Someone was trying to kill two of the great chefs of Europe here Thursday night - with overwork.
Nouvelle cuisine superstars Jean Troisgros and Roger Verge had flown from France to provide a buffet supper for 500 following a benefit premier of "Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?" In the best tradition of cinema melodrama, they emerged triumphant, but only after three days of "heroic" effort while coping with a myriad of problems, including a hostile health department.
The logistics alone would have provided Mack Sennett with a plot for one of his comedies. Customs inspectors were curious about cheeses, truffles and other ingredients no self-respecting French chef would leave home without. Fish, meat, butter and ever flour were trucked in from California. The chefs found themselves working in the kitchen of a partially built hotel seven miles from the scene of the supper, a still unfinished Macy's department store.
"Is this one of your greatest menus?" someone gushed to Troisgros. "It's pretty good for a place without a kitchen or running water," he responded.
For $50, members of the Sierra Arts Foundation and guests got their money's worth, and then some. Troisgros arrived with an estimated $1,500 in truffles and another $1,000 worth of foie gras, threatening the largest cost overrun since the B-1 bomber.
AS hors d'oeurve , the chefs presented oysters with a whipped cheese topping, three different pastries filled with smoked salmon paste, roquefort cheese and a mousse of thrush, scrambled eggs in their shells and slices of fresh salmon served on black bread.
Robert Mondavi supplied 60 cases of wine from his Napa Valley winery.
The main course offered salade gourmande - a nouvelle cuisine trade mark. This one featured snow peas garnished with crayfish, foie gras and truffles. In addition, each plate contained a slice of braised beef and vegetables in aspic, a molded "fondant" of lamb, marinated beef filet topped with shredded cucumber and a French version of turkey salad.
Then came dessert: Chocolate and tiny pastries had been brought from France. Master baker Michel Richard, a Frenchman who works in Los Angeles, had created a charlotte covered with raspbeery puree small lemon and apricot tarts and some glorious petits fours .
Robert Morley who plays the gourmet critic in "who Is Killing the Great Chefs?" would have approved.
"I'll bet Reno's never seen a meal like this," said one of the volunteer kitchen workers. "I'd venture to say nobody in the U.S. has seen a meal like this," responded Bob Lyon, a young chef from San Francisco's St. Francis hotel. Although the chefs felt the meal was incomplete without hot dishes, and Verge complained, "We didn't have much time to make them (the plates) pretty," it was more successful than other large-scale meals the great chefs have done in this country.
One reason, apparently, was the effort of the chefs themselves. They did not make token appearances, but were involved in every step of the preparations, even acting as teamsters to move the food to and from trucks. Another reason was the 25-person support team collected by Michael James and Billy Cross, promoters of the benefit. Young professionals such as Lyon and Stephen Tumbas, a St. francis banquet captain who stage-managed a flawless performance by 55 amateur waiters, were joined by cooking teachers and cooks from California.
According to Cross, their organization, Michael James Cooks, "produces food and wine events. We're like theatrical producers. We just work in a different medium," he said. They began as caterers six years ago, expanded and caught the attention of gourmets across the country by offering costly cooking classes with imported chefs in the Napa Valley. James and Cross were contacted only two months ago by Macy's, which wanted to create a splash for the opening of a new store here. Macy's had the movie. They wanted the chefs and a meal. James and Cross retained Verge and Troisgros, two of only 17 chefs in France who have the top, three-star rating in the Michelin Guide. The chefs met in Paris only two weeks ago to arrange the menue.
They were offered about $7,500 each for their services but the fee alone didn't lure them to the Wild West. The opportunity for exposure and the event itself intrigued Verge. Troisgros was coming anyway, to teach cooking in the Napa Valley next week and to promote the English translation of his cookbook.
At their restaurants food is handcrafted for less than 100 diners each evening. As for large-scale catering in primitive surroundings, "I do this once every 10 years," Troisgros said with a laugh.
Humor - and patience - were important ingredients in the preparations. The gas in the hotel kitchen was turned off for six hours Tuesday, until health department inspectors were satisfied with the arrangements. The chefs were forced out of the kitchen Thursday afternoon by a hotel banquet and had to prepare the food on site at Macy's. There was no loading dock, so the food had to be hand-loaded onto trucks. Then the health department refused to allow the food to leave the refrigerated trucks until an hour before serving.
A delay in starting the movie helped them and frantic work did the rest. The food was ready on time.
"Has anyone figured out what this is" asked one of the pleased guests, pointing to a mound on his plate. Robert Morley would have frowned, but no one outside a gastronomic academy would have comprehended all the recipes or the work that went into preparing them.
"They're artists," breathed one guest as the chefs took their bows.
Behind them, in the work space, lay a momento only the great chefs of Europe could leave behind. Costly slices of truffle were scattered on the tables and floor and no one had scooped them up.