Club des Chefs des Chefs

From Elaine’s Lumière column for T Magazine’s The Moment.

Courtesy of Plaza Athénée/Dorchester Group
The entire Club des Chefs des Chefs outside the Plaza Athénée.

 

It’s good to be a chef, particularly if your boss is a president, a prime minister or a prince. So when the “Club des Chefs des Chefs,” a group of chefs to world leaders, visited Paris this week, they were welcomed as if they were chefs d’état — heads of state.

 

In French diplomacy, the meal is a means of loosening the lips and softening the resolve of the adversary by giving pleasure. As the 17th-century writer and envoy François de Callières put it his classic book, “The Art of Diplomacy,” “The natural effect of good eating and drinking is the inauguration of friendships and the creation of familiarity, and when people are a trifle warmed by wine they often disclose secrets of importance.”

 

So every year, the club members don their custom-made, double-breasted white jackets embroidered with their names and their countries’ flags and gather in one or more of their capitals to swap recipes, make new friends and refine their culinary diplomacy. This year, twenty of them (most of them from Europe and North America, but others from South Africa, China, Sri Lanka and Israel) started their food and drink fest with a low-key visit to Berlin followed by four red-carpet days in Paris.

 

The Plaza Athénée hotel housed them in mini-suites. Renault drove them around town in chauffeur-driven black sedans and silver mini-vans. Petrossian, the caviar purveyor, served them dinner, starting with transparent plastic pots of eight different caviars. Armed with mother-of-pearl spoons and slim flutes of chilled vodkas, they were instructed to start with the Baeri Imperial (grey with brown flecks, light texture, woody, dried-fruit notes) and move clockwise to the Beluga Imperial (jet black, suave, buttery), then start all over again. Each chef, if he finished each pot, consumed nearly 100 grams of caviar.

 

Gabriela Plump
A selection of eight caviars were served as the first course at the club’s dinner at Petrossian.

 

Alain Ducasse hosted the group for lunch at Le Jules Verne, his restaurant high in the Eiffel Tower, with a six-course tasting menu and the best of his wine cellar, including a 1996 Dom Pérignon Oenothèque, a 2000 Château Cheval Blanc (Saint-Emilion) and a 1996 Château d’Yquem. The Saint-Emilion was so spectacular that Rupert Schnait, Austria’s chef, sniffed and swirled for what seemed like a full minute before he dared to taste. “Saffron! A touch of honey!” he exclaimed.

 

Gabriela Plump
The chefs gather in the fruit and vegetable hall at the Rungis market outside of Paris.

 

At the Sèvres ceramic center and museum, the chefs watched as an artisan worked on a set of ceramic plates (each one costs $3,700) ordered by a private client. In the grand ballroom of the Baccarat mansion, they noshed on foie gras petits-fours and sipped champagne from heavy, foot-high crystal flutes. There was harder work as well: a tour of the vast Rungis wholesale food market south of Paris started at 4 a.m. (It’s about the same size as the principality of Monaco.) The chefs sampled oysters at 5 a.m., cheeses at 6 a.m. and a refined version of tête de veau for breakfast at 7:30 a.m. The veal cheek and skin, but not the tongue and brain, came in a vinaigrette sauce, accompanied by a 2009 white Burgundy.

 

The high point came on Tuesday when François Hollande, the meat-and-potatoes-loving president of France, honored them with a reception at the Élysée Palace.
“Depending on whether you bring pleasure to those you serve, they will leave a negotiation either happy or unhappy,” Hollande said as the group stood at attention in their chef’s whites and toques. Diplomacy is a lot more difficult, he added, “If you make a mess of the meal.”

 

Laurent Blevennec/Présidence de la République
Gilles Bragard introduces France’s President François Hollande to Obama’s chef Cristeta Comerford, with Prince Albert of Monaco’s chef at right.

 

Hollande praised Ulrich Kerz, Angela Merkel’s chef, for his Wiener schnitzel. He asked Shalom Kadosh to give warm regards to his boss, Israeli President Shimon Peres. He told Cristeta Comerford, the chef to the Obamas, that he had not yet had the pleasure of dining at the White House. Even after he posed for a formal group photo in the garden, Hollande seemed in no hurry to leave, sticking around to schmooze and pose some more.

 

How different from Nicolas Sarkozy, his predecessor, who was a teetotaler and a gobbler, not a savorer. The former president was so determined to save time at official functions that he eliminated the cheese course. He could chew and talk at the same time. “It was so sad,” said Gilles Bragard, the founder of Bragard, the couturier of cooks and kitchen staffs around the world, who created the club on a whim in 1977 and provides all their uniforms. “Sarkozy was a prisoner of time.”

 

Still, Hollande prefers country fare to haute cuisine. When he was asked last year to contribute to a cookbook of favorite recipes by members of parliament, he submitted a receipt for “farcidure grillée du pays d’Egletons,” a potato-based peasant dish that looks like a latke crossed with a Spanish omelet. Cheese is now back on the Élysée menu, as are generous portions. Despite having slimmed down thanks to the high-protein Dukan diet, Hollande likes seconds, said Bernard Vaussion, the Élysée’s top chef who started in its kitchen 40 years ago and is on his sixth president. The president has to be coaxed into eating his vegetables, Vaussion added.

 

The chefs weren’t supposed to dish, but other (harmless) secrets spilled out. President Vladimir Putin of Russia travels with military officers who sample his food before it touches his lips. Nothing unusual, said Anton Mosimann, a chef who has cooked for several British prime ministers. At one visit to Britain by George Bush (he did not say which one), two tasters from the F.B.I. came along.

 

When a French television reporter asked Comerford whether French food was the best in the world, she parried diplomatically. “French food is like classical piano, and we chefs are all classically trained,” she said. “But in the U.S., we play jazz — and improvise!”

 

Daryl Schembeck, the top chef at the United Nations, said that some guests request that there be no knives on the table — but not because of security concerns. “They don’t like the noise of knives on the plate during speeches,” he said.

 

There were only the mildest of culinary missteps. One was the White House gift for the chefs and other folks in Paris: a small white tin elegantly decorated with the presidential seal. Inside were four Whitman’s Sampler chocolates, including a dark chocolate coconut-filled piece coated in white “bloom.” Among the ingredients were partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil, corn syrup, sugar, artificial vanilla, invertase and tocopherols. Does Michelle Obama know?

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