IT WASN'T APRIL in Paris, but it was raining, so we could pretend.
We decided to have a picnic, what we hoped might be the ultimate picnic. It was to be prepared by four French chefs, a group of up-and-coming, globe-trotting friends for 15 years who call themselves, for reasons nobody understands, Les 5 Chefs. They ski together, play golf and tennis together, travel together to the United States to give dinners and charity fundraisers, and are planning to open a restaurant in Los Angeles together. They are all originally from the south of France, natives of points from Lyon to Antibes; three of their fathers were also chefs and friends. Varying combinations of them have worked together in Valence, in Annecy and in Paris.
As such things are done, they met in the restaurant of one of the group -- Michel Rostang -- and drank champagne and ate a very large and elaborate lunch until well into the afternoon. That was for greetings and chitchat. Only after that could they get down to the work of showing what a real picnic should be.
For people who drive so fast, it somehow took them quite a long time to get to the spot on the Seine that held the perfect view of river, bridge and Notre Dame. By then it was raining steadily, and even dogs were wearing raincoats.
The chefs were at work, though. Which meant they had to change from their civvies into their white jackets and toques. Not without a few minutes of romping and chasing each other in their skivvies, mimicking one another, lighting cigars, yelling to the people on the bridge.
The trunk of their car framed a dream of a picnic. They whisked it out to show it in the open air, and attracted curious passers-by, including a dog so bold as to nibble at the pa te'. "Are you going to donate that food to the poor?" demanded one woman as she was stopped in her tracks by the sign of such lavishness.
A chef learns not to be diverted by minor distractions, however; so, undaunted, they joked and posed and spun word pictures of what a picnic should be. They talked of one contemporary legend, the annual open-air bash for 200 chefs of France, probably the grandest picnic of them all. It takes place in La Baule in Brittany, sponsored by Moe t & Chandon, so of course there is a lot of champagne. Lobsters are grilled, legs of lamb are roasted, and oysters and langoustines are in profusion. As they told of it, however, they reflected on it anew.
"It's not a real picnic," sniffed Michel Chabron, whose hotel-restaurant with his name is in Pont de l'Ise re near Valence. A picnic can't be more than eight or 10 people, agreed Jean-Paul Lacombe, of Le'on de Lyon in Lyon. A picnic should have simple food, should be a group project, added Michel Rostang, whose restaurant in Paris bears his name, and Yan Jacquot of Le Toit de Passy in Paris.
"I like a lot of raw fish for picnics," said Rostang. Salmon, sea bass, scallops, with only olive oil, salt and pepper. And he likes roast duck that you cook in the morning and don't put in the refrigerator. After that, marvelous cheese and very old-fashioned desserts such as brioche with mousses of chocolate or banana.
"I must have a river to keep my champagne cold, and a tree because after the picnic I must sleep in the shadow of the tree," announced Jacquot. He likes to pick mushrooms, wash them in the river and make them into a salad on the spot, with shallots, herbs, olive oil and a touch of salt. One important ingredient is that everyone must work; it must be a shared event.
Jacquot's visions were very specific; he likes cold beef salad and cold oxtail salad and crayfish and langoustine and cold fish. Mixed salad of fresh vegetables, he continued. Cold roast pork. All that should be cooked and cooled without refrigerating; all the chefs agreed to that.
But while the others talk of rustic settings, quiet green glades and riversides, Jacquot was very clear that he likes comfort; he joked that his ideal picnic would be "in the mobile home." And it is a structured event: "You begin with pastis and play petanque and cards and you sleep."
Jean-Paul Lacombe recalled that picnics used to be fabulous, but they have become simple. "It is a long time that I have not made a picnic with foie gras and caviar and lobster," he mused on his evolving standards. Furthermore, picnics, like cars, have become faster.
Whatever modern life has dictated, said Lacombe, "You need some luxury and some simplicity." For him that would include thinly sliced raw beef with oil, salad, cheese -- che vre or St. Marcellan, sausages and beaujolais -- "always beaujolais."
Or maybe a picnic should be just be casse-crou te -- workmen's bread cut thickly and stuffed as a sandwich, suggested Lacombe.
Michel Chabron involved all the senses in his image of the true picnic. "In April people roast a whole baby goat on the Rho ne," he said. And they take a sailboat along. But the eating itself is an important activity. Part of the pleasure of a picnic is the physical contact with the food. Chabron likes to touch everything with his fingers -- peel shrimp, eat the meat without the intervention of silverware. So he would serve pintade (guinea hens) and little roasted chickens and, of course, goat cheese from his region in the south of France.
The steady drizzle had turned the landscape quiet. And they were talking of quiet moments, of simple food and a reunion with nature. So what was these four chefs' version of simplicity as they chose a picnic with which to face a camera?
Canape's of raw salmon with olive oil on country bread spread with thick cream and minced onion, garnished with salmon caviar.
Terrine of duck with goose liver center.
Whole Bresse duck, stuffed with duck pa te', coated with aspic and surrounded by caviar canape's.
Saddle of lamb stuffed with lamb, veal, pork and kidneys.
Raw vegetable platter: bundles of baby green beans, leeks, red peppers, carrots, eggplants, chard, tomatoes, onions on savoy cabbage leaves.
Assorted country breads.
Rhubarb meringue tart.
Lemon custard tart.
Banana and caramel mousses with brioche.
And for a centerpiece, the empty magnum of '66 Haut Bailly that they had recently drunk together.