L. Paul Bremer never cooked a meal during his 14 months in Iraq, but a kitchen nearly 6,000 miles away fed his spirit.
"This stove was an important part of my sanity," Bremer remembers with a smile as he leans against a half-ton of blue enameled cast iron, stainless steel and brass -- a La Cornue range -- in the Vermont vacation home he keeps with his wife Francie and where he is writing a book on his Iraq experiences.
"I had a picture of this house on my computer desktop in Baghdad," says Bremer, who also has a home in Chevy Chase. "If someone asked, I'd say, 'That's where I'm building my dream kitchen.' "
And that culinary incentive helped to keep him going in the pressure-cooker job as the controversial administrator of Iraq's reconstruction, because Bremer is also a classically trained French cook.
Dressed in a white chef's jacket marked with some faded stains of memorable meals, Bremer is ready to prepare the French dinner he donated to a local charity auction.
Tonight's dinner is typical of his cooking since returning from Baghdad -- classically French, but seasoned with ingredients he encountered during his days in Iraq.
Bremer looks younger than his 63 years -- slim with thick, black hair that's a bit more gray than in his pre-Iraq photos. Long bike rides in the mountains keep him fit despite a diet loaded with butter, cream, eggs and cheese.
A trip to his small garden for tomatoes and herbs begins the preparation. The late-summer meal will start with a chicken liver pate (made the day before) and continue with cold cucumber avocado soup, braised chicken breast in demi-glace sauce seasoned with dried limes (more about those later), fresh carrot puree, a composed salad highlighting tomatoes and cucumbers in a variety of sizes and colors and a dessert of Fontainebleau (made a day in advance) with pomegranate molasses (be patient) and berries.
Bremer began cooking when he was deputy ambassador to Norway in the mid-1970s. On Sundays when there were no official dinners and the embassy cook was off, he started making the Chinese food he loved but couldn't get in Oslo. Soon the Bremers were inviting Norwegian friends who would pitch in. "It was a wonderful way to entertain," says Bremer, "one chopping this and one chopping that. It was a half-hour of prep and 45 seconds of cooking."
By the time Bremer was named ambassador to the Netherlands, he was already cooking one night a week. When Francie Bremer observed that her husband (known to friends as Jerry) liked to cook more than she did, he took over the bulk of the kitchen duty. "When Jerry goes at something 100 percent, you just have to stand back," she says.
Returning from the Netherlands, Bremer took a few courses at L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg. When he worked as a consultant at Kissinger and Associates in New York, he studied under Henri-Etienne Levy, an Alsatian chef who gives classes for two or three students at a time in the tiny kitchen of his apartment on the Upper West Side under the name La Cuisine Sans Peur (Cooking Without Fear).
"Levy would cook, and the students would take notes," Bremer says. "Levy teaches you technique." After a general survey, a student can move on to regional French cuisines or baking or pastry or some other specialty. Bremer signed up for Provencal cooking and continued to take night classes for five years -- including the one that convinced him he was not a baker. He was however, an intuitive cook who was rapidly improving his skills.
Turning to the composed salad, Bremer slices the tomatoes and cucumbers. "As your cooking moves to a higher level, so should your ingredients," he says as he slices and tastes.
Although he has only a small plot of tomatoes and herbs in Vermont, Bremer planted a large garden at his home in Chevy Chase and keeps a greenhouse there to supply him with many of his vegetables.
"I don't think that root vegetables are so different if I grow them. But my own beans, spinach and tomatoes taste better. . . . I grow all of my own herbs. Thyme is essential. I cook a lot with thyme."
For other vegetables, Bremer says he sometimes goes to the farmers market in Alexandria, "and there is a little farm stand near our house that has good melons and zucchini and corn. Balducci's always has interesting little bits of things and the Whole Foods near me has good heavy cream, Cabot butter and some French butters. Dairy is very important to my cooking."
Meat, however, is "a frustration. There used to be a great French butcher in Bethesda, but I don't know where he went while I was in Iraq."
Earlier in the day at a local Vermont farmers market, Bremer bought cucumbers of just the right size and shape for the salad and searched for something with color to go with a browned chicken breast in a dark sauce. Selecting carrots over beets, he accepted a vendor's offer to taste a "husk tomato." Also known as cape gooseberries, they are a relative of the tomatillo with a surprising sweet and sour flavor.
Bremer bought a small bag. "I'll do something with these," he said.
Tasting sausage and pate at a charcuterie stand, Bremer switched to French to discuss the samples with the vendor. "He's from Marseilles," Bremer says a moment later to explain the North African influence in the chef's choice of spices.
Back in his kitchen, Bremer agrees that travel has influenced his tastes. Afganistan, his first posting, has "the best bread in the world -- naan." Norway taught Bremer to appreciate fish, and China made him open to try almost anything. But Iraqi cuisine comes in for special mention.
"The food in Iraq is delicious," says Bremer, "a blend of standard Arabic cuisine with Persian influences and Turkish influence in the north. And the Kurds live in a garden paradise -- they can grow anything: nuts, apples, pears, apricots, grapes, melons, herbs. They make great goat cheeses, cow's milk cheeses and the best honey I've eaten anywhere."
As for putting those such influences into practice, "I'm inclined to use a technique I know and add an ingredient I've found traveling," Bremer says, handing out samples of the dried lime that will add a subtle tang to the silky rich demi-glace and the pomegranate molasses that is in stages sweet, sour and bitter and that will cut and accentuate the creamy richness of the Fontainebleau for dessert.
The three hours before dinner are all about food. Cooking, tasting and talking. Dinner is served in courses and as each arrives at the table, the buzz of conversation is followed by an appreciative silence.
Obviously at ease, Bremer moves quickly to assemble the salads as his guests finish their chicken. Francie Bremer, breezing through the busy kitchen to retrieve the water pitcher, is every bit as relaxed. "As diplomats," she jokes, "you come downstairs and find 300 people you don't know in your living room."
As he makes espresso after dinner, Bremer says the reason he cooks is that he likes to eat good food. He doesn't read food essays or collect cookbooks or wish he could be a professional chef. "Food is about right in my life," he continues. "It doesn't possess me. I do it as a hobby -- it's important to keep it in perspective."
Still, he will miss his Vermont kitchen when he returns to Chevy Chase. "The kitchen at home is much, much smaller. It works, but I don't have a decent stove," Bremer says. "There's a lot that argues for doing the kitchen over, but I don't look forward to three months with it in an uproar." At the thought of eating in a restaurant every night during the construction, he smiles and says, "I eat better at home."
Shawn Cunningham is a freelance writer living in Vermont. He last wrote for Food about peasant food.