When 23 chefs who cook for the world's royalty and heads of state (The Club des Chefs des Chefs) gathered for a week-long tour of the U.S. early this month, they talked of the obvious: Who is going to replace Henry Haller as executive chef at the White House when he leaves in October? They also did the obvious -- banqueted and cocktail partied in grand ballrooms, cruise ships and even the White House.
What American food most impressed them? Not the oysters with caviar served with gilded forks on gold-banded china at Washington's Mayflower Hotel, though they did sincerely and vociferously praise the elaborate and beautifully served luncheon. Not the pa~te' of quail in puff pastry with madeira sauce at the Culinary Institute of America's Harbor Dinner Cruise in New York, though they certainly appreciated all the hospitality lavished on them.
What most fascinated and satisfied them was lunch at an Amish farm in Pennsylvania. At the home of Amos Stoltzfus they ate homegrown new potatoes, string beans with cream sauce and corn to accompany charcoal-grilled chicken and baked ham, washed down with homemade root beer and peppermint tea, served by the family in a barn lined with handmade quilts.
But it was the array of desserts that they dissected in their conversation all the way from Pennsylvania to Washington. Even the next day, after the morning at the White House and the grand luncheon at the Mayflower, sponsored and lubricated by Roederer champagne and Cointreau liqueur, they still talked about the delicate taste of the Amish dessert sauce, the fine apple pie and, mostly, the chocolate cake, a mysterious confection they described as a light pain d'epices (spice cake) with a layer of chocolate filling.
Gilles Brunner, chef to Prince Rainier of Monaco, marveled, "We were all impressed by the simplicity of the food, and everything had the true taste of the ingredients." He was so enchanted by the cake, which he described as a chocolate gingerbread, that he tried to get the recipe. His request was refused.
Even the Stoltzfus' carrot cake and shoofly pie, more famous and classic American regional desserts, were eclipsed by the cake. Michel Bourdin, chef of London's Connaught Hotel, where the royal family is known to dine on occasion, has been to Pennsylvania's Amish country before. But that didn't mute his enthusiasm. These were what he called genuinely made housewifely pastries; he said of that farmhouse lunch, "We were very impressed with it. It was not fashionable food."
Sun Ying Wu, chief chef of China's Great Hall of the People, also found the Amish food wonderful, though he admitted, "That is very strange to us. It had its particular own flavor." It was the scenery that most charmed him. Joel Normand, chef to the president of France, though naturally he would be more familiar with the style than would a Chinese chef, still found this lunch a surprise. "Cooking has evolved so much," he said. "Nobody presents the true product as it is, and all of a sudden we were presented that." Such simplicity of presentation, and ingredients with so much taste, were not what he expected in America. He went on about the custard sauce, its "wonderful finesse" and its flavor, which was "so delicate, and the perfume ... "
This was the chef who prepares state dinners for the gastronomic mecca of the world, and he was raving about the character of American farmhouse food. "We are not accustomed to that any more," he said wistfully. "Cooking has gotten so fancy."
Amos Stoltzfus couldn't be reached. The Amos Stoltzfus who runs a restaurant in the same town, Intercourse, Pa., had never heard of him. The tour organizers had no way to get in touch with him; he had been chosen just because somebody organizing the trip knew him. But Betty Groff, cookbook author and proprietor of Groff's Farm restaurant in nearby Mt. Joy, figures he is the Stoltzfus whose brother she named her famous Chicken Stoltzfus for. And as for the mysterious chocolate spice cake, that sounded to her like just plain old applesauce cake with a chocolate frosting.
Just everyday stuff. Traditional American food. It was no surprise to her that they loved it.
The Club des Chefs des Chefs (or chefs to the chiefs, as it might be translated) has visited a different country each of the 10 years since it was formed. This was the first time the club -- and most of the members -- visited the U.S. So what did they do with their time off? They shopped -- and not for Reeboks or records, but antiques. Antiques! In the New World!
Tabletalk Pennsylvania may be best known for its shoofly pie and pretzels, but this week bologna is king. It is the Lebanon bologna festival, Aug. 21 to 23, which celebrates its famous meat product with old and new bologna creations, local crafts and entertainment ranging from clowns to balloon races to string bands. For more information call (717) 272-8555.
How do these fads spread? Lately signs have appeared in bars and restaurants coast to coast: "TIPPING is not a city in China" (except for one I saw that got it wrong: "TIPPING is a city in China"). It is one of those clevernesses that wears thin after the first time, but is sure to be around long past its prime.
AMISH APPLESAUCE CAKE (Makes one 8-inch square cake)
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup sugar (white or brown)
1 cup applesauce
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
1 cup raisins
1/4 cup chopped nuts
Vanilla or chocolate frosting, if desired
Cream the butter and add the sugar, beating it until light. Add the egg and beat it until fluffy, then add the applesauce and mix it well.
Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder, soda, cloves, cinnamon and allspice, then add the raisins and chopped nuts. Combine the 2 mixtures.
Bake the batter in a greased 8-inch square pan at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes.
Frost with vanilla or chocolate frosting if desired.
1987, Washington Post Writers Group