Maurice Cazalis, Maitre Cuisinier of France and Japan, was in a good mood.
It was a lovely pre-spring Sunday. He was on vacation from his Michelin star restaurant in Chartres (the Henry IV), visiting Washington and doing what he enjoys most - cooking.
The scene was Nora's, a pretty new restaurant with a laid-back decor that wouldn't be out of place in today's Paris. The kitchen has a picture-window view onto R Street, so the chef could enjoy the weather and watch and be watched by passersby while working. With the help of owner Nora Pouillon and two young apprentices, who already had done brunch that morning, he was preparing a meal for 40 invited guests.
"I don't enjoy going to a beach and sitting," he said. "On this trip I've been in Houston teaching. I cookin in Boston, where I also visited my daughter, and now I'm here. Wherever I travel, I meet people. I'm a cook, so I cook. I learn. I change. It's good." Like many outstanding chefs, he has a seemingly boundless source of energy.Unlike most of them who work full-time, he is 70 years old.
The menu was to be scallops with saffron on a bed of vegetables, duck with kiwi fruit and crepes souffle - a clever mixture of nouvelle cuisine, exotice garniture and traditional haute cuisine fare. The classic is natural. Chef Cazalis learned in the old school. The new interests him, but he doesn't feel any miracle has saved the cooking France from sinking beneath the weight of its own sauces.
"Nouvelle cuisine arrived like a lightning bolt," he said. "Two food journalists and some of their favorite chefs claimed to have found something new. Customers began asking about it. We others didn't know what it was because mostly it was hot air. All we could learn was that it was 'lighter,' so we abandoned flour.
"I've done this fish dish for several years. If I don't use flour and keep the vegetables crisp, it's nouvelle cusine. If I cook a lobster, just as I've always done, but add vegetables instead of sauce americaine, it's nouvelle cuisine.
"The chefs of Japan held a conference last November on nouvelle cuisine. I was invited and when they asked me what it was, I answered, 'You should know, it's your cooking.' It's okay. Bocuse has given our craft a big push. But now it has become exaggerated. They put raw vegetables and raw foie gras on toast with a slab of butter. What's light about that? One chef serves grilled duck skin in a salad of raw spinach. It's a joke. Serve it to a friend, but not to a customer."
The cooking tips Cazalis provided Pouillon and her young helpers came casually. There was much to do and as the kitchen warmed up, the chef warmed to the challenge. Even though the helpers didn't speak French, Cazalis' voice conveyed authority and they leaped to the taks he delegated through Nora, his sense of humor apparent even through the language barrier. "If you put in good things," he commented as he tilted a bottle of port over the sauce, "more is always better."
Ducks are a specialty at the Henry IV and Cazalis has his own method for cooking them. He raosts them at high temperature for an hour, turning them once to rid them of fat. He adds a stock and wine mixuture and braises them in an open pan for an additional 30 minutes. He claims the flesh will remain firm and the skin crisp even if they are left considerably longer.
To finish to preparation, he combines caramel with the braising liquid to create a sauce and garnishes the duck with any of several fruits. He prefers kiwi because its sharp acidity acts as a counterpoint ot the slight sweetness of the sauce. Other fruits used include fresh figs, pears and peaches in season and the old standby, oranges. He has even used strawberries.
Between and during chores he found time to talk about a variety of topics. America, he feels, has come a long way. "You are coming more and more toward the cuisine of Europe," he said. "Now I find people eating lamb rare, even in Texas."
He paused to taste hollandaise, decreed more pepper was needed, and continued:
"It's not that cooking here has reached the level of the best in Europe. I wouldn't say that. But people want it to be good. I am very impressed with the efforts I see and in another 10 or 12 years, it will be parallel. It's inevitable."
One handicap, he feels, is some of the raw materials available here. "Take your ducks," he began. "They are very, very fat, but the skin is very good. French ducks are leander and easier for a restaurant to cook. I have the sense that products in France are less pushed to be big and perfect.Yours lack something. Often they are all the same size and quality, but they are never wonderful.
"With them you can do good cooking," he said, implying but leaving unsaid the logical conclusion to his comment: that the cooking never will be wonderful either.
Later that evening, when the scalops had been eaten wine had flowed and nothing but duck bones remained on the dinner plates, the chef talked with Bernard Baudrand had seen him only once before when, as a nervous apprentice some years ago, he had faced a jury of master chefs headed by Maurice Cazalis. The young man passed and now the two talked as colleagues about the situation in France.
Cazalis is unhappy with the "lack of devotion" among young cooks in France today and their willingness to opt for the security offered by unionized industrial and institutional kitchens. Inflation has put some products out of reach and cut his business. He feels the quality of foodstuff has diminished.
So when, he was asked, would he have preferred to live and cook? In what era?
"I was very happy to have learned when I did," he responded. "There was great discipline and great pride in our kitchens. But I'm happy, also, to have cooked in an age when I could travel, when I could make what I wanted to and show what I made. I don't spread the reputation of France. I spread care for cooking. For me it's cooking that counts. I love it very much.
"All in all, it's not so bad. People in other countries have learned and we have saved the spirit at least of the grand cuisine."
MAURICE CAZALIS' SCALLOPS WITH JULIENNE VEGETABLES
(7 servings) 3 cups fish stock (recipe follows) or 1 1/2 cups clam juice and 1 1/2 cups water 40 scallops 2 pounds spinach, large stems removed 1/2 small white cabbage, core removed 3 leeks, white part only 2 zucchinis 3 carrots, peeled 6 medium mushrooms 1/2 pound green beans, stems removed 2 shallots, chopped fine 3 medium tomatoes, seeds squeezed out, cut into strips
1 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 tablespoon saffron
Cut the spinach, cabbage and leeks into thin strips about 2 inches long.Cut the zucchini, carrots, mushrooms and green beans into sticks 1/4-inch thick by 1 1/2-inches long. Place in a deep non-aluminum frying pan along with the shallots and tomato strips.
Heat the fish stock to a boil, add the scallops and lower the heat. Poach for about 3 minutes, until white and no longer rubbery but not completely firm. Spoon scallops into a bowl.
Strain the hot fish poaching liquid over the vegetables, add salt and pepper and cover the pan. Bring to a boil, then simmer for a total time of about 10 minutes. Stir once or twice. (Vegetables should still be crisp.)
Add the scallops atop the vegetables, sprinkle the saffron over all, and cover the pan for another 2 minutes, or until scallops are heated.
To serve, make a bed of vegetables of each plate using a slotted spoon. Arrange a ring of scallops atop the vegetables and add a portion of hollandaise in the center of the ring or pass it in a sauceboat.
(About 3 cups)
1 pound head and bones of a non-fatty fish such as a rock, sole or flounder
1 carrot, washed and cut in slices
1 medium onion, peeled and cut in slices
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon thyme
6 sprigs parsley
2 tablespoons butter or oil
Saute in a large saucepan until the onions are transparent. Add the fish bones and 5 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then simmer uncovered for 20 to 25 minutes. Strain and discard the vegetables and bones. If not using immediately, freez the stock.
2 tablespoons vinegar
2 egg yolks
4 ounces unsalted butter (1 stick), melted
1/4 cup heavey cream, scalted
Salt and white pepper to taste
Bring vinegar to boil in the top of a double boiler. Place over - but not touching - boiling water and beat the egg yolks with the vinegar until they are frothy. Very gradually beat in the melted butter, then the scalded cream. Add salt and pepper to taste. This will hold, for a time, over very low heat.
BRAISED DUCK WITH KIWI FRUIT
(8 or 16 servings)
1 quart duck stock (recipe follows)
4 ducks, at room temperature, washed, dried and cavities salted and peppered
16 kiwi (or 8 oranges, pears, peaches), peeled and cut in sections
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup water
2 cups dry white wine
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup orange liqueur (Curaco or Triple Sec)
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch or arrowroot
1/4 cup port wine or sweet vermouth
Begin the stock. Place ducks on a rack in a roasting pan and cook in a preheated 400-degree oven for 30 minutes. Pour off grease, turn ducks and cook another 30 minutes. If ducks' skins become too brown, lower heat.
Remove pan from oven and lower heat to 375 degrees. Take out ducks and rack and pour off accumulated grease (but not dark drippings). Return ducks (without rack) to the pan, add the wine and duck stock to come half way up the side of the duck. Return to oven for 30 to 45 minutes. Remove ducks and keep warm. Strain liquid from pan and degrease.
While the ducks are cooking, pour water over sugar in a heavy saucepan. Let rest a few minutes, then melt sugar over high heat and cook until it becomes golden. As the color turns to caramel, remove pan from the heat and add the liqueur. Stir and set aside until ducks are cooked. Add strained cooking juice. Return to heat and simmer briefly. Taste and continue cooking to reduce and concentrate flavor, if necessary. Season with salt and pepper. Pour port over cornstarch, mix well and pour into hot sauce. Stir until sauce thickens slightly and takes on a smoothglow.
Cut the ducks in half, then in quarters. Pull and cut away the rig cages. Return the duck pieces to the roasting pan, pour some sauce over them and return to the oven to reheat. Place fruit in remaining sauce and heat for 2 or 3 minutes. Heat plates. Place one or two quarters on each plate. Garnish with fruit, a generous amount of sauce and watercress or parsley. Pass remaining sauce in a gravy boat.
(Dependeing on the menu, the duck may be served alone or with rice and a green vegetable.)
(About 1 quart)
Gizzards, necks and wing tips from 4 ducks
1 carrot, sliced
2 ribs celery, sliced
1 small onion, sliced
1 tablespoon butter
6 cups water or chicken broth
4 or 5 sprigs parsley
Salt and pepper
Saute duck parts and vegetables in butter until onion is translucent. Add water and parsley and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. Strain and season lightly with salt and pepper. CAPTION: picture, Maurice Cazalis cooking with Nora Pouillon; photo by Douglas Chevalier - The Washington Post