Julia Child was describing the menu for a late 19th-century banquet:
"Two soups," she read, "two roasts, tow casseroles, 20 entrees, four poultry dishes, two pates, cake, ecrevisses, 16 desserts, vegetables and sweets.
"The food was beautiful to look at," she continued, "but rarely served hot.It was all placed around a large table and what you got depended on where you sat."
Both the system of dining and the profusion of food are gone now, thanks in no small part to the man who was being honored last week at the late 20th-century banquet at which Child spoke. The event was the first dinner of Les Dames d'Escoffier of New York, a newly-formed gastronomic society with an all-female membership. As the organization's first "honorary grande dame," Child lost no time in coming to the defense of Georges Auguste Escoffier, the "king of chefs and chef of kings."
Escoffier cooked for European royalty and ran a number of famous hotel kitchens, most importantly several in the Ritz chain. His "Guide Culinaire" has been the standard reference in Frenchrestaurant kitchens throughout the world during most of this century. Of late, however, he has been a favorite whipping boy of those making and promoting novelle cuisine, an uncodified style of cooking that is a la mode among the most creative of this generation of French chefs. Escoffier's cooking was too heavy, too decorative, they say withdisdain.
The Dames feel otherwise.
At the banquet Escoffier was credited with putting order and dignity into kitchen work. (The Dames, in their turn are dedicated to working for enchancedopportunity and recognition for women in the professional kitchen.) He was praised for many achievements, including his pioneer work in canning tomatoes (during the Fraco-Prussian War).
But the heart of the matter, as far as la grand cuisine, was his thoughts on banqueting and what the Dames, following his inspiration has chosen to do.
"Escofficer, too, said down with heavy cooking," Child noted. "he attacked the menus of his time, calling them 'too full and heavy and elaborate' and wrote in 1902 of the need for change to suit 'la vie ultra-rapide.' "
"Escoffier pointed the way to a continuing development," said Sylvia Schur, a member of the dinner combined with simplicity and a more truthful approach to foods."
"Andre Simon wrote of Escoffier," said another member, "that one of his accomplishments was to show the rich how luxury at the Dames dinner. First off, the cost was $75 per person. It was held by candlelight in an elegant suite of the Carlye, one of New York's most expensive yet understand hotels. Dress was formal; so was the service. Music was provided by a harpist. (James Beard, a head table guest, frowned in response when asked if music should accompany a gastronomic repast, but was caught humming from time to time.) Fresh tulips were on every table and tiny violets floated in the finger bowls. While the organization's membership is strictly female, men were among the guests and were made to feel welcome.
It was with the menu, however, that the Dames showed how they interpreted Escoffier's edict to "make it simple." Absent were the heavy - one might even say vulgar - array of hors d'ouvre upon which guests stuff themselves before most banquets dedicated to the further glory of wine and food. In Washington and other American cities, this preliminary serves mostly to kill the appetite and overtax undertrained kitchen staffs who more than enough difficulty coping with the menu itself.
The Dames served only oysters at their reception and with the oysters a grand cru Chablish.
The dinner itself began with a mousse of duck liver and continued with scallops in broth. With both these courses a vintage Champagne, Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 1969, was poured. THe main course was saddle of lamb a accompanied by sautee mushrooms and an elegant St. Emillion, Chateau Figeac 1966. The salad was fresh asparagus with a light mustard sauce. Dessert was a cold souffie flavored with green Chartreuse. The wine was a 1974 Muscat Ottonel produced by Dr. Konstantin Frank at his upstate New York vineyard. Cookies, conag and coffee followed.
To the nouvelle cuisine revolutionaries of 2050 (or to those of whom dinner comes all at once on a single plate), the Dames' banquet amy appear lavish in and of itself. By the accepted standards of gourmandise it was not.Sauces were few and were passed, so the diner could determine this or her intake.
"We got the potato baskets off the plates," said one Dame triumphantly. Wine was poured judiciously. They also did away with a cheese course and the additional red wine that would have accompanied it. They also came up with a neat, highly original substitution for the between-courses sorbet, an affectation that has become a near-ritual at "gourmet" dinners. The Dames served water.
Another difference, aptly put by one of the dinner committee, was that the meal had a sense of "freshness." Nothing came from the cans and jars to which French chefs are so partial when choosing vegetables. The oysters were from the Chesapeake Bay and New England waters; the scallops were harvested off New Bedford, Mass; the lamb was from Colorado; the musrooms from Pennsylvania; the asparagus from California. The dessert, of course, was not fresh fruit but was said to be a tribute to French herbs.
Furthermore there was a wholesome balance between food and wine and the wines were mature enough to be drinkable. (Often at such affairs the mass and variety of food prepared by an overeager chef or forced on him by an overeager dinner planning committee will overhelm the wine.Often at such affairs a demand fro quantity or for only the most famous names results in the serving of recent vintages that do neither their makers nor the dinner committee much credit.)
In short, on all the rarest occassion the gastronomic banquet is a tired, outmoded (from the perspective of kitchen and digestive capabilities) form of dinning. As Escoffier's name and contents, it seems appropriate that a society named after him is pointing one way toward reform.
Across town, at The Four Seasons, the term to use is not reform, but revolution. For some years the restaurant - designed by Philip Johnson - had gotten by on its good looks. Under ther guidance of its present owners, Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai, the approach to food and menu has become the most inventive of any private luxury restaurant in this country. Two recent events held there illustrate the point.
On March 20, people attended a "Barrel Tasting" of California wines. Each of the 14 pairs of wine served was accompanied by a sampling of food. The logistics alone were mind-boggling. But, as happened are that initial California evening a year ago, it was the approach to serving food with wine - and the quality of food preparations - that made the deepest impression.
Tasting wine at a banquet has its shortcomings, as outlined above. A wine tasting that begins with only a platter of cheese on the table usually results in the cheese being consumed before the wine is served.
Kovi and Margittai did it this way. They served: With a chenin blanc, a mousse of red snapper; with fume blanc, filet of chicken with leeks. There was truffle soup to clear the palate, an intermission, and then a series of red wines.
With two zinfandels, a pate of wild duck and a boudin noir; with a merlot, sliced breast of duck with crispy skin; with petit sirah, civet of wild boar. Then kiwi sherbert to clear the palate, and an intermission.
With four cabernets, cailettes (boned quail in caul), a medallion of lamb with coriander butter, quail grilled with mustard and bacon and cheese; with two desert-style rieslings, a riesling souffle.
How did one survive? Easily. The evening lasted more than four hours and the portions were minuscule, though so well conceived there was no sese of skimpiness. For example, the scallop mousse was served in a tiny, individual souffle dish, while the truffle soup-crust atop - came in demi-tasse cups. There was one oyster, one minature boudiin, a single spoonful of cheese. The carefully carved pieces of snapper, chicken, duck, boar, lamb and quail were served on small plates and would have appeared formidale only to a Lillputian.
Admittedly it was an extravaganza as well as a test of culinary skill and versatility that few other kitchens could pass. Its lessons were in the matching of wines and food - one can avoid cliches at such affairs, yet be creative without becoming bizarre - and in matching pace and quantity so well that the participants could finish the course breathing easily.
Last week The Four Seasons took on the traditional wine and food banquet more directly. Instead of hosting a wine and food organization, they sponsored one of their own. The reason, according to Tom Margittai, was "sheer self-defense.
"Imagine," he said, "asking an opera star to perform an opera of your choosing on a given night at a price you set. Then you tell her you would like her to rehearse a few times beforehand, so you could tell her how to change her interpretation to better suit you."
"With all the tastings," added chef Seppi Renggli, "by the time you make the dinner itself you don't care any longer."
Therefore last Tuesday, the restaurant inaugurated what it plans as a seasonal event: a by-invitation banquet for 40 with food and wine choosen by the restaurant. It served a promotional purpose, as some of the dishes are new additions to the Four Seasons's spring menu, but it also allowed the management to innovate. There was no reception. The evenings began with champagne (Mumm's Rene Lalou, 1969), then there were small portions of goose liver (with a Sauternes, Rieussec, 1972); marinated scallop with oink pepper (with an Alsace reisling, Clos Ste. Hune, 1973): a mousse of shad with crawfish tails (with a chardonnay, Chateau Montelena, 1974); a soup of red snapper with vesiga; baby lamb fillet and minced liver and kidney, a millefeule of spinach and mushrooms and a salad of breast of pigeon (with a St. Emillion, Chateau Ausone, 1964).
The party then rose, moved to another room and continued with cheese (with a Pommard, Grand "Epenots," 1971) and a buffet of desserts with Tokay or a demi-sec Champagne. Espresso and after-dinner drinks closed the evening.
"It was fanastic," Margittai said later in the week. "They didn't stand around drinking and eating beforehand, so the timing was not thrown off and they weren't satiated. We served what we wanted with wines we felt suited the food. We served people in order, not all the women then the men. The portions were very small, but everyohe had a variety of taste sensations. At the end they could have as much of the desserts as they wanted. They were free to wander, to eat and to talk. They stayed and they talked about the meal."
Would this approach be too revolutionary for Escoffier? We'll never know. But as a teacher and innovator himself, he could not be too displeased at the discovery that la grande cuisine has not been relegated to restaurant museums and library bookshelves; that the concept of a banquet menu, which he termed "a far more serious task than one might suppose," is in evolution and therefore is being taken seriously.
here is a recipe from the Carlye's chef. Henri Thongs. Next week, a sampling of recipes from the Four Seasons. SCALLOPS A LA NAGE HOTEL CARLYLE
(Serves 6) 1 1/2 pounds scallops, sliced in half if large 2 large carrots, peeled and cut in thin rounds 2 medium onions, sliced in rings 2 tablespoons coarsely chooped parsley 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme 1 bay leaf 2 cups dry white wine 1 cup fish stock or clam juice Salt and freshly ground pepper 1 cup hollandaise sauce
Place carrots, onions, 1 tablespoon parsley, herbs, wine and clam juice into a saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer briskly until vegetables are tender but still firm. Add scallops, cover pan and cook for 2 minutes, no longer. Season broth to taste with salt and pepper; ladle out portions of scallops and broth and top each portion with some of the reserved parsley and a spoondul of hollandaise. Serve at once.