ANYBODY WHO SAYS he can spot an American in Paris a block away would find Robert Noah too easy a challenge. He looks like a young Clark Kent, talks as fast as a Federal Express commercial, and despite slightly graying hair could pass for the incoming president of a prep school student council.
This is the man who can not only get you a reservation at the most tightly booked restaurants in Paris, but can arrange a cooking class in its kitchen or a visit to the market with a chef. He can organize a tour of a top charcuterie or bakery, or an entire week of tours and demonstrations at such star-studded kitchens as Guerard's and Troisgros'. If there is a French kitchen you want to visit, chances are Robert Noah can get you into it.
This week he is arranging the dinners and kitchen tours for the first official gathering of European cooking school teachers at the Regional Meeting of the International Association of Cooking Schools in Paris.
This in addition to his Paris en Cuisine Gastronomic Newsletter, which publishes insiders' gossip, trends and recipes from Europe's restaurants. He has even persuaded major chefs to write some of the articles and this year published the first in-depth look at the new vacuum cooking technique that is intriguing French chefs.
And if there is a Culinary Central of consultants, teachers, journalists, tastemakers in Paris, not only is Noah a member, but many of the others, too, are Americans: Patricia Wells, restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune (once a freelance writer in Washington); Anne Willan, founder of La Varenne cooking school (and former food editor of the Washington Star); Naomi Barry, longtime Paris resident and freelance writer; Gregory Usher, formerly of La Varenne and now freelance consulant; and Susy Davidson, the new director of La Varenne.
The question is, how does an American get such an inside track in that most snobbish of arenas, the French culinary establishment? "It's certainly not my smooth talking that does it," said Noah in a machine-gun-paced interview over an espresso in a small cafe that was halfway between his two afternoon appointments. "It's money."
Well, it is a little more complicated than that. "For once in my life I was at the right place at the right time," he rattled on in what has become known as his "speed talking" ("As I tell my clients, I can't speak more slowly, they have to listen faster," said Noah). In 1971, when he dashed off to Paris without even waiting for his graduation from Washington University in St. Louis, "no other Americans were trying to get in restaurants." With only three years of "schoolboy French" he headed right for the kitchens, thinking it would be fun to work in restaurants. Volunteering to work for free, he started with such honorable sites as L'Oustau de Baumaniere, in a few months edging from peeling potatoes to working on the rotisserie, sauces, then pastries.
"I was wrong. It's not fun," he admitted. So he tried his hand back home in St. Louis managing a wine shop for four months. Still not what he wanted. Back to France he went, and worked in the kitchens of Lameloise, L'Archestrate and such.
Next he returned to the States and tried his hand as chef in a nouvelle cuisine restaurant. As he put it, he found that the Midwest hadn't yet heard of nouvelle cuisine and wasn't ready to. He got bad reviews, said Noah, and couldn't stand it. So he went back to France.
Well, a charcuterie might be interesting.
"I got tired of eating pa te's," he discovered.
At that point he began to link all these mini-careers together, arranging gastronomic visits of France for American tourists, with those pa te'-makers and cheese purveyors and chefs and breadmakers he'd been getting to know. He printed flyers, named his business "Paris en Cuisine," and sent letters to food editors back home. When the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about his business it took off, albeit slowly, with a mere 30 clients the first year, all of whom had heard of him from the San Francisco Chronicle. Of course, he couldn't live on that.
1975: He tried housecleaning for a family from Connecticut that IBM had brought to Paris ("I do windows"). The problem with that, he complained, was their house had four bathrooms: "My luck. All other houses in France have none." Noah quoted a survey in France that found more than 50 percent of the dwellings without indoor plumbing.
1976: He did catering and taught cooking to Americans visiting France. He went on to translate for cooking classes at La Varenne, and worked for Steven Spurrier's Paris wine school. The flyers for Paris en Cuisine grew from one sheet to three-fold pages to a brochure.
1978: Worked as chef for French balloon trips. As usual, "I hated it."
1980: Paris en Cuisine was able to fly on its own. "Now I don't have to houseclean," crowed Noah; "I don't have to teach cooking, I don't have to cater." Furthermore, he could pick and choose the groups he handled (at the beginning he was taking tourists whom a travel agent had railroaded to Paris in the winter though they really wanted to be in the Bahamas).
His brochure specifies, "Paris en Cuisine activities are not intended for the first-timer in France. Some activities are rigorous, and a keen interest in food is essential." The groups he wants as clients are those who don't want to see the museums and the Eiffel Tower and are willing to be on their feet a lot, though he will also arrange fashion shows and such if clients insist. While he originally expected to get professional chefs as clients, they turn out to be mostly affluent middle-aged housewives. Fine, as long as they are willing to take the trouble his tours require. His groups might be up at dawn twice to see croissant making, and he wants them to be open to trying new food products. "Turnips here don't taste like turnips in the States," Noah explains. Apparently he and his clients suit each other, since, as Noah claims, most of them are repeaters.
One group, seven women from Louisiana, has returned to Noah's services every year for four years. "We've covered most of France by now," he said.
In addition to week-long programs of cooking classes in restaurant kitchens or three-hour visits to chocolate makers or food demonstrations on passenger barges, Noah will accompany visitors to restaurants, explain the menu and what is happening in the French food world, and take them into the kitchen (though he claims that any diner is welcome to look into the kitchens of the great restaurants any time). For that he charges 300 francs (about $35) plus the restaurant bill.
He emphasizes that, "I'm not a reservations service," though through his newsletter he has offered to book restaurants, charging $24 for up to two Paris reservations, $5 surcharge outside of Paris, with six weeks' notice required for dinner at Taillevent or a window table at La Tour d'Argent. He also will cater picnics "using the products of Paris' finest shops."
In order to get the restaurants' cooperation, he conducts a campaign that begins with taking large groups to restaurants and getting to know the chefs. Often they develop a friendship, or at the very least Noah grows to represent profitable business for the restaurant or inn; his groups not only pay full rate for rooms and meals, but typically go off season, when their business is particularly welcome. "I pay by stars," he explained, adding that since the payments are "under the table" they represent tax-free gravy to the restaurants. He added that it's not just money that gains him access for his groups; he also must get along with the chefs.
His latest offensive has been to beef up his wine program, arranging wine classes in restaurant kitchens with sommeliers who specialize in the particular wines being taught. Until now the wine tours have been limited to visiting the cellars of Taillevent and La Tour d'Argent. He is also establishing small regular twice-weekly cooking classes in the kitchens of new young up-and-coming chefs so that visitors to Paris can sign up at the last minute, at more modest fees than for the custom-designed tours.
What do his clients learn in the kitchens of France? First, they learn that "a lot of private American home kitchens have much better setups than kitchens here," said Noah. They also learn some cooking techniques and take home some recipes. Noah translates, reduces to family-size and distributes recipes from the chefs, though he does not test them. (He rarely cooks, excusing that with, "The next day all my papers smell like tomato sauce," since his office is in his kitchen.) He emphasizes that chefs always vary their recipes as they go along; thus he intends them to be vague guides, explaining, "Why come this far to read a recipe that you could get in a book?"
What has Noah learned about his clients? He learned it was necessary to make the recipes more practical, to ask the chef what cooks could use besides truffles. He has also learned that Americans don't take food as seriously as he expected. Even his mother sees his logic of cutting cheese as pretentious, he shrugged, though he pointed out to her that she wouldn't cut a cherry pie just any old way.
What has he learned about the French? The food in private homes is "awful." It is much better in America now, he said. Typical Frenchmen, he claimed, "can't cook and think they're born knowing about food so don't bother to learn." In fact, if you are invited to dinner in a typical French home, warned Noah, "Eat before you go."
And what has he learned that has kept him, at last, in one job without hating it? "Food seems to attract nice people."
Paris en Cuisine Gastronomic Newsletter is available for $30 for a one-year subscription of six issues, payable by check, money order, VISA or MasterCard from P. O. Box 50099, St. Louis, Mo. 63105.
Paris en Cuisine tours are arranged through: Robert Noah
78, rue de la Croix-Nivert
75015 Paris, France
or Spencer Associates
130 S. Bemiston
St. Louis, Mo. 63105
Here are samples -- tested by the Food Section -- of the recipes given to Paris en Cuisine clients by the chefs they visit: SALADE D'HUITRES (Le St.-James restaurant, Bordeaux) (4 servings) 24 oysters 24 large, whole spinach leaves, stemmed 4 large shallots, finely chopped 6 tablespoons oil 2 tablespoons vinegar or lemon juice Salt and pepper to taste
Open oysters; pour their liquor into a pan large enough to fit the oysters without crowding.
Blanch the spinach leaves in boiling salted water. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain again thoroughly.
Cook the oysters in the pan with their liquor over medium heat just until they begin to contract, 3-5 minutes. Stop the cooking by rinsing the oysters with cold water.
Wrap each oyster in a spinach leaf and sprinkle with the chopped shallots and a vinaigrette made by combining the oil, vinegar or lemon juice, salt and pepper. Arrange on 4 plates and heat to lukewarm in a hot oven. MINUTE DE CANARD MARCHAND DE VIN (Troisgros restaurant, Roanne) (4 servings) 4 6-ounce boned duck breasts Salt, pepper 6 shallots 1/4 pound butter 2 tablespoons oil 1 1/4 cups full-bodied red wine 1 tablespoon tomato paste 2 ounce piece of bacon, julienned 1/4 pound parsley
Cut the duck breasts into 1 1/2-ounce slices. Set on platter and season with salt and pepper. Cut the shallots into thin slices.
In a large skillet, heat 3 tablespoons butter and the oil. When the oil begins to smoke, add the duck pieces. Turn them, without piercing them, after 15 seconds and cook another 15 seconds. If the skillet is too small to fit all the pieces at once without crowding, cook the duck in batches and keep the cooked duck warm on a platter with an overturned plate on top while cooking the next batch.
Add the shallots to the skillet and color lightly. Deglaze with the red wine, stir in the tomato paste and let reduce by half. Off the heat, mount the reduction with 4 tablespoons of butter.
Saute' the bacon in the remaining tablespoon of butter. When crisp, add the parsley and pour off any excess fat.
Divide the duck breasts among 4 heated plates. Stir any juice from the duck breasts into the sauce and pour some of the sauce over each portion. Spoon the lardons and parsley over the duck breasts. LES CREPES SOUFFLE'ES, FLAMBE'ES A L'ORANGE (Christian Clement, Bordeaux) (4 servings) 8 crepes 2 oranges 12 large sugar cubes 5 whole eggs (5 whites, 4 yolks) 14 tablespoons sugar 6 tablespoons butter 8 tablespoons orange liqueur
Make the crepes using your favorite recipe.
Rub the orange peels with the sugar cubes and juice 1 1/2 of the oranges. Boil sugar cubes and orange juice together to make a sugar syrup (stop just when the syrup is about to turn a light caramel color). When the syrup has cooled slightly but is still workable, mix in the egg yolks.
Beat the egg whites until stiff, add the 14 tablespoons sugar gradually and beat until glossy. Don't overbeat; the whites must have some force left to rise nicely in the oven.
Fold the syrup/yolk mixture into the egg whites.
Place the crepes on a well buttered ovenproof platter and spoon the souffle' mixture into each crepe. Bake in a 375-degree oven until puffed, about 3 minutes.
Pour orange liqueur over crepes, flame and serve.
(Clement feels that these crepes are rich enough to be served without a creme anglaise or any sauce other than the flamed orange liqueur.)