Since I have a few veal bones to pick with Rudolph Chelminski's "The French at Table," let me say straight off that it is a volume witty and wise, and one that will be read with pleasure for decades to come by Francophiles and food buffs. The author, a Harvard graduate now in his mid-fifties, went to France to study after leaving college and has since spent most of his life there. He lives in Paris and is a roving correspondent for Reader's Digest. His mantra, he reveals in these pages, is "Another day, another dollar" -- perfect for a free-lance writer.
Chelminski's thesis is that "the French know how to eat better than any people on Earth." He strives to prove it with two chapters on the history of French cuisine, followed by profiles of leading 20th-century chefs: Fernand Point, Andre' Pic, Alexandre Dumaine, Paul Bocuse, Pierre Troisgros, Michel Gue'rard, Georges Blanc, Bernard Loiseau and Gaston Leno tre. He closes with a lovely chapter on France's women chefs, from the celebrated "mothers" of Burgundian cooking to current Parisian stars Dominique Nahmias of Olympe and Christiane Massia of Le Restaurant du Marche'.
Chelminski is frank about the fact that he is a partisan, an appreciator, of French food. While filled with facts, his portraits of the leading French chefs are little more than panegyrics. He writes in what historians call the celebrationist vein. The profiles are not a whit less readable or funny for this failing, but along the way Chelminski never really proves his assertion that the French eat better than other nationalities. Among the only evidence he adduces to buttress his argument is a ludicrous quote from Michel Gue'rard: "I firmly believe that there will always be a specificity to French cuisine, and that we French cooks have a role in history: to be the creators for Western cooking." It reminds me of the sort of thing General Motors executives in Detroit used to say 15 years ago when commenting on foreign competition.
In fact, the thesis has little to do with the profiles that are at the heart of the book. If he had gone further in attempting to prove it, Chelminski would have made this a better work. For instance, one key to the quality of French cooking is surely the high level of the products themselves. Chelminski gives a charming picture of Paul Bocuse doing his marketing but doesn't devote any space to the producers. I miss some examination of the sources of French food at fishing ports or on the farm.
A last kvetch. Like so many writers on contemporary cooking, Chelminski uses nouvelle cuisine as a whipping boy, referring to it contemptuously as nouvelle kiwisine. The idea that this innocent hairy little New Zealand fruit, with its tasty green interior, should become a symbol of evil is beyond me. Chelminski is certainly worshipful about the chefs who made the kiwi popular. Why his petulance about the thing itself? Oddly enough, he is at his most fascinating when examining the nitty-gritty of nouvelle cooking procedure. His profile of the radical Bernard Loiseau of Saulieu in Burgundy, inventor of cuisine a l'eau -- using water in preference to alcohol to deglaze pans for sauces -- is one of his best pieces.
Despite my demurs, anyone interested in the world of food will have a jolly time reading this book. For Chelminski writes with e'lan and tells very funny stories. Let me cite two. Paul Bocuse and some friends, having just finished a meal at the above-mentioned establishment of Bernard Loiseau, have taken a constitutional and are standing on a small bridge, gazing down the flow of water passing to some distant lake. "It's a shame," cracks Bocuse, "to see all that good sauce go to waste."
Even better is the story of the Abbe' Baroillet, a Burgundian priest with the crimson nose of an inveterate wine drinker who was a regular at the three-star Restaurant Troisgros, where he shared many a glass with Troisgros pe re. When old-man Troisgros died, it was of course his friend the Abbe' Baroillet who said the funeral mass. At the solemn moment of the consecration, when the wine was to be transformed into the blood of Christ, the abbe' raised his chalice, then looked down at the brothers Troisgros and said: "C'est un petit aligote de chez Colin" ("It's a small aligote wine from the Colin vineyard"). The story is apocryphal, I'm sure, but in the almost mythical world of food and drink that Chelminski creates, it should be true.