In Paris, people make reservations far in advance to dine at Alain Senderens' restaurant L'Archestrate, which last year won the Michelin Guide's coveted three-star rating. In Washington last week, Alain Senderens could not get a table at Le Pavillon. "There were only eight or 10 people there, but it was 2:20, and the maitre d' said it was too late for lunch," complained Senderens through interpreter Pierre Sosnitsky, maitre d' of Sans Souci, where he did get a table. Twice.
Unlike other French culinary stars who have come to town burdened with goose livers and banquet invitations, Senderens slipped in quietly and unannounced for a five-day visit to look into the possibility of opening a new restaurant. Washington is only one of the American cities that interest him, but he has already been to New York and Philadelphia and describes himself as sentimental about Washington. His idea is to import staff from his Paris restaurant and to spend about 10 days a month in his American kitchen.
Senderens insists that the cooking of nouvelle cuisine must be precise to the tenth of a second. He looks like a man determined to be precise. His dark beard and mustache are thin and exact, his brown suit carefully coordinated with brown tie and handkerchief of subtle pattern. Small and slim, Senderens looks more like a philosopher than the mythical garrulous, temperamental French chef.
He had been less than impressed with the quality of the fish available in Washington. He was making the rounds of markets as well as restaurants. Last Monday, he wandered into Sans Souci on the recommendation of a customer in Paris. Tuesday he tried the Jockey Club.Wednesday he was seeking to round out his list of Washington's French restaurants over a lunch of seafood terrine, steak with shallots (American beef pleases him) and espresso at San Souci. Eventually he made his way to Lion D'or, Dominique's and the Hilton for a steak. His last meal in town, and the one that pleased him most, was at La Pavillon, where this time he got a table. Senderens listened to warnings about immigration problems, union problems, supply problems, all manner of specialized American restaurant problems.
He was also worrying about whether Washingtonians would be receptive to the nouvelle cuisine he serves in his Parisian restaurant. He is know for his nearly-raw kidney slices with whole, unpeeled shallots and his lobster with vanilla sauce. His new style canard a l'orange is presented as two courses, the first being sliced duck breast on spinach with orange wedges and a sauce of nothing but orange juice. The second course is the leg cooked with mustard and accompanied by a salad of walnuts and raw turnips. Senderens' new fig tart with cinnamon uses no sugar at all and rests on a crust as thin as cigarette paper.
France's Gault-Millau guide, which awarded L'Archestrate one of its eight top ratings, calls Senderens a chef who thinks.
His thinking is leading him into wrting a book on the philosophy of cooking. Cuisine is an art, says Senderens, which is inspired by many other arts; thus, paintings influence the way he dresses his plates. Cuisine is also a science and is charged with being good for the health as well as the palate. Cooking, according to Senderens, should be able to change humanity.
And he hopes to change cooking, to make French cuisine more healthy. Although he has not yet gone so far, he believes that food -- particularly meat -- should be cooked with no fat. Mild retards digestion, says Senderens, and should be used only sparingly. Salt should be avoided; a dish that is cooked properly should need no salt, although tradition still demands it. Art is simplicity; salt is an artifice, thus expendable, he says.
Senderens would do away with frozen confections such as sherbets and ice creams, since he says they retard digestion. Doctors and cooks should work hand in hand; in fact, cooks should study a year of physiology during their culinary education.
In practice, L'Archestrate falls far short of his ideals of healthy food, though he uses only very small bits of butter and cream in his cuisine. In reducing fats, does he go so far as to serve less foie gras? With a laugh, he admits not. But nouvelle cuisine is lighter, less butter- and cream-laden than its classical predecessors.
Classical dishes, such as Raie au beurre noire (skatefish in black butter sauce) which he calls "100 percent cholesterol," must disappear. He wants to develop a cuisine that does no harm to the body. Asked about eating lower on the food chain -- a concept he did not understand as translated -- he replied that nouvelle cuisine uses no starches. Starches, said Senderens, are only for the poor.
The poor, of course, do not eat at L'Archestrate, where the $100 dinner raises no eyebrows. L'Archestrate opened 10 years ago with seven tables, and since has bloomed into one of the most elegant dining rooms in Paris, decorated with a red lacquered ceiling and appointed with Limoges china and sprays of orchids. Omar Sharif reserves a table for lunch every Tuesday. There is virtually never an empty table.
Asked what happens when a restaurant wins its third Michelin star, Senderens reminisced, "Happiness first. After, inquietude, working under the sword of Damocles." He expected the clientele to become more difficult and demanding, but that did not happen. The rating brought what he perceived as a higher quality clientele, who turned out to be easier to work for.
In America he would like to use the best of local products. He raves about American corn and beef. The best meal he ever ate was in New York, in a Chinese restaurant. But as for the cooking he has encountered in America, it is general, too sweet. "Americans eat too much sugar."
Senderens waved away a tray of pastries. He declined an armagnac. He drinks no hard liquor, only a little wine on occasion. He lit up a cigar, one that is produced by his own company. He would like to bring his cigars to American, too.