Cooking With L. Paul Bremer

From Diplomacy to Demi-Glace

Bremer with his Fontainebleau, garnished with pomegranate molasses.
Bremer with his Fontainebleau, garnished with pomegranate molasses. (By Darren Mccollester -- Getty Images / For The Washington Post)
By Shawn Cunningham
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 14, 2005

L. Paul Bremer never cooked a meal during his 14 months in Iraq, but a kitchen nearly 6,000 miles away fed his spirit.

"This stove was an important part of my sanity," Bremer remembers with a smile as he leans against a half-ton of blue enameled cast iron, stainless steel and brass -- a La Cornue range -- in the Vermont vacation home he keeps with his wife Francie and where he is writing a book on his Iraq experiences.

"I had a picture of this house on my computer desktop in Baghdad," says Bremer, who also has a home in Chevy Chase. "If someone asked, I'd say, 'That's where I'm building my dream kitchen.' "

And that culinary incentive helped to keep him going in the pressure-cooker job as the controversial administrator of Iraq's reconstruction, because Bremer is also a classically trained French cook.

Dressed in a white chef's jacket marked with some faded stains of memorable meals, Bremer is ready to prepare the French dinner he donated to a local charity auction.

Tonight's dinner is typical of his cooking since returning from Baghdad -- classically French, but seasoned with ingredients he encountered during his days in Iraq.

Bremer looks younger than his 63 years -- slim with thick, black hair that's a bit more gray than in his pre-Iraq photos. Long bike rides in the mountains keep him fit despite a diet loaded with butter, cream, eggs and cheese.

A trip to his small garden for tomatoes and herbs begins the preparation. The late-summer meal will start with a chicken liver pate (made the day before) and continue with cold cucumber avocado soup, braised chicken breast in demi-glace sauce seasoned with dried limes (more about those later), fresh carrot puree, a composed salad highlighting tomatoes and cucumbers in a variety of sizes and colors and a dessert of Fontainebleau (made a day in advance) with pomegranate molasses (be patient) and berries.

Bremer began cooking when he was deputy ambassador to Norway in the mid-1970s. On Sundays when there were no official dinners and the embassy cook was off, he started making the Chinese food he loved but couldn't get in Oslo. Soon the Bremers were inviting Norwegian friends who would pitch in. "It was a wonderful way to entertain," says Bremer, "one chopping this and one chopping that. It was a half-hour of prep and 45 seconds of cooking."

By the time Bremer was named ambassador to the Netherlands, he was already cooking one night a week. When Francie Bremer observed that her husband (known to friends as Jerry) liked to cook more than she did, he took over the bulk of the kitchen duty. "When Jerry goes at something 100 percent, you just have to stand back," she says.

Returning from the Netherlands, Bremer took a few courses at L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg. When he worked as a consultant at Kissinger and Associates in New York, he studied under Henri-Etienne Levy, an Alsatian chef who gives classes for two or three students at a time in the tiny kitchen of his apartment on the Upper West Side under the name La Cuisine Sans Peur (Cooking Without Fear).

"Levy would cook, and the students would take notes," Bremer says. "Levy teaches you technique." After a general survey, a student can move on to regional French cuisines or baking or pastry or some other specialty. Bremer signed up for Provencal cooking and continued to take night classes for five years -- including the one that convinced him he was not a baker. He was however, an intuitive cook who was rapidly improving his skills.

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