AMBASSADOR Francois de Laboulaye looked over the throng at the French Embassy, 130 of the top chefs of France with their Washington counterparts and guests, and summed up the visit: "They are here and they have eaten everything."
The chefs, members of the select Association des Maitres-Cuisiniers de France, were on a nine-day tour of the United States, floated by a quarter-million-dollar contribution by Mumm Champagne in conjunction with Seagram & Sons liquor company, Rougie foie gras company and Bragard uniform company. They were here for their 30th annual meeting, the first outside France -- bestowing honors and inducting new members, and along the way, seeing what there was to see and eating what there was to eat, beginning with a grand bouffe at New York's Tavern on the Green on March 21, and ending with a tour of the Grand Canyon. Bagels and Black Tie
The first evening, the chefs had a crash course in self-service. Manhattan's Tavern on the Green was transformed not only by trees aglitter with thousands of tiny lights outlining their bare branches and ice sculptures monumental enough for city squares, but by a gathering of American foods that have become legends in their own time. There were eight kinds of oysters and three kinds of clams, shrimp in New Orleans remoulade sauce, spareribs hand-carried from Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City, at great expense and considerable wrangling with interstate commerce regulations. What's more, there were jambalaya and gumbo and crawfish classics by New Orleans chef Paul Prud'homme Mexican foods of extraordinary finesse by an El Paso mother-daughter team called Zarella's Catering, and cold cuts from the nearby -- but no worse for it -- Carnegie Delicatessen. Pastrami and lox and bagels have never been taken more seriously. Nor has bubble gum ice cream ever been served in better company.
The crush of 500 jet-lagged chefs and star-struck American guests accounted for the American caviar being instantly skimmed off the surface of the hors d'oeuvres table. But the champagne flowed freely. And, after Craig Claiborne, host for the evening with Pierre Franey, explained to the throng that, "There does not exist one single authentic American restaurant in all of Manhattan and all of its boroughs," he called this one of the most historic evenings in America. "To sample all of the foods here tonight, one would have to travel thousands of miles to taste a small portion of them." The American guests concurred; the French were tired and confused by the variety and abundance. Some ate a bit of ham and some salad. A few dozed over their plates.
But such an ambitious feast made its mark. Prud'homme, on being asked five weeks ahead to contribute, had immediately started specially feeding hens just for the gumbo stock and had crawfish traps specially made with wires spaced to catch only large crawfish. Chefs who went behind the scenes were enthusiastic about the way chef Prud'homme had browned his roux, a long-lost technique that some vowed to revive.
By the next day, the chefs were reminiscing fondly about the jambalaya, the crawfish etouff'ee and bisque, the sugar snap peas which at first they had thought were snow peas. They were particularly impressed with the pastrami; as chef of Washington's Le Provencal, Jacques Blanc, analyzed their reaction, they saw it as "the most elegant way to serve a lousy cut of beef." And the desserts wowed the French: pecan pie that was nearly all nuts and no filler, a superlative cheesecake, key lime pie, and pralines still warm from the stove. Sushi and Sherbet
The Pierre Hotel had its moment of glory, serving a six-hour banquet Sunday afternoon (which was still morning to many of the revelers). The banquet was a tour de force , given that it was a succession of very tricky dishes served to 500 people. And, coming after a very heated meeting of the Association, the most outspoken annual meeting some chefs could remember, the Pierre banquet seemed like the real beginning of the party. New York's French chefs had been invited, even those too young to be members of the Association, and hundreds of chefs in white toques and jackets paraded into the candlelit dining room to form a dramatic scene. This was a banquet of speeches and toasts and table-hopping. And the chefs were hungry for it all. Hors d'oeuvres plates were loaded with sushi and fish terrines.
The seated banquet allowed no salt, pepper or butter at the table, smoking only after coffee was served. The Rougie company had sent its foie gras, though much was made of the fact that it was canned; these chefs use fresh in their own kitchens, one chef sneered. The fish mousse stood high, its lobster garnish moist and tender. The palate-refreshment between courses, a powerfully alcoholic sherbet of marc d'Alsace, as the chefs noted, was a granite rather than a sorbet, a more difficult texture to achieve for such numbers. Veal was another challenge; it emerged moist, and the French were impressed by the quality of American veal. On and on, to frozen blueberry souffle and tiny cakes and glazed fresh fruits, their footed serving trays made of nougatine. The style was French, but the ingredients were American and the size and scope of the banquet were pure U.S. of A. Round and Round They Go
Monday was a trip to the Culinary Institute of America -- the long ride to Hyde Park irritating, delaying the evening's buffet at the Athletic Club. Some skipped the trip in favor of helicopter tours of Manhattan or private meals with friends, renewing ties with colleagues who had left France as much as 30 years ago. There were little lunches at Windows on the World (said to have been the best meal of the trip by at least one), the Grand Central Oyster Bar, the Quilted Giraffe, Japanese restaurants. Three 3-star chefs hopped from cooking for the press to doing business to dropping in on the opening day of the Parker Meridian Hotel's Maurice restaurant to see their 3-star friend, consulting chef Alain Senderens. But those who went to the CIA spoke glowingly of the school's vegetable sculpture: vases of squash with flowers of carrots, turnips and leeks. And of one reputedly lovely young lady who did remarkable bread sculptures. If It's Tuesday, This Must be Crabmeat
At 7 a.m., after three days of champagne and banqueting, 130 French chefs in a hotel lobby look like any group of overweight, middle-aged tourists. Paul Bocuse arrived early, then slipped back upstairs; he was going on to Florida, not to Washington with the group. Jacques Cagna arrived late, but what would anyone expect from the youngest member of the group? They ribbed him appropriately. They breakfasted on the flight to Washington: plastic cups of coffee and tough little airline danish with daffodil-yellow filling. They ate it all.
The first planeload to arrive had a leisurely tour of Arlington Cemetery and a drive around monumental Washington accompanied by a commentary of the city's history. It was the first sunny day of the trip.
"I like Washington very much," said Andre Meunier of Relais de Roanne (frequently known as the other restaurant in Roanne, home of Troisgros). After only 10 minutes? "It is enough -- after New York." Besides gray skies and Manhattan bustle, the group had been rattled by two thefts in the hotel elevator.
The sunniest moment to-date turned out to be the first look at the French Embassy's buffet table. "It is delicate -- a little fantasy," mused Maurice Cazalis of Henri IV in Chartres. Embassy chef Francis Leyrle looked very young and shy and proud as the group devoured the trays of canapes -- golden whitefish caviar, raw beef with anchovy paste and coarse salt, sliced asparagus with watercress butter -- and oysters Marie Antoinette, a close relative of oysters Rockefeller. "It is simple but very elegant," said Cazalis' daughter, Brigitte. "It is very discreet."
Others were equally articulate in the piling of their plates with canapes, the shouting across the room to a friend, "The pastry is delicious." They referred to fragile, very tart lemon tartelettes and small puff pastries, for nobody had yet begun to dig into the chocolate mousse cake decorated like an enormous porcupine. Most of the group had been delayed in air traffic, but when they arrived the platters kept being magically refilled -- and rapidly emptied. It didn't matter that lunch was slated soon at the Mayflower Hotel. The chefs ate and examined, clearly taking mental notes for their return to their kitchens. Leyrle became a chef to watch.
Back into buses, the tour continued in a mood so relaxed that some dozed, some sang. As the buses headed toward the Lincoln Memorial, the chefs donned their white jackets and toques, then piled out into the sunshine, swooping like a flock of birds toward the steps. Tourists gathered, and the chefs started kissing and hugging young girls, then grew serious as they formed lines for photographs. A hundred white uniforms in formation before the huge marble birthday cake that is the Lincoln Memorial. A thousand Instamatics bloomed. Toques off and back to the buses for the Mayflower Hotel for the grand Washington lunch.
It had none of the fanfare of the Pierre's toqued banquet, indeed, several of the younger chefs wore jeans. And the elegant foodstuffs -- giant lumps of crabmeat and thickest, tenderest of fillets, which managed to be rare even though the group arrived much later than scheduled -- did not save a crushingly disappointing lunch. Erratic service, sauces and wines forgotten, clattering and bumping into chairs. Icy and tasteless garnishes, brown-edged avocados. On gold-rimmed plates, clumsy bunches of watercress, pale out-of-season broiled tomatoes, corn fritters cold and heavy and sweet. And onion rings to compete with the worst defrosted in a diner. The rare filet was commended, though some complained that it wasn't sufficiently seared.
The luncheon was summed up by one chef as, "high quality but badly presented." Prepared for small numbers, it would have been fine; for hundreds, especially hundreds who arrived late, it didn't work. Food talk hushed, grew uncomfortable. Nobody wanted to insult or to hurt feelings. Comments became off-the-record. One chef just grimaced eloquently at his first bite of dessert. Of the very sweet barbecue sauce on the filet, one chef simply declared, "We don't like this." Canned corn in fritters, canned cherries on cheesecake, frozen onion rings. Even the centerpiece was of unripe fruits. And the wines were all French, none complimented by the guests. Washington's chefs were guarded, but Maurice Bell, when asked whether they could have done better than they did, admitted, "Yes, Absolutely yes. Certainly."
Speeches and awards later, hugs and warm farewells later, Washington's chefs went back to their kitchens, 50 Frenchmen flew back to France and the rest on to San Francisco and Las Vegas, their next banquet to be on airline trays. CAPTION:
Picture 1, no caption; Picture 2, Chef Andre Vrinat, By Douglas Chevalier -- The Washington Post