If cooking is art -- and no one invited to the International Review of Food and Wine's first anniversary celebration here last week would argue the point -- then how do cooks become artists? It's all very well for a few famous French chefs to travel all over the world, scattering truffle peelings in their wakes. But what's a young cook to do? He works too hard in too much heat. His "art" is consumed, often by patrons whose esthetic sense is buried in their stomachs rather than in their minds and hearts.
This is of more, than academic concern because with increasing frequency the world of haute gastionomie is looking to the United States as the potential savior of the eating class. The question of which comes first, superb cooks or sophisticated diners doesn't apply here, Americans, current theory goes, have traveled so extensively in recent years they have acquired a taste for the best. We are gobbling up luxury foods, expensive cook-ware and fine wines at an unprecedented rate.
(There is no need to go into the counter-theories, to point to the Golden Arches that line our culinary horizon or the scientists in white coats who are inventing best-selling recipes at a rate the chefs can't hope to duplicate. We are dealing with a double standard.)
The great success of nonvelle curisine in France, still headquarters for the forces of gastronony, should inspire the nouvelle epicures of America to welcome experimental menus, innovative approaches and new faces, and create business opportunities. That line of reasoning led three young entrepreneurs to form La Jeune Gastronomie. Jack Duarte, a New Orleans promoter, planned to stage the group's inaugural cooking and wine festival in his hometown last year. Melvin Master, an English wine merchant who lives in this country, and Pierre Hugo of France acted as talent scouts.
That festival never came off, but the idea resurfaced a few months ago. Food and Wine, approaching its first birthday with rising circulation but lacking clout with advertisers, was seeking a way to show New York that it is not instant Gourmet, but has a style of its own.
"We saw a chance to do something important," said Associate Publisher Caroline Kenyon. "Jeune Gastronomie 's idea goes along exactly with cur philosophy."
Thus, the stage was set for Michael Batterberry, editor-in-chief of the magazine to announce that six young chefs would prepare five meals for invited guests at the Tavern on the Green. In a single week Food and Wine could become the culinary Leo Castelli.
Wherever it is practiced. The old cooking, like the old style of painting and sculpture, has recognizable form and substance. There are rules, whether or not they are obeyed to the letter. The only obvious links among the few self-advertized nouvelle cuisine restaurants in this country are their extraordinary expense and a determination to appeal to the eye before the palate. So far, Americahs have tolerated famous chefs with French accents exerimenting on humans without a license. Would they be similarly indulgent of relative unknowns, some of whom weren't even French?
The chefs came from three countries. Alain Dutournier (from Paris) and the brothers Henri and Gerard Charvet (from Aix-en-Provence) are French, Pier Angelo Cornaro (from Bergamo) is Italian, Paul Prudhomme (Commander's Palace in New Orleans) and Alice Waters (Chez Panisse in Berkeley) are American.
Separately (though the French worked together and Prudhomme's assistants helped Alice Waters), they presented three dinners and two luncheons to groups limited to 50 after a reception for 700 on Monday evening.
For the chefs, it wasn't contest, but it wasn't a lesson in culinary espe-ranto, either. The first reports I heard from people in the dining room on Thursday, the final day, were two "fantastic" and one "terrific." But in the early going, according to a member of the Tavern on the Green staff, the kitchen scene might have been snipped from the movie "Someone Is Killing The Great Chefs of Europe."
Four chefs were working in a cramped area, each with his or her own priorities, provisions and tools while food preparation for the busy restaurant is going on all about them. Despite good intentions all around, there was a lack of equipment and assistance. "There was confusion," said the observer, "some grabbing of the wrong equipment, some screaming." Asked whether she had been a victim of either national chauvinism or male chauvinism, Alice Waters answered, mezzo, mezzo." In the dining room Thursday night, during Detournier's dinner, Chef Cornaro -- who likes to recreate recipes from the Renassiance -- made it clear that he was not an uncritical admirer of all the French were doing in the name of nonvelle cuisine.
But on that final day, things had calmed down considerably. Michael Batterberry said he had asked the chefs to assemble for the whole week so there could be interchange among them and to give them time to "really prepare a meal," to have time to "check their ingredients and have a sense they could sit down and think for awhile."
In the long run, it worked. The chefs clearly were relaxed, enjoying themselves and all the attention they were receiving. At midday, the Frenchmen kibbitzed at the range while Cornaro put the finishing touches on platters of quails garnished with grapes and pine nuts. Paul Prudhomme, a Louisiana native, was in a suit rather than chef's garb. He had received a standing ovation Tuesday evening and was still enjoying it. "There I was, signing antographs for the kitchen staff," he said with a chuckle. "What more can a country boy ask?" One of the Charvet brothers spread his arms and said, "We brought only our approns and our knives," an obvious jibe at the three-star celebrity chefs who come to cook in America loaded down with expensive native products.
While no formal vote was taken, it was clear that the French were working at least among peers and the meals, as promised, were "utterly different."
Cornaro, a puckish young man with the grace of a ballet dancer, dazzled his luncheon group with a combination of scampi, gorgonzola and gnocci and the quail. Prudhomme served up highly spiced Louisiana translations of classic French sausages and crawfish bisque followed by veal and beef. At his meal red wine was served before white' Waters enlisted the perfect spring weather as an ally and grilled baby lamb outdoors. Her menu was a masterpiece of understatement. Pacific oysters came first, then whole Mexican red garlic bulbs, baked and served to be spread on bread, along with butter and goat's milk cheese. The lamb was served with leeks and accompanied by two zinfandels. A salad and sherbet concluded the meal. "Very simple, very pure," said one of the French chefs.
It seemed very light and nouvelle compared to Detournier's presentation of oyster puree in crepes, followed by eel in puff pastry, followed by bread of veal stuffed with sweetbreads, followed by a dessert combination of bitter chocolate ice cream, rum-soaked raisins and snow eggs with coffee custard. The Charvet brothers presented a Provencal meal that began with fresh artichokes, and continued with two fish in a sauce flavored with seaurchins, rabbit with basil and spring vegetables, a tomato sorbet and almond cake.
At the conclusion of the last meal, as the chefs gathered in the dining room and accepted applause, Alice Waters stepped forward to offer a benediction. "To Food and Wine," she said, "They let us cook whatever we liked."
So Food and Wine achieved its aim. Neither Gourmet nor Los Angeles-based Bon Appetit, its two most obvious competitors, could have blended the chic in the dining room with the cheek in the kitchen. The Jeune Gastronomie trio, nearly silent partners during the week, won too. Success in New York -- a Broadway hit, so to speak -- is bound to enhance their credibility. Tavern on the Green, a lovely restaurant more popular with tourists than gourmets, looked good in the reflected limelight.
Not all the preparations were successful. In fairness, that should not have been expected of chefs working in an improvised setting so far from their home turf. And New York was fair. It was the sum, not the parts, that counted. The question to be asked in the aftermath is, will the ripples spread? Will the public have the interest, and the patience, to be the paying audience to support similar experiments in the fine art of dining? CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 4, It was an art exhibit of sorts, the featured works of six young chefs at Tavern on the Green. Princess Mimi di Nescemi Romanoff and Andy Warhol, were among those who came to enjoy the creations of chefs Pier Angelo Cornaro, and Alain Dutournier and Henri Charvet, by Donal F. Holway for The Washington Post.; Picture 5, Alain Dutournier and Henri Charvet in the kitchen of Tavern on the Green, Donal F. Holway for The Washington Post.