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2000s Archive

Comrades in Arms

Originally Published October 2008
This year’s Citymeals-on-Wheels benefit reunited the legendary chefs of France with the first American chefs who worked with them. And for one star-studded evening they went back in time to re-create the dishes that made them famous.

The elusive, transformative power of great food begins with who’s behind the stove. Working elbow to elbow results in lifelong friendships.

Every chef in the world has a story about the terrible things that happened when he or she was starting out as an apprentice. Gather a group of them together, and when they’re not talking about food, they’re telling tales of what horrors befell them in their first kitchens. The worse, the better: It’s a badge of honor. So when Citymeals-on-Wheels reunited the legendary chefs of France with the first American chefs who worked with them, the stories never stopped. André Daguin, Louis Outhier, Jacques Maximin, Georges Blanc, and Gaston LeNôtre are among the men who changed the way France ate and then exported the revolution by training an entire generation of young Americans, including Tom Colicchio, Charlie Palmer, and Nancy Silverton. For one star-studded night last June, they went back in time to re-create the dishes that made them famous. It was an act of generosity, a way to raise money to feed the less fortunate. But it was more than that: Behindthe scenes, the clock had been turned back, and some of America’s most honored chefs were once again apprentices, taking orders—and learning life lessons—from their mentors.

Tom Colicchio

“André Daguin was very impressive, a very big guy. He was a rugby player. When he came into the kitchen, you kept your head down. This was not a guy to be messed with.”

André Daguin

“The young chefs are better than us. And we are better than our fathers.”

Jean Banchet

“I don’t think one protégé is upset with me. I was tough. I made them cry. Roland Passot got a slap in the face from me. We are good friends.”

Roland Passot

“Banchet once threw a lamb saddle right out of the oven into my face. He should give me one of his Ferraris for that.”

André Soltner

“I didn’t like a lot of noise in the kitchen. When we worked, I liked it when everyone was calm. We had good relationships; otherwise, we wouldn’t have stayed together for ten, fifteen years.”

Pierre Gagnaire

“The legends all have the same sort of professional history: We started very young, worked hard, apprenticed with rough chefs. It makes me smile to be among these legends, because at the moment I don’t feel like I’ve done anything.”

Jean-Georges Vongerichten

“Outhier had a very happy kitchen, but nothing in the kitchen. Nothing on the stove. Every dish had to start from scratch.”

Joachim Splichal

“It was crazy yesterday when Maximin and I worked together to prepare for this event. He thought I had never left. That I was still twenty-three years old.”

Jacques Torres

“Maximin would say, ‘Let’s do desserts but not put the sauce around; instead, let’s put it inside.’ If I told him something wasn’t possible technically, he said, ‘I don’t care. Make it work.’ I learned, and when I moved on to Le Cirque, I did things like that.”

Jacques Maximin

“Working with those young chefs gave me a shock I’ll remember all my life.”

Georges Blanc

“Daniel Boulud worked with me for two years in the seventies. I think he’s a good cook, but he also has other qualities: civility, friendship. He’s very honest and humble.”

Daniel Boulud

“At Georges Blanc, I never worked with so many females in the kitchen or in the front. All the waitresses were beautiful, so it was paradise for me.”

Michel Richard

“When LeNôtre opened in New York, I came to this country. My dream was to learn English. The first thing I learned was Spanish: ‘Por favor,’ ‘Señor, rapido!’ That’s what you learn in a New York kitchen. I decided to stay more than one year because my English was so bad. Thirty-four years later I’m still here, and my English still isn’t so good.”

June 16, 2008, Rockefeller Center, New York City. “Going to an event where I’m the young upstart is just so neat,” said Tom Colicchio. He sounded earnest and naïve—nothing like the growling meanie of Top Chef. He added, “You know, these are the guys we all looked up to. The books that we bought were their books. Georges Blanc’s book was one of the first I owned.” He pointed toward the steps, where the French legends were busy posing for photographers. And then he rushed off to join the other American chefs, who were doing last-minute prep, each stopping now and then to take calls from the restaurants they left behind. “He wants a reservation for how many people? Tonight? Is there any way we can squeeze him in?”

The velvet ropes were removed and the paying guests poured in. Within moments, there was a line at the station where Jean-Georges Vongerichten was serving Louis Outhier’s classic oeufs au caviar. Outhier himself carefully topped each egg with a hefty spoonful of glistening black sturgeon eggs. “Caviar is like magic,” said Vongerichten. “You attract a lot of people when you open a can. It’s the only canned food people love.” Vongerichten put the finishing touches on his own caviar creation: egg yolks cooked slowly until they were practically molten, sandwiched between toast fingers, and then fried in butter and topped with caviar. Brilliant. Before the evening was over, the two chefs had gone through six kilos of caviar.

There was also a line at Joachim Splichal’s table, where he and his seismically intense mentor, Jacques Maximin, were serving a spicy, complex lobster-and-macaroni gratin. “He won’t stop busting my balls,” Splichal complained to Jacques Torres, a fellow alumnus of Maximin’s Chantecler restaurant at the Hôtel Négresco. “Please, take him off my hands for the rest of his time in New York.” Torres obligingly promised to take the older chef fishing, even though they both knew that Maximin would talk of nothing but food. After all this time, he had not asked a single question about what his protégés had been doing for the past 20 years. And when Torres asked, “Why is cooking your whole life?” Maximin replied, “It’s more than that. It’s visceral.”

While they talked, they watched the courtly, elegant Pierre Gagnaire making his way through the crowd. Before he got to the table, he called out, “I must taste Maximin’s dish. I hear it is genius.” Maximin handed him a plate, whispered an order in Splichal’s ear, and sneaked off to have a cigarette. While he was gone, Torres regaled the guests with a memory of his time at Chantecler. One night, a critic from the influential Gault-Millau guide had arrived for dinner within weeks of reducing the restaurant’s rating by half a point. “Maximin told me to get a pad of paper, and then we went and we sat down at his table. ‘You try to judge me?’ Maximin said. ‘How about I judge you?’ He began quizzing the critic. ‘Where was the lobster from?’ ‘Canada,’ replied the critic. ‘Wrong!’ Maximin shouted. ‘Torres, put it down, zero. Foie gras—was it duck or goose?’ ‘Goose.’ ‘Wrong, duck.’ I wrote it all down. And that day,” he finished gleefully, “in front of the entire restaurant, Maximin gave Gault-Millau a zero.”

Across the way, Jean Banchet, now retired from Le Français, in suburban Wheeling, Illinois, was zipping back and forth as he kept an eye on his two protégés, Roland Passot, of La Folie, in San Francisco, and Vincent Guerithault, of Vincent on Camelback, in Phoenix. His eyes lit up when he tasted Passot’s version of his scallop mousse. “It’s just like we used to serve—so light the waiters had to be careful not to break the mousse on the way to the table,” he exclaimed.

It was like that all over Rockefeller Center. No matter where you were, the chefs talked, laughed, and tasted while their guests indulged in an all-you-can-eat buffet of glorious French cuisine. There was a classic loup de mer en croûte in honor of Paul Bocuse; the foie gras cromesquis of Marc Meneau; André Soltner’s Alsatian tart; sea-urchin panna cotta with Kaffir lime from Passot; Charentais melon foam with miso ice cream from David Myers, of Sona, in Los Angeles. Each dish was delicious—and each told a story.

For this was more than great food; it was a true passing of the torch. As Louis Outhier said, while serving the last of his caviar eggs, “L’Oasis, my restaurant for thirty-five years, it’s now just memories for some people who dined there. But my satisfaction is in someone like Jean-Georges, who continues what I started.”

Honorees and Their Protégés

Jean Banchet, Le Français (Wheeling, IL)
Vincent Guerithault, Vincent on Camelback (Phoenix)
Roland Passot, La Folie/Left Bank (San Francisco)
Georges Blanc, Chez La Mère Blanc/ Georges Blanc (Vonnas, France)
Daniel Boulud, Daniel (New York City)
Paul Bocuse (represented by his son Jérôme Bocuse), L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges (Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or, France)
Paul Bartolotta, Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare (Las Vegas)
André Daguin, Hôtel de France (Auch, France)
David Burke, davidburke & donatella (New York City)
Tom Colicchio, Craft (New York City)
Pierre Gagnaire, Pierre Gagnaire (Paris/St.-Priest-en-Jarez, France)
Joël Antunes, Oak Room at The Plaza Hotel (New York City)
Gaston LeNôtre  (represented by Alain and Marie LeNôtre), Le Pavillon Elysée/LeNôtre (Paris)
Michel Richard, Michel Richard Citronelle/Central (Washington, DC)
Nancy Silverton and Dahlia Narvaez, Pizzeria Mozza/Osteria Mozza (Los Angeles)
Jacques Maximin, Table d’Amis (Vence, France)/Chantecler (Nice, France)
Joachim Splichal and Theo Schoenegger, Patina Restaurant Group/Patina Restaurant (Los Angeles)
Jacques Torres, Jacques Torres Chocolate (New York City)
Louis Outhier, Restaurant L’Oasis (La Napoule, France)
Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Jean Georges (New York City)
André Soltner, Lutèce (New York City)
Henry Meer, City Hall (New York City)
Bill Peet, Patroon (New York City)
Pierre Troisgros (represented by his son Claude Troisgros), La Maison Troisgros (Roanne, France)
Traci des Jardins, Jardinière (San Francisco)
Laurent Tourondel, BLT (New York City)

Honored in Spirit

Gérard Boyer, Château Les Crayères (Reims, France)
David Myers, Sona/Comme Ça (Los Angeles)
Frédy Girardet, Restaurant Frédy Girardet (Crissier, Switzerland)
Jonathan Waxman, Barbuto (New York City)
Michel Guérard, Les Prés d’Eugénie (Aquitaine, France)
Larry Forgione, An American Place (St. Louis/Las Vegas)
Alfred Portale, Gotham Bar & Grill (New York City)
Paul Haeberlin (in memoriam) L’Auberge de l’Ill (Illhaeusern, France)
Tony Esnault, Adour at the St. Regis Hotel (New York City)
Jean Joho, Everest (Chicago)
Hubert Keller, Fleur de Lys (San Francisco)
Marc Meneau, L’Espérance (St.-Père-sous- Vézelay, France)
Bob Waggoner, Charleston Grill (Charleston, SC)
Jean-Jacques Rachou, La Côte Basque (New York City)
Todd English, Olive Group (Boston)
Charlie Palmer, Aureole (New York City)
Alain Senderens, Alain Senderens at Lucas Carton/Senderens Restaurant (Paris)
Ed Brown, eighty one (New York City)
Christian Delouvrier, La Goulue Christian Delouvrier (Bal Harbour, FL)/Brasserie Ruhlmann Steakhouse (Chicago)
Roger Vergé, Le Moulin de Mougins (Mougins, France)
David Bouley, Bouley (New York City)
Terrance Brennan, Artisanal Fromagerie & Bistro/Picholine (New York City)