Henri Gault shrugs and says, "I can't boil an egg, but I think I know what things should taste like." A list of American wines is handed to him. He hands it back. "You choose. I know too little about the names."
Far away from his power base, without the reassuance of a fawning maitre d' and employing a language that lacks familiar culinary nuances, France's most influential restaurant critic admits his shortcomings with disarming candor. Not that he's humble. No indeed. "Restaurant cooking is better today in France, in the United States, in the whole world," he says, "and Gault-Millau started it."
Gault-Millau is a corporation, a restaurant and hotel guide, a monthly magazine and, at the base, two men: Henri Gault and Christian Millau. In food-conscious Paris they have the impact that Drew Pearson once had in politics-conscious Washington. When Gault-Millau speak, in the form of a restaurant rating or a hyped-up tasting they call the "wine olympics," French chefs listen, restaurant owners tremble and reputations are made or lost.
What the professionals and the French public have listened most closely to in the past seven years is the pair's insistent drum-beating for something called nonvelle cuisine, the new cooking.Henri Gault coined the term in an article he wrote in 1973 that was illustrated by a drawing of a young rooster killing an old chicken and accompanied by Ten Commandments for chefs, "a gimmick I was silly enough to write."
New methods! New ingredients! Foods other than beef barely cooked and served without elaborate garnitures! It made traditional chefs "furious," but Gault and Millau shrugged off the insults. They had already made a reputation in Paris for daring to challenge the all-powerful Michelin Guide. As "young wolves," in the late '60s they put down top-rated restaurants such as Maxim's and Laperouse that were past their prime while promoting young and adventurous chefs who had been told to bide their time for Michelin recognition.
Eventually Michelin came around and the chefs championed by Gualt-Millau, many of them friends of Paul Bocuse, found themselves with two-and three-star ratings. Meanwhile Gault and Millau found themselves with an empire: Their magazine now has a circulation of 145,000, their guide to France sold 160,000 copies (at $12 each) last year. They have ready access to newspapers and television. They have power and use it.
But on this particular evening, seated at a table here in The Prime Rib, Gault is indistinguishable from the other male diners. Like most food critics you can trust, he is neither too fat nor too slim. He frequently lights up low-tar French cigarettes, drinks wine without any of the accompanying sniffs or slurps so dear to connoisseurs and liberally salts various dishes (although only after tasting them). A conservative dresser with an impressive intelligence, the force of his personality is hidden until you realize its almost impossible to interrupt him once he begins talking. In short, he seems to be a man who might be more at home in the board room than the dining room and often talks that way.
Not that the critic has been defanged for commercial purposes. It's just that, as he candidly admits, having eaten so often and so well, the prospect of money whets his appetite more these days than the thought of yet another portion of foie gras. So he nibbles potato skins, tastes crab imperial and sirloin steak, toys with an overloaded plate of salad and doesn't tip his hand, except once:
A bus boy approaches with a metal container. Gault motions him away. "Thank you, no," he says with a frown. "I really don't like water." In an absent-minded gesture a few minutes later, he sips from the glass and looks horror-stricken. "This water is awful, simply awful!" Chlorine isn't a favorite seasoning of French epictures.
There is some conversation about restaurants because Gault is trapped by his success. He may say a critic's work is "boring," but he is condemned to talk mostly of food and restaurants except in the company of intimate friends. So he decrees that Freddy Giradet, the young Swiss, is "probably the best cook in the world at the moment" and on the basis of his lunch that day dubs Jean-Louis Palladin's Jean-Louis at the Watergate here as "the best French restaurant outside France."
But he seems to prefer to talk of his friend Pierre Cardin and of jazz music and of the project he has been exploring, bringing nouvelle cuisine chefs to the island of Gaudeloupe and to various cities in the United States for courses that might cost $1,000 or $1,500 a week here are $3,500 or more with all the Caribbean amenities thrown in.
The classes would be part of a master plan to indoctrinate chefs, gourmets, teachers and would-be teachers into the mysterious ways of nouvelle cuisine. Gault envisions a headquarters institute, a sort of Playboy hotel for those whose passion is cooking, in an old French castle near the Swiss border. "But before that," he says, "we must alert the world." Thus the prospective culinary outreach program. Planning has taken him to New York, Chicago and now Washington. He has been spending most of his time with bankers and well-heeled epicures, with travel agents and hotel executives.
Its a grand dream, surely, and Gault admits concern. "We started nouvelle cuisine and our enemies say we've made money from it. But what money? It's difficult. If we use our name we risk a lot. We have to protect our image. Look at Maxim's. The name is worth nothing here."
The bill arrives and with it the moment of truth. What did the French master think of this temple of American Gastronomy?
Without hesitation he responds: "13."
(In France, for some reason, the ultimate is a perfect 20, not a perfect 10. A 13 is perfectly respectable and Gault approved highly of the crabmeat but not its seasoning, the beef and a carrot cake. He found the seasoning uneven and objected to a "bruised" salad.)
What does he eat at home? he was asked as the evening ended.
"My great pleasure would be plain noodles and some boiled ham," he says pensively. "But it's not possible. I have to keep tasting new things." sHe pauses for a wistful moment.
"I love noodles."