IT HAS BEEN said that Fredy Girardet, lik
He had never before been observed outside of his natural habitat. Yet Girardet was persuaded to leave his kitchen for the first time in the 10 years since he turned it from a town-hall bistro into a restaurant that is virtually always prefaced -- by chefs and laymen alike -- with some variation on the term "greatest."
Many chefs, of course, don't travel. But usually they are not asked to. Just as beluga caviar becomes more valuable as a rarity as well as a delicacy, Girardet's refusal to join the star trek of the French chefs (who consider him one of them despite his being Swiss) has only enhanced his reputation -- which was otherwise already as enhanced as one could hope. Here was a 46-year-old man whose cooking was as sophisticated as any in the world, yet he had never flown in an airplane, and hardly ever ventured more than 60 miles from home -- then only for a day of skiing. As firm as his reputation for cooking was his reputation for simplicity, for being unsullied by worldly temptations.
"Girardet doesn't want money. He doesn't know what to do with money anyway. He is so simple," Christian Bulliard of the Lausanne tourist office in New York goes on and on, explaining that Girardet's one extravagance is a $1,000 bicycle. Here is a man who, once he accepted an invitation to travel to New York, refused to travel first class, but joined the rest of the group in the economy section of the plane. He agreed to the precedent-breaking trip for the good of Lausanne, Girardet made a point to explain -- as well as to celebrate his restaurant's 10th anniversary and because his wife's near-fatal accident last summer made him realize that life is fragile and ought to be enjoyed while it lasts.
The Natural Habitat
People reserve tables three months in advance for Girardet's restaurant in Crissier, a town of 4,000 just outside Lausanne, and they pay upwards of $60 for the food alone. Pierre Schwitzguebel of the tourist office in Lausanne sighs and says that people call him from all over the world trying to get reservations at Girardet, but the restaurant only seats 60 or so, and as Bulliard puts it, "When you reserve at Girardet, whatever happens you don't cancel."
Girardet at first had little enthusiasm for following in his father's footsteps as a chef, at least until, on a wine-buying trip, he tasted what the Troisgros brothers were serving at Roanne. That is when Girardet was, in culinary terms, born again -- as a new-style chef, cooking the best and freshest ingredients at the moment when they are to be served, which was to be directly on the plate rather than via the intermediary of serving tray and tableside cart for finishing touches. Girardet took over his father's restaurant upon his death in 1965, then bought the building from the city of Crissier, and by 1971 had started it on the track of world fame.
While his peers, Paul Bocuse and his pals, fly back and forth to open restaurants in Disney World, Rio and Tokyo at the drop of an egg, Girardet protects his integrity so staunchly that in his restaurant he will not even accept reservations for a group larger than 16 people, and then only at lunch and at tables of never more than eight. Four years ago, in an interview at his restaurant, he spoke of publicity as "a semi-joke, a sort of circus," and refused to take it seriously.
Grayer now, but still lean and quiet, Girardet looks like a Minnesota farmer who could have weathered this year's winter without flinching. While he has not strayed from his kitchen, the students who have passed through it have gone on not only to upgrade the dining around Lausanne, but have disseminated his word throughout Switzerland, France and even landed on the shores of America.
The Experimental Method
Put together in about three months, the visit of Girardet involved the completion of a $40,000 second kitchen for New York's Le Cirque restaurant, where the one dinner and two luncheons were held in a private banquet room. A hundred small silver pots were brought to serve as dishes for the truffles and as souvenirs. Wine glasses were purchased to meet Girardet's specifications.
The three-day event took the assistance of three chefs Girardet brought from among the 17 in his kitchen, and former apprentices Jean Francois Taquet from Philadelphia and William Nassikas from Utah. It took Girardet's executive chef being sent ahead to examine American ingredients and it took the transporting of a hundred pounds of food from Switzerland, among them about 30 pounds of fresh truffles valued at $7,500 (a third of which were going to be left for Le Cirque). Girardet brought his own butter and cream, rosemary, pink peppercorns, vinegar, nut oil, caviar and some utensils. Also brought were wines from the privately owned vineyards of the City of Lausanne, which did indeed travel well. Girardet decided not to risk transporting fragile Swiss cheeses, yet refused to serve French, so that course was deleted from the menu.
The guest list was not just a matter of inviting the likes of Danny Kaye, James Mason, Walter Cronkite, Governor and Mrs. Hugh Carey, Jerry Zipkin, Harry Reasoner, plus Richard Nixon and Andy Warhol, both of whom canceled at the last minute. It was even more a matter of fending off the torrent of demands for invitations. The Monday night dinner was for celebrities, Tuesday and Wednesday were for the travel industry, Lausanne commercial accounts and journalists; all three were identical nearly-three-hour meals except that the private label champagne for Monday night was said to be of better quality than the luncheon champagnes.
Hosts: Managing the experiment was the Lausanne Hotels Sales & Tourist Office along with four leading hotels of the city. The event was presented as if akin to digging up the Eiffel Tower and bringing it for a one-time visit to New York, except that a tourist could then easily go and see the Eiffel Tower whenever he was in Paris. In any case, the emphasis was on exclusivity. This, Girardet's first visit, said an official letter of thanks to the guests, is "very likely his last." And the press release issued in Girardet's honor claimed, "in the future gourmands will probably have to make the pilgrimage to Switzerland if they want to be spoiled by Girardet." The sponsors were putting their money on the theory that he does not travel well.
A Professional Opinion: That conclusion was reinforced by Washington's two-star imported chef Jean-Louis Palladin, who spoke with Girardet by phone the evening of the first dinner. "He is losing it," moaned Palladin, who eventually explained that it was Girardet's head that was being lost. Le Cirque's kitchen was much different from Girardet's Swiss one, and Girardet had sounded frantic, for it was the first time he had cooked in any but his own. Even his voice is different, Palladin declared.
First-time Observers: "I don't know what it is, but it's delicious," declared a representative of the travel industry as he bit into the foie gras quickly saute'ed to a crusty surface, then dressed with vinegar and nut oil, garnished with spokes of infant red cabbage and watercress leaves.
"It's liver," another, more sage travel professional informed the first.
It may have lost something in translation, but the dish converted two potential customers to the glories of Lausanne.
Sometime Observers: Danny Kaye had dined at Girardet-New York Monday evening. He returned for lunch Tuesday. The imported version of Girardet's cooking was obviously worth his time.
And indeed, as far as flying chefs' on-the-road demos, this was a spectacular one. To this critic its main flaw was the pace; waiters were ready to snatch cocottes that still held precious droplets of asparagus-and-truffle sauce. The sea bass in an ivory cream dusted with crushed pink peppercorns and topped with a tiny but very pungent sprig of rosemary deserved longer, more lingering attention. Veal filet was topped with minced green herbs, moistened with a deep, dark sauce that, typical of Girardet's, looked deceptively calm but developed nuances of tartness, tang and earthiness on the tongue. Girardet's sauces unfold; they are worthy of quiet and studied enjoyment.
Three desserts showed even better than had the desserts on home ground four years ago. What is new about pear-liqueur sorbet? Its being wrapped in paper-thin slices of pear is new. And one may have had warm fruits in glazed custard in many a new-style French restaurant lately, but not the extraordinarily balanced and subtle combination of oranges, pistachios and very aromatic custard that Girardet has developed from his father's recipe. Finally, his mille-feuille with strawberries was not different from dozens one might have tasted over a lifetime. Just better.
Whether or not Girardet had lost his head, his hands were firmly in place.
A Frequent Observer: Bulliard, who until now has lived in Lausanne, "only visits Girardet about 10 times a year." Was the food the same? The question was carefully considered, and the only evidence to the contrary he could find was the lobster. What could have been deficient about morsels of Maine lobster in a coral pool, with a tiny oval of broccoli pure'e and a colorful sprinkle of diced pimiento and beluga caviar? The lobster was cooked in a bit too much salt, Bulliard suggested. But mainly it was the environment that interfered with his appreciation. He didn't like the "aggressive colors" and surplus of mirrors in the dining room, but found Girardet's food considerably more enjoyable in its own 18th-century city-hall site.
The observers were testing Girardet. One kept pressing him about whether he would open or supervise a restaurant abroad. "I am an artisan of cuisine," answered Girardet, perhaps the only man in the world who could pull that line off and still sound modest. The questioner thanked him profusely; he had merely been testing Girardet's faith and now he could rest secure in his belief.
Girardet elaborated on his answer, adding that he could have left the New York preparation to his four assistants and spent his time seeing the city, but he is too proud to do that. He added that he does not believe in ever leaving his restaurant, ever.
He did not, however, close his restaurant for this trip. His first chef was running it in his absence. And, he said, it ought to be able to run well without him; after all, he would not be a good boss if he could not leave his kitchen in his assistants' hands. "I won't abuse it, but I have no fear of leaving."
The first sign of the experiment taking.
Girardet had seen practicially nothing of New York. He had been to one steakhouse and what he called "tourist restaurants," but had no chance to try the food of America's French chefs. He was about to take a helicopter trip over the city, and was going with his wife and teen-age daughter to the Ice Capades.
"I would like to come back for three or four weeks, on vacation only, and see the whole country," said Girardet. The myth was growing fuzzy around the edges. Girardet already had his halo. Was he going to sprout wings?
A shy smile. A modest shrug of the shoulders.
Girardet added, "I have to discover America."