Entertaining in Grand Style

Entertaining in Grand Style

A Return to Insouciance

“Are you really sure you want to be a chef? You must be mad! But if it’s what you really want to do, then don’t even think of getting married. The work and the hours are just incompatible with family life. It’s a true vocation: no home life can stand the pressure.” The year was 1954. Marcel Glé then reigned over the kitchens at the Hôtel de Marigny, Baron Alain de Rothschild’s mansion, a mere stone’s throw from the Elysée Palace, which was later to be acquired by the French state as accommodation for state visits. The great chef was quizzing a young man of seventeen, who had applied to be an apprentice in the kitchens of the French Embassy in London. It was a tough life, he warned him, but chefs for great private houses were highly sought after.

In the years after World War II, France yearned to live again and to forget about the war, with all its restrictions and privations. Entertaining had not stopped altogether during the Occupation. Marie-Laure de Noailles, one of the doyennes of Paris high society, continued to give dinners for close friends at her palatial residence on Place des Etats-Unis, passing a plate round at the end of the meal for her guests to donate their ration tickets and the British Embassy in Paris, with Duff and Diana Cooper, remained one of Paris’s most glittering salons. But it was after the Liberation that life in Paris really took off again – and in style.

Saint-Germain-des-Prés pulsated to the rhythms of jazz and swing, while the cafés of the Left Bank hosted a galaxy of talent, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Boris Vian, Jacques Prévert and Juliette Gréco, to name but a few. In the world of high society, meanwhile, aristocrats, members of the grande bourgeoisie, and wealthy foreigners rubbed shoulders with artists, writers, and poets. Life was one long glittering round of lavish balls and parties, even more sumptuous than before the war.

The costume balls that had been all the rage in the 1920s now made their appearance again. The Marquis de Cuevas threw a Goya-themed ball, and Hélène Rochas revived My Fair Lady at the Grande Cascade in the Bois de Boulogne. And at the Palazzo Labia, his recently acquired Venetian residence, Charles de Bestegui, dressed for the occasion as a high official of the Venetian Republic, greeted his masked guests – a veritable who’s who of the international jet set – as they stepped out of the gondolas in which they had floated along the Grand Canal toward the most lavish ball of the century.

In this newly rediscovered atmosphere of insouciance, the art of entertaining flourished once more. Marie-Blanche de Polignac, daughter of Jeanne Lanvin, invited artists and musicians, including Francis Poulenc, Georges and Nora Auric, Arthur Rubinstein and Pierre Barillet, to her estate at Kerbastic in Brittany, where the fragrance of magnolia, jasmine and wisteria wafted through the sheltered gardens. Her meticulously planned menus included not only the great classics, such as her famous soufflé aux oeufs pochés (soufflé with poached eggs), but also more experimental dishes such as paella, then completely unknown in France and greeted by Denise Bourdon with dismay: “What sort of cuisine is this?” An enthusiastic reception for such foreign dishes was still a distant prospect. In the evening her chef, René Aupicon, would come to the drawing room to discuss the dishes he had prepared, to hear her suggestions, and to offer his own ideas.

At his Neuilly residence, meanwhile, the Chilean millionaire Arturo Lopez entertained in even more lavish style, throwing dinner parties for 20 or so guests at sumptuous tables laid with silver timbales, Sèvres porcelain, and gold from the collections of Catherine the Great. Paris high society also convened at the large dinner parties given by Louise de Vilmorin at Verrières, for which, aided by her faithful maid, she would herself prepare les oeufs à la tripe, the classic combination of hard-boiled eggs, onions and Béchamel sauce that André Malraux adored. She was an exception, however. Society ladies of the period might devise menus and critique recipes, but, faced with a saucepan of water to boil they would have been completely at a loss.

In this privileged world, chefs were the key to successful entertaining. One simply had to have the best. Stealing was not unknown. Marie-Laure de Noailles boasted of having “kidnapped” the chef who worked for the Anchorenas, the wealthy Argentinian family who lived in immense style in their Avenue Foch apartment with doors painted by Braque.

Interpreting the Masters’ Recipes

“During my time with the Duchess of Windsor I learned a great deal,” James Viaene recalls, “But it was Georges Wildenstein’s chef, Roger Harmand, who really opened my eyes.” In order to take his training to a higher level and advance his apprenticeship, James entered the household of the art dealer Georges Wildenstein in 1960. Roger Harmand had learned his métier in the establishments of Cécile de Rothschild and the Princesse de Faucigny-Lucinge, and he was a pioneer in his field. In a world that was still deeply in thrall to the past, Harmand was an innovator. The recipes served at this time were exclusively those of the great masters of cuisine, such as Antonin Carême, Auguste Escoffier, and Curnonsky (the celebrated writer on gastronomy). Chefs would follow their methods to the letter, but as the quantities of ingredients were often not given, and the cooking varied according to the heat of the hob (generally wood-fired) and the oven, they would produce very different results.

Chefs were judged according to their way with the great classics, and employers – always looking for familiar flavours and tastes from their childhood – were severe. Georges Wildenstein had abiding memories of the Alsatian kouglof of his early years, for instance. He ordered all his chefs to make it and was never satisfied with the results, invariably judging them too dense, too sweet, too heavy on raisins, or whatever.
Only a young commis chef called James, who had started his working life with a pastry chef, contrived to produce the perfect light texture, an achievement that earned him the considerable surprise of seeing his employer come into the kitchen to congratulate him, for the first and only time. Compliments were rare. When he ordered an orange sorbet, Georges Wildenstein detested seeing it garnished with orange (had he asked for a fruit salad?) and when he asked for a foie gras salad he would allow a few truffles with it but never lobster, as this would be too much.

Yet Wildenstein’s chef, Roger Harmand, was the first to experiment with new methods. Take the cooking of trout au bleu, for instance. In the Duchess of Windsor’s kitchen, the chef would gut the live fish and plunge them into the water one after the other, gauging their freshness as they turned blue in the pot. Roger Harmand, by contrast, would stun the fish and sprinkle their skin with a few drops of vinegar to turn them blue, so that he could reserve them in a dish and plunge them all together into the boiling water, where they would cook for the same length of time. Handy and practical. Harmand would garnish a braised gigot of lamb in the most imaginative and unexpected ways, and conjure delicious petits fours out of improbable combinations of leftover puff pastry and rich shortcrust pastry.

“Be creative, trust your own ideas,” he would urge his commis chefs. “People may criticize, but it will give you pleasure and satisfaction.” This was a novel approach for the 1960s, heralding changes to come.

The Embers of a Vanishing World

On May 30 1968, Général de Gaulle drove up the Champs-Élysées to the cheers of thousands of Parisians. Among the enthusiastic crowd were men and women of all backgrounds, politicians, young people, students, executives and employees, including chefs and cooks. After a month of general strikes and demonstrations, the President of the Republic had regained control of the situation. “Les événements” (the events) were over. Life could begin again, as carefree as ever. There was a sigh of relief all round.

At the same time, however, the Grenelle Agreements which brought the crisis to an end, had sanctioned a 35 percent increase in the minimum wage, a development that was to have far-reaching consequences, leading to the beginnings of inflation and social legislation that, in a few years, would see a considerable reduction in working hours. Wealth was shifting into new hands; lifestyles were undergoing a transformation.

But on that fine Spring day, few paid any heed to all this. The strikes were over and the parties began anew. Alexis de Redé threw an oriental ball at the Hôtel Lambert at the tip of the Ile Saint-Louis. Guests were welcomed by Sikhs, who held canopies aloft as they crossed the courtyard, where there stood a pair of white elephants decked in glittering caparisons. For the centenary of Proust’s birth, two years later, Guy and Marie-Hélène de Rothschild held their legendary Belle Epoque ball, attended by high society and Hollywood. These were the final flickers of a disappearing world. Alexis de Redé had received unambiguous signs of it in the form of letters of complaint from his neighbours, indignant about the disruption caused by his ball. Just 15 years earlier, the inhabitants of Neuilly had crowded the pavements for all Arturo Lopez’s parties, craning to catch a glimpse of the guests, eager to share a little of their glamour.

On the surface, life in society continued as before. Some 40 chefs still manned the kitchens of the grand residences on the Avenue Foch. But their days were numbered, and slowly but surely changes in society were eventually to lead to the complete transformation of their world.

Embassies: The Last Refuge

Chefs have thus found refuge with a fortunate few who include the David-Weills, David and Benjamin de Rothschild, Edouard de Ribes, and Isabelle d’Ornano. Catherine Aga Khan, widow of Sadruddin Aga Khan, still employs two. But it is in Paris’s embassies, in the Elysée Palace and in the private dining rooms of some banks, that the great chefs continue to practice their skills.

When James Viaene went to work at the British Embassy in 1970, he could scarcely have imagined that he would still be there 40 years later. It was here that he was able to give full rein to all he had learned in the grand households in which he had worked, and to allow his skills to truly blossom. As Lady Westmacott, wife of Sir Peter Westmacott (ambassador 2007-2012), points out with a smile, in France the principal preoccupation after politics is the table. Guests expect excellence, and they appreciate it. The kitchen is the heart of the Embassy, and the chef a figure of central importance.

In keeping with the changing times, protocol in this imposing hôtel particulier in the Faubourg-Saint-Honoré – once home to Napoleon’s sister, Pauline Borghese – has become more relaxed over the last four decades. Meals are shorter now. Lunches are much shorter, with coffee sometimes served at the table rather than in the drawing room; dinner goes on a little longer but certainly not forever, drawing to a close by 11 o’clock, or 11.30pm at the latest.

Receptions may be slightly less formal, but they are still a constant feature of embassy life. Whether it be for a lunch for 40 guests, a dinner for 80, or cocktails for 120, some 16,000 guests are invited to the Ambassador’s Residence every year. Unforeseen events and last-minute changes of plan are a fact of life. British ministers stay at the residence when they are visiting Paris, and their timetables are fluid. They may emerge from a meeting at the Élysée Palace, a stone’s throw away, feeling ravenous, or they may decide to dine at home after going to the theatre instead of going on to a restaurant as arranged. On one occasion, a lunch for 20 Members of Parliament metamorphosed the night before into a reception for 250 guests. Whatever the challenge, James never failed to rise to it.

The division of labour within the Embassy staff is laid down according to an unchanging ritual. Everyone has his or her role. The butler oversees the serving staff and acts as sommelier, selecting wines and presenting them to the ambassador who makes his selection. Great French vintages are highly prized, but often the butler will choose wines that are genuine “finds,” of great quality but at affordable prices. The kitchen is the
chef ’s domain. As well as devising menus and proposing them to the ambassador’s wife, who discusses them with him and approves them, he also supervises the commis chefs and is in charge of ordering supplies.

Perfection in Simplicity

Chefs in private household must have a profound knowledge of cuisine and a broad repertoire. A select handful of sublime dishes is not enough: these chefs must be able to put together an entire menu. Their skill lies in offering a day-to-day cuisine that is light, refined, and immaculate. This at least is the belief of the current president of the Club des Cent, Jean Solanet. Perfection in simplicity is indisputably the quality that he most admires, with the emphasis on the quality of the products, the cooking, and the seasonings – and emphatically not on over-erudite research.

Excelling in the vanishing art of making pommes soufflées and cooking a rack of lamb to perfection are a couple of the distinguishing marks of a great chef such as James. But there are others: a truly great chef must also be able to rise to the challenge of the most unexpected demands, and must understand the codes that govern individual tastes and beliefs. In a career spanning 58 years, James has garnered a wealth of experience, along with a peerless mastery of the fads and foibles, habits and preferences of high society, from the Duke of Windsor’s breakfast croquettes to the modest portions preferred by the Queen, or the Chief Rabbi’s carp. In the Michel David-Weill household, very little red meat was eaten; at the Wildensteins’ home, braised meat was preferred and offal was abhorred; in observant Jewish households, care must be taken to keep eggs and chicken apart, as mother and offspring must never be consumed on the same day; and those of a certain age often prefer traditional recipes that take them back to the days of their youth.

But his finest hour came one evening when the Duchess of Windsor was a guest at the British Embassy and refused to eat the dessert, which was
not to her taste. In no time at all, James had not only whipped up one of her favourite dishes, an individual orange soufflé served in the orange skin, but had also contrived to have it served to her even before the butler had finished serving the other guests. Great art indeed, but also great tact and sensitivity.

The Early 1970s: The Controversial Rise of Plated Service

With rising prices and salaries, it was simply not possible to retain the former level of luxury and savings were sought wherever they could be made. Instead of being served separately, vegetables were now arranged around the meat, so saving on one of the butlers. Plated service was inspired by Japanese traditions. It had the advantage of avoiding a second service, meaning that quantities could be calculated more accurately, but ‘good’ families had always considered it rather beneath their dignity. Gaining its first toehold with meals organized by caterers, it gradually made its way up the social scale. Initially, it was tolerated for the first course only, because of its practical advantages: placing the appetizer on the table before the guests arrived meant that the whole meal could be shorter. Then it penetrated some of the most stubbornly traditional households, still for the first course only, and occasionally for dessert. In the early years of the 21st century it made its appearance at the British Embassy, slipping in through the back door, though for working lunches only. Then it extended its reach to include some less formal dinners. After that it entered the portals of the Elysée Palace, for a rapid lunch or the occasional dinner, sometimes even for all three courses. The victory of plated service was complete.

At the same time, the number of courses started to shrink. From the 1970s the consommé course disappeared, and although the cheese course put up stiff resistance into the new millennium, it too eventually succumbed. Then it was no longer a fish course and a meat course, but rather a fish course or a meat course. Except at the grandest of occasions, there were now only three courses – an appetiser, a meat or fish course, and a dessert – a restaurant-style menu for the highest in the land!

Costing was now the norm, and chefs knuckled down. Whatever dish they were serving, from the most sophisticated timbale of lobster à l’armoricaine to the tiniest canapé, they had to work out the costs and write them all down – something that would have been unthinkable before. But, at the same time, there was no question of economizing on quality. The way to bring costs down was to make adjustments to the menu.

In James’s view, the most expensive dishes are in any case not necessarily the best. Cuisine that is just as excellent but more reasonable in price can be created by selecting recipes that are less aristocratic but just as rich in flavour. A farce (sauce), for example, always used to be made with fillets of sole, pike, or pike-perch, which lent it great delicacy. Replacing these fish with whiting fillets spiced with a hint of piment d’Espelette produces a result that is different but equally delicious.

Grilled turbot with Dijon and old-fashioned mustard, green asparagus and baby carrots

“With the proportions I give here, you can serve this dish as an appetiser. For a main dish, use larger fillets, which will need to be cooked slightly longer.”

Serves 8

1 shallot

1 medium carrot (3oz/80g)

4 tablespoons (60g) butter

1 heaped tablespoon Dijon mustard

2 cups (500ml) fish fumet (stock)

24 baby carrots with their greens

24 green asparagus

3?4 cup (200 ml) crème fraîche

1 heaped tablespoon whole grain

old-fashioned mustard

1 teaspoon chopped tarragon

8 turbot fillets, skin removed, about 5oz (150 g) apiece A little oil for the fillets


Freshly ground pepper

1 small bunch curly parsley to garnish

  1. Peel and chop the shallot. Peel the carrot and dice it finely. In a small saucepan, melt the butter and lightly sauté the carrot, shallot, and Dijon mustard, stirring with a wooden spoon. Pour in the fish fumet and season with two grinds of pepper. Simmer until reduced to one-quarter.
  2. Peel the baby carrots and trim their greens to about an inch (3cm). Wash the asparagus and trim them to 21?2 inches (6cm) from the tip. Cook the vegetables separately in boiling salted water, simmering gently, until they are still slightly crunchy. Refresh them in cold water and place them in two separate dishes, covered with buttered parchment paper. Keep warm.
  3. Stir the crème fraîche into the reduced sauce and, over low heat, process with an immersion blender until foamy. With a wooden spoon, stir in the whole grain old-fashioned mustard and chopped tarragon. Keep warm.
  4. Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Brush the turbot fillets lightly with oil and season with salt and pepper. Heat a skillet over high heat. Place the fillets in the skillet and grill them for no longer than two minutes on one side only. Arrange them in a dish or baking sheet and finish cooking in the oven for two minutes.
  5. To serve, arrange the fillets on a serving platter in a fan shape with the narrower ends together. Opposite the wider ends, place, three by three, the carrots and the asparagus. Place small sprigs of parsley on the narrower ends of the fillets. Serve with the sauce in a sauce dish.

6. You may also brush the turbot fillets with mustard before cooking them.

This excerpt from the book Entertaining in Grand Style: Savoir-Faire of a Parisian Chef, written by James Viaene, Nadège Forestier with photographs by Francis Hammond, published by Flammarion, appeared in the December 2013-January 2014 issue of France Today.




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