The Titanic could have used chefs like these. The fire alarm is savaging their nervous system, and the whole building may be igniting like a christmas tree. None of the six chefs assembled here at Alexander's Three Penthouse Restaurant in Rosslyn would deny it.
But there's no getting out. It's 15 minutes till the Confrerie de la Chaine des Rostisseurs sits down to dinner, Egg yolks have to be brushed on the lamb with quick, thick fingers and an almost callous ease; thesnails need heating, the quails neeling cooling, and here comes Luigi Zara, chef at the Georgetown Club, shouting: "ah! ah! ah! ah!" It's a cry which combines "gangway!" with "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair." The works are his pastrywrapped escargots, and ahhh, indeed. But who can taste food in this din?
Tha's what Le Figaro is for. Alexander's chef Jean Marie Robin selects only choice French newspaper as he clambers onto a counter and jams it behind the alarm, reducing it to a rattle before it shuts off entirely.
That's when it's obvious how quiet it is in this kitchen. Six head chefs in one room, six veterans of a craft in which the only things bigger than the tempers are the egos, but they're hushed as busboys.
"The are all afraid of each other" says Robert Greault, Proprietor/chef of Le Bagatelle. "And we cook separately, in our own kitchens, then we bring the food here to finish it. That way we don't fight."
Greault is responsible for the cheese and the sorbert tonight. The Iron Skillet's Alex Comninidis has cooked the quail, Felix Veirun of the Washington Hotel brough the pike mousse wsith lobster bits and lobster sauce. Le Provencal's Jacques Blanc ("By now you should know my name") has brough the entree, the pastry-wrapped lamb. Luigi Zara has contributed the vegetables and Michel Laudier of Rive Gauche has provided a pear charlotte.
"The memu is decided six weeks ago," says Blanc. "Then we draw from one of these hats (a toque , or chef's hat) to see who is cooking what."
They work tonight for philosophy, not money, plus the opinion of not only each other, but the Cchaine's 85: "We try to provide some happiness to manking. We screw up all Sunday for ourselves but we don't mind." Fifty years ago the 62 members of the Confrerie de La Chaine des Rotisseurs of Greater Washington might have joined lodges and secret societies instead: the Ancient Order of the Wombat and so on.
At meetings they'd have gotten to wear ceremonial ribbons, chains and badges such as the ones they're decked in tonight, as proud as Jay Gatsby with his medal from little Montenegro. They'd know the difference between 32 different rankings of members, and the'd have made some portentous vow-in the Chaine's case it reads: "I solemnly pledge that whenever possible, meat will either grilled or roasted." And they'd boast of a lineage almost as ancient and tenous as the Rosicrucians." Sure enough, the Chaine traces its founding to 1248 in Paris, with chapters in nearly 80 countries.
"There was a break, but it was reorganized in 1950," says Norman Larsen, manager of the Georgetown Club. In orange and purple ribbon over obligatory tuxedo, he sits with his back to a view of all Washington while he watches the waiters distribute the first course, the could quails: La Caille de Mississippie en Belle Vue.
"You may have noticed that we have no salt or pepper on the table, that no one is smoking in the entire room, and that no one has a glass of water, only wine. Actually, we make an exception for Luigi Zara because he's diabetic and his doctor won't let him drink wine, so he drinks Perrier. But no one else." The firs twine is a Mendocino Riesling, 1977, clear and cold. The quails are stuffed with wild rice and pine nuts. Topping each is a head sculpted from pate, with truffles forming the pupils of the eyes. Down the table, Francis Layrle, chef at the French Embassy, cuts his quail with exquisite speculation, as if he were about to file it, not swallow it. Next to him, Jerry Abramson, chef and owner at Brookd Farm, has galloped ahead. "The foie gras gave me a beautiful ending," he says.
The atmosphere is muted-even clinical-across the room. The Chaine, after all, has sponsored some remarkable dinners, but never has it assembled six chefs, one per course. Either scrupulosity or appetite leads them to abandon the flummery of captains and sommelier, all the romantic ritual. There's no seduction, just a pleasuring so naked as to verge on the abstract.
The fish, served like all the others to a polite round of applause frm the 85 gourmets and their guests, moves the dinner out of the dense little prelude of quail, and into the great baroque fugue or pureed pike. It is bound together with egg white, accompained by pieces of lobster, covered with lobster sauce and set off with a little crescent of pastry called a fleuron
It is tempting for the iconoclast to call it fish Jell-O, but the ritual is in the language, too. Besides, its array of tastes and textures merits the mystery of the foreign, as in La Mousse de Brochet Victoria.(The wine is a Muscadet Cuvee Trois Etoiles 1976 Parducci.)
On the other hand, come the third course, Le Granite au Pommard, one member, Angelica L. Spaeth, can't resist taking a bawdy bon mot to another table after she tries it out on her own: What 7-Eleven did they get this grape slurpie from?" Everyone cringes at here audacity, smiling a "That's Angelica" smile, and she goes away satisfied.
The course in question is a sorbert, an ice made of strawberries marinated in Pommard wine.
"It takes away the taste of the fish course," says Mama Zara, wife of Luigi.
And it's the pianissimo before the forte of the entree, the lamb: La Selle d'Agneau a la Maniere des Baux Accompagned de sa garniture Ada.
A squadron of waiters buzzes the tables with platters decorated with lambs sculpted from tallow. Acclaim is universal. They take them back to a table where four chefs slice and serve, rocking together in white-hatted synchrony.
The wine is a Chateau Haut Brion, 1967, with a bouquest that lingers on and on in the mouth.
The vegetables: zucchini stuffed with pureed eggplant and leeks; artichoke heart topped with pureed carrot, spinach and artichoke in perfect trisections, and mushrooms capped with sweetbreads under melted parmesan cheese.
"Luigi ordered the musrooms two weeks ago, all the same size, and even then he had to throw some away," says Mama Zara.
There are no missed chances to demonstrate finesse, tonight.
In the ensuing cheese course, for instance, is it reverence or merely calories that keeps everyone's knife away from the butter rosebuds it took Robert Greault "four or five hours" to make? The wine, here, is a Corton Clos du Roi, 1972 Jaboulet Vercherre, lots of body and bouquet.
Not everyone is a member of the clean plate club, of course. There's simply been too much food, even for a crowd with a huge proprotion of food professionsal. The panting and sighing has become audible. It ceases instantly with the arrival, more than three hours after dinner began, of Michel Laudier's La Charlotte Belle d'Anjou, or pear charlotte-cake and pear meat-with the stem and remaning meat of the pear dipped in chocolate, all complemented by Les Tuiles aux Amandes: Brown, brittle, tileshaped pastries covered with sliced almonds.
Next to this sweetness, the dessert champagne, Pommery et Greno, Extra Dry, is scouringly dry.
The chefs march out to bow and be applauded. Each is asked to describe the making of his dish. They list the ingredients, shrugh, and say "That's all." Except for Luigi Zara, who bubbles into a monologue ending with "And if your like it, good!"
The Chaine even forgoes its usual crituque of the food. But, with so many many of them professionals, they don't linger, either, in the afterglow evinced by two guests of the Chaine, John and Sally Harrison.
I've never seen anything like it in my life," she says, as if she guesses she won't see it again, either.