"The Last Days of Haute Cuisine" by Patric Kuh

A witty, gossipy history of high cuisine shows how America's best restaurants turned into boomer feeding factories.

Published June 20, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Reading Patric Kuh's witty and wonderfully entertaining "Last Days of Haute Cuisine: America's Culinary Revolution," I thought of that scene in Woody Allen's "Love and Death" when Allen, as Private Boris Grishenko, unwilling hero of the Napoleonic wars, asks his company commander what the Russians will win if they defeat the French.

"What do we win?" says the scandalized sergeant. "Imagine your loved ones conquered by Napoleon and forced to live under French rule! Do you want them to eat all that rich food and those heavy sauces?"

The disappearance of sauces and the democratization of dining in America are Kuh's topics in this, yes, delicious little book. It will leave you hungry for more of everything it has to offer, culinary and literary. Writing about "The Formidable Mrs. Child" -- that's Julia -- and her landmark 1961 primer, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," Kuh presents his thesis in a nutshell: "The pursuit of gastronomy in this country was about to be transformed. No longer would it be the domain of the grande langouste but rather that of the frantic hostess in a Pucci caftan mopping at the flop sweat as she peered through the Pyrex oven door to see if the soufflé aux crevettes was rising."

That Kuh, a Paris-trained chef, can keep his sense of humor, in a profession in which the atmosphere in most kitchens starts with hysteria and moves up from there, is a small miracle of personality. That he made me feel like the Scarlet Pimpernel, waging a last, reckless gamble to rescue la table from the hoi polloi, is a measure of his skill as a writer. For the time it takes to read Kuh's book, we're all cafe society.

"The Last Days of Haute Cuisine" opens with the arrival in New York of Henri Soulé, formerly maître d'hôtel at the Café de Paris, who ran the French restaurant at the 1939 World's Fair in Flushing, Queens, and stayed on as proprietor of Le Pavillon -- "the Michelangelo, the Mozart and the Leonardo of the French restaurant in America," as the New York Times described Soulé in his obituary. In Soulé's rise and fall, Kuh detects "many of the conflicts that have taken place in the heart of the American restaurant business" over the past 50 years, "between access and restriction, between being true to one's national identity or its Americanized version, between the food that one loves to eat and that which one needs to serve" in order to make money. That all cuisine, haute and otherwise, finally moved to Hollywood seems somehow preordained: The story of restaurants isn't the story of food, after all, but the story of image.

"The new ideal would become rusticity, not faux sophistication," Kuh observes. "At its worst, this is our own age's version of continental cuisine, in which dishes with mahi mahi, miso, gnocchi, and Thai basil pesto have become as clichéd as steak Diane ever was (and a lot less wine-friendly)." On Kuh's evidence, the unrelieved solemnity of contemporary American menus -- "Spenger's Tomales Bay bluepoint oysters on ice," "Cream of fresh corn soup, Mendocino style, with crayfish butter" "Big Sur Garrapata Creek smoked trout steamed over California bay leaves" -- can be traced to 1976 and Alice Waters' original "Northern California Regional Dinner" at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. Add to this the replacement of the snobbish waiter with the friendly waitperson, appearing at your table every two or three minutes to see if "everything's OK," and you have the Bobo feeding factories of our time. (Unlike their French progenitors, American restaurants don't want you to linger.)

Moving through Kuh's often personal narrative are the biggest names in American food trends, starting with Restaurant Associates -- "RA" -- whose success with a restaurant in Newark Airport after World War II led to a daring break with French tradition and a "modified Rothschild style" at the Four Seasons in New York. ("The RA brain trust knew that here they couldn't just stick sparklers into the food as at the Newarker," Kuh observes. "This wasn't Newark; this was Park Avenue.") Not surprisingly, James Beard emerges as the single most influential figure in American cookery of the last century, but Julia Child took the mystery out of petits pois and tarte aux fruites, and M.F.K. Fisher, mourning the suicide of her husband in 1941, found solace and epiphany, "the glimmer of personal reconstruction," in a simple bowl of Mexican beans. By the time Kuh meets up with Wolfgang Puck at Spago Beverly Hills -- "I sensed he might actually get up and leave if I were to mention the words 'smoked salmon pizza'" -- you know for certain there's no going back.

Henri Soulé and Le Pavillon were undone by the Kennedy clan during the 1960 presidential campaign, after Soulé overheard Joe Kennedy Sr. say something about "that lousy Frenchman." Soulé got revenge by declaring, "loudly enough for the whole dining room to hear," that Jack Kennedy had "not a chance" of winning the White House. "While we know that Soulé muttered something in French about how Kennedy's son was not yet elected president and already he was acting like a dictator," writes Kuh, "we don't know the subtleties of the Gallic shrug" that accompanied his public insult: "Was it the slightly apologetic raising of the shoulders that a French post office clerk might offer, signaling that matters are out of their control? Or was it the vaguely affronted shrug that, together with palms held stiffly outward, signals that a Frenchman is nearing his emotional threshold? Or did Soulé actually find it necessary to employ the full shrug, which at its most perfected levels is performed with a pursed lip refinement that can only be effectively translated as 'Screw you!'" One way or another, the Kennedys deserted Soulé for La Caravelle. Après ça, le déluge.

One thing doesn't change, from Kuh's account: There's never been more than a handful of top-flight restaurants anywhere in the world. Unless you know them and can afford them, you're better off eating pot au feu, as Soulé did, in the kitchen with the help. Trust the chef -- in France, the customer is never right.

By Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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