The First Brigade: French-American Culinary Trailblazers in Focus

by Emily Bell, with Interviews by Will Blunt and Videos by Nils Arrington
October 27, 2010

You’re a 13 year old in war-torn France. Naturally, it’s time to leave school. While pubescent Americans fret over unwelcome bodily developments, you begin your formal apprenticeship in earnest, nary a guidance counselor in sight. You step into a professional kitchen at the very lowest rungs of Escoffier’s militaristic brigade and engage the centuries-old traditions of a country that ardently and jealously adores its cuisine. If you’re Jacques Pépin, you’ve worked in four kitchens by the time you’re 13½. If you’re Michel Richard, Alain Sailhac, Georges Perrier, or André Soltner, you’ve developed professional knife skills before you’re old enough to grow the pathetic scrambles of a mustache—all while dodging profanities in the iron discipline of the French kitchen, says Richard. “They used to insult your mother.”

It is assumed you will endure, that you will rise up the barbed ranks of the brigade. But America beckons with its gaudiest bauble, opportunity. So you leave a country with a regal, matured cuisine for a country that’s just invented Pronto Pups and instant mashed potatoes, a country that would have deported Henri Soulé but for some clever manipulation of immigration laws (he walked his entire staff across Niagara Falls and back to attain refugee status). You come with a very short-term plan. “I was going to stay for two years,” remembers Sailhac, an itinerant chef with plans to stay that way. “I said I would come to learn the language, stay for three years,” says Perrier. Four decades later, says the chef, “I still can’t speak any English.”

Not the typical makings of an American hero—marginally bilingual Frenchmen with return tickets. But such were the beginnings of the French American Trailblazers, a group of chefs who dove into the bosom of freeze-dried, flash-frozen culinary ignorance in 1960s and 70s America, transforming the mishandled majesty of our bountiful waves of grain to the point of a contemporary, ultra-conscientious farm-to-table ethos and enabling a homegrown population of chefs to thrive on our shores. And yet for all this, the legacy of our unwitting French culinary heroes goes egregiously un(or under)sung, eclipsed by the very culture that fed upon it. Some Americans know of Pepin; all of us know Emeril. It's is a fossil of craftsmanship lost in the quicksand of celebrity. And we're culinary archaeologists, clutching these icons of American cuisine with the tenacity of an Indiana Jones. Some chefs belong on TV; these chefs just happen to belong in a museum. Says Pepin: "You mean I'm old?"

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Chefs in a Chef-less Land

America wasn’t without its own culinary champions by the mid 20th century, the Cold War-chilled years just before these chefs arrived. But James Beard’s prophetic passion for local produce and Julia Child’s confident, cluckish enthusiasm for French cuisine were largely motivational—impassioned words and marginalized practices without a population of chefs to make them reality. In fact their circle was claustrophobically intimate. “I knew these people like six months after I was here,” says Pepin who met food power trio Beard, Child, and Craig Claiborne during his early days at Le Pavillon. “The food world was really, really small.”

Indeed, almost two decades after the World’s Fair introduced Soulé’s unflinchingly French perspective, fine dining in America was still rarefied, more like an archipelago culinary playground for the rich and famous than a pervasive culture of cuisine. (Delmonico's had been plying Manhattan elite with Lobster Newberg and Eggs Benedict for the better part of a century.) And most Americans, especially those reeling in Cold War paranoia, were content with the pseudo-Continental panache of proteins drowned in cream, washed down with mammoth icy cocktails.

We might still be chasing indifferent sauces with double martinis, but money, as ever, changes everything. And by 1960, despite a mild recession (cuddly compared to the recent financial meltdown), there was enough of it to give rise to a powerful contingent of jet-setting New Yorkers with increasingly refined cosmopolitan appetites—a moneyed coterie of diplomats and well-traveled celebrities haunted by the memory of real French cuisine. As if the cravings of wealthy New Yorkers wasn't enough to guide American appetites, economic prosperity was actually on the rise across the nation*, so even tourists in New York could dare to yearn for hometown versions of Le Pavillon. The only problem was a dearth of warm bodies in the kitchen. Homegrown chefs were nowhere to be found.

Sure, the CIA’s plain-Jane precursor, The New Haven Culinary Institute, had opened in 1946. But it's total enrollment topped out at 50. And the reason is simple. We may worship at the altars of Keller, Achatz, and Barber today, but just a few decades ago, being a chef was entirely un-sexy. “No good woman wanted her child to be a cook or marry a cook,” remembers Pepin. “We were cobblers,” offers Perrier—anonymous craftsmen without clever catchphrases or bankable good looks, playing second fiddle to the maître d’ (who designed the menu) and restaurateur (who provided the restaurant’s marquee personality). Chefs? They were just craftsmen with a portable trade.

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Scouring the American Pantry

Despite any foreboding sense of what they might encounter, the chefs arrived, trade in hand, only to find most restaurants operating on the threshold of culinary—and sanitary—compromise. “The kitchen was very disturbing, very disturbing,” Sailhac remembers of his first foray into a professional American kitchen. “When I saw the ingredients we could get [in 1961],” says Soltner, “what we could find in everything—vegetables, meat, everything—I said ‘I don’t think I can stay in this country.’” In Pennsylvania, Perrier was equally horrified. “The food, the food didn’t exist,” he recalls, unlike today when a chef often knows the name of the farm, if not the name of the actual animal, supplying tonight's dinner special. No, 1967 in a major American city seemed like the 14th century to Perrier. “There was absolutely no food! No haricots verts, no foie gras!”

It wasn’t just a lack of foie gras, that creamy prima donna of the French repertoire, that scared them—although that alone might have been enough to send many a chef home, toque between his legs. Fresh ingredients of all stripes were scarce. Soltner remembers trying to order fresh girolles. “I still see the cans,” he recalls, horror in his voice. “They were green and yellow, they came from Germany,” a dun specter of their former golden glory. (Decades later, Soltner learned they were indeed American girolles, shipped to Germany, canned, and returned Stateside, soggy and devitalized—a story David Kamp colorfully relates in his celebrated ode to America's "quantum leap" culinary evolution, The United States of Arugula.) Proteins were equally bizarre. “Duck was 35% fat,” Sailhac remembers, as if still baffled by its unnatural proportions. “In Europe, the duck doesn’t have fat like that.”

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Building a Team

If professional kitchens in the 1960s were sadly under-stocked with fresh, local produce, they also lacked another—now common—staple of modern restaurant culture: white American chefs. Only a few decades ago, the kitchen was populated almost exclusively by French immigrants, black Americans, and Hispanics. White Americans had yet to storm culinary schools, let alone the restaurant kitchens, television shows, and cookbook shelves of today’s arable culinary terrain. “The only American chefs that I worked with were black,” remembers Pepin. (Now, he notes, there are few celebrated black chefs, while many Hispanics continue to work anonymously in American kitchens.)

“It was a bunch of old French guys,” says Sailhac, “and two or three Puerto Ricans and Dominicans,” describing something more like a vaguely international pétanque tournament than a professional kitchen. “In ‘61,” says Soltner, “we only had French chefs.” And this wasn’t entirely problematic. They had created a kind of French culinary oasis in the rough seas of American cuisine; together they might even survive. “But then in ‘68 the law changed,” Soltner says, recalling the restrictive Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (which took effect in 1968). With quotas set for immigration, it meant far fewer French staff could be imported.

Not only was there a lack of warm bodies, there was a severe lack of knowledge among the bodies present. “Many of the chefs knew nothing,” says Perrier, whose Le Bec Fin was a beacon to Philadelphians who swarmed the restaurant every day for six months after its opening. “They couldn’t do a pâté, they couldn’t do a quenelle, they couldn’t do a sauce!” A shock for Perrier, no doubt, who learned in a system where, if the saucier didn’t know how to do his job, he was simply dispatched to the sweet freedom of unemployment.

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An Awkward Courtship

But like all successful newcomers, the chefs accepted to the status quo before attempting revolution. “You have to adapt yourself first,” says Sailhac. “And then you can change.” “You have to become a little democratic,” agrees Richard, whose food took on the lighter proportions of Nouvelle Cuisine for sun-drenched Californians. But adapting wasn’t easy—there was only so much of the “American way” they could comfortably choke down. “It was really tough for a while,” remembers Perrier. “I really had to adjust my cooking to what I was able to get.”

They couldn’t cure such a backward culinary culture overnight, so they did the legwork themselves, relying on an inverted version of the “if you build it, they will come” mantra of American enterprise—if you come, they will grow it. “I used to go see farmers and ask them to grow vegetables for me,” remembers Richard. “I have people,” says Perrier, “people I helped put in business.” At Le Cygne, Sailhac was approached by a man with a basket of dirty mushrooms. “I said, ‘When you come back, could you clean them a little bit? I don’t want the soil, I just want the mushroom.’ After that,” he beams, “we had good products coming in.”

Not only did the chefs introduce America to its own local produce—an awkward, fumbling courtship that would take decades to reach a rampant locavore love affair—they helped engender a culture of fine dining that reached well beyond Manhattan. “Twenty, thirty, or forty years ago, you went outside of New York, you didn’t find a decent restaurant,” remembers Soltner. “Now you do. Even in the country!” And cuisine itself was evolving, from the mammoth plates of Delmonico’s multi-course feasts to an elegant hybrid of French cuisine and the American pantry. In her 1982 Dining & Wine Review, New York Times critic Mimi Sheraton praised Chef Sailhac’s “lusty, wine-dark civet of duckling with tiny ovals of potato and turnips” and “an appetizer of lightly sautéed duck or squab liver nested on julienne strips of radicchio and endive, sparked with fresh chervil and tarragon” at Le Cirque—a far cry from the cream-drenched plates of the early days.

Menus were expanding as the restaurant world was expanding—Richard and Perrier were opening up markets in California, DC, and Philadelphia while cohorts like Jean Banchet broke into the Chicago market with the iconic Le Francais—and education was exploding. After 10 years learning and influencing the American palate at Howard Johnson’s, Pepin taught cooking classes across the country and later at Boston University before he, Soltner, and Sailhac all went on to guide the still swelling ranks of The French Culinary Institute.

A maturing cuisine, a growing population of local purveyors, knowledgeable young chefs under their tutelage in restaurant and classroom, fine dining outposts popping up from DC to Chicago to California: a legacy was taking shape. “We feel like we did something right,” says Richard, warm with something like paternal pride. “It’s the democratization of gastronomy!”

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Enduring Craftsmanship

But on America's radioactively fertile shores, democratization was a precursor to ambition and its twisted stepchild, celebrity. And it wasn’t just a matter of a growing field. “Americans are opportunists,” laughs Sailhac. “When they [saw chefs] traveling in first class, making a lot of money, when they [saw] people smile at them,” he says, “chefs became very important.” Sailhac remembers a party during his years at Le Cirque, “an enormous apartment on Fifth Avenue,” where they sat him at the head of the table. “When I was a kid,” Sailhac remembers, “the priest would sit the head of the table. Now the chef sits at the head of the table,” says Sailhac. “Now the cooks are superstars.”

This is the great irony of the French American Trailblazers—they can’t quite identify with the culture they helped engender. “[Chefs] want to work in a way that they’re going to be publicized everywhere,” says Sailhac. “They want to be famous in six months,” echoes Perrier, with audible disbelief. Pepin—whose books and television shows are scrupulously instructional (and free of cheeky catch phrases)—observes an overabundance of content where there used to be a trickle. “Last year I think there was something like 2,500 cookbooks published,” he says. Today? “There’s so many, you never get to look at them.” And it’s not just a matter of book deals or screen time—it’s empire. “We have a tough time understanding,” says Soltner, who had the helm (and lease) of the iconic Lutèce for over 30 years. “When you have five or six or ten restaurants, you’re still a chef,” he says. “But you’re not a craftsman anymore.”

They admit—with younger bodies, and more time, they’d likely do the same thing, opening multiple restaurants, seeking fame, tackling new projects with abandon. But there is a quiet, stubborn prejudice that restrains them beyond mere age and Gallic pride: craftsmanship, learned and earned decades ago in the brigades of their youth. “There is only one reason to get into this business,” says Pepin. “Because you love it. Because you’re going to spend your life doing this.” Sailhac agrees. “Young chefs now forget one thing,” he says. “The business of a chef? Give good food to the table.” This is the legacy of the French American Trailblazers in its essence, muddled perhaps in the multimedia maelstrom of the culture that followed them, but a lesson—an integrity of purpose that many chefs are returning to and for which every chef should thank them. That, and access to fresh girolles.

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*According to the 1960-1961 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey and U.S. Census Bureau