Gilbert LeCoze looks tired. Gilbert LeCoze looks happy. Gilbert LeCoze is working hard to keep anyone from thinking that because he is tired he is not happy.
If that's the price of success, he is willing to pay it.
Gilbert LeCoze is the chef, his sister Maguy the hostess of Le Bernardin, New York's new, wildly acclaimed seafood restaurant in the Equitable Assurance Tower. They still run, by long distance for now, its 14-year-old predecessor in Paris.
While the Parisian Le Bernardin has been acclaimed -- awarded two stars by Michelin a mere six months after moving to its present location -- nothing could have prepared the LeCozes for what happened in New York. Within a month of its Jan. 28 opening, Le Bernardin was called "something of a miracle" by New York Magazine critic Gael Greene. A month later New York Times critic Bryan Miller gave it his top rating: "a four-star dining experience." Then within a few weeks Craig Claiborne, featuring the restaurant in the New York Times Magazine, proclaimed that Le Bernardin "has caused a sensation."
Now it takes 45 man-hours a day for Le Bernardin just to answer its four phones, and three other New York restaurants have added adaptations of Le Coze's roast monkfish with savoy cabbage to their menus.
After such reviews, says Le Coze, "We have to forget about our life outside the restaurant" for six months or a year. He works 18 to 20 hours a day, six days a week.
"You get a great review, and a lot of people are very spontaneous and want to come right away. But they are very critical," confesses Le Coze. He knows about backlash: "That's why we are working so hard." And he keeps reminding himself, "We shouldn't start believing we are stars." As he put it, "A cook is not a PhD, he is a worker."
Along with instant success, Le Coze has found other changes in New York. He had many American customers in Paris, but he found them different on their home ground. "When they come to France to dine, they receive with open arms what the cuisine is," Le Coze had discovered. "Here they have their routine and want to have their way."
From the chef's point of view there are two types of restaurants, "the restaurant where you come and dine and discover something, and the kind where . . . the chef is carrying out the client's order." Clearly Le Bernardin is the former. Unlike other fish restaurants in New York, said Le Coze, "Ours is going to be educational." His salmon with mint is served rare. "People cut into it and see pink. Their eyes say it is under cooked," but it tastes succulent, tasty and tender. "You might have to close your eyes to eat it," he said. "The first moments of the dish turn people around."
But if someone wants it more cooked? "We don't do it," declared Le Coze. "People pick something else if they don't want it rare . . . If the chef doesn't hold himself to sometimes say no, he is losing himself, loses his identity." It was a big question, said Le Coze, whether Americans would eat raw fish. That question has been answered.
Reservations are much more complicated in America. In France, few restaurants book two seatings an evening; in New York it is the norm. Le Bernardin figures 2 1/2 hours for a diner, but "last night there were many tables that stayed four," said Le Coze. In France there is seldom a problem of no-shows, of people who book tables at several restaurants so that they can decide at the last minute where to dine. "The French know to cancel," said Richard Hollocou, Le Bernardin's general manager. Le Bernardin now calls back every reservation to confirm it.
What is even more difficult an adjustment is the work schedule. In Paris Le Bernardin is open five days a week, in New York six. Most of the staff is divided into lunch and dinner shifts; Le Coze himself stays through both. And that's not all.
At 3:30 every morning Gilbert Le Coze goes to the Fulton Fish Market to buy for that day. People told him streets around the fish market were very dangerous that early in the morning. But he responded that he is like a young boy; if somebody tells him something is very hot, he has to touch it.
The market did not prove dangerous, but it required Le Coze to prove himself. What he did was arrive at the market earlier than anyone else. By the end of two weeks he had piqued the market men's curiosity, then he earned their respect. (Having the guidance of a couple of New York's most experienced fish buyers couldn't have hurt, either. And the fact that he buys 300 to 400 pounds of fish a day has certainly given him credibility.)
Once the rave reviews appeared, getting the best from the fish sellers became even easier. They took pride in a fish restaurant getting such acclaim, and came to eat and see what high-level treatment their products were getting.
Le Coze goes to the fish market to pick the most pristinely fresh fish. But there is another reason: This tall, rough-hewn and intense man loosens and relaxes in the presence of fish. He was raised in Brittany, the grandson of a fisherman, and as he explained, "If I can have one hour and a half at the Fulton Fish Market I am happy."
Le Coze's appetizer of black bass is thin petals of raw fish forming a translucent mosaic, glistening with tiny pools of green olive oil and shreds of darker green coriander and basil. It is sheer fish-lover's simplicity. His scallops are not only nearly raw but nearly live, skeined with julienned sorrel as if it was netting them. Le Coze anoints sea urchins with a touch of cream and heats them through, which mellows their flavor.
Showing the wares in his walk-in refrigerator, this Brittany chef grew as passionate as a teen-age boy in a Jaguar showroom. "So fresh, so nice," he ruffled through the razor clams and palourdes. "Look at that, that is beautiful," he stroked the shrimp, gently pressed the dark red tuna. "Come on, come on, baby," he cradled the lobsters. "When I am in a fish market I am happy," Le Coze grew pensive. "I prefer to go in the fish market than to go to Regine's or the Palladium." For him, no disco could compare to the lure of a silvery, gleaming sea bass. Tabletalk
*Paul Prudhomme is tackling the fast-food market. First step: A commissary to centrally produce Cajun pot food such as gumbo, red beans, stuffed mirliton, smothered chicken and po' boys. First outlet: Jax Brewery mall in New Orleans. It is "an experiment to see whether I can do quality quickly," said Prudhomme. If that works: ten more self-service, modest-price branches of his Louisiana Grocery and Feed Company.
*Looking for signs of change at my college reunion, I was still caught by surprise by the very first one. The evening's informal get-together was billed as a "Decaf-tea party." Certainly made us feel old and stodgy.
*Boston's Legal Seafood has always been a restaurant chain to think big. But now it has outdone itself: Owner Roger Berkowitz has bought an entire winery in France.
LE BERNARDIN'S RAW BLACK BASS WITH CORIANDER AND BASIL (1 serving)
4-ounce fillet of bass, skinned and boned
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Virgin olive oil to taste
A couple of drops of lemon juice
Coriander and basil leaves, julienned, to taste
Slice the fillet down the middle into 2 pieces, 1 1/4-inch width. Cut crosswise into thin slices. On a plate with a 4-inch interior diameter, begin by placing pieces on the outside edge of the plate bottom, side by side without overlapping, until the surface is completely covered.
Tap lightly to smooth out and remove any gaps. The result should be a smooth layer of fish.
Season well with salt and pepper. Brush with olive oil. Squeeze with a few drops of lemon juice over the entire surface. Sprinkle on a few leaves of both coriander and basil, cut into julienne strips. Serve with toasted country bread.