Wednesday, September 22, 2010


I moved into the Hotel Belleclaire on Broadway. This was an old hotel, turned residence hotel. Historically, it had been the first hotel to have ticker tape machines for use by guests—on the top floor. But at this point in history, it was a community of people who were either down-and-out or on the upswing but not yet successful. I found out about the hotel from Dickran Atamian (Ritchie), a friend of my piano teacher. Dickran was hitting the big time and had moved a grand piano into his room. Somewhere around that time he won the Naumberg piano competition, played his first Carnegie recital, and was featured in an article in the New Yorker.

I very quickly found a job at the stoves of Laurent Restaurant, located under an exclusive hotel on 57th Street. We served the occupants of the hotel, which included Richard Burton, the actor, and Salvador Dali, the painter. The Laurent family was super nice. Mr. Laurent was quiet and unassuming. The chef of the kitchen was a Spaniard, and he treated me with respect. I worked as a Chef Tournant, doing the seafood station as well as the stoves. The food was great. I gobbled oysters and smoked trout. At one point, I cooked calf liver for Richard Burton’s dog, and I sent a platter of sea urchins out to Salvador Dali. I enjoyed working in this restaurant; it was good food, well prepared, nothing special, but the people were very nice—the owners, the wait staff, the chef, everyone. In the afternoons, we played Hearts and spoke Spanish.

While working for Laurent Restaurant, I looked for a second job, as I knew that I would have to pay a lot of money to get a divorce and to settle other things in Austin. I figured that, if I had to work so hard, I might as well make the jobs interesting. I talked to the chef of Waldorf-Astoria, Josef Schmidt. In his Germanic style, he responded, “You can’t work a second job and do well. You can’t work both in the kitchen and the bakery, either. You have to pick a single career and stick with it.”

I found a job with Éclair Bakery. This was a small chain of retail shops, one located in Grand Central station. The original location was a restaurant/bakery that served Viennese food. The owner was a Viennese man who fled the Nazis right before the Second World War. I met him at the central bakery, located in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which in those days was a rather dangerous part of Brooklyn. My days became even more complicated. I worked from 3 PM to 11 PM at Laurent Restaurant, then from midnight until 6 AM. I then took the train to Manhattan, ate breakfast at a Greek diner, then went to sleep at 8 AM and slept until 2 PM.

The Hotel Belleclaire had some interesting tenants. Right about that time, New York State released a lot of mildly schizophrenic patients from their institutions in order to save money. These people, usually harmless, checked into residential hotels such as the Belleclaire. We had a talk, skinny woman with aquiline features who stood in a corner of the lobby and made insulting remarks about people as they passed. For example, she might say, “Oh, look at those thick ankles!” or, “Oh dear, you’re looking tired today!” Another man would pace the sidewalk in front of the hotel. He would suddenly run up behind a passer-by and crow loudly.

One morning, I had just gotten to sleep when I heard two men knocking on the door of the lady who lived next to me. They knocked and knocked. One said to the other, “No one has seen her in two weeks.” They opened the door and one said, “Oh, the stench! Quick, burn some coffee!” After that, I fell asleep.

During this time, I had dinner one evening with Mimi Sheraton, who was the New York Times food editor. She took me out to one of her favorite restaurants. I remember walking down the street very cockily, swinging my umbrella around a la Fred Astaire. I was so pleased with myself. The dinner was not particularly satisfying. She thought I made a bad menu selection and was pushing me to order the steamed lobster. Instead, I ordered something very French and saucy. Mimi Sheraton, if she ever was a Francophile, had long since given up on French cuisine and was more interested in the essentials such as the freshness of the product.

The reason I was so lucky as to deserve her attention had to do with her visiting Sweetish Hill. She and Patricia really liked each other. I had cooked a version of Caille en Sarcophage (see Babette’s Feast) which at the time I didn’t know the name for. Mimi never knew that I was a business owner; she was under the impression that I worked for Patricia.

During that fall, I worked in both jobs. Meanwhile, I let Mimi know that I was looking for something better, perhaps a position of responsibility. She contacted Roger, a restaurant consultant, who found me a job in Washington, DC. Someone he knew, a man named Irv, was starting a restaurant on Capitol Hill and was looking for someone to help him plan the menu.

While I was working at Éclair, I started to gather experiences that I found rather interesting. My job was basically to fill éclairs, fill cream puffs, and glaze them. I was working in the cake and pastry decorating room. I don’t remember much about the personnel, except that a couple German bakers kept to themselves in the corner. They were quite unfriendly to the other workers and didn’t like sharing their expertise with anyone else. But I did get the opportunity to make some observations, and these contrasted with my own experiences. They are:

1. The pastry cream they used contained no eggs, no dairy products. They used a mix from Caravan Products. It contained Yellow Number 5 in lieu of egg yolk and titanium dioxide (the opacifier of white paint) in lieu of milk. The starch in this mix was predominately modified amylopectin (branched chain), which had freeze-thaw stability. Thus, they could bring water to a boil, whisk in sugar and the powder, cook, then pour into buckets and freeze, then defrost as needed. The advantage of using this mix was two-fold: economy and stability. It’s a lot cheaper to use thickened water than milk and eggs. And, because the starch could tolerate freezing and thawing, you could make up huge batches, thaw them as needed, and pipe into the pastry. It was also possible to fill the pastry and freeze it and thaw the filled pastry as needed. Microbially, it was more stable because the number one pathogen, Staphylococcus aureus, is especially adapted to a high-sugar, high amino acid environment. The mix has sugar but little in the way of amino acids.

2. The whipped cream they made was a brand called “Instantwhip”. I learned from this that the artificial whipping creams are called “whipped toppings” and that they are essentially emulsions of hydrogenated fats designed to have high enough melting points that they hold well on the outside of a cake but not so high that they feel overly waxy in the mouth.

3. In order to glaze fruit-topped pastries, the bakers used agar-agar. The traditional glaze was either apricot or raspberry jam, thickened with pectin. A gel made from agar-agar, which is extracted from seaweed is as clear as a pectin gel but much stronger. For example, they made banana cream pie, consisting of a baked pie shell filled with a cream made of the pastry cream and Instantwhip (so-called Diplomate Cream) topped with banana slices and glazed with yellow-dyed glaze. A pectin glaze could never hold the banana slices on, but an agar-agar glaze could.

4. Cakes glazed with “chocolate” such as Sachertorte, a Viennese dessert use an artificial chocolate known as confectioner’s coating. This consists of hydrogenated fats that are easier to work with than cocoa butter, which is temperamental and temperature sensitive.

I wrote my observations up into an article and submitted it to Mimi Sheraton. I was so excited about it that I called her at home on a Saturday morning. She responded, “You got me out of the shower!” Mimi liked the article, but checked with lawyers at the New York Times. They all agreed that publishing it would make them susceptible to a lawsuit.


Certain items became signature products for us. There’s a song, “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” One of us (Patricia, I, or maybe an early employee) came up with the Heart in the Deep of Texas cookie. This is a butter cookie cut into Texas, and a bright red heart is glued over Austin. Sometimes it slipped and ended up over Dallas or San Antonio. But we did our best to be geographically careful.

A second signature item was gingerbread. We made a lot of it and to this day, Sweetish Hill sells large quantities of gingerbread. In the beginning, I made the dough with fresh ginger. And I went to the feed mill and got a 5 gallon of blackstrap straight out of the molasses tank. This was one-fifth the price of store-bought and just as good.

Just before Valentine’s Day, I would bake off dozens of hearts and write various messages on them. One day, I burned two batches—black. So, I wrote “I Hate You” on them and sold out within an hour. Another merchandising lesson.

After about two years in the old house, we had about maximized our use of the facility. Its location weighed heavily on us. The fact is, many whites weren’t about to drive into East Austin; they were too scared. Even though it was a quiet neighborhood and only a single block inside. We realized that if we only catered to the fearless, unprejudiced crowd, we’d never grow. One day, a smartly dressed woman walked into the business and informed us that she had purchased several properties in West Austin on 6th Street, to be called Pecan Square. She offered to build a restaurant for us.

We moved the restaurant to the Pecan Square location and continued to bake out of Waller Street. Sales plummeted there as people were a lot more reticent to make the trip just for a loaf of bread. The Pecan Square restaurant took off. It was beautiful: 12 foot high cedar doors with enormous windows, skylights, ceiling fans. The floor was made of brick. It had a very open feeling about it, and the restaurant was shaded by live oaks and Pecan trees. Outside, we built a Ramada so that customers could sit outside.

One Sunday after a particularly busy brunch, we were all sitting around feeling exhausted but happy (and happily stuffed with hollandaise sauce, etc.). A piece of dried bread fell on our table from the overhead rafters. An albino pigeon had set up shop there, stealing from bread baskets and hoarding up high. Not conducive to retaining customers. In a fit of pique, I lunged at the bird, which had descended to hunt more bread, caught it in my hands, and pulled its head off. The next day, I roasted it and ate the bird for lunch.

My employees were appalled at the savagery of my actions. I’ve thought about that incident several times since then. I still do not feel that guilty about it; maybe a little. But several of the employees started to cry. Our civilization tends to shield us from the unpleasant realities: we are all food. The pigeon was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We moved to the Pecan Square location in 1976. The following year, we started to rent the gas station on the corner, which we converted into a bakery. This gave us a lot more space. The little retail spot was perfect for displaying product.
Toward the end of my tenure as business owner, I started to get interested in the concept of vertical integration. I wasn’t content with developing arguably the best bakery in Texas or being part of an extremely innovative business. I wanted to control the quality of products we used. In the beginning, we used Falfurias butter, made by a dairy in the Galveston area. That must have folded, because after a while, we switched to Midwest Dairy, an enormous cooperative that made Land O’ Lakes.
I contracted with a local farmer to grow vegetables for the restaurant. He lived in South Austin and had an acre or two. I also started raising rabbits and quail. Two years before, I had employed a pied noir who taught me how to kill and skin rabbits. So, I put this knowledge to good use. The rabbits lived in cages sitting on bricks. Underneath the cages I kept dried hay, which produced a dry environment. Rabbits are very vulnerable to coccidiosis, a disease that becomes prevalent when they sit in their own feces and urine. So, cleaning the cages and maintaining a dry environment is critical. Also, one should never feed lettuce to rabbits as it causes diarrhea.

I learned a few useful tidbits of information about these critters. One, when you administer medicine, expect to run through a few eyedroppers, as they chew on them because they like the taste of the medicine. Two, female rabbits respond to dog barks by eating their young. If there are dogs in the vicinity that bark excessively, you will find half babies lying around in the cages. And three, rabbits are oblivious to death. I would pick a rabbit up by its hind legs and club it over the head right in front of the others, and they wouldn’t react a bit. Pigs, of course, can smell death and should not be slaughtered near the living ones. Otherwise, they develop problems with PSE pork (pale, soft, exudative) and the hams aren’t any good.

I raised quail in cages above the rabbits—along the walls of the back of the house. I raised two kinds: Bob Whites and Faro. Faros were easy to handle. If you inadvertently left the cage door open and they dropped out, they would bounce on the ground and were easy to catch. Bob Whites on the other hand flew straight away from the cage door, never to be seen again. Both were excellent and I served them in the restaurant.

At the same time that we opened the bakery in its new location, we needed to sell the Waller street house. We unloaded it for about the same price that we paid, so this wasn’t a drain on our resources. Unfortunately, the man who bought it elected to cover all its architectural charms with siding and extremely bon marche windows. And a few years later, it suffered a major fire, thanks to the quality of tenants. The trees are still there.

Some time during the winter of 1978, Patricia damaged her back when lifting a large container of food out of the refrigerator. She was forced to bed rest right at the beginning of the Christmas season. I was torn between the bakery and the restaurant. We had recently opened evenings at the restaurant, and we had achieved a certain degree of recognition. I left Lawrence, my assistant cook, in charge of the evening business. This turned out to be a mistake because he couldn’t keep up with demand and we soon developed a reputation for slow service. In fact, one of our waiters, “Michael”, peeved that his customers hadn’t tipped him but a couple coins, followed them outside the restaurant and threw the coins in their direction.

I was focusing all my energy on the bakery, as we were under-staffed and it was Christmas season. I worked 18 hour days, 7 days a week, in order to bake enough high-profit items such as Bûche de Nöel and gingerbread houses to generate enough cash to weather our financial crisis. At this time, because we had just opened the bakery in a delicate financial situation, we were bouncing paychecks. Insufficient funds. The situation became worse when one of the employees stole the weekend receipts, $3,000, after smashing up the office to get at it.

We were surviving by falling behind on our payments to the IRS and the State. One Monday, as I recall, the gas company stopped delivering. I had to pull cash out of something else and pay the arrears at the corporate offices. At the same time, I was meeting regularly with both the State and the IRS.

This was all a highly stressful time. My marriage was crumbling, as Cecille had started seeing someone else. Patricia was flat on her back for months, eventually having back surgery.

We managed to weather the financial storm but I was physically and spiritually exhausted. In late spring, Cecille and I went to New York City for a week’s vacation. We saw a good five Broadway shows and plays. While there, I decided to stay, to never go back.

It was a Draconian measure, and foolish on my part. But I was so exhausted and so discouraged. I felt that Cecille didn’t care for me anymore and I felt unappreciated by Patricia who, when she was at work, was extremely domineering. Instead of seeking professional help to get me through the situation, I cut and ran.

So, in a dramatic fashion, I brought my partnerships to a close. In the end, I got my initial monies back out, but I never realized a dime of profit from the businesses.

43. Hollandaise Sauce

We soon discovered that making and selling bakery products, while profitable, scarcely generates the sort of capital that oils the wheels of commerce sufficiently that one can think about other potential business escapades. After maybe a month, we hit on the idea of opening for Sunday brunch. Both Patricia and Joe knew Austin well. They also knew that Sunday mornings were sacrosanct in the Austin intellectual community.

We started with a simple brunch menu: basket of sliced breads on each table, whipped butter, homemade jam, Eggs Benedict, Eggs Florentine, homemade sausage with potato pancake (latke style), and Emincé of Beef Tenderloin with Sautéed Mushrooms. The main profit generator in all this was butter, bread, jam, and hollandaise sauce. 5 hours of sales, from 9 AM to 2 PM, generated enough capital to cover up our microeconomic ineptitudes.

One learns by doing. I’m not sure some of the lessons we learned are ever taught in business school. But the canon in successful business is: provide what the customer wants.

We did that. The customer wanted hollandaise sauce, poached eggs soft as pillows, fresh bread, homemade jam far superior to anything they could purchase at the store, sausages like no other, and the immensely yummy potato pancakes with high quality sour cream (ingredients label says: cream, bacterial cultures, salt).

And, as JFK famously said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” The Sunday brunch got people addicted to fresh bread that has never seen the insides of a plastic bag, and we became known for bread, croissants, Danish, cookies, etc.

42. Generosity in Gingerbread

The first Christmas in our new business location, I made a large gingerbread house model of our lovely Victorian house. I cut out the windows and poured caramel into the gaps to make panes. Inside the house, I installed Christmas Tree lights in each window so that each window glowed. The house was quite attractive and gave our business a very sophisticated feel.

After Christmas was over, Patricia suggested we deliver the house to the children’s ward of the hospital, located only a couple blocks away. This donation appeared on the evening news, easily producing $20,000 worth of publicity and rocketing us to fame (though not fortune.)

I consider this to be one of my life’s greatest lessons: generosity is its own reward. When you give, you will also receive. I have never forgotten this, and in this aspect of my life, Patricia was my greatest teacher.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

41. Leaning Tower of Wedding Cake

When you’re young, everything is possible. You expect that all will go right, nothing wrong. From the very beginning, I was determined to make good-looking and also good-tasting wedding cakes. Most of what you get these days is patterned after the Wilton School of Cakes and the products look beautiful because the fondant is smooth and terribly white and the icings are every shade of the rainbow. But the cakes I learned to make in Austria and in France had real flavor.

The American cake industry is based on the high-ratio cake, that is, a high ratio of sugar to flour. Sugar delays gelatinization as it competes for water with starch granules in the formula. This causes the cake to rise higher, and more of the water is outside rather than inside the starch granules. The result is a moistness inachievable in the traditional pound cakes, sponge cakes, and genoises. In a poundcake, the ratio of sugar to flour is 1:1. In many high-ratio cakes, the ratio is 1.4 to 1.

My very first wedding cake was not stacked but tiered. As I recall, I charged $25 for it! It served maybe 100. Cheapest wedding cake ever made. I made the tiers out of plywood and dowels, but I made the dowels too long and skinny. As a result, the cake, which was an almond cake with almond buttercream, had a tendency to list to port.

When I delivered the cake, I had to hold the cake up so it wouldn’t collapse during the photoshoot. I was wearing a dirty sweater, so that completed the ambience. Another product of the Goofy Bastard.

40. Goofy Bastard

Just at the beginning of our business, Norm, who rented his restaurant to us from midnight to 8 AM commissioned me to make him 3000 patty shells and 3000 cheese twists for the opening of Neiman Marcus, San Antonio. Everyone I knew called it Needless Mark-up.

I baked him 12 of the most beautiful butter patty shells (aka bouchées or vol au vents) you’d ever find. Flaky, straight up, light. Just perfect.

I made the puff pastry the day before the event, and put it in our “freezer”, which was a semi-functional Rich Plan freezer. The dough froze, and I put it out on the table before going to bed. I rose at 1:30 AM and started to roll the dough out. In those days, I did not know the three methods of making patty shells. I only knew one, which required cutting two pieces of dough for each shell: one to serve as the base and the second being a ring.

I rolled and cut from 1:30 AM until 5:00 PM the next day. Patricia worked in the adjacent room, baking them off. During that time, I never once went next door to check on the quality of the shells. At 5:00 PM, I had produced 3,000 patty shells and 3,000 cheese twists.

I went into the next room to find crackers. Totally flat, unflaky crackers. I said, “Why didn’t you tell me they weren’t rising?” Patricia said, “I thought they were supposed to look like this!”

I said, “Could you help me deliver them?” Patricia said, “No, these are your babies.” So, I had to haul umpteen boxes up to the 20th floor of the Westgate Building. When Norm, the owner, saw the fruits of my labors, he said “You goofy bastard!” And he called me by that name from then on.

39. AUSTIN, 1974-1978

We bought an old house in East Austin, 1406 Waller. It was a Victorian style, 1915, built in an area called “Swedes’ Hill” after all the Swedes who lived in the neighborhood and worked for the railroad. One Saturday afternoon, under pressure to make a business card, we toyed around with business names. Neuhaus & Bauer came first. But, this sounded too much like a funeral home. Joe suggested playing on the neighborhood name. We came up with “Sweetish Hill” and Joe painted a giant wooden sign with a pile of sugar on it. Corny. But fun.

The house had served as a dinner theater. All the walls in the front had been removed to make a cozy theater. The plaster and lathe had been replaced with sheetrock, and the spool and wire system was replaced with very expensive commercial wiring. The sheetrock walls had never been painted, but were covered with burlap in order to absorb sound and light.

The house at 1406 Waller sat on a corner lot. To one side was a blacktopped parking lot, shaded by 3 enormous live oaks.
My parents and sisters came that Christmas and donated time to remove the burlap, plaster the walls, and paint them. I don’t remember how long they stayed, but I’m sure the job was enormous. Knowing the energy levels of my parents, I’m sure they accomplished minor miracles.

Before we opened, I spent much of my time sanding the floors, which had been painted by the dinner theater. The entire house was constructed of yellow pine, a tree that termites break their teeth on and therefore eschew. Patricia and I spent many hours stripping the gorgeous front windows of their ancient, cracked varnish, replacing it with high quality, durable stuff. The windows were each made of dozens of very small, diamond-shaped panes, and the front door had a very beautiful, oval, beveled glass window.

In addition to prettifying the front, I cut out walls in the kitchen area, covering the walls with sheetrock and facilitating passage from one room to the next. In the back, we installed a large, commercial refrigerator that we had purchased for a song. In the corner, I cut a large hole in the floor, severing several major joists, and installing a circular staircase into the underneath space. In this space, I rebuilt the outside walls, and also poured concrete footers down to bedrock (only 1 foot down). I jacked up the house and reset it on massive used railroad ties. All of this foundation work was unnecessary, as we never installed anything all that heavy.

In the kitchen, we installed a small dishwasher that we rented for the price of detergent. I was determined to plumb it myself, so without consulting any sources, I cut copper line and used compression fittings. I then turned the water back on and found on entering the kitchen a veritable series of fountains gushing in all directions. I made several more attempts before calling a plumber who charged me time-and-a-half to fix the problems. While I was crawling underneath the house, running amateur electrical lines, I heard the plumber just feed above me cursing about “amateur plumbers.”

All the carpenter work earned me the sobriquet, “El Destructo.”

The day we opened for business, we were several hundred dollars overdrawn. However, a time passed, we gained a loyal following. We were close to the hospital and not all that far from the university, so we were a quiet lunch place. In the beginning, we offered soups and sandwiches. One was a hoagie, which Patricia, being a Philadelphian, designed. It of course had onions macerated in vinegar and oil with dried oregano. We bought Hormel Genoa salami, which was really good. We also did open-faced sandwiches in memory of our times in Austria, where these are popular. I remember doing a “Philadelphia Guacamole”, made with cream cheese and avocado.

We had two bakery cases in the front room, facing the front door. One bakery case I refrigerated by cutting a hole in the floor (more destruction) and paying a HVAC person to install a small air-conditioner; this set-up worked really well.

Every morning we made Viennoiserie (croissants, cinnamon-almond croissants, chocolate croissants, Schnecken, Bear Claws, and a variety of other Danishes.) I rolled all the doughs in the back room, using a large rolling pin. In those days, I could “benchpress” a hundred pound bag of flour.

We also made brownies and chocolate chip cookies, as we quickly learned to cater to the market’s demands. Products like obstkuchen, wildly popular in Austria, simply did not sell well. Americans (Texans) like big, gloppy things with lots of gushy fillings, extremely sweet and rich. Being of sound mind, we weren’t about to cave to the base instincts of those around us. At the same time, we didn’t do like Primo or Secundo of Big Night, stubbornly resist the prevailing wind, and ride our business into the sunset. Aren’t mixed metaphors fun?

I also developed a pastry/cake in honor of each of the partners, and being of dirty mind (nothing like a fallen Lutheran), I named them after certain body parts (excepting mine, of course). One was Sein Cecille, two disks of pie dough sandwiched around a frangipan cream, the top disk having a hole cut out in the center to allow the cream to upwell through it. Another was Pomme Patrice, an apple in French representing the same body part as melon in English. This was a baked apple stuffed with pecans, cinnamon, brown sugar, and raisins wrapped in pie dough to represent a whole apple. Then there was Zizi Joe, a zizi being, well, you know. It was made of a piece of puff pastry wrapped around frangipan cream. And last was Prinz Tom Torte, chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream garnished with toasted almonds. This has stood the test of time, and is still sold at Sweetish Hill Bakery.

The first two years, I lived on the second floor of the house. Before she moved to Austin, Cecille would come up for the weekend. I had a cute little alcove located directly over the dough-rolling room. I would arise at 4 AM and roll out the Viennoiserie and get it in the proof-box.

A couple little stories from that period…

I grew vegetables in the yard at one point—cherry tomatoes and watercress in the effluent from the air conditioner.
At one point, I put three hens and a rooster underneath the house. I cut yet another hole in the floor of the kitchen, closed it with a trapdoor. Whenever we finished extracting the meat off cooked chicken in order to make our fabulous French Chicken Salad (seasoned with homemade mayonnaise and fresh tarragon), I would dump the bones through the trapdoor. The chickens were ecstatic.

I also had a compost heap at the back of the parking lot. It started to smell and either the neighbor behind us (who bore a striking resemblance to Baba Yaga) or a customer persuaded us to get rid of the thing.


During my eight months in New York, I started by renting a very expensive apartment in Brooklyn—in the area known as Boerum Hill. At that time (in 1974), it was an area that was “gentrifying.” I had no furniture to put in it. I was waiting for Cecille to leave Clearlake City, Texas and to move in with me.

But she was having too much fun. She worked for NASA as an editor, cleaning up conversations between Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts living together in the Skylab.

I didn’t realize how much fun she was having. On faith, I started fixing up the apartment. It had a really spacious living room facing the street (on the ground floor), a cute little garden space, and a very handsome kitchen. I started by chopping up about 100 square feet of concrete and dropping it into a cistern that probably dated from the mid 19th century—at least before city water. I purchased a lot of used bricks, which were delivered on the street, and I hauled them across the apartment, through the beautiful French doors, into the garden, and set them in, herringbone pattern.

During the spring, I finished the 9 units required for graduation. I took 3 courses by correspondence: Spanish, Vegetable Crops, and Nutrition. The Spanish course was the best, as I got to practice it at work and the textbook was especially well written. The Vegetable Crops book was poor, and the chapter questions were moronic: basically, you found the part of the chapter that answered the question and parroted it back. I found the Nutrition course to be useful, though depressing. I remember two facts from it: you can live indefinitely on sliced tomatoes and cottage cheese and one slice of cake contains 400 calories that require one hour of hard running to wear off.

Some time during that summer, I did a crazy thing of which I’m proud. Ah, youth. After my dinner shift was over at Quo Vadis, I walked from 63rd and Madison to my place in Boerum Hill. This took 3 hours. I walked through the Bowery, across the Brooklyn bridge, and through much of downtown Brooklyn, arriving around 2:30 AM. I then dropped myself into the bathtub and fell asleep, waking up at around 7 AM in ice-cold water. A life should have adventures like that.

During the summer, I started hanging out with the Rosenbergs. Ben was a friend from college and by spring, he had graduated. So, actually had I. Ben returned to stay with his mother, Marilyn, along with two other brothers. They all lived in a large brownstone on Congress Street in Brooklyn Heights. Marilyn decided that I needed mothering and mentoring, so she graciously invited me for dinner on numerous occasions. And in the fall, I moved in. I wanted to save my money, and Marilyn was a lot of fun to be around. She knew a lot of people and she introduced me to them. For example, I met the New York Times Science editor, who lived down the street.

In the summer, Marilyn got a used Saab. I drove it around town periodically. Once, I was driving on the East Side Highway and the temperature gauge needle moved to Hot. I pulled over at a gas station and asked the attendant what to do. He turned on the engine, opened the radiator cap, and shot cold water into the radiator. It shot back out as a 15 foot geyser. He said, “That’s a hot block!”

At some point in the summer, we drove two of her sons to Dartmouth for summer camp. We rode bicycles all day around the campus, dropped off the two boys, took a nap until 3 AM, then drove back through Massachusetts. I fell asleep. Driving. When I woke up, reflectors on poles were smashing into the front hood; I was plowing the down like blades of grass. Then, quite suddenly, the car lurched left and rolled backwards down an embankment. Marilyn woke up and we crawled out of the ruined car.

We stood on the side of the road and flagged down a passing truck which took us to the nearest police station, which was in Springfield, Massachusetts. As we stood at the counter and described the accident, four officers were sitting around a table, playing cards. We asked if someone could give us a lift to a motel. They said that there was no one available. So, we walked back to the highway and got a lift to a motel. It was about 4 AM at this time. The old man who opened the door took one look at us (a 40-year-old woman and a 24-year-old man) and he told us that he would not rent to people who live in sin.
So, we walked once again back to the highway, thumbed a ride back into Springfield, and I took a bus back to Brooklyn and then wired money to Marilyn. The amazing thing about the story: she forgave me.

They say that insanity is when you make a mistake twice. Years later, I fell asleep at the wheel—this time in Switzerland on the side of a mountain. I came within inches of plunging the rental car into a ravine that was thousands of feet deep. I got out of the car and a man pulled up behind, “Was für ein Dumbkopf sind Sie? Gehen Sie sofort zu ein Hotel! (What sort of idiot are you? Go to a hotel immediately!) Of course, that’s what I was planning on doing, but I wanted to reach Interlaken, which I did.
As summer progressed, I decided that the standing invitation by Patricia to start a business together in Austin, Texas was just too good an opportunity. I could move closer to Cecille. I could live in the southwest, which seemed exotic. And I could start my own business and have fun!

So at some point in the summer, I gave notice. Chef Bernard was really mad at me. He couldn’t understand why I’d throw away an opportunity to become a really well trained chef. And of course, he was very right. But it wasn’t the only opportunity I’d thrown away. Years before, I’d had a chance to be the personal assistant to Arne Larson who had the world’s largest collections of musical instruments, and I’d thrown that opportunity away as well. Now that collection is housed in the Shrine to Music collection in Vermillion, South Dakota. And, I’ve thrown away a lot of other opportunities since.

I bought a Ford station wagon weighing 4400 pounds with a 400 horsepower V8 motor, so big in the back that you could lay a 4X8 sheet of plywood flat in it. I paid $300 to the owner of an air-conditioning business. He used it to haul stuff and then he had given it to his daughter, who rammed the back-end into a tree, breaking the tail-light and the latch on the back gate. Also, the transmission was missing first gear. Otherwise, it ran well.

I taped a duo-tang cover onto the back left tail-light and fastened the gate closed with a coathanger. Ben wanted to come along to visit a friend, so we started out. We drove to South Dakota, stayed with my parents, then drove south to Oklahoma, where we stayed with friends of my father’s, and finally one evening we pulled into Austin. It was dusk and we arrived at Patricia and Joe’s just in time for dinner.

We walked into the kitchen and there, on the table, was a bag of dead pigeons, all with their feathers, and all with a bullet somewhere in their body. Turns out that one of Joe’s fellow professors had stolen a nightscope rifle from a local Army base and shot 12 Austin city pigeons in the park along Lamar, then brought them over for someone to clean. That was my introduction to Austin. We each ate a roast pigeon that night. Park pigeons are very tasty. Too bad they don’t know that in New ork’s Central Park or Venice’s St. Mark’s Square.

We wasted no time getting started. We looked into getting a small business loan, but these are designed for companies that have been in business for 5 years and that lack capital to grow. We made an appointment with a banker, and we quickly learned that banks don’t loan to new businesses unless they have some sort of collateral they’re willing to lose. I was able to borrow money from my father and from my aunt and Patricia and Joe sold value in their life insurance policy in order to raise $10,000. We used that money to start a pilot project that consisted of renting a restaurant at the top of the city’s highest building from midnight until 8 AM.

We started by producing cakes for various restaurants. One of our earliest cakes was an almond torte ice with almond flavored buttercream. We specialized in using fun-shaped molds. I remember delivering a fish-shaped cake complete with almond scales to a sorority party. I walked into a large room just bursting with Texas femininity, complete with feigned helplessness, stunning looks, and the requisite drawl.

During this period, we were researching our next step during the day while producing pastries and cakes for wholesale accounts at night. Sometimes, right around 3 AM, I would get so tired I would disappear into the bathroom. After a half hour had elapsed, Patricia would call in to me to see if I was still alive. I suppose the snores gave me away.

Working in the wee hours of the morning was not easy, especially considering my own clock. I remember getting so tired that things would start to move in my peripheral vision—a garbage can would unexpectedly shift a foot to the left. One of our memories of those early days was of my breaking eggs and separating them to make a cake and throwing the shells into the trash can. I would crack an egg, separate it, then throw the shell over my shoulder into the trash can.
The next day, we delivered a cake to one of the posh restaurants and later got a phone call regarding an almond torte with eggshell right in the middle. One of the egg shells hadn’t made it into the trash can and Patricia, equally tired, had placed the next layer right on top.

In the beginning, I ate at Patricia and Joe’s house regularly. They were extremely generous people and, besides throwing the best parties in all of Austin, both of them were highly accomplished cooks. Joe was a born meat-roaster and smoker. For as long as I knew him, he made the best smoked salmon, smoked anything. Roaster/smokers are born, not made. He was born with the gift.

Patricia really knew how to bring the flavors out of food. The best thing she made, which I haven’t had since even though I’ve tried, is chile relleno. I am not talking about the cheese-filled one, which seems to be the only version one can find in restaurants. I’m talking about roast poblanos stuffed with rice, nuts, raisins.

Patricia had spent a junior year abroad in Mexico, and whoever she came in contact with really influenced her. She also made excellent guacamole and huevos rancheros.


The last semester at Oberlin was bittersweet. I was finally beginning to really like the school. Perhaps I was feeling very much at home at Asia House and enjoying all the cultural offerings of this fabulous school.

My last semester, I had a magnificent room with lots of sun pouring in through the windows. Outside the windows were quince bushes. I picked a bunch of quinces and then made quince jelly, which is so very aromatic. I deposited the pomace on a sheetpan, believing I could let it dry and gradually turn into fruit leather.

I slid the sheetpan under my bed. It didn’t turn into fruit leather but into fruit flies, and I had to pitch it.
I was ready to leave school, so I moved to New York City with still 9 units left in order to graduate. I decided that my time would be better spent in the city, working. I hit the ground, running. I stayed in a dumpy hotel near Times Square, one in which the primary aroma in the room is of roaches, a common aroma in New York City.

I spent days going from one French restaurant to another, asking about jobs. This time, I didn’t look in the newspaper’s Help Wanted section.

I even had the cheek to walk into the Four Seasons Restaurant, and I spoke with the big chef himself and with George Lang, who was a partner in the group that owned Four Seasons and other big-name restaurants. George Lang told me that I wasn’t ready to be hired by his restaurant although when pressed for what attributes I lacked, he didn’t respond. Years later, when I was a faculty member at Cornell, I met him again. He was considered to be a pioneer in the new-age restaurants of New York.
And indeed, Four Seasons was just that. It had a regularly changing menu. It used fresh ingredients, often using locally grown rather than the old and flavorless California stuff. It was multi-ethnic, reflecting New York itself. And who better to be a chef than a Swiss?

After maybe three days, I walked into Quo Vadis and asked to see the chef. He hired me on the spot. Eugène Bernard, the tiger of Anthony Bourdin’s Kitchen Confidential, the subject of an entire chapter.

I would work for Chef Bernard for a good 8 months. I was, others informed me, “the 200th Poissonier that Chef Bernard had hired in the 11 years he had worked at Quo Vadis.

Named after the Christian book of that name (and the schmaltzy Hollywood movie) that promoted the stereotypes of Christians good, Romans bad, Quo Vadis had opened shortly after WWII. It was the brainchild of Bruno Caravaggi and Gino Robusti, who met in Belgium and who left Europe on one of the last liners out. They were hired in the Belgian Restaurant at the 1939 World’s Fair, famous for its prediction of the use of computers in kitchens. After the war was over, they opened their new establishment on the site of the old Brussels Restaurant, at 63rd and Madison. Within two years, they became known as paragons of politeness, and in 1968, Craig Claiborne had given the restaurant four stars.

Chef Bernard was a tyrant. He yelled. He slammed his fist on the counter. The cook staff consisted of mostly Puerto Ricans. The Saucier was Puerto Rican. Short, pudgy, and very bright, he produced exactly what Bernard wanted. He stood to my right. On my left was the Rotisseur, an old Puerto Rican, who had the knack of cooking everything à point. A Puerto Rican who staffed the Garde Manger; I can’t remember what he produced. I know we sold a lot of hearts of palm salads, I’m guessing with a Sauce Gribiche, Bernard’s favorite. And in the back, in his own room, was the German patissier, who ruled his own turf and wouldn’t tolerate any yelling from Bernard. He specialized in lots of petits fours, such as 1 inch diameter Florentines (the best cookie of all time.)

I was Bernard’s primary focal point. I can’t remember what dishes I produced, other than a luscious lobster dish that involved cutting a lobster live into pieces, sautéing it, flambéing in cognac, extracting it from its shell, boiling down the sauce. Meanwhile I had to do all that with my fingertips, which became hardened, like those of a violinist.

One of my first days on the job, Bernard said, “Make me a shrimp curry.” I had no idea how to do it. I started by sautéing the shrimp (right), then adding some tomato sauce (wrong). He screamed, “You idiot!” and flew behind the line, hitting me hard with his hip and sending me flying into the Saucier. He then proceeded to demonstrate how to make a shrimp curry.

I took the abuse, unlike my predecessors, because I really wanted to learn. Also, I had grown up with a tyrannical male figure, my father, who demonstrated his tyranny in Germanic rather than Gallic ways. And a third reason that I could take the abuse: I was used to it, having worked in three kitchens in France.

Chef Bernard taught me how to actually taste food and to cook, just as Miss Truran taught me how to listen to musical lines, bring out voices, and playing close into the keys. Bernard taught me about the importance of reduction, potentiating flavor with salt, balancing tastes and flavors, accentuating notes (which the French call relever).

Every Saturday morning, Chef Bernard would insist that I stand at my station, he sitting at the “pass” and we chatted. For hours. I don’t remember any of our conversations, but we obviously had plenty to say to each other. I know that one of his favorite conversations was about the superiority of the French over the English language. It was his contention that French verbs were more precise. I suspect that in the culinary realm, he may be right. For example, there isn’t an English equivalent to frasage, which refers to initial stages of mixing a dough when the glutenous proteins are hydrating. Vanner is another one, referring to a careful stirring of a liquid using a wooden spoon.

In the culinary realm, he was my finest teacher. But I had to leave because I had bigger fish to fry. Those fish were in Austin, Texas.


Cecille and I flew to Vienna together. She had arranged with a former college roommate, Patricia, that we could stay with Patricia and her husband, Joe. He was there on a Fullbright. Friends of theirs vacated a large apartment on Praterstrasse, so we were able to rent it for $500 per month. This was an enormous sum of money back then, but we were able to live frugally; I lost only $500 over the summer.

I reported for work soon after we arrived. Schlögl u. Faber was a large wholesale/retail bakery on Rennweg. I started to work at 4 AM, so I had to get up at 3 AM and walk several miles, starting on Praterstrasse, past the Stadtpark, then left on Rennweg, past the Hotel Belvedere.

On the way, I passed another bakery, and once I peered inside. It was really old-fashioned. Pastries were set to proof on planks of wood, which were held on long, horizontal poles that spanned the width of the bakery. So, proofing was not done in proofing rooms. The whole bakeshop was a proofing room.

My bakery was shaped like a two-story horseshoe. On one side was the bread bakery. And the second floor were the bakers’ quarters. Everyone slept together in one room on metal cots lined up. Oh the leg of the horseshoe was the retail shop, the cake decorating area, the pastry ovens, the cake batter mixer, and the sheeter for rolling out the pastries. Above us, lived the women.

One day, at the end of my shift, I heard a violin. I looked up at the womens’ quarters to see a lovely young woman playing the violin while sitting in a window. In Vienna, women spend a lot of times at their windows. There are even cushions designed for sitting in the windows; they are called Fensterpolstern.

Between the legs of the horseshoe were storage and bread crumbs and croutons manufacture. One of the major items made by the bakery were breadcrumbs, an important ingredient in Viennese cuisine. They are the foundation of Apfelstrudel, of some dumplings, and of Wienerschnitzel.

My main job was manufacture of golatschen. I made 2,000 a day with another fellow. Golatschen, filled with powidl (red plum), topfen (sweetened cheese), or mohn (poppyseed paste) are Viennese “Danish.”

At this point, I need to give my customary lecture about “Danish.” The dough was invented in Vienna. In fact, in Denmark, Danish dough is called Wienerbrød or Viennese bread.

The croissant and the baguette (which we call French bread) were also invented by the Viennese. Croissants and Danish are very much related, as they are made with yeast-leavened dough that is sheeted or rolled out with butter to make multiple layers. In France, all pastries made with croissant or Danish doughs are called Viennoiserie.

There are more than several stories about the origin of the croissant. One has it that Viennese bakers heard the Turks tunneling under the city’s walls and sounded the alarm. A Viennese baker eventually developed the pastry to commemorate the victory against the Turks. Another story talks about a Polish general who, hired to defeat the Turks, was paid in coffee. He established coffee houses and developed the croissant to go with the beverage.

Neither story is likely to be true, but they’re still fun to tell.

The golatschen (called kolachi in the old Czechoslovakia) were unimaginative visually. Made of squares of dough topped with a dollop of filling which was then enclosed by folding the corner in, the flavors were distinguished by cutting a circle, a square, or a rectangle of dough and gluing it over the corners to seal them together. The two bakers I worked with once asked me, “Do you think we could make a go of it making golatschen in the U.S.?” Being an agreeable sort, I responded, “Why not?” In retrospect, however, I believe that golatschen would never sell. This is because Americans want to see their fillings. They want them displayed. To us, seeing a big blop of cherry preserves is better than hiding it inside the dough. We want to see value, we want to trust, but verify.

Viennese, on the other hand, are content to trust.

An alternate interpretation, less economical and more psychological is as follows. Vienna is the home of psychoanalysis, as Sigmund was Viennese, after all. In fact, Freud could never have succeeded if there weren’t a lot of neurotic women who wanted to employ his services. He found, then, that they tended to hide their feelings. In the U.S., in contrast, we tend to show our feelings, and we have less need for psychoanalysis. Thus, the Viennese hide their fillings and their feelings, whereas we Americans display our fillings and our feelings. I don’t believe a word of it. But pop psychology is entertaining.

We also made apple strudel. Not the housewife method, which involves pulling the dough until it is so thin you can read the Wiener Zeitung through it. Instead, we rolled the dough out and enclosed apples and bread crumbs inside. We sold it to the coffeehouse at the Stadtpark. We sold it for 15 cents a portion and they sold it for $2 per portion. It was good, but not great.
We made punschkrapfen. Now there’s a fun item. Definitely blue collar. You take all the scraps of cake and puff pastry and you mix them with sugar syrup and rum. The sugar syrup we made from candy scraps we purchased from a nearby candy factory. And the rum, well, it tasted a lot like Uhu Glue. We lined sheet pans with cake (biscuit) and smashed the brown paste on top, then we put another sheet of biscuit on top of that. We put a sheetpan on this and then jumped up and down on the sheetpan to press the layers together.

This cake and punsch sandwich was cut into cubes, dipped into pink fondant, and sold individually as a POS item at the cash register. Years later, I tried to make and sell this item—in Texas, in D.C., in New York. Americans won’t buy stuff like that. It’s too sweet, too rummy, too unfamiliar.

There were four of us working in the sweet goods bakery. Technically, we were considered to be Zuckerbäcker, because we made cookies, cakes, and pastries. One of us decorated the wedding cakes; he was the head Zuckerbäcker. Another specialized in cakes.

He had a mixer all to himself. He made typical Austrian tortes. The nusstorten, made with hazelnuts, almonds, or walnuts, were basically biscuit type batters with nut flours replacing half the wheat flour. A Haselnußtorte for example was made with hazelnut flour and iced with whipped cream.

This of course was not the cream from cows. It was really what we call in the U.S. baking industry a “topping”. We made it by heating milk, sugar, and egg yolk together like a crème anglaise, then homogenizing palm oil margarine into it. It actually tasted pretty good. We chilled this in milk tanks, then whipped it as needed.

The cake baker also made an Obsttorte. This consisted of a yellow cake iced with whipped cream and topped with a very attractive fruit gelée mandala. He would arrange sliced fruit (mostly canned) in a ring on top of the cake, then mix a carrageenan solution with a calcium chloride solution plus a fruit flavored syrup to make a gelée that set into a limpid stained glass window.

The vast majority of bakeries in Vienna sold pastries made with shortening. Only the very best such as Demels used butter; this was one of the oldest and best bakeries in Vienna. It was owned by a Swiss company and it was frequented only by the wealthy.

I remember reading an article in the New York Times once about Danish in Copenhagen. They were visiting one of the best bakeries, and they stated that none of the Danish were made with butter. They got brushed with butter as they came out of the oven. How sad.

At some point during the summer, one of the local T.V. stations decided to do a story about an American college student spending the summer making Viennese pastries. They walked into the shop, looked around, sniffed, and said haughtily, "Dies ist kein Demels" (This is no Demels,)

They came with their camera crew, and the bigshot said, “Here’s what we want you to say. I’m a pre-law student at Yale university. I got this job through the Austro-American Student Society. I am so glad to be here, learning about the glories of Viennese pastry.”

I responded, “I am not a pre-law student at Yale university. So I cannot say that. Certainly I got the job through the AASS and I am certainly glad to be here.”

He responded, “Well, then say nothing. We’ll say it for you.”

That evening, I was walking by an appliance store and I saw the story in the window. This experience made me realize how undependable the media sometimes are. Although there are many ethical people in the business, I have no doubts that many stories we hear or read are deliberately altered to fit what the viewer or reader wants to hear.

This reminds me of an interview that Bill Moyers, whom I idolize, conducted with Sarah Chayes. She quit her NPR job because her stories about Afghanistan were being consistently distorted to match what listeners want to hear. She’s living in Kandahar province, working with Afghani women to link villages to Western markets.

Sometimes I would wander over to the bread area, which was right across the central area where the delivery vans pulled in. In the breads area, they had two very large mixers with bowls of perhaps 500 gallon capacity. They would meter the flour directly into the bowls from a silo overhead. Flour was pumped into the silo from the street. Every morning at close to noon, right before the bread bakers quit, they would leave a hundred pounds of dough in the bottom of the mixing bowl and then meter the flour and salt onto that. That way, every batch had a slightly sour flavor.

Acetic acid, produced by the bacteria in the sour, is an excellent anti-staling and anti-mold agent. Acetic acid releases hydrogen ions that drive down the pH and change the solubility of proteins in the gluten matrix. This makes the bread softer and it stays soft longer. The acetate ion inhibits mold cell wall formation. It is a preservative similar in function to propionic acid that has been the traditional bread mold inhibitor.

We used eggs from Czechoslovakia. At that time, it was a Communist state, and the state-run farms produced cheaper eggs than the privately owned Austrian farms. However, they were not refrigerated, nor were any eggs in Europe for that matter. The whole refrigeration practice started with the growth of large poultry farms. As more and more hens were “cooped” up in cages stacked many rows high in large buildings, Salmonella, which was traditionally limited to ducks and other waterfowl, became endemic in chickens as well. Refrigeration became necessary to damage Salmonella cells so they could not grow in the human gut.

Also, modern egg production techniques and supermarkets demanded increased consistency in quality.
However, in those days, the eggs arrived in cardboard crates and before we used them, we cracked them open. This was usually the responsibility of someone who was paid a very low salary. There was a Yugoslav girl who had the egg-cracking job. She would sit at a table in the courtyard and crack each egg into a small bowl, then transfer it to a larger container. This way, if there was a green egg, it did not get mixed in a ruin the entire batch.

When hens are allowed to run free, they lay their eggs here and there. The person who gathers the eggs might miss one for weeks and then one day find it. If it’s also cracked, it’s almost a sure thing that you will have a green egg. And it stank.
The Yugoslav girl also was responsible for dusting the Apfelstrudel with confectioner’s sugar before they were sent out to their destinations. One Saturday morning, she dusted the entire weekend’s production with baking powder. I never saw her again.
Cecille and I had plenty of time to enjoy ourselves. We went on numerous jaunts with our friends, Patricia and Joe. I remember visiting Neusiedlersee which is right on the border with Hungary. This large lake is only about 8 feet deep at the deepest spot and it is rimmed with reeds.

We also visited Lenz, the town on the Danube that is famous for the classic cookie, Linzeraugen. This is a butter sandwich cookie with a filling of raspberry, plum, or apricot jam. The top cookie has windows cut out of it and it is dusted with confectioner’s sugar for maximum color contrast.

Monday, September 20, 2010


There is no more earthly city more beautiful than Paris, France. When I arrived after one semester back at Oberlin, I was rarin’ to resume my exotic life as culinary traveler. On the flight over, I met a farmer from Iowa who was on his way to somewhere in Africa—to teach people how to use miracle grains and how to use a tractor. At the time, I was merely curious and not prone to regard such statements with a measure of skepticism.

However, this chance meeting gained in importance later in life, as you will read later in this book.

The first day in Paris, I looked in the help wanted ads and went to the first job. I was hired on the spot, conditioned on whether I could get some work papers. Being young and not thinking ahead (I was more Ron Weasley than Hermione Granger), it never occurred to me while back in the U.S. that I might have some problems with the papers situation.

I went to the Ministry of Labor (or whatever it’s called). Essentially, I spent three days there. I waiting in line after line. Every time, I was told to switch to another line. Finally, I was told to take the elevator to the 4th floor. Here, I waited in yet another line. Finally, a man said to me, “Look, the reason you’re here has to do with your expired green card. If you want to work in Paris this summer, here’s what you should do. Become a student. This entitles you to three months’ employment without a green card.” He continued, “My suggestion is to enroll at the Alliance Française.”

That’s what I did. All summer, I took classes, which were very simple, as they were intended for a lower level of language development. However, it was a great experience nonetheless, as the classes contained people from around the world—around the French colonial world, that is. An added bonus: Alliance Française sponsored trips. I went on two: one to Mont St. Michel, and the other to Chateaux de la Loire.

It was on the trip to Mont St. Michel that I met Cecille, who was to become my first wife. We (the group of students) spent the day on the island. We ate lunch at la Mère Poullarde, which was famous for its souffléed cheese omelettes, cooked in pans with 4 foot handles directly over the fire in a fireplace. And we also ate agneau de pré salé—roast leg of lamb from animals that had been fattened on the salt marsh grass that lives along the estuary of the Rance river. I have always loved lamb but having consumed the world’s most famous lamb, I’m sorry to say that I cannot remember if it was all that special. I need to go back.

The relationship between diet and meat flavor is relatively unexplored. Years later, when a graduate student at the University of Maryland, certain researchers along the Beltway were exploring the idea of feeding cattle shredded de-inked newspaper (in this case, “all the news that’s fit to eat.”). When you taste today’s milk, you notice that it is particularly bland. When you taste the milk of a farm that allows cows to graze, you notice the herbal flavors. I believe that the marketing story behind the special sea grass flavor of agneaux des pré salés probably rests on sound science.

On the way back to Paris, Cecille sat next to me on the bus. We said nothing to each other for hours. Then, someone in the back became ill and there was a call for plastic bags. Cecille asked me if I had one to which I replied, “No”. She then asked if I was German. “No”, I replied. “Swedish?” “No.” “Then, what?” I replied, “I’m an American, like you.” She was astounded. At that time, my spoken French was really good. Most French persons thought I was from Alsace, as they speak fluently but with a German accent.

So, that was our introduction. She was working in Paris for an Egyptian as his personal secretary. According to her, he hired her for her golden hair (which was dyed that way.) And, she spoke French and English with that pleasant Texas twang. So, she was good for business.

Cecille and I spent much of the summer doing things together. I was in love, really for the first time in my life. As everyone knows, first love is the purest. It’s like a drug; it feels really good. And you can never get enough of it.

I worked all summer at Le Petit Zinc. This was actually part of a group of businesses. Also included was a deli that specialized in horsemeat, a German restaurant called Le Muniche, and a bar, Le Bar Americain. All four businesses shared a single kitchen, which was located in the basement, right next to the street. When you stood at the grill, you could watch feet on the sidewalk.
I started doing grillwork and fried foods. I was responsible for putting out grilled sardines (yum!), something I haven’t had in years but which is truly one of the best of all foods. I also served pig’s ear and tail, which were boiled, breaded, and deep-fat-fried.

The grill was just opposite the bathroom, which was a Turkish toilet (hole in the floor) separated from the grill by a door. When cooks went into the toilet room, which was just a small closet, we sometimes would pour a little alcohol under the door and light it. More young persons causing trouble.

While I worked the grill, I usually kept a bottle of Coke on a shelf. I would add ice cream to it to make a Brown Cow. My cook-friends thought it was OK-tasting and they loved to say the name because it reminded them of my favorite expression at the time, “Holy Cow!” They would parrot it with “Horry Cow!”

Several of the cooks were Basque, so they spoke a language unrecognizable to any other European. The Basque language pre-dates Indo-European languages.

Besides speaking a very foreign tongue, they loved to cook in lots of oil. So, instead of sautéing in a quarter inch of oil, they preferred a half inch.

My Basque friends were always inviting me to visit Le Moulin Rouge, the red-light district, where we could each find a prostitute for cheap and watch naked women prancing around on stage. I have to confess that I never sinned once, never even accompanied them. I am not proud of that. Although, in retrospect, getting some gonorrheal disease just for a few minutes of ecstasy just isn’t worth it.

We switched cooking stations regularly. I also did prep for the salad station. We made our own lemon-walnut oil dressing. Really excellent. We would juice the lemons and pour the juice into a large glass bottle without cleaning out the old dressing. During the hottest days of summer, the lemon juice would ferment. It was common to see a large, foam plug rising up out of the salad dressing bottle.

For Le Muniche, we roasted suckling pig. It was tender, moist, and we cooked the skin until it turned golden and crackly. We made a sauce with juniper berries, black pepper, and beer.

For Le Petit Zinc, I was regularly prepping Raie Grenobloise or poached skate wings in a black butter sauce. Skate wings are covered in really tough skin with raised, flinty bumps—like coarse sandpaper. One side is white (the underside) and the other very dark grey (the top side). I would put the cut up wings in a large rectangular kettle along with lots of black pepper, bay leaves, salt, water, and white wine. I would bring it to a boil and simmer until done, then put the kettle in the walk-in. When the fish was ordered, you stuck your hand through the gelée, grabbed a piece, brush off the gelée, peppercorns, etc, peel off the skin, and then heat under the salamander. While it heated, you heated butter until almost black, then added vinegar, diced lemon, small fried croutons, and capers, and poured this sauce over the fish.

The texture of skate is stringy and lean. But it’s very good. You can often find it in the better Japanese restaurants.
For Le Bar Américain, I had to make potato chips every afternoon. This involved slicing potatoes thinly, dropping them in ice water to make them curl, then drying and frying. Like any kettle-fried potato, they were crunchy, oily, and marvelous. We used peanut oil (huile d’arachide) for its excellent flavor and high smoke point. Apparently, in those days, there were no peanut allergies. The rise of food allergies in the last 40 years is one of the great mysteries of our civilization. It’s probably a canary in a coal mine in that we do that something is wrong with the way we are living, but we’re not sure what it is.

In Le Muniche, we served a Tarte Flamande. This was a tart crust filled with a Béchamel sauce studded with sweated leeks. We also served Steak Tartare. Named after the Tartars who rode horses, drank horse blood, and dined on them when they keeled over, this specialty was composed of ground horsemeat mixed with a raw egg yolk and the usual parsley, onion, pickle accoutrements. Another specialty was Bismark Herring. We layered raw herring fillets in a stone jar with sliced vegetables and then coated it with oil. A fillet of herring was served with sour cream. We also served Boudin Noir or pork blood and liver sausage. We would grill it and serve it with fried onions and apples.

Every cook was assigned the task of making lunch for the employees. Since I already was a chef tournant (rotating cook), I rarely was assigned this task. However, I did get the honor once, and boy, did I blow it. I was giving a large number of pork brains. I poached them, breaded them, and fried them in butter and served with noodles (!). Unfortunately, I did not follow the French aphorism, “Quand c’est noir, c’est cuit.” They were undercooked, possibly still pondering.

The owners of these four businesses were doing quite well financially. At some point in the summer, the kitchen and dining room were blessed with some new equipment: two reach-in-freezers, five microwave ovens, and two garbage compactors. The freezers were added so that the restaurants could plate up food and freeze it ready to serve. The microwaves made heating tarte au flamande and boudin noir faster and more efficient. I usually use this story to illustrate the difference between a priori and a posteriori knowledge. The owners did a mind experiment and saw a vision of food plated, frozen, reheated in the microwaves and served. They based their purchases on a priori thinking. However, they then found that you can’t freeze sauces as they made them onto food. The blood thickened Coq au Vin sauce or the Beef Bourguignonne sauce would curdle when thawed. The same is true of roux: because of the retrogradation of amylose in starch, freezing such a sauce and then thawing it results in a facsimile of diluted snot. So, I then conclude that with this new a posteriori knowledge, it’s a good thing they had purchased the two garbage compactors.

In August, I was assigned a new job: to replace the pastry chef. He was going on the customary 1 month vacation, and I, being a pliable type, willingly trained with him. I made the usual Bourgeois French fare: Mousse au Chocolat, Tarte aux Quetsches, Tarte aux Pommes, Profiteroles au Chocolat, and Ile Flottante. I immensely enjoyed being replacement patissier.

I returned to Oberlin at the end of the summer and enjoyed the next year of classes, which were mostly in Botany and German, although I also remember taking a course in Sumerian and Babylonian writings. I never took an Art History class at Oberlin, even though that’s one of the strongest fields.

During the spring of 1973, I arranged with the Austro-American Student Association to work in Vienna in the summer. They were able to find a job for me at a little known bakery in Vienna, called Schlögl u. Faber, which has since burned down under suspicious circumstances.


I returned to Oberlin after completing the stint at Hostellerie Bourguignonne. This time, I had some sense of where I was going. I was determined to finish my education, this time in Biology, since that’s the closest science to cooking.

I arrived in January. Instead of staying in some non-descript dorm, I applied to live in Asia House. By now, I had the wanderlust, and the world’s cultures all appealed to me. The first day I moved into my room, I had lunch with Maheema Devadoss, the house mother. I had never been this close to an Indian woman before, and I was totally enchanted. Her daughter, who was maybe 8, bounced up and down on my bed. I felt at home. And, I had South Indian food for lunch, complete with a very spicy coconut curry and idli, which are steamed rice cakes punctuated with a myriad of black mustard seeds. I had never seen spices used in this way! The French were so conservative with spices.

My roommate was an English major who played the classical guitar—quite well. He was so thoughtful. He smoked cigarettes, but he did this outside and put the butts in a glass jar. I was so grateful to live with someone who was so considerate.
I took lots of biology courses during my remaining two and a half years at Oberlin. I also minored in German, as it had appealed to me so much.

On Sunday afternoons, I religiously joined a group of hard-core botanists who hiked local forests with one of Oberlin’s greatest teachers, Dr. George Jones, who died in 1998 at the age of 100. He reminded me so much of Miss Truran, my piano teacher, who had taught me so much about the interpretation and performance of music. Dr. Jones could pick up even a scrap of a leaf and identify it; he was the Sherlock Holmes of botanists!

In order to stay centered, I worked for the dining service, making pastries. I made a lot of éclairs, I remember that. Usually, I worked in the wee hours of the morning.

I remember one morning I was making éclairs. The kitchen was l-shaped, and I was piping out éclairs in one leg of the “l” while boiling sugar and water to make caramel in the other. Well, at 2 AM, time has a habit of passing faster. While piping, I heard a small explosion. I rounded the corner, and on top of the stove was the pot that used to contain the caramel in process.

However, it wasn’t caramel. It was a giant, black cylinder with a lid perched on top, rising slowly, inexorably out of the pan.
I turned off the burner and threw the pan in a snow drift and forgot about it until later in the spring, when I gave it a proper burial in the garbage can.

Living at Asia House was a real privilege. It was a tight-knit community. Even though I was “French”, I still felt a thrill being there. I got to eat lots of Asian food, as many of the students were really good cooks.

I remember eating “Pepper Water”, a South Indian version of Mulligatawny soup. It practically melted the container it was served in. I remember learning that in Chinese families, the bottom of the rice pot, where the rice was a golden brown and crispy, was the best part. Years later, I connected that bit of crisped rice with the starch reaction, dextrinization, in which the hydrolysis of starch molecules causes a breakdown of large starch molecules into much smaller dextrins, which are sweet and soluble. No wonder people thought it to be the best part—same reason that the crust of French bread is lustrous, sweet, and wheaty in aroma and flavor.

I remember cooking for 120. Many of us Asia House residents took turns cooking for the others. I don’t remember what I cooked, but I do remember the dessert, which was most memorable. Being the ambitious type, I decided to make my own ice cream and my own cake for the dessert.

The ice cream was made with a crème anglaise that I froze in a salted snow drift outside the kitchen. Of course, it took a bit of stirring while standing there in boots and winter clothing.

The cake of course was genoise. I drizzled all the cakes with rum-scented simple syrup, and covered the ice cream with meringue that I piped decoratively on the outside. As is customary, I embedded egg shells in the meringue containing rum fortified with Everclear (to make it burn well). I had students standing in the dining room and flambéing on cue
Nobody burned their hair or called the fire department. I’m sure it was all totally illegal but in a building that always smelled of marijuana and incense, what does “legal” mean?


By the time I had worked my third job in France (Hostellerie Bourguignonne, that is) I knew how to make puff pastry. When I came home, I was anxious to demonstrate the glories of the Pithivier.

We were staying at my Aunt and Uncle’s house in Willamette, Illinois. Like most American kitchens, hers had no space for rolling out dough.

So, I did it in the basement—on her drier. I think several loads of laundry later, she was still pulling out bits of dough.
The pastry is filled with an almond cream. In the pastry world, it’s called frangipani. This means “French bread” but it’s named after a French nobleman and has nothing to do with the flower. The pastry itself actually commemorates the kidnapping of King Charles IX on the way back from visiting his mistress. He was kidnapped near the village of Pithiviers by a band of Huguenots. The pastry commemorates the shape of the carriage wheels.

My effort failed miserably. First, I thought I could make puff pastry with the margarine in the refrigerator. Wrong. Any soft margarine should be avoided at all costs as the very property that makes it easy to spread on flimsy bread prevents the layers of dough from remaining separate. Second, I used rum flavor, which tastes somewhat like airplane glue.


During the years that I was traveling back and forth between South Dakota and France, I was especially enamored of the idea of animal husbandry. I had this notion that if you eat meat, it is the height of hypocrisy to not know how to raise animals, tend them, and slaughter them.

When I visited my parents in Vermillion, South Dakota, I would make a point of purchasing live fowl at a local farm. I enjoyed processing chickens, cutting their heads off, tipping them into a funnel to collect the blood (very good for sauces, especially Coq au Vin).

One Christmas, I drove with my mother to a local farm to purchase a goose. We walked into the farmyard, which was covered in frozen mud. Dozens of guinea hens strutted about and when we approached them, they suddenly flew into a leafless tree, where they literally became new leaves (black and white in coloration.) I had cooked lots of guinea hen in France. It has a red flesh reminiscent of pheasant and a gamy flavor.

But we weren’t there for guinea hens. Besides, the only way to capture them was to shoot them out of the tree. Instead, we bought a goose. The farmer put it in a gunny sack and we drove back home.

I asked my sister, Joanne, who was 7 at the time, to help me with the goose. She had no idea what was in the sack. We both knelt on the floor of the garage, I took a pair of scissors, cut a hole in the bag, and out popped the bird’s head. I promptly pushed it onto a block of wood and cut it off with a large, French knife.

My sister was utterly traumatized. She didn’t know what I was up to, and this sudden transition from life to death was very shocking. She has never forgotten that incident.


By the end of the season, I had had enough of France. I had not spoken much English, and I had not seen another American for close to a year. I was tired, and I was thinking about the importance of an education to a young person.

So, I decided to return to the U.S. rather than continuing to work for Chef Lauriot. I told him I would be returning to the U.S.
Part of me wanted to take the motorbike to Portugal and sail on the Santa Maria, a boat that my grandparents really liked. This would have departed Portugal and sailed throughout the Caribbean before landing in Florida.

But I was tired. I did not want complexity. I wanted simplicity. I wanted immediate solution to my loneliness. So, I sold my motorbike for a ridiculously low sum (lots of smiles all around), and I took the train to Paris. There, I bought a ticket on Air France, one way. My last meal in France was Moroccan: I was determined to eat couscous and tajine. For appetizer, I had brik, which is a very thin sheet of dough enclosing a fried egg, some capers, and deep-fat-fried. It in no way resembled a brick. Unfortunately, I had a tension headache, so I did not enjoy the meal.


One Sunday, I made coffee sorbet for the wait-staff. Sunday lunches were hard, so everyone was glad to take a break after the rush and recover before dinner. Being a nice sort of guy, I made a sugar syrup, added some coffee left over from the lunch and turned it in the ice cream machine. Trouble is, I used an unlined copper pan, and the coffee chelated or complexed the copper salts coating the pan’s interior surface. This shined up the pan really nicely, but it totally overwhelmed 12 livers, causing the owners of those livers to spend the afternoon in the bathrooms.

Copper is a micronutrient. The key word here is micro, not macro.

29. HOSTELLERIE BOURGUIGNONNE—Feeding the Multitudes

Chef Lauriot was very careful with his money. This meant that he drove himself and me very hard. To make a few extra francs, he had agreed to cater a party of 800 at the civic center in Macon. These folks were attending an annual green-grocers convention. Yes, there were still small business persons; in the U.S., such persons had long since gone bankrupt, driven out of business by supermarket corporations.

To prepare for this large party, the chef and I boned 35 ducks, stuffed them and made galantines. My 59 year old brain has not retained that memory; or, perhaps someone should hypnotize me to activate the traces that have gone rusty. We also had to cut up and marinate 105 roosters.

We drove the coq au vin, the galantine, cases of canned petits pois provided by the grocers and many crates of wine to the civic center. The chef and I and one assistant hired for the occasion personned the kitchen. When we arrived, there were 60 waiters, and they set to work, popping corks out of bottles of red wine in order to slake the thirst of 800 becs fins.

We had to work with 5 small stoves. Imagine reheating that much food on 5 stoves! The chef decided to close all the doors to the kitchen in order warm everything up, including us.

I have no idea how the 800 green-grocers liked their lunch, but I’m sure glad the dessert was an ice cream cake!


We had a refrigerator, but it was usually crammed full with live crayfish, slithering eels and blocks of butter.

One of the menu items was roast chicken. We would roast enough chicken to satisfy the service. Since a chicken takes about an hour to roast, it’s smart to cook them a little ahead. Sometimes, however, we had a few chickens or chicken halves left over. Instead of refrigerating them, we would set them on the table that I stepped on to get the trout. We would line them up by age: Day 1 (good for customers); Day 2 (good for some customers); Day 3 (good for us but not for customers).

This system worked well until we went through a hot spell and the highs were in the 80s (hot for that part of France.) When it was hot, we wouldn’t bother to reheat the chocolate but we would eat it cold with some lettuce and a nice vinaigrette.

At some point during the summer, I was eating some Day 3 chicken. Funny thing is, the pieces of meat started moving around in the mouth. I spit it out, took a look at the chicken, and threw it out.

The chef, amused, gave me a second pastis. That helped.


Toward the end of the season, the chef needed to start thinking about battening down the hatches. This included cleaning the greywater sewers. The potwasher and I spent our time cleaning out the grease traps of which there were more than 10. Large concrete chambers full of very stinky water with inches of congealed, dark fat floating on top.

Another day, I trimmed the plane trees that shaded the front yard. The French love to cut their plane trees to the quick, making them look knobby. I think this comes from years of using the small branches in their fireplaces—before coal (B.C.)


The roast quail came to us in boxes. I had to ride my motorbike to the bus stop, the bus having come from Chalon sur Sâone, the nearest city of any size. The driver would pull the boxes of quail off and hand them to me. Once, they arrived a little putrified, thanks to the warm summer temperatures. We cooked them anyway. What’s a little gangrene on the palate?

I also had to fetch the milk every morning. This involved jumping on my motorbike and tootling down the road to the old lady’s farm. She had one or two cows. I would stand next to the cow while she squirted the milk into the bucket. Then back I went with maybe two liters of fresh, warm milk. This was used for café au lait for us and for the guests, who occupied the five rooms over the restaurant.

This milk was of course inoculated with the lactic acid bacteria coating the cow’s udder. So, when you left it out overnight, it formed a very nice yogurt. Today’s milk is refrigerated immediately, and the result is a lifeless fluid—lacking the lactic acid bacteria, which are thermophilic, meaning they like warm places and don’t do well when winter comes. Today’s milk spoils by turning bitter because the lactic acid bacteria, which are so important for proper gut functioning, have been destroyed.

Besides fetching milk, I regularly drove down to the creamery to get butter. They had a large, wooden churn, perhaps 6 feet in diameter. I also went to the charcuterie for sausages. They had a small stone house that projected over the river with a hole in the floor. They would slaughter the pigs there. Of course, the butchers would save every drop of blood, which was prized for thickening civets, stews with rich, dark sauces. And the blood was also useful for sausages such as boudin noir. The hole in the floor was to drop chyme to the fish. The pig’s intestines would be full of partially digested food, a real fishy treat.

The butchers made dried pork sausages, saucissons secs, as well as fresh sausages that you had to cook, saucissons à l’ail. They showed me how they would mix bacteria with the raw pork allow it to ferment overnight in a basin at 55 °F, then stuff the pig guts and hang them to dry and mold.

Once the chef was out of lettuce. Being an enterprising sort, I drove through town, knocking on doors, explaining that Chef Lauriot was out of lettuce. Several people gave me heads of lettuce, and back I went.


The restaurant’s menu had three prix fixe items on it:

Prince du Doubs et sa Cour (Prince of the Doubs and his court)
Pôchouse Verdunoise
Caille Rotîe

The Prince du Doubs was a small pike boned and stuffed with a mousseline of pike and crayfish. We always had crayfish on hand, which we kept in a large metal container perforated with numerous holes. We stored them in the refrigerator, where they remained, hail and hearty. Periodically, they needed to be refreshed in water. We did this by submerging the can in a sink full of cold water. The crayfish perked up and became especially agitated if you stuck your hand in among them. They never pinched. Once you pulled them out of the water, however, their pincers came alive. The fun thing to do was to grab hold of one and pull. It would latch onto its neighbor and you could pull out a chain of crayfish.

To cook crayfish, Chef Lauriot would put a little oil in a sauteoir, heat it, add the crayfish, and fry them alive, stirring regularly to distribute the heat. Frying them in oil brought out a special flavor which will probably never be identified by science. Like so many culinary phenomena, there is no money in discovering unimportant phenomena.

He would then flambé them with Cognac, add a mirepoix, some fish stock, reduce, thicken with a little roux, and then add heavy cream. The result was marvelous. Those particular crayfish had really excellent flavor.

Pôchouse was made with three fish, tench, pike, and eel, native to the Doubs river, which flowed out of the nearby Jura mountains. The tench was a relative of the carp, except that it (the tench) had only half its scales; it hardly would pass muster with the God of Leviticus. The pike was the terror of the local waters; large mouthed, sleek, and fully indentured. And the eel came up from the Atlantic, being catadromous: spawning in the distant Sargasso sea and travelling thousands of miles to Alpine waters.

To make pochouse, you had to clean the fish and cut them up. Tench and pike both needed scraping. The eel was a special case. It arrived quite alive, which meant that I had to kill it. To do this, I grabbed hold of its tail and swung the head against the walls of the fish shack. A few good whacks, and it was dead. Then I slit behind the gills, pulled the skin back and then, taking a piece of newspaper, peeled the skin right off the eel. This was easy with small eels, harder with large eels.

Once the fish were cleaned and cut into sections, you cut several heads of garlic in half crosswise, then added branches of thyme, then the fish, and then filled to cover with Bourgogne aligoté, the local white wine. This was brought to a boil, the alcohol flambéed off, and once the fish were cooked, we thickened it with a blond roux.

We served pôchouse in crockery fish dishes complete with fish covers. The waiter or waitress served à la française tableside. With each portion came a buttery crouton that had been rubbed with fresh garlic.

I’ve always thought of this dish as an example of flavor complementarity: contrasting fresh garlic and cooked garlic. The principle is this: the cooked garlic has lost many of its volatiles; in addition, many new flavors have formed. So, after cooking the garlic and driving off many volatiles and also causing chemical reactions that mute the raw garlic flavor, you serve the dish with a crouton rubbed with raw garlic. It contains just enough of the original flavors to remind and recall.

Another example of playing with the raw and the cooked is wine. Again, many volatiles are lost while cooking. What is left is the acidity of wine along with some of the less volatile flavors. To recapture the original wine essence, one splashes in a little at the time of serving. This is referred to as relever, or to “pick up.”

Like all French birds, the quail came deplumed with not gutless. I had to cut off their feet, their necks and heads, and gut them. I then made a pomade of Dijon mustard, egg, and puréed green peppercorns and slathered this on the birds. I then rolled them in breadcrumbs and baked them in butter. I served them with Gratin Dauphinoise.

Although I haven’t made a Prince du Doubs, a roast quail, or a Pôchouse in years, I have made Gratin Dauphinoise many times. This is the ultimate scalloped potatoes. In fact, there is no point in making scalloped potatoes any other way. To make it, peel potatoes, slice them 1/16 inch thick on the mandoline, place in a mixing bowl, and add salt, white pepper, and minced garlic. Mix well and transfer to a baking dish or glass brownie pan. Cover, literally, in heavy cream. Bake in a moderate oven (350 °F) until the potatoes are tender. At this point, the top should be a rich brown. Avoid overbaking this dish, as the cream de-emulsifies and butters out.

During lunch and dinner, my job was to make the Truite au Bleu. This involved jumping up on the table facing the dining room and, using a net, pull a live trout out of the fish tank, which was about 10 feet long, 4 feet high, and 18 inches wide. There were a few rocks in the tank, but otherwise nothing but water and fish. I had to grab the trout out of the net, hold it by the tale, and bop it on the head to knock it unconscious. Then, I removed the gills and innards and dropped it in vinegar. This caused one of the proteins in the mucus covering the scales to turn blue. I would then poach the trout in salted water and serve it with beurre blanc and pommes vapeur (boiled potatoes.)

Fish farmers would deliver the trout regularly. The trout were quite amusing when it rained. We would have to cover the tank, as the sound of falling rain—even though the outdoors was at least 10 feet away and separated from the fish by a stone wall and some windows—would stimulate jumping behaviors, and we’d have trout carcasses all over the floor of the kitchen.
One Sunday, during a particularly busy part of the service, I jumped onto the table and, instead of netting a fish, I netted a large rock. In desperation, I tried to set it down but instead tapped the side of the aquarium.

The next morning, when I came down to prepare breakfast, there was a split in the glass that ran the entire length of the aquarium. Water was seeping through. The chef said, “Well, you did that. So now you pay. That’ll cost you a week’s wages.” I said, “No, I didn’t. No, I won’t. No, it won’t.”

Years later, I was reading about glass in preparation for a lecture. That particular reading stated that when glass is under pressure, it is not unusual for it to crystallize and crack if tapped with a sharp object.

Another of my culinary responsibilities was making the galantine. This involved boning a duck. In those days, duck did not come in plastic. They came with the heads and feet on. I would eviscerate the duck and remove its appendages, then bone it out. The bones went into a duck stock that was kept at room temperature for 8 months! This was possible because the stock was a deep brown due to the countless bones that had simmered in it.

I would marinate the duck meat, veal, and pork, with Madeira and cognac, quatre épices, then grind some of it and mix it with an egg. This forcemeat was then spread over the duck skin and strips of duck breast and pork fat would be arranged on the meat. Down the center went goose liver pate and truffles. The whole was rolled up, covered with cheesecloth, tied, and set adrift in the stock to poach for 3-4 hours. When the inside was just done, it was pressed and chilled, then sliced. We served it with aspic, cold, as an appetizer.

I also made paté en croûte. I mixed a pâte à foncer, lined a paté en croûte mold with the dough, then filled to ¾ full with a forcemeat, hard-boiled eggs, and strips of marinated pork and pork fat. When cooked and cooled, I filled all the gaps with aspic, chilled, and sliced in ¾ inch slices.

I made the vanilla ice cream and champagne sorbet for the dessert menu. Vanilla ice cream was made with the usual Crème Anglaise, turned in a large ice cream maker. This was served on Peach Melba, a dessert that was popular throughout France and that had been named after an opera singer of that name. It was easy enough to make: balls of house ice cream on canned peach halves coated in raspberry purée.

The champagne sorbet required turning a lemon-flavored sugar syrup, then opening a bottle of champagne halfway through and adding it to the almost frozen syrup. To make the sorbet really light and white, I made an Italian meringue (egg whites and sugar) and added this at the end.

This was served on the Peches Blanches Carolines, named after the chef’s grand-daughter. This involved two balls of champagne sorbet next to a poached white peach.

All of our desserts were served with cheveux d’ange, the culinary equivalent of cotton candy. I made caramel in a copper pan, then reheated as needed and flipped caramel off a spoon onto a dowel. I gathered this and spun it around my hand and set a crown of sugar on top of the dessert.


We drove his Citröen truck for probably 5 hours, leaving the French Alps, following the Rhone River, and arriving at night. We walked into the restaurant’s kitchen. It was dark and there were dirty dishes everywhere. The whole place stank of old grease. Chef Lauriot showed me my room.

This was in the house next door—separated from the restaurant by a pasture with a horse in it. The chef gave me a plastic jug and told me, “That’s for your hot water.” He was a man of few words. We walked through the pasture to the other house, in which the chef’s father lived. My room was on the second floor overlooking the street.

Turned out that the old man didn’t want me staying there, but his son (Chef Lauriot) insisted on it. So there I was. But the old man didn’t want to hear a peep out of me. From Day One, I was not allowed to use the bathroom. This meant that for the next 8 months, I was to take sponge baths on my poncho and toss the dirty water off the balcony into the front yard. And pee off the balcony, too.

I was also to avoid making any noise. If I made the lightest sound, the old man would turn off the electricity to the house. Fortunately, I had a very fancy radio, so I had lots of stations to listen to. My favorite was Voice of America. It made me feel warm and loved, as the family I was working for was far from that. I listened to the radio with ear buds so the electricity wouldn’t be turned off. My favorite program, on Sunday night, featured Broadway musicals.

The building across the street was an insemination center, so night after night, my sleep was troubled by bulls in heat. Makes for some strange dreams.

Chef Lauriot was a bit of a cold fish, as was his wife. But he knew his stuff. He had won Meilleur Ouvrier de France and his restaurant had been awarded one star by Michelin. This, of course, meant that he was much admired in the community.


The Chalet Malakoff is located on edge of Megève, on the road to Sallanches. It is a large structure, capable of housing about 50. The director and his wife were warm and friendly. They were members of the French Communist Party. The Chalet was owned by the town of Malakoff, many of whose inhabitants worked at the nearby Renault factory.

This was an école de vacances, a vacation school. I presume it was paid for by the city of Malakoff. An entire elementary school class plus teacher got to spend 30 days at the chalet. Every morning, they studied. Every afternoon, they skied or did other physical activity.

I worked as the sole assistant to the chef, M. Boisvert. He was short, round, with closely cropped hair. He had recently retired from teaching at a hotel school and he and his wife had bought a house near the chalet. He was a bit of a stingy guy. He sold egg shells and vegetable peels to a local farmer who paid in heavy cream, which went home with the chef. André, the plongeur, and I were instructed to never use the potato peeling machine but to peel the potatoes by hand and to save the peels. From an environmental standpoint, this was admirable, as the machine ground the skin off and mixed the grindings with water, which of course ended up in some stream, untreated. However, we weren’t hand-peeling for the benefit of the environment. We were doing it so the chef could have cream for his coffee.

Every morning, I descended from my attic nest to start up the kitchen fires and to make breakfast. This involved toasting slices of stale baguette on the plaque or steel hot-top. I also had to start brewing the coffee and boiling the milk for café au lait. I made the coffee with chicory root and coffee. This was 1972, only 27 years after the war, and people were still drinking their coffee adulterated with chicory.

I also had to set up the coal stove. This was quite the contraption. The fireboxes were flanked by two ovens, and the heat from the burning coal was diverted to the ovens, then to the plaque or hot top, then finally to a large tank of water over the stove. Thus, lighting the stove also heated water.

Setting up the coal stove involved adding crumpled paper followed by kindling and then by. Once the coal was going, that stove was cooking!

I learned a few basics from the chef. We made brioches, for example. He made them the traditional way, which was first to mix a paton consisting of flour, water, yeast. We kneaded this by hand, then rolled it into a ball, cut the sign of the cross onto it, and lowered it gently into warm water. When it had resurrected—risen to the top—we kneaded eggs and salt into it, and then soft butter. I never made brioche this way again, as it’s completely unnecessary, given that we have mixers to make light the work. And with today’s genetically superior yeast, the paton method is quite unnecessary.

I also learned how to make genoise. We made a lot of it, so I got a lot of practice. Because of that knowledge, I have never since looked up a cake recipe. Instead, I modify Chef Boisvert’s recipe. If I need to make a hazelnut torte, I use his recipe.
It boils down to this ratio: 1 egg, 1 oz sugar, 1 oz flour. That’s it. A single cake pan takes 4-6 eggs worth of batter.
Put the eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl. Beat over hot water (I prefer open flame for convenience) vigorously, using a piano wire whisk until you get a stiff foam. Do not exceed 120 °F. Transfer to a mixer and whisk until the foam is stiff and falls off the whip in a thick, gloppy ribbon. The foam must be cool.

Fold in the sifted flour, one-third at a time. Do not over-fold.

I use this same recipe to make sponge (Biscuit in German), but the method is different. With the sponge method, one separates the eggs and the sugar and beats the yolks with half the sugar and the whites with the other half to stiff peaks, then combines them and sifts in one-third the flour, etc. For nut tortes (e.g., hazelnußtorte), I replace half the flour with nut’s flour.

I never add butter—to either Genoise or to sponge. The yolk has plenty of fat and butter just weakens the foam. I think adding butter comes from the days when people ate Genoise by itself—for example as biscuits à la cuillère or ladyfingers.
André, the plongeur, made cooking at Chalet Malakoff quite fun. Although he drank like a fish and often couldn’t put two words together, his favorite activity was to pick up a ladle, hold the bowl portion to his ear and yell, “Alloooo! J’ecoute!” But I will remember him best for teaching me chansons paillards, or straw songs, meaning just about the dirtiest ditties you can sing—all in argot or slang.

Here’s a clean poem he taught me, based on Jean de la Fontaine’s Un Riche Laboureur…

Un pécor, sentant ses calleches rallecher
Fit venir ses lardoons et leur jacta en lusde
“Dujonc est planqué dans la fouille”

A rich laborer, feeling his end imminent
Told his children to come to him and spoke to them privately
“Money is hidden in the land”

Hardly a single word isn’t slang.

He also liked to say, “Vive la guerre qu’on se tue!” or “Long live war so we can kill each other!”

He told me that certain French were collaborators. He whispered that M. Boisvert was pro-Vichy. He also informed me that at the end of the war, when the Americans were leaving, they would pile boots and rations into enormous hills and light them with gasoline. This instead of distributing them to the local populace, who were starving. No use having people like you. This was one of the first times that I realized that Americans are no worse/no better than anyone else and that sometimes innocence is as much a sin as intentional malfeasance.

My best memories of the Chalet Malakoff are of things done in the off hours. For example, I had Mondays to myself. So, I lashed skies to my motorbike and tootled up the road to the foot of the slopes.

The first time I went skiing, I took a crossbar up. Of course, you usually share it with someone, so I shared it with this cute British bank teller. However, being a total novice, my skis caught in the icy tracks and I fell over, causing her precipitate decline as well. Instead of swearing at me like a sailor, though, she suggested I take skiing lessons.

Well, in those days, banks—and their tellers—were highly respected. So I took her advice. I paid for one set of lessons, and after that decided that I was good enough for the slopes. The rest of the season, from January through March, I skied every Monday. And, I got good at it, although I never attempted the Olympic slope. I had my share of accidents: flying forward when my ski tip caught on some ice and then watching the ski sail off by itself, eventually entering the woods. Eventually, I had to switch skis because the metal strips that were screwed into the wood had torn away, as the wood had rotted and the screwheads had worn off.

A second memory of Chalet Malakoff is of reading in the library. They had quite a collection of Jack London books, most of which I read. The third memory is of reconditioning a reed organ that I found in the attic. Its bellows had cracked and were non-functional, so I enclosed a vacuum cleaner in a lemon crate to mute the roar, and played a concert of JSB Two-Part Inventions, which are quite suitable for short keyboards.

In March, with the season soon ending, Chef Boisvert got me a job with the local culinary celebrity, Chef Lauriot. He was going to open up his summer establishment in Verdun sur le Doubs, a charming, medieval town at the confluence of the Doubs and the Saone rivers.