COULD ANYONE be luckier than the woman in the TV commercial whose kitchen clean-up is taken over by the White Tornado?
Joan Nathan Gerson thinks so. Her kitchen was taken over recently by the chef of New York's Palace, which claims to be this country's most expensive and best restaurant. Michel Fitoussi, a beguiling, boyish-looking Frenchman of 26, proceeded to turn out a multi-course feast for 16 invited guests.
Gerson and Fitoussi met in New York. She has relatives in his hometown of Annecy. They talked. She invited him to Washington, and he in turn offered to cook for her and her friends.
"I said my kitchen was small and not very well equipped," she told friends. "He said all he needed was two spoons. What's he going to make with two spoons?"
"I meant from you I need only two spoons," interjected Fitoussi with a laugh. He had made the trip and was working in the Gerson's kitchen on a Sunday, the day the Palace is closed.
But he hadn't come alone. Nearby was a blue metal trunk so heavy that it took two persons to carry it. From it he took foie gras, chanterelles, salmon trout, beef fillet, homemade pasta and the other necessities for something resembling a normal repast at the Palace.
At the Palace, that normal repast costs $95 plus wine and tip, or about $300 a couple. It is the conception of Frank Valenza, who has embossed the restaurant's postcards with "an animal feeds, a man eats, but only a man of culture can dine" - a high standard for a home-cooked meal in a small kitchen.
Young Fitoussi, who must keep up the standard with the help of a crew of 15, was wearing two-thirds of a three-piece suit, cowboy boots and a tie. Even in the heat of preparation, when all four burners of the electric stove were on high, he was so calm and collected that he never felt the need to loosen the tie.
His cooking is not nouvelle cuisine, he said firmly. "What I like about it is that the vegetables and fish are not overcooked, the way the food looks on the plate, the light sauces. I mix the new with the old and incorporate decoration."
He admitted that his eating habits are somewhat more simple than his cooking style. "My lunch is American food," he said with a grin. "Hamburger with an egg on top, pizza, frozen yogurt. American cooks do very well with fast food. But all my food is fast food, too."
"What's the difference?" he was asked.
"You will learn," he responded.
Seven courses and four and a half pounds of butter later, the diners had learned that even if the chef cooks fast, the guest should eat slowly - "light" food can become very heavy when it is stacked up. It also became obvious that pre-preparation of ingredients (and some pre-cooking) is necessary for even a restaurant chef to execute an ambitious menu. Lastly, they learned that Fitoussi, who prepared each course in an unfamiliar kitchen before a crowd of onlookers, has a good sense of humor and a superb sense of taste.
"Actually," he said, "I rely more on my brain than my palate to tell me how much seasoning to use. I drink a lot of water while I cook. I think if a chef doesn't do that in the heat, he instinctively adds more salt than necessary."
He was preparing a sauce for salmon trout that was poaching nearby. "#You take vermouth," he said. "You reduce it. You add cream and reduce it. You stop, then whisk in sweet butter. It's easy but hard, like making fried eggs perfect. That's really hard."
While some of his ingredients are imported from France, Fitoussi, unlike some prima-donna chefs, said he has no problems working with raw materials he buys in New York. "No, there is a problem," he added, "My biggest problem, it is to get good tomatoes."
With a Palace meal, even a road company production, you don't just rush into the fish course. It had been preceded by sauteed goose liver served over spinach with a trio of wild mushrooms, a saffron-flavored mussel soup ("it must set for two hours to let the flavor expand itself"), and thin, hand-made pasta anointed with cubes of shellfish, shallots and cream.
Later on the sauces turned darker. There was beef with madeira sauce plus tiny, scallion-wrapped packets of carrot batons and asparagus tips, cheeses and salad and the most famous Palace creation, white chocolate mousse. It was served with a strawberry puree in cups fashioned from thin almond cookies.
Various guests provided wines to match the occasion: 1976 Batard Montrachet, 1966 Leoville Poyferre and a 1969 Chambertin among them.
It was an event, not a meal. The flavors were fascinating, the quality sterling, but most great French chefs still use butter and cream the way Mohammad Ali used his left jab. It may be soothing to the trained Palatial palate, but it bewilders the bourgeois belly. And, at the Palace, Fitoussi reminded the guests, they serve five desserts.
Located in an apartment building at the Manhattan end of the 59th Street bridge, the Palace offers decor and appointments to match the luxury food. No more than 50 persons are served on any evening. It is an attempt at culinary theater that some people love and others dismiss as nouveau riche. The cooking, however, is less controversial. The fussy French critics Henri Gault and Christian Millau, who coined the term nouvelle cuisine, gave the Palace a rating of 18 on their 20-point scale. For them the Palace is in the same leage as Lasserre and Tour d'Argent in Paris.
Fitoussi trained at hotel school in France, worked in Lyon and St. Tropez, then came to this country in 1975 to take a job at Le Caravelle. Within a year he was at the Palace as second chef and moved up when the chef went on his own. He likes America, particularly the cars and a country house he purchased. His "dream" is to travel to China, but he says without sorrow, "I am stuck here now."
In New York he has the luxury of cooking for a relative handful of customers. Some French restaurants here may serve 300 or more persons in a two-meal day. But Fitoussi claims his brand of haute cuisine is no picnic.
"No chef in New York works more than I," he said with the eagerness of youth. "I do the ordering and manage the kitchen, supervise the preparations, the sauces and do most of the cooking. I am the pastry staff. I do the decoration. At the Palace, decoration plus food is important. My food alone is worth the price, but people who come need to see something special."
So he fashions boats from bread, flower baskets from glace royale and flowers from marzipan, houses from chocolate. He works with spun sugar and does ice carvings. He said he delegates specific cooking tasks, but "it's all like mine. I taste at 5, when I come in. I taste every day because everything must be perfect every day. We don't make our show just once."
The show and the menu become more elaborate for those willing to pay $150 each. "It's the best versus the best of the best," explained Fitoussi with chef-like immodesty.
MICHEL FITOUSSI'S SAUCE
(Makes about 2 1/2 cups)
1/2 bottle (1 1/2 cups) dry vermouth such as Noilly Prat
1 cup heavy cream
1 pound unsalted butter, cut in cubes and well chilled
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Lobster coral or caviar
Use a wide-bottomed (non-aluminum) saute or frying pan instead of a saucepan. The liquids will reduce more rapidly. Pour the vermouth into the pan and boil over high heat until it is reduced enough to just cover the bottom of the pan. Add cream and reduce it to a thick glaze. (This may be done ahead.) Let pan cool slightly, then beat in butter over low heat piece by piece to make the sauce. Do not boil. Season to taste. Off the heat, just before serving, whisk in lobster coral or sprinkle finished dish with caviar.
Chef Fitoussi uses this sauce at the Palace over lobster garnished with a mousse of lobster and poached oysters. It may be used as well with poached salmon trout, or fillet of a firm-fleshed fish such as sea bass or pompano.
PALACE WHITE CHOCOLATE
(10 to 20 servings, depending on size of container)
1 quart heavy cream, well chilled
1 cup egg whites, (from about 8 large eggs) at room temperature
1 pound sugar cubes, plus 1/4 cup superfine sugar
1 cup water
2 pounds imported white chocolate, cut into very small cubes
6 pints strawberries, washed, then hulled
1/4 cup imported kirsch
Mint leaves (optional garniture)
Whip cream and set aside. Place 1 pound sugar cubes in a saucepan and pour water over them. Boil until sugar melts and syrup reaches hard-ball stage (255 degrees on a candy thermometer). Whip egg whites to form soft peaks, then reduce speed of mixer and slowly pour in syrup. Add chocolate pieces to warm mixture. They should melt somewhat but not completely. Working by hand, combi ne the mousse base with whipped cream. Pour into a bowl or individual containers* and chill for at least four hours before serving. (FOOTNOTE)
* Chef Fitoussi makes tuiles, a thin almond cookie, and shapes them into cups while still warm. Use a cup or small bowl as a mold, but be sure the bottom is flat. (END FOOT)
To make the sauce, puree strawberries and stir in remaining 1/4 cup sugar, kirsch and salt. Chill. To serve, pour strawberry sauce over a chilled dessert plate and place cup of mousse atop. Garnish plate with a mint leaf or two. Pass any remaining sauce at the table in a sauceboat. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Allen Carroll for The Washington Post; Picture, Michel Fitoussi, by Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post