One of Washington’s great restaurateurs died Wednesday, and I am seriously bummed out about it. And I only spoke with Gerard Pain once.
That I feel pangs over, essentially, a 73-year-old stranger’s death says something about Pain’s towering presence at La Chaumiere — and about that time in my life. It was December 2005, and I was auditioning for the food critic gig at Washington City Paper, a position that I wanted with a honey-badgerlike zeal. Then editor Erik Wemple — now a fellow Postie cranking out gigabytes of media commentary — asked me to review La Chaumiere, the rustic French bistro that had been hanging around Georgetown for, oh, about 150 years.
Okay, I exaggerate. Pain founded the restaurant in 1976 with his own recipes, many largely unchanged, I suspected. Why did I need to review it? I didn’t argue with Wemple, though, and dragged a dining companion with me for my first taste of La Chaumiere. Which is when I met Pain, who single-handedly suggested a whole new way of viewing his time capsule of a restaurant that had been critiqued countless times before. My review largely became an homage to a real gentleman of the Washington hospitality business.
The City Paper hired me after that review, and I have often thought I owed my job, in part, to Gerard Pain. Here’s the opening of my “review” of La Chaumiere from Jan. 6, 2006.
A tall man with silver hair is hovering over my steak au poivre, his head bowed like a vulture. “What’s going on here?” he wants to know. I’m momentarily taken aback. A minute ago this man was shepherding diners to their seats; now he’s staring at my meat and asking the kind of open-ended question that can turn a quiet dinner into a management showdown.
Prior to his approach, I had asked our waitress if La Chaumiere’s head chef, Patrick Orange, usually loaded his steak au poivre with so much poivre. His version of the classic bistro dish was not merely dredged in coarsely cracked peppercorns but buried dead in them; the top of his center-cut strip steak was paved beneath a blacktop of bumpy, charred heat. The rich flavor and moist texture of the aged meat, cooked medium-rare, was lost in an explosion of pepper that coated the roof of my mouth with fiery, woody aromatics. Not even the buttery, browned peppercorn sauce could reduce the heat. The waitress assured me this was the chef’s standard approach. I made a mental note and soldiered on.
Then the tall man appeared. I pressed him about the steak, too, and he not only confirmed the waitress’s answer but also remarked that the dish was one of La Chaumiere’s most popular—though he quickly added that he would not personally order it, hinting that he’d take a good-tasting meat over a good burn any day. He suggested I take a knife to the layer of peppercorns and proceed. Following orders, I scraped until I found my desired heat level—and found goodness again in that high-priced cut of beef.
The wise old man of La Chaumiere is Gerard Pain, one of the patriarchs of the local French bistro circuit. Pain, a former chef, founded La Chaumiere in 1976 after opening L’Escargot in Cleveland Park in 1971. His steak au poivre consultation proved effective: Not only did it save the meat from choking in peppercorns, it saved him the cost of replacing the dish. He also managed to show disrespect for one of Orange’s popular plates without once indicating that he thought his longtime chef de cuisine had developed an unhealthy relationship with the spice.
If any one element of La Chaumiere feels like the real thing, as though a part of the French-country-inn dining experience has been transported to Georgetown, it has to be Pain. The gas-burning fireplace near the front of the restaurant, the tools and copper pots affixed to the walls, the wood-beamed ceiling—these are all accoutrements selected to make you feel warm and nostalgic for something you might have never experienced. Pain, a French native who moved to D.C. in the early ’60s, is the genuine article, a host who complements La Chaumiere’s hearthside feel, particularly when one of Orange’s dishes provides too much warmth of its own.
The rules of journalism — particularly the subset of the business called food journalism, with its anonymity, fake credit cards, costumes and all that fuss — naturally precluded a friendship with Gerard Pain. But others I know (and who knew Pain well) said he “really was charming, through and through.”
In Pain’s obit, published yesterday, Post obituary writer Matt Schudel quotes the restaurateur’s daughter, Geraldine Pain, who says, “He could never shake the accent and certain mannerisms that just resonated, ‘I am French.’ ” I suspect this largely explains why Gerard Pain was so great at his job: He brought the best parts of French dining to Washington, without once looking down on those eaters in his adopted country.