won what was to the young chef his dream job.
“It was from Bernard Pacaud that I really learned about ingredients,” Chef told us, “about respecting the ingredients — the produce, the meats, the fish.”
L’Ambroisie, Chef Bernard Pacaud’s temple to gastronomy is located on the historic Place des Vosges in the equally-historic Marais. From Pacaud he learned about cooking with passion as well as about the individual components of a dish. He started as chef saucier and eventually became sous chef, the second to Pacaud. Just after his first year there L’Ambroisie received its third star. It was a pivotal moment in his career.
But young chefs have to move on to gain experience, so at thirty Frédéric joined La Grande Cascade, in the Bois de Boulogne, under Chef Jean Sabine. This was a tough period — the older Sabine and the younger Robert continually fought about cooking styles. As another chef told us, “It’s hard when a young chef is emerging and the old chef is descending. It’s always a clash.” Frédéric lasted four years, quarrelling with Sabine before departing. The year he left, La Grande Cascade lost its one Michelin star.
From an uncomfortable situation Frédéric moved on to the most formative period of his culinary life — Michelin 3-star restaurant Lucas-Carton. Here, on Place de la Madeleine, Frédéric was back in central Paris, only five hundred yards from Hotel de Crillon where he began his career.
The dining rooms at Lucas-Carton look on to the Greek revival architecture of the church that gives the place its name. The restaurant has been there since 1925, but it was only under esteemed chef Alain Senderens that it became a culinary landmark and received Michelin’s highest award of three stars in 1987. Senderens is considered one of the founders of nouvelle cuisine and is an icon of the Parisian food scene.
“He’s is the most cerebral chef I’ve every known; the person who thinks most about the food,” Chef Robert said. It was from him that he learned to intellectualize the process of cooking. Alain Senderens was unique in that he never cooked at the stove, he only directed.
“In the decade that I worked for Senderens I never saw him touch a plate.”
Chef Robert shuffled through the pile on his desk and holds up a sheaf of papers. “Senderens creates recipes by conceptualizing them,” he stated. “He invents recipes in his head and then writes them down, complete with drawings of how the plates should look. I use the same approach.”
We peered at the papers in his hand, covered with notes, drawings and intricate diagrams. “These,” he said waving them gently, “are recipes I’m working on. I give these drawings to my sous chefs and tell them, ‘I’m taking two weeks holiday. When I come back show me what you have made from this.’ Then I come back and sample them, tweak them and, if they’re good, put them on the menu.”
At Lucas-Carton he learned to become so familiar with the flavors he works with that, like Alain Senderens, he knows what a new recipe is going to taste like even before he cooks it.
Chef Robert had worked at Lucas-Carton for nine years when Alain Senderens dropped a culinary bombshell. In 2005 he renounced the three Michelin stars that he had held for eighteen years. The move created a sensation, with the news spreading to most of the major media in the western world. It was the food news story of the year.
"I was done with the tra-la-la, chi-chi, bling, crystal goblets, and glamor,” Senderens was quoted as saying. He closed Lucas-Carton, renovated the restaurant, and reopened under the name Senderens. By moving to a simpler cuisine, he said, he was able to give customers good food at a third of his Michelin prices. He also cited the claim that we’ve heard numerous times from chefs who own their restaurants — that luxury hotels have money to spare, so they are able afford expensive star-worthy restaurants, making it very difficult for single proprietors to compete.
Alain Senderens may have, depending on your point of view, shocked or inspired the culinary world, but to Frédéric Robert it was an unwelcome change.
“I didn’t like the changes. I liked creating haute cuisine. I also wanted to do my own cuisine as a head chef.” Chef looks up at the ceiling. “I decided I would give it a year under this new regime.”
It wasn’t long before one of the brothers who own La Grande Cascade was dining at the new Senderens. Chef Robert tells the story —
“He said to me, ‘I like it here, I like your food. Are you happy here?’ And I told him…” instead of saying anything Chef shrugged and moved his mouth downwards. “So he said, ’My chef is leaving, come and be head chef at La Grande Cascade.’” By that time Jean-Louis Nomicos had regained the restaurant’s one star.
And so Frédéric Robert, like a returning prince, was installed on the throne in the Bois de Boulogne. It was a good move for him. He loved the setting in the restored Napoleonic hunting lodge in the woods; he loved the sumptuous dining room, the vast kitchens and best of all he loved working with the two brothers who own the place.
“They are the fourth generation of the Minuet family to be restaurateurs. They also own L’Auberge du Bonheur,“ a game restaurant located just behind La Grande Cascade,“ and a handful of historic brasseries and bistros like Chez Georges, Garnier, and Le Ballon des Ternes. La Grande Cascade is their only Michelin-star restaurant.”
We asked Chef about his responsibilities to the brothers — spreadsheets, targets, profits, that kind of thing.
“Every month, we sit down and look briefly at the numbers. Then the brothers say ‘bon’ and the meeting is over.” When we remarked that it seemed like he gets the perks of owning a restaurant without the hassles of running it, Chef nodded in agreement.
“I wanted to express my own style, so I changed things within the first two weeks.” He said his style is “classical”, which fit perfectly with the tenor of the place. “Mine is classic cuisine with a modern twist.”
“I’m always looking for inspiration. Everywhere. All the time. I use my phone to take photos, I take down notes. I’m always collecting ideas. Sometimes nothing comes. And other times, I’ll create several new recipes in a week.
“When I create a new dish, I test it with out brigade and the front of house, and if they all give it the okay we put it on the menu. It’s handy that we do our own printing so we can continually change the menu.
“And then the dish gets tested on the menu. The front of house is attentive to the comments of the diners and pass along their remarks. But the true test is if customers return and ask for the dish again.
“To achieve culinary excellence a dish must please both the eyes and the palette.
“I’m constantly reworking the menu, adding new recipes. But I never change les grands classiques of our menu: the foie gras and truffle macaroni, the lobster, the crab emietté, the sweetbreads. Our clients come here specifically for these dishes and I won’t disappoint them.
“We don’t mess with the classic dishes.”
“Cooking is very simple. You need only three things,” Chef Robert touched one finger, “the quality of the ingredients,” two fingers, “the right seasoning, and,” three fingers, “knowing how to cook — the right amount of time to cook a dish.”
His formula for successful cooking resembles a recipe — three easy steps. It’s like in the movie Bull Durham: “Baseball is a simple game: you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.” Cooking is simple: you get the food, you season the food, you cook the food.
Chef stood and retrieved from his bookcase a huge binder acting as a scrap book. As he turned the pages we could see him as a wiry young man — always in the kitchen, always cooking. Interspersed with photos of him were newspaper clippings and magazine stories from the Michelin-star restaurants he has worked for.
“Le Guide Lebey des Restaurants de Paris,” one headline read. In the article there was a black-and-white photo of the exterior of the restaurant. The facing page had a large color photo of food.
The clipping about Le Guide Lebey prompted us to ask what he thought the most influential food publications are. “Michelin is the only one that is important. All the rest of the guides do not matter.“
He confirmed that besides the thrill of winning a star, there were also financial implications. He says that each star adds about thirty percent more business, and with the economic crisis in France that was important.
“The customers still come,” he shrugged, “but about forty percent order the cheaper 79€ tasting menu.” He mimed a person blocking a menu, “ ‘Only show me the cheaper menu!’ they say. ‘I don’t want to be tempted.’ ”
And with the tasting menu there was also less wine being ordered. Another shrug.
“It’s complicated,” he said, a phrase we heard from many other chefs, yet never really figured out what it meant. “It’s complicated, we consistently do one hundred covers a day. Everything is made in house. We only close during the Christmas holiday. Gault Millau has the toque system — five toques is the ultimate, I have four toques. That’s more than many three-star chefs have. It makes no sense.” He paused a beat before resuming, “I believe we do not have a second star because the owners don’t belong to the right club.”
However, if he did have two stars he would be worried about losing one. “Losing a star is traumatic for the chef and for the business.” He nearly shuddered.
Would he like a second star? “Bien sûr,” shrug. “But, it’s very political.”
With his chin cupped between his forefinger and thumb Chef Robert thought a moment. “I’d rather have a solid one-star than a shaky two-star. That would cause too much mental fatigue.”
But if he were to wine a second star, what would he do?
“Get drunk on whiskey and champagne.
“A chef du cuisine must have three qualities,” Chef Robert was back in Bull Durham mode. “He must know how to cook, of course. He must know how to manage people, and how to delegate. He must know how to manage money, how to run a business.”
He added that it was difficult to have staff in France. There’s supposed to be a mandated 35-hour workweek, but in a busy kitchen that can never be the case. “They’d run up their 35 hours by Wednesday, then what would we do?”
Still, he spoke of the three qualities he loves about the job of being a chef. One finger: “It’s an artistic adventure for a man.” Two fingers: “It creates work for people, I love the human interaction.” Three fingers. “The work is physical, unlike, for instance, computer work.”
A pause, a glance at the ceiling. “Through our physical and intellectual work, we create beautiful meals to improve people’s daily lives.”
Frédéric Robert loves what he does. He must take that attitude home with him since two of his three children are now in cooking school.
“To me making new recipes is like composing new music or a new painting. But, unlike music or art, cuisine is ephemeral. Twenty minutes later, it’s gone.”
“It’s one thing for someone to tell me right after the meal, ‘Oh, Chef that was so delicious.’ but it’s much more meaningful to meet a guest ten years later and have them say, “Oh, I remember that meal you served me. I still remember the fresh crab on that plate of veal jelly.’ That’s when I know I’ve done a good job.”
Like an artist among his paint and brushes, or a composer at a piano with sheets of music, this maestro, his recipe diagrams strewn around him, was still very, very passionate about the art of cooking.
A spray of water misted our faces as we walked beneath the falls — water ultimately fed by the artesian wells of Passy.
Hanging off of the southwest edge of Paris is one of most relaxing places in the city — 2,090 acres of woodlands aptly called the Bois de Boulogne. The bois (or woods) is often referred to “the lungs of Paris”; its many trees breathe oxygen into the traffic-congested city.
Standing under the remarkable forty-six foot high man-made waterfall you look across the pond at a 200-year-old cedar tree from Lebanon and, beyond that, to the Hippodrome de Longchamp, the horserace track once frequented by Impressionist painter Manet.
In the mid-nineteenth century Paris was undergoing a massive renovation; whole sections of the city were being torn down and replaced with wide boulevards and modern buildings, the sewer and water systems were being revamped, large new public spaces were created; all this under the command of Emperor Napoleon III who also ordered large parks be built. Feeling generous one day, he donated the land that is now the Bois de Boulogne and insisted that the new park have lakes and streams… and a grande cascade. The emperor was so enamored of the big waterfall that he had a hunting lodge built next to it as a woodland retreat for his royal self.
During the intervening one hundred fifty years the hunting lodge has grown into a lavish restaurant with a large curved glass and iron wall opening up onto its namesake, La Grande Cascade. In this elegant ambiance and historic setting, we were going to be guests of Chef Robert and his team of professionals, to eat the dishes we saw being prepared the previous day.
Squint your eyes and the the exterior of the restaurant resembled the Art Nouveau Metro station entrances designed by architect Hector Guimard. In fact, Napoleon III’s lodge was transformed into a restaurant for the Universal Exposition of 1900 during the era of grand iron structures like the Eiffel Tower, the Paris department stores and the Paris Metro. Light, lattice-like ironwork surrounded the windows and doors of the curved wall, allowing the complete spectrum of natural light to pass into the dining room. Above each set of windows was a high, sweeping filigreed arch. Topping it all off, ten feet above the ground, was a glass-panelled overhang, like the brim of a giant’s sunhat, providing shelter to the patio that surrounds the dining room.
A man in a black suit suit swept invisible leaves away from the entrance. He guided us through the majestic entrance and passed us over to the maitre d’ who lead us to a table set next to the wall of windows.
The room had a classic elegance fitting to a place with ties to the last of France's royalty. The soaring windows were partially covered in white sheer curtains; the lace-like chandeliers a matching color. Along the sides of the room plush draperies hung. Louis XVI armchairs, with their distinctive oval backs and slim tapered legs, were upholstered in a geometric-patterned heavy fabric. Tables were set with white tablecloths, an array of matching glassware, and Limoges green-and-white plates trimmed in gold leaf. As we crossed the room a second waiter smiled and joined our entourage. He was there to ensure there was one server per chair when we were seated.
A young man of about twenty, tuxedoed, with freckles and big round glasses, pushed a cart in our direction — no, it was more than a cart, let’s call it a wagon — he trundled a champagne wagon in our direction. Clearly designed for the sole purpose of conveying a sizaine of champagnes set in a giant ice bath, at its edges were specially-cut holes to accommodate fluted glasses.
“Madame, monsieur, voulez-vous commencer par le champagne?” He suggested a different sort of bubbly, a blanc de noirs that is 100% Pinot Noir. Taking our wide-eyed wonderment for approval, he poured the champagne with a sure hand, slowly as not to overflow the glass. Gonet-Medeville Premier Cru: pale gold, almost caramel in color, it was hard to imagine this champagne is made from red Pinot Noir grapes. But that’s what the name means, blanc de noirs, a white champagne made entirely from dark grapes. White from blacks. With the first sip we tasted strong citrus tones and wet-stone mineral flavors.
The champagne wagon made another trundling run to an older couple seated next to us. The man was wearing a dun-colored, old-style suit, each leg big enough to fit his whole body, the coat coming down to his knees. They were seriously old, like in their nineties, but treated with the same respect as any other diner. You can only hope when you’re that age you’ll be dining in a place like this on a Monday afternoon.
Back at our table a warm ball of cod, coated, quickly deep-fried to crispy perfection, and anchored to a dollop of citron sauce with a tiny bamboo skewer sat on a small white plate laid upon a doily, which was laid upon another white plate which was laid upon the luscious green and gold china plate. Fat, crunch, and silkiness was cut with the citrus and chalk of the champagne.
La Grande Cascade isn’t merely a former royal lodge. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, when a defeated Napoleon III resigned in disgrace, the lodge was turned into a field hospital. A nearby mansion in the Bois was home to the Duke of Windsor following his abdication in 1936. He and his wife Wallis Simpson were the only residents in the 2000-acre park. Eerily, Diana, Princess of Wales visited that mansion on the day she died.
Two uniformed servers simultaneously placed a new dish in front of each of us: a single slice of crab maki with a deep fried wonton wrapper on the side. It was a fresh, salty bite of crab meat and cucumber wrapped in nori seaweed. A thin wedge of radish balanced precariously on its edge with two tiny pieces of chive glued onto the upright radish, like antennas.
It was now the Bread Moment. In restaurants like La Grande Cascade bread is not simply plunked down on the table: a specific server presents a basket to the table, asking each guest in turn which they would prefer. You ponder the selection as if choosing a life insurance plan — carefully and with consideration. Here, all the breads were made in-house. We opted for the buttery brioche and the country-style studded with black olive — the server picked out the best examples for us, using a pair of silver spoons as tongs. Butter was served on a silver butter tray and the salt and pepper were in solid, silver round discs. All were handsome and heavy to the touch.
The butter was creamy, fatty, lightly salted, and delicious. Like so many foods in this country, the butter, from the small town of Échiré in the Poitou-Charentes region of western France, was a designated AOP. Appellation d'Origine Protégée is a system of certification to ensure that food so labelled is produced in a traditional and consistent method. What breed of cows produce the milk, where they graze, how the butter is separated from the milk, salt and fat content (in this case a herculean 80% butterfat) are all standards that must be adhered to in order for this butter to be labelled Échiré. Most important to the designation, though, is the region, the soil, the terroir as the French would have it. AOP, by the way, is the European designation that is replacing the earlier French AOC, Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, although AOC is still used for wine.
The bread, the butter, and the introduction of a new white wine signalled that we were about to move on to the entrées.
It was our turn to try the crab dish we had watched being prepared in the kitchen — emietté de tourteau au naturel, crémeu de chou-fleur en fine gelée iodée, caviar Baerii d’Aquitaine. Sous Chef Alexandre showed us how the veal gelée was formed into the shiny, rink in the center of the white plate and how the cylinder of fresh crab cake got there — the cylinder that rose two-inches high, topped with the creamy, savory cauliflower purée thickened with mascarpone cheese. Three quenelles of black, smoky French caviar sat equidistant from each other on the gelée rink. An array of white dots of a citrus sauce livened the surface of the golden brown gelée. A single green sprig garnish rested on top of the crab cake. We could easily visualize this dish beginning as a diagram on Chef Robert’s desk.
The gelée, the crab, the caviar, the citrus dots became a quartet of opposing flavors — smoky and citrusy, tempered by cauliflower and mascarpone. The caviar and the veal jelly provided an inky and mysterious canvas to the light, refreshing crab-salad stack. Elegant, restrained, artistic. A triumph.
It’s not well known that the caviar served in France is exclusively produced in the southwest, near Bordeaux, where sturgeon are raised in giant tanks. It takes two years of feeding and caring before it can be determined which fish are female, who are then groomed for another six years before they begin to produce eggs. A fish obstetrician is on hand to carefully monitor their growth before the eggs are harvested. It’s no wonder caviar fetches such a rare price. Buying a small tin of the type of caviar used in this dish would set you back 100€ for fifty grams, but undoubtedly Chef Robert gets it for less. Even so the emietté de tourteau costs 77€ on the menu.
La Grande Cascade has seen its share of Michelin celebrities. Chef Jean Sabine won a star for the restaurant, then lost it. Alain Ducasse was called in to manage the operation — he installed Jean-Louis Nomicos as chef de cuisine. It was during his term that Nomicos developed the famous macaroni dish that has been on the menu since 1997, helping to win back the restaurant’s star.
The sommelier approached our table to pour another wine — a lively Loire white Domaine Pellé from the AOC Menetou-Salon, pretty much dead-centre France. Like its valley neighbors the wine is made from 100% Sauvignon Blanc grapes, with flavors of lemon, grapefruit, lilies and chalk.
Servers followed with two plates covered with a silver domes. After a pause of three beats the domes were lifted in unison to reveal bar de ligne aux écorces de citron, a nicely seared, small piece of sea bass, the size of an elongated matchbox with a sliver of lemon rind jutting from the flesh. Surrounding was pan-fried fennel, two thin apple slices, and two perfect potatoes with a brunoise of other vegetables in their jus.
These are the only potatoes in France with an AOP. They’re grown and harvested on the Ile de Ré, an island off the the Atlantic coast, in the département of Charentes-Maritime. Since they're grown in chalky, dry, sandy soils swept by the sea winds, there’s little need to salt the potato. The potato is harvested before maturity to limit the amount of starch.
A well-orchestrated meal such as this progresses like a symphony with themes, chords, rhythm, moods and meter. We started with crab followed by white fish, and next a change in wine signalled a new movement, one with darker, succulent tones.
The wine was red this time — a 2007 from Château Revelette called, appropriately, Le Grand Rouge, the big red. It was another vin de pays, from the somewhat obscure wine region of Bouches-du-Rhône in the southern part of Provence. Arles is located there, as is Aix-en Provence. It’s not an area known for big red wines, but this was made from the usual southern red grape varieties — Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon. It had the “Rhone nose”, smelling darkly of the cellar. The flavors, too, were all dark — black fruits, spices, pepper, and, yes, it was fairly “big”, which it would need to be for our next course.
Like moving from Vivaldi’s summer into autumn the meal moved from fish to red meat with carre d’agneau de Lozère frotte au piment d’Espelette, pastilla d’epaule confite aux epices, marmelade d’aubergine — another dish we had witnessed being prepared in the hot kitchen. The perfectly-pinky-rosy roasted lamb was tender with a hint of spice from the Basque Espelette pepper (another AOP product) and a dollop of eggplant marmalade, pistou and pimentos.
The maitre d’ followed immediately behind with a gravy boat full of a dusky and luscious sauce. He bent slightly and then tenderly, ever so carefully, spooned some of the intense, deliriously good sauce over the lamb. We felt cared for, wondering if Napoleon III’s physician treated him with this much care and attention. Small bones, polished and cleaned, had been inserted into the tender lamb pieces to resemble ribs. The star of the dish was a crunchy pastilla (a nod to North African cuisine), filled with spicy lamb confit, wrapped and deep fried.
The lamb hailed from Lozere, a windswept region in south-central France near the Massif Central. There, a small group of farmers have dedicated themselves to preserving fermes paysanne, or country farms. The animals forage over large territories and are kept in family herds. Most of the lamb is sold to traditional butchers or supplied to Michelin-starred restaurants. Perhaps the reason there is so much territory to graze sheep is that Lozere is the least populated département of France.
This confluence of North African flavors, perfect meat, classic French cooking techniques and Chef Robert’s deft touch with garnishes signalled the climax of the meal. We attacked the pastilla with gusto knowing that there was only dessert to follow.
A perfect red ball sat on a white plate, the only garnish a sliver of edible gold-leaf to indicate where an apple stem would naturally grow. There was just the ball, the big white plate, and us. Time passed. Then waiters arrived in a pack, surrounding the table, one waiter per diner. With perfect timing and a light touch they tapped a large spoon on the spheres simultaneously to break one open in front of each of us; releasing a stream of rippling creaminess — fresh strawberry compote, whipped cream, scarlet strawberry sorbet. Un vrai triomphe.
The dessert wine matched the dessert — in both flavor and color. In this case a quirky, sparkling pink wine we’d never heard of. It was absolutely delightful — Cerdon Benardat Fache, 2013, Appellation d’Origine Bugey Controlée. There was a good reason we’d never heard of it. The wine comes from perhaps the tiniest, most obscure wine region of France: Bugey, halfway between Lyon and Geneva. The terrain is mountainous, the roads are steep and the stone maisons are built for cold winters. It’s had an AOC designation only since 2009.
The wine is made following the méthode ancestrale, the same way champagne is made. The grapes are hand-picked, pressed and fermented in cold vats. The wine is fragile and requires careful cellaring and transportation and needs to be drunk in its first year. Even though pink it was not overly sweet. It was delicate, berry-scented, refreshing, and a delicious match to the sweetness of the alpine strawberries.
At this point in the meal we were tempted to clap loudly and bellow bravo, but Maestro Robert picked up his baton again — just in case we hadn’t had enough goodness during the six-course lunch. The apres-dessert was a shooter filled with refreshing mango sorbet and a strawberry tartlet bite to finish the meal.
Over coffee we reflected on the star-worthiness of the meal. According to Michelin, “Stars are awarded for cuisine of the highest standards and reflect the quality of the ingredients, the skill in their preparations, the combinations of flavors, the levels of creativity and value for money, and the ability to combine all these qualities not just once, but time and time again.” Judging by what we saw in the kitchen, the meal we ate was what Chef Robert produces every day, consistently. Thinking back on our experience in Michelin restaurants, La Grande Cascade’s food, standards and service were closer to the three-star restaurants we’d visited than to average one-stars. Shouldn’t it, then, be in the middle with two stars? Another Michelin mystery.
Guy Savoy, the Michelin three-star chef, has said, “Restaurants are the last refuge of civilization on the planet,” and sitting there in a jewel of a restaurant, we agreed. Dining at La Grande Cascade was like stepping into another world — of luxury, privilege and certainty — if only for a few hours.