The chef and the entrepreneur met playing soccer in Arlington. The chef worked for Rive Gauche; the entrepreneur owned a string of hairdressing salons. They indulged in that essential Gallic collaboration between money and taste buds that has so pleasantly complicated life in France for a thousand years, and in Washington since the early 1970s.
They leased two buildings on M Street, broke through the brick wall in between and called their restaurant the Bistro Francais. Soon the aroma of snails in garlic sauce, squid and couscous wafted over Georgetown. The chef, Gerard Cabrol, had an appetite for labor, as well as a Pyrenean's love of spices that had been tempered in the kitchens of The Plaza and Ledoyen in Paris.
There was a bar in each room, an American touch. But Cabrol and his partner lacked the American restaurateurs' patience with noisy, if profitable, drinkers, so the bars went. Bourguignonne replaced bourbon along the banquettes, among Victorian oak railings and etched glass.
Every day Cabrol labored in the new restaurant until 6 a.m., went home to sleep for two hours, and returned. "He got so skinny," says the entrepreneur, Jean-Paul Amsellem, "that when he passed through the restaurant, you couldn't see him."
Cabrol developed an ulcer. He took it back to France, where stomach doctors are as venerated as heart surgeons in Houston, and was cured. Now Cabrol, like the tender young hens turning on his imported rotisserie, is thoroughly visible to his customers. "The people who come here are very nice people," says the man who feeds them. "They're like a family."
The heterodox blend of lovers, spouses, theater patrons, revelers and artistes can get a full meal at the Bistro until 4 a.m. on weekends. The patrons also include other chefs who often show up at the Bistro after work to drink a little wine, eat and talk about the business.
"It's important for French chefs to have a place to meet," said Gabriel "Gaby" Aubouin, who arrived on a motorcycle from the kitchen of La Brasserie one recent Sunday morning, and joined his friends at a long table beneath the Bistro's ancient wine press suspended from the ceiling.
"The Bistro's the only good place open late," said Bernard Grenier, chef of La Miche. "We like it here."
They, too, look more like soccer players than chefs. "People used to walk out of a restaurant if they saw that the chef was skinny," said Yannick Cam, impaling airy pommes frites on his fork, like culinary specimens. Cam's cooking -- and he is thin -- brought a buyer for his restaurant, Le Pavillon, down from New York last spring.
"Chefs used to be fat," Grenier added, "because they just tasted things. We work." Their calloused hands are tributes to the work ethic. Their voices are full of too many Camels and Marlboros (no Gauloises!), and long hours. They sometimes party until dawn, then purge themselves on the tennis court. Some see little of wives and children in the suburbs.
"Chefs of our generation must stick together," said Aubouin. "We want to make a new cuisine. We're in the business to be recognized, not to make money."
Jean Louis Palladin, in a polo shirt and long hair, seemed the sartorial antithesis of the elegant Watergate restaurant that bears his name. "When we came to this country," he said, "we found French chefs who had been in place for 10 years. Those old chefs are like a warring Mafia. They said the American people don't know about food, so serve them ----." He shook his head in disgust. "Our job is to teach the American people."
The capos in this Cosa Nouvelle regularly break the febrile legs of ducks, chop up defenseless tarragon and dill, stick knives into pork loins and assault rosy veal with mallets. The chefs' delicate, savory, visually entrancing fare has greatly enhanced the pleasure of dining in the nation's capital. It has also helped foster Washington's reputation as a city of gourmets, not just gourmands.
"A silent revolution has taken place," said Freddy Castillon, the chef at L' Alouette. "People have learned a lot about nutrition; they're trying new things." He still sends to France for butter and mushrooms, but "there are many good suppliers of fresh vegetables now. You can get almost any kind of fish, and fresh."
"I'm selling more rabbit," said Grenier, "and more pigeons."
"People are more interested in food. Everybody's talking about it," Castillon added.
"We have some young guys who can do something," said Cam. "Washington was underrated for a long time. Now it probably has two of the five best restaurants in the country."
He admitted with Breton modesty that his was one of them, and suggested that Jean Louis' is the other. "The last day that Pavillon was open, the customers had tears in their eyes." The Pavillon will return, he said, in a new location with a quarter of a million dollars' worth of decor. "People in Washington want good restaurants. The money is available -- space is the problem."
So is competition. "In France," said Castillon, "to go to a good restaurant, you have to wait four or five weeks for a reservation. That's not true here."
People show up and demand tables, and accuse the owners of treating other customers preferentially.
"'You always favor the French,' one customer told me, seeing a foreign couple seated. But the couple had a reservation, and they were speaking Spanish!" Aubouin's laughter is explosive. "If the restaurant is small, there's just no place for them to sit.
"People want to get rid of the strains in their life in restaurants. They want to show off their money. You have to deal with that, too. It's very difficult. Sometimes I don't know what to do."
Palladin told of a party of four from New York who ordered two birthday cakes in advance.
The host refused to see a menu, demanding "seven courses." Palladin told him, "No problem." He fixed them seven courses, plus the two birthday cakes. When they had finished, the man asked to see the chef.
"I put on a clean apron," Palladin said, "and went out into the dining room. The man said, 'Bring me seven courses more.'"
Palladin refused. "If he had gotten sick, he would have blamed me." The man pounded the table. Palladin told him to pay his $600 bill and leave.
"The other customers applauded. My legs were like cotton."
"There are so many problems in the restaurant business," Cabrol said. "Keeping good help, inspections, critics . . ."
Suddenly everyone began to talk:
"One bad review can ruin a man who has been in business for 10 years."
"We have no way to answer the critics."
"What does expensive mean, anyway?"
"The critics should cook for us!"
"But if a regular customer says you have not done your best," said Aubouin, "you feel more depressed than from a bad review. You have a relationship with that person."
Palladin conceded, "Criticism can be constructive." He wanted the chefs to be able to talk on television to the critics, for the edification of the public -- a kind of gustatory Good Morning, America.
The party broke up quickly, two hours before dawn, since some of the chefs had to be back in their kitchens by 10 a.m. Money piled up in the middle of the table; each shook hands with the others.
"Chefs don't fool each other," said Cam, about the quality of their craft. "They don't talk much about it, but they know. They don't like to be ranked -- you don't say a Degas is first, and a Picasso second -- but they all have a rank in their heads.
"People don't know what they have in this town. We try to do something new, in a diplomatic way. But chefs are people, as well as artists. They want to be appreciated. Sometimes they just need a big hug."