NEXT TO the huge kitchen in the Mayflower Hotel's catacombs is the office of Mayflower chef Bernard Binon, an office equipped as much for cooking as for desk work, with refrigerator, mixer, file cabinets, clipboards and bulletin boards.An unlikely place for formal dining.
But wedged in a corner this mid-March Saturday afternoon is a table set for four with silver and gold; a waiter in a tuxedo pours the wine. After weeks of deliberation over the next week's luncheon menu for the Association des Maitres-Cuisiniers, the tasting begins.
Surrounding each mound of crabmeat in the Chesapeake Jumbo Lump Crabmeat Mayflower, are hard-boiled eggs, avocados, green peppers, tomatoes and lettuce. Garniture is everywhere, but the arrangements on each plate vary; sliced hard-boiled eggs on top of sliced avocado or sliced hard-boiled eggs next to sliced avocado next to julienned green pepper, sliced or sculpted tomatoes, julienned lettuce under crabmeat, aside crabmeat.
Menu previewers Virginia Washburne, director of catering at the Mayflower, chef Robert Greault of Le Bagatelle and Chef Binon stand to get an aerial view of the plates, Greault in a pin-striped suit en route to New York, Binon in his chef's outfit on his way from the kitchen.
Less garniture is the verdict -- avocado and lettuce is enough: heavy garnitures are out-of-style. The sauce is too heavy; it should be served on the side, not on top, says Washburne. Appetites will be spoiled if the portion remains so large; it should be reduced. Greault suggests a more delicate sauce. He talks quickly to Binon in French; Binon will have to rework the dish.
The two continue to exchange ideas as the main course is served. Their comments on the broiled tenderloin of beef Texas-style: good. No changes need to be made, at least that's the decision in English. Washburne wants to make sure the lunch will start on time; if the chefs are late, it will throw of the cooking of the filet. There's nothing worse than overdone filet.
The corn fritters: should we serve just one unstead of two? Greault explains that the French eat corn fritters as a garnish with chicken. The fried onion rings: non-greasy, says the group. Greault describes how the French make onion rings -- just dipped in flour and deep-fried. How the Americans make onion rings, in Tuesday's case: frozen.
As to what the visiting chefs will think of the way we eat filet, onion rings and corn fritters, Greault says, "It will be a question mark for them -- they're going to ask questions." That is what he wants.
And the cheesecake with cherry sauce ("from George Washington's farm in Mt. Vernon," chides Greault, although Binon later admits he's doctored canned cherry sauce): not too heavy.
At the end of the test meal come Grand Marnier, cognac and pernod from Binon's locked wall cabinets. "Qu'est-ce que vous voulez?" he asks his guests, smiling. This part is not on Tuesday's menu for the French chefs.
Greault describes the controversy surrounding Maitres-Cuisiniers trip to Washington. He says they weren't even expecting them to come to D.C. since there are only five members of the organization here.
Greault learned of the group's stop in Washington on Jan. 15, and immediately called Maitres-Cuisiniers' Washington members -- Jacques Blanc of Le Provencal, Jean-Pierre Goyenvalle of Le Lion d'Or, Maurice Bell of the International Club and Binon. Beginning Feb. 2, the five chefs helf weekly planning meetings.
They were frustrated. There was the money restriction (Mumm Champagne company, the sponsoring organization, alloted them $25 a person, not including wine, whereas the New York banquet at the Pierre had $85 a person), and the companies wanted Binon to prepare a typically American meal. Not too heavy, as the chefs were to fly immediately afterwards to San Francisco. And not too complicated, since March is a bad time for fresh fruits and vegetables, and feeding 370 people has its limitations.
"We were left with very little to work with," said Greault. "We picked this menu, but I'm not enthusiastic about it. We know so many things, but we can't do any of them. We want to show more talent, but that means cooking French."
Each of the Washington chefs had his own idea about what to serve the visiting chefs. "We have strong personalities, based on our experiences," said Greault.
They discussed serving shad roe instead of crabmeat. But that was too hard to prepare for close to 400 people, and not everyone likes it. As a cold appetizer, Greault felt crabmeat was the best alternative because, "it is the only item of elegance that is typical of this region."
Instead of the beef tenderloin Texas-style, a possibility was strip steak. But Binon protested because each piece on the strip varies in tenderness. Another idea was crab quiche, but they decided that was too common in D.C. Orange shells filled with sherbet as a palate refresher were discounted because they're too common in France.
What would Binon have served if he'd had his choice?A smile returns. He won't tell. "I don't want to upset anyone," he says.