French chefs traditionally pass on their toques to their sons, after sending them to apprentice in the kitchens of colleagues and bringing them home to cook side by side until the father is ready to retire. Given the arduous job of the chef, sometimes a father's stress-related illness or heart attack forces the son to command the kitchen at an earlier age than intended.
At L'Auberge du Pe`re Bise, France's greatly revered restaurant on Lake Annecy, the usual tale took a different twist. When chef-owner Francois Bise died of cancer four years ago in his mid-50s, in accord with tradition he had a child apprenticing in the great kitchens of France in expectation of someday taking over the restaurant. But that child was only 21, and it was not a son but a daughter.
Sophie Bise was called to the helm to share the kitchen with Gilles Furtin. He was not only 10 years her senior, but had been head chef for the two years of Francois Bise's illness and had 10 years experience in that kitchen. Furtin had expected to become head chef at L'Auberge du Pe`re Bise; it was only later that he found out that Sophie Bise would be his boss. "No problem," he said -- quite an understatement in a country where chauvinistic chefs do not even hide the fact that they would never let a woman in their kitchen.
So Gilles Furtin found himself sharing the kitchen with a woman for the first time -- a woman much younger than he, who was at once his peer, his student and his boss. Furthermore, the Michelin Guide had stripped L'Auberge du Pe`re Bise of its third star during Francois Bise's illness, and this young pair was driven to regain that star.
They did, within two years. And now, after four years together, not only does the restaurant get rave reviews, Furtin gives rave reviews to his working relationship with his younger colleague.
Furtin made his first trip to the United States last month, as the third guest chef to work for a week at the Morrison House in Alexandria, Va. L'Auberge du Pe`re Bise was closed for its six-week annual holiday. Sophie Bise had gone to work with three-star chef Joel Robuchon in Paris while Furtin came to the U.S.
What Sophie Bise brought to L'Auberge du Pe`re Bise was experience from restaurants of Paris, Alsace, Grenoble, the Riviera and New York (Le Bernardin). And she brought fresh ideas. Furtin, as his temporary colleagues at the Morrison House discovered, embodies the confidence and calm expertise of a very experienced chef.
Together, as Furtin tells it, he and Bise complement each other. He works on his side of the kitchen, Bise on her side, then they combine forces and work together. How does it go, teaching his boss? "It's no problem. She's 25," said Furtin, as if that explained it all.
Furtin and Bise are adding many new dishes to the traditional menu of L'Auberge du Pe`re Bise. Sometimes she will come up with an idea and he will add something to it, and sometimes vice versa. Bise proposed a charlotte of lamb with layers of ratatouille; Furtin revised the concept to line an individual mold with the lamb and fill it with the ratatouille. A rabbit salad with lime was the result of trying several different recipes.
A big hit at the Morrison House was potato "ravioli" made by sandwiching thin slices of potato with a dollop of parsley pure'e and lightly browning them under the broiler. They look like ravioli but taste like crunchy stuffed fried potatoes. Bise had seen potato ravioli in a book, with a filling of leeks and foie gras. It was her idea to fill them with parsley. Parsley pure'es are quite fashionable in France nowadays, said Furtin.
Among the restaurant's traditional dishes that have remained on the menu is chicken braised with tarragon. It was Francois Bise's mother's recipe, and it will certainly stay. The Breton blanquette of lobster and the gateau marjolaine will remain, along with the tourte de canard that was Francois Bise's last recipe and the one he refused to give Paul Bocuse and Alain Chapel.
Sophie Bise is still too shy to go into the dining room, says Furtin. But she hasn't been shy about influencing the kitchen. "Since Sophie, the cuisine has changed from traditional to modern," said Furtin proudly. Not bad for a French chef's first encounter with a woman in the kitchen.
High school seniors and their parents were engaged in a seminar on separation anxiety recently, and each group was asked to list its fears about the student going off to college. My sympathy went out to the student who said his greatest fear was that there wouldn't be enough Chinese food.
Another memorable food moment was recounted to me recently: One bitter, snowy day some friends were making their way to a cabin for the weekend. They finally arrived, cold and tired, grateful to be indoors. Health-conscious moderns though they might ordinarily be, they reverted to traditional comforts at such a moment. One of expressed the sentiments of them all, "I need something to put butter on!"
An idea I hope will become a trend: The Four Seasons Hotel in Boston stocks its mini-bar with local specialties -- Harbour Sweets chocolates, Smartfoods popcorn, Samuel Adams beer. It's a taste of Massachusetts available even to couch potatoes.
PERE BISE POTATO RAVIOLI (4 servings)
2 baking potatoes
1/4 cup butter, clarified
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch parsley
1/2 cup whipping cream
Peel potatoes and slice thin -- preferably using a mandoline or food processor. Brush each slice on both sides with clarified butter, spread the slices in one layer on a cookie sheet and season with salt and pepper. Put potatoes in a 450-degree oven for 2 or 3 minutes until they just begin to take on some color. Remove and set aside. Blanch parsley in a large pot of boiling water for 1 minute, drain and squeeze dry and mince finely. In a small saucepan boil cream until reduced to 3 or 4 tablespoons, then add just enough cream to the parsley to hold it together lightly. Season with salt and pepper. On half of the potato slices mound 1 teaspoonful of parsley on each. Top with the other potato slices and, using a biscuit cutter or other sharp round cutter, cut each potato "sandwich" into a round ravioli. Set aside until ready to serve. At the last moment, brown the potato ravioli lightly under a broiler and serve as an accompaniment or garnish to a main dish.