Madeleine Kamman, an outspoken, opinionated and uncompromising chef and teacher of chefs, is closing up shop in this Boston bedroom community and going home to France next year.
Even those who have had personal disagreements with the ardent feminist French woman consider her departure a blow to the cooking profession. James Beard, who says she "doesn't get along because she won't compromise and because she won't accept other people's thinking," acclaims her as one of the best teachers of professional chefs. "I don't think anyone has trained people for the restaurant business as she has. She is remarkable and what she served in that little restaurant was great."
Kamman's reasons for leaving her timy restaurant and cooking school, which trains both men and women who want to become professional chefs, are complex. She has had it with America, Boston in particular, because, she says "there is no craftsmanship" and too much emphasis on making money. "It's a bad marriage - Boston and me." Not that she thinks France is in such terrific shape. "The degredation of French society in the last 20 years is unbelievable," Kamman said as she in the cooking school part of her basement restaurant, Modern Gourmet, supervising a concentrated week-long seminar that began with stocks and sauces and ended with nouvelle cuisine. "This is a dry run for my school in France. I want to see how much I can pack into a week" the intense, excitable 49-year-old Kamman said. A woman of enormous self-confidence, she feels the French culinary tradition has fallen on hard times and can use her help. "I think my country can use people like me right now," she said. "I have integrity, craftsmanship."
Food experts here agree she may have an important impact on the country she left 20 years ago when she married an American. "It wouldn't surprise me if she made a big do in France," said Beard. "There is not the same devotion to a cause there once was. We've got a bunch of prima donnas who like to travel all over the place," he continued, referring to three-star French chefs, who in recent years, have spent a great deal of time traveling aroung the world.
"What is wrong with France," Kamman asks, "that the best food in Europe is in Switzerland?" She is referring to Restaurant Girardet in Crissier, owned by chef Alfred Girardet.
She says she does not intend to take on the entire cooking establishment of France the moment she sets foot there next summer. Her three stage plan begins with a cooking school for Americans, particularly women, who want to be professional chefs. "France has good cooking schools but they are not functioning as well as they should. They teach by recipe method instead of by concept. A cook is a prisoner of a piece of paper. You aren't a cook, you are a reader. I woule like to see that changed by the Frence Ministry of Education." But that is getting well ahead of the story.
In her Newton Centre school Kamman teaches techniques rather than recipes. For example, instead of giving her students a printed recipe for making stock, she tells them the principles of making it - "by cooking meat or fish or vegetable in water to extract nutrititive taste, texture so you can use the stock as the basis for other things." Then Kamman expects her students to be creative.
When the French school, which she hopes to open in Annency, near Lyon, has been in operation for three to five years, Kamman intends to open a "small, top quality restaurant staffed entirely by women and get three stars." Then she feels she can have an impact on the French cooking world.
"I feel I'm just as good as some of the big names right now," she says, but adds, "I know I'm not the best. I've got to work to get there. I may get to be 75 before I get there, but I will. I am not an up-start."
In Boston, Kamman feels she's stagnating. "I want strawberries that taste like strawberries, not formaldehyde. I want unpasteurized milk for my cheeses. I want to work with fresh foie gras. To top it off, Boston is the end of the line for food. We get what's leftover after Chicage, New York and Washington.
"I have gone as far as I can go here. I need competition," she said. She also needs a place where she is better understood, or at least understood by more people. Throughout the interview Kamman wanted it understood that not all Bostonians are the same. "There are people in Boston who have appreciated the work done at Modern Gourmet but not a high enough percentage to keep us in business," she said.
When Kamman opened nine years ago, her restaurant was received as one of the best, if not the best in the country. In the beginning it took weeks to get a weekend reservation for a gastronomic meal at $35 per person. (During the week, the traditional French meal is $15.50.) Referring to the weekend cooking, which is now nouvelle cuisine, Kammon says, "in New York you couldn't find it for $65; in Paris it would be $90."
The restaurant is still busy ("it breaks even"), but now that the novelty has worn off, people apparently want more show for their money.
"The Puritan instinct stuck here longer than elsewhere," says Tony Spinazolla, restaurant critic for the Boston Globe. "The average check at the Ritz is $18, so when she takes on nouvelle cuisine they think she's extravgant. People are too untutored. The chic crowd is not here. They are looking for expense account places with captains, waiters, tuxedos, uniforms and white gloves." The service at Kamman's restaurant is earnest, friendly and often inexperienced because her cooking school students are not only apprentice chefs, but waitresses, maitre d's and sommeliers, too. Says Kamman: "It's my privilege to have the kind of service I want. It was a training school. We did not do white glove service because it is not adapted to the 20th century." This kind of response makes Spinazolla say: "Madeline is not an easy person to get along with."
Spinazolla's appraisal of his fellow Bostonians was echoed by the Globe's food editor, Gail Perrin: "People who spend a lot of money for a meal want all the cream and sauces," she said.
Some of the letters Kamman has received from disgruntled nouvelle cuisine diners bear out the assessment. One complained because the snails arrived in consomme with ginger, as promised on the menu, but he had wanted them to be in garlic butter in their shells. Another wrote: "Madame, where is the chicken in the chicken mousse?"
"Being something of an egocentric," Spinzolla said, "she cannot take that kind of criticism."
There are those who admire her for her uncompromising ways. "She has a lot of integrity in the kitchen," Spinazolla said. "Thank God she never compromised. Madeleine in the right setting with the right staff probably could have been the best in the United States. She's worked like a dog all her life and what does she have?"
Both her detractors and admirers agree Kamman will do much better in France where, as Beard says, "they are used to that kind of behavior. They will recognize individualism more than they do here."
But Kamman faces another problem when she returns to a country where the feminist movement is 10 years behind the United States, particularly in professional kitchens. In France, women finally are being recognized for their special contribution to cooking through an association of women chefs to which a few foreigners, Kamman included, belong. In addition, "Favorite Recipes of the Great Women Chefs of France," published in France in 1977, will be published here this fall.
Kamman has always contended that cuisine des femmes, women's cooking in France, is nouvelle cuisine under a different name. It is the point she made in her last of three cookbooks, "When French Women Cook."
Kamman thinks the recognition of these women chefs has come because "it has been the role of women to keep the tradition of each region and blissfully, the provincial cuisine is coming back. They have cooked from their hearts and feelings rather than their brains. They may make mistakes, but it is from the heart."
Still, women are separate. Kamman says today she would get a job in a French kitchen because "I have gray hair and a rounded figure. I'm a mother figure," but she acknowledges that if she were in competition with a man for the job, "he would get it."
That's the kind of barrier Kamman "expects to break down - with infinite patience and with the help of Joan of Arc." The savior of France, is Kamman's "image of French history." Unlike the Maid of Orleans, Kamman doesn't "want to be Joan of Arc of the kitchen. I don't want to be roasted." CAPTION: Picture, no caption