From Yuck to Yum
New Classic Cuisine
" ... my smoked-haddock soufflé may have been worth the £22,
If gastronomy is one of the alchemies by which nature is transformed into pleasure, two of its great modern wizards are the brothers Roux, Albert and Michel.
Albert and Michel who?
By any informed calculus the Roux count among the most important influences on European culinary art since Auguste Escoffier reigned over the kitchens of London's Savoy and Carlton Hotels and, through the megaphone of these, the world of gourmanderie. Equally indisputable is the fact that precious few south of the Equator or west of the Statue of Liberty knows them from Adam. And therein lies the rationale of this piece ... and a far cry it is from the one I set out to treat.
My original focus was to have been the new (to North America) autobiographical cookbook by Landenis. Chez Nico at Ninety Park Lane, one of his several London restaurants, was not too long ago elevated to the ranks of Michelin's nobility. He was (and remains) the oldest person (60 at the time) to have received three stars. So rare a happening seems ample justification both for publication and for an unhurried take on a long, picaresque, and, ultimately, triumphant career.
So what leads me to spurn Landenis in favor of the Roux' tome--a book nearly twenty years old by a pair of authors almost nobody knows? Well, several factors conspire to justify giving Landenis the hook. For one thing, his recipes are made to appear simple but often prove fussily complex and inordinately time-consuming collages of preparations within, beside, and atop other preparations. Unlike the recent work of, say, Daniel Boulud, Landenis' end products rarely justify the required overtime. Having said this, fair play compels me to note that here also is a good deal of useful opinion, intelligent insight, and culinary engineering. Landenis understands how to create great sauces, cook meat and fish to perfection, and assemble his dishes so that, like the elements in the lens of a kaleidoscope, every part of the presentation is the perfect complement of every other part. Yet none of it, sad to say, is so remarkable or unique as to change the way readers the world over are likely to eat and think about food.
The eponymous Nico is a gifted chef, that much is beyond argument. Were he, now in retirement, as spiritually generous to his peers, critics, and non-celebrity customers as he is talented, it might be harder to resist the urge to cut his memoir more slack. But he is not. The sneering tonality of his writing (and cover portrait) promise a small-minded, defensive, and, in the end, boring rant. In this the book does not disappoint.
Notwithstanding that Landenis' second language is Arrogance, I found something deeply attractive and surprising about his unabashed praise of the Roux brothers, and to their book I turned, much to my pleasure.
What strikes me about this work is neither its 200 or so wonderful and streamlined recipes, illustrations, and serving suggestions that pay homage to French cooking, nor its usually thoughtful but sometimes provocative wine matches (seconded, in an enlightening chapter, by Michael Broadbent).Rather, it is the ambiance of it all that evokes empathetic harmonies. Reading it was like sharing a long-overdue lunch with supremely passionate and professional friends who took as much pleasure in discussing their culinary arts and skills as I did learning from them.
Prior to opening their first Michelin-starred premises in the 1960s, the gracious and groundbreaking Le Gavroche, neither Albert nor Michel had any experience to speak of in restaurant kitchens. Born in Beaujolais, both began their culinary careers in patisserie. Importantly, both went on to work first as commis and later as chef in some of the great houses (Rothschild) and embassies (British) of Paris. In these, their brief was simple: to achieve culinary perfection, in quest of which no amount of time was too long, no amount of money too much to pay for faultless food. It was this attitude and practice they brought to London, a city in which, at the time, restaurant critics' reputations were built not on their ability to discern between merely good food and great food but, rather, on identifying that which was less bad.
Thanks in part to the Roux, London has moved from yuck to yum, emerging in recent years as one of the world's great food capitals. By the time Landenis' book was published, England had more three-star restaurants than Italy or Germany. This revolution was ignited by the exemplary food the Roux brought to Mayfair, and fanned into the raging flame that it is by the legions of talented men and women they trained in their kitchens. These include Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, Nico Landenis, and Raymond Blanc, among others ... all of whom have authored books and opened Michelin-recognized restaurants of their own. Study their menus and writings and you will find, as Guardian restaurant critic Matthew Fort points out, " ... food that may be titivated, reworked, reorganized, re-labeled but [whose] origins are unmistakable. It is [Roux] food that earlier generations fell in love with, told us about ... ."
Distinguishing between the mainstream of ever-emerging cuisine and the tributaries that feed into it is like understanding the difference between music made on the organ and that played upon the harpsichord. In the mainstream, as with the organ, the sustained notes get much of the weight while on the harpsichord they die away as they rise, giving precedence to the more quickly moving and disappearing voices. Clearly, the Wurlitzer of modern London gastronomy is named Roux.
(While these opinions are entirely mine, I wish to express my thanks to Leslie Williams for providing some of the media research notes used in preparation of this piece.)