This past weekend I browsed through one of my favorite books — Great Chefs of France. Written by Anthony Blake and Quentin Crewe and published in London in 1978, the book takes you through the life history and daily lives of a dozen of the greatest French chefs of that period. I knew personally all but one of those twelve and counted seven of them as friends. Seven of the twelve have died.
It is with deep fondness I look at this this book from time to time, reminiscing about past conversations, re-creating memorable meals, and recalling wine cellars and talk about wines. On many a drive from Heidelberg to the south of France I would pass Colmar about day break and pull off the highway to the little village of Illhauesern where I knew the kitchen crew would just be assembling on the back steps of the three-Michelin-star Auberge de l’Ill. Paul Haeberlin would wave me into the kitchen, clap his hands and call for a “Coupe de Champagne,” brought instantly with a slice of foie gras. “You can’t do a long drive without a proper breakfast,” he would state.
Dinner with Paul Bocuse in his three-star restaurant was always a special occasion, and though we didn’t know him as well we knew Paul Haeberlin, he always took time to sit with us and, among other things, reassure us that “red wine goes perfectly well with fish.” A couple of times I had business with him and would meet him right after his morning return from the Lyon markets. After standing atop the back of his little van to toss his purchases to the kitchen staff, he would discuss our interests over a glass of Champagne and a plate of appetizers.
One day headed back north, we digressed from the highway to Mionnay to see if we could get a table with Alain Chapel in his tiny three-star paradise. It was an hour before the lunch service, and we walked in on the great man sitting alone in the center of the dining room sipping on a glass of white wine — “from the Savoie,” he explained. No need to wait for lunch; we joined him in the garden, where he left us when it was time to go light the stoves for the arriving guests.
A common mantra of these celebrity chefs, especially back in their day, was that an aperitif — a pre-dinner drink — should not be a whisky, gin, or vodka concoction because it would dull the appetite. If you insisted, you might get it, but it may also come with a frown. They all suggested a wine, a fruity dry wine or Champagne, sometimes flavored with a fruit syrup such as framboise, cassis, fraise.
I learned much in those days, especially about wine and how to make it an integral part of just about any meal. “Of course you can make a decent lunch with water,” Bocuse told us “or even Coca-Cola, but wine is a food and should be considered so.” He also subscribed to a belief that life is too short for diets.
The late Louis Thomassi, for fifty years the sommelier and caviste at Fernand Point’s Restaurant Pyramide in Vienne, the place consensus holds is the greatest and most influential restaurant of the twentieth century, used to hold the two-foot wine list open for customers and soothingly advise them about selections. He was the first to serve us 1945 Bordeaux, explaining that Mr. Point had the foresight during the war years and immediate post-war period to invest heavily in classic Burgundy and Bordeaux and could therefore through the 1960s sell them at modest prices. He showed us, for example, an 1805 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild on offer for 1,200 francs, at that time about $250.
While dining in a three-star restaurant may seem at first like worshiping in a magnificent cathedral, when you get to know the men and women behind those restaurants, you find real human beings, less hung up about the so-called rules of matching wine with food and more concerned about making sure you enjoy every bite and every sip.
In September we shall dine with Paul Haeberlin’s son and Jacque Pic’s daughter. Great chefs like to pass on their legacy.