In cooking, it's said, nothing is new. But opportunities for variation or distortion, depending on your point of view, are unending. Take the case of Chef Claude Plamondon.
He was here last week, the Columbus of the crepe, pushing those ancient pastry shells as the ideal party fare for middle class hostesses and as the vehicle for school food services wondering how to tempt school kids to eat what nutitionists and the USDA insist they should test.
His is a classic example of how art and hucksterism mix as naturally as butter and sugar in the food biz these days. Ii began, as they say in children's tales, far away and in another land.
Claude grew up in Quebec City, the son of a chef. He learned the cook's trade almost by osmosis, but rebelled and turned to selling and singing. There were promotions for the salesman and a trio of records in the 1950s for the singer, but family ties brought him back to the kitchen and to a career as journeyman chef. About five years ago the path he followed led to Houston for partnership in a pie shop and the starring role at a "gourment cooking school."
Then Claude Plamondon started Escoffier spinning in his grave. Working with a couple of engineers, he devised the proverbial better mousetrap. Two years ago they created-and quickly patented-an industrial crepe-making machine that turns out 64,000 spitting images of a master crepe that is perfectly shaped, properly thin and attractively browned on its outer surface. While there are othe crepe-makeing processes, Claude thinks his is superior.
But building the better mousetrap isn't enough these days. You have to convince people they want to catch better mice.
Luckily, Claude isn't shy. With partners he formed Chef Claude's Foods International to distribute all those crepes his eager machine was producing. The partners developed a multi-faceted sales strategy with Claude, crepe pan in hand, front and center in the promotion plans.
Already the crepes are produced in several sizes and styles. There is a plain ("no additives") entree crepes, a sweetened dessert crepe, a series of five flavored crepes (chocolate, banana, cherry, stawberry and lime.) Then there are low-cholesterol crepes, but they are sold only to institutions. Crepes for retail sale are frozen in packs of eight. The six-inch size pack sells for about $1.20. (Safeway is carrying them locally.)
"A good crepe has to thin." says Chef Claude. He's dressed in white, from shoes through socks to suit. a knife and fork tie clip holds his tie to his shirt. His hair is as firmly unmoving as a gelatin-enriched aspic. His hands are well shaped and immaculately clean. Echos of French Canada intrude on his English occasionally but never dam the flow of his speech.
"It's a feather-light pancake. We're not the only manufacturers, but we specialize in crepes. We've got a better product and better packaging."
And what of the consumer? Now that the nation's kitchens are littered with electric crepe makers-the appliance rage of a Christmas or two ago-why buy crepes rather than fashion them at home? Claude isn't antagonistic to the crepe makers. He thinks they and the Magic Pan restuarant chain have sponsored the aaturalization of the crepe after its immigration from France. It's no longer reserved for gourmet cooks and chic, pricey little restaurants. But he is confident that the modern American is "used to convenience items and has confidence in them.
"It's hard to make consistent crepes without specialized equipment," he suggests. "It's fun to make crepes a couple of times, but then it becomes boring and time-consuming. It's more fun for a party hostess to use the time to make fillings. The same is true in restaurants and hotels. The chef should use his talent for fillings and presentation."
With parties in mind, Chef Claude has drawn on his experience in the entertainment world and cut the first-ever record of a crepe party.
He lectures on crepe history, sings and gives a monologue on preparation. A book of recipes comes with the $5.98 disk, produced by Eden records.
In addition to homes and restaurants, there is another kitchen market to tap. Claude came to Washington last week to perform a feat of daring.He cafeteria of Anacostia's Woodson High School and serve them to students at luncheon with school nutritionists and the press watching. To give the affair a touch worthy of Harry Houdini, he volunteered to use only government distributed commodity food products: canned chicken and vegetables. Salt and pepper were his only seasoning weapons.
If schools could find a way to make students like commodity foods, the boon to bureaucracy and the U.S. farmer would warrant a presidential citation.
Camille Miles, who oversees service of 850 meals each school day as manager of the Woodson cafeteria, was durious. "They may relate crepes to a pancake," she said. "But then they will think of syrup. They might go as a dessert. But they like their food plain, not with mixed up fillings. Maybe they'll fool me, though. I'm curious to see."
Chef Claude overcame the handicaps of an unfamiliar kitchen, a reluctant microwave and plates not suitable for his log-shaped crepes. As the 11:30 seating arrived, they found four dozen crepes with "veloute" sauce awaiting them.At an earlier test in Houston, Claude's crepes had been pronouced superior to the school's pizza. But then he had been using top commercial ingredients, not the government's canned goods.
The students looked, smelled and tasted-in some cases.
"It looks good but they didn't give me a fork," said one early arrival. That oversight was corrected quickly.
"Where's the trash at?" said one student almost immediately.
"It's good," said another.
Senior Darrin Connor wanted to shake the chef's hand and congratulate him. Sophmore Vernon Wheeler wondered "who ever heard of putting beans and stuff inside. It don't taste right."
Soon the crepes were distributed, but the jury still was out. There was a lot of plate waste, the bete noire of school food service administrators. Claude and his associates haddled with the nutritionists, whose various suggestions included deep frying the crepes, filling them with fruit and making them in bite-sized, finger-food portions.
For Chef Claude, it had bee another opening and another-brief-show. What his firm hopes to do is convince institions of the viability of crepes on their menus, then create the filled crepes in Houston, and freeze and ship them.
Also on the drawing boards are two filled hors d'oeuvre and crepes with seafood and fruit fillings. They are scheduled to appear within the next year.
But no man, not even Chef Claude, prospers by crepes alone.*tThe firm's most immediate priority is filling the order of an airline for 5.5 million individual frozen baked Alaskas.