June 13, 1965 | Vintage Insatiable
Papa Soulé Loves You
New York, Sunday magazine of the Herald Tribune
La Côte Basque countdown: cinq, quatre, trios, deux… what a mess! In quenelles-de-brochet-eating circles, it was like the return to the concert stage of Vladimir Horowitz. Henri Soulé was making his historic comeback to La Côte Basque.
Showman, snob, perfectionist, martinet, conman, wooer and wooed master of haute cuisine, Henri Soulé, "greatest living restaurateur," recently reopened a kind of defrilled discount annex at Le Pavillon, rated by most serious eaters as "the best French restaurant in America" and, by a hyperbolic few, "the only French restaurant in America."
La Côte Basque was Soulé's creation. It was his personal charity drive, a contribution to illicit romance. Or as he said: "La Côte Basque is Le Pavillon pour les pauvres, my Pavillon for the poor." And, "the Pavillon is elegant. The Côte Basque is amusing. Some people may find it quite convenient that Henri Soulé has two restaurants in Manhattan. A man may take his wife to Côte Basque and the other lady to Pavillon."
From the moment it opened, in 1958, La Côte Basque has been a spectacular success. Then, in a 1962 huff over what he called "insubordination by the waiters," Soulé locked the door. When the new owners of another legendary French restaurant Chambord offered to buy, Soulé was ready.
It thus became Le Café Chambord at La Côte Basque, an uneasy merger, doomed to an inelegant demise last July with unseemly talk of bankruptcy: left to rust, tarnish and mildew.
At an age of 62 would Papa Soulé resume his schizophrenic gastronomic burden?
The gauntlet stings. It is a challenge. And after all there is a small matter of $260,000. Soulé sold La Côte Basque for that amount, "and most of the debt is still outstanding." It is a question of public service. All those jaded palates. New hope. A lift. A crack in the ennui of the middle-aged ladies with youth-frozen faces for whose ills there is no annual March of Dimes. Les girls. Les starving pauvres.
Papa Soulé loves you.
Well of course, there are not too many authentic poor on hand Tuesday, the 18th of May, re-opening day, at 5 East 55th Street, where the $7 prix fixe lunch (double that if you add martini, wine, coffee, digestif and tips) might cost $25 at Pavillon.
But anyway, here's a Pat Nixon in tranquilizing green and a swath of stylish turban. And horrors -- her cold striped bass has a peculiar taste. Henri Soulé stares at the plate in front of Mrs. Richard Nixon. He tastes.
"I thought possibly it was some new spice," says Pat.
"If I were a Democrat, I would lie and say, 'Yes, it is a new spice,' but I am a Republican," Soulé replies, "and, therefore, I cannot lie. The bass is not itself." He commands a replacement.
Does anyone think it is child's play to open a restaurant? Even the striped bass is a challenge. Merely to re-open has taken three weeks of trauma, months of pre-planning.
Soulé has been promised the key to La Côte Basque by one p.m. Monday, April 26. An upholsterer, a painter, a carpet man, the restaurant suppliers, the canopy people, Raymond, "one of the faithfuls," his mâitre d', having been alerted, are standing by. "Everyone has sealed orders," says Soulé, "like the army."
"First thing, down comes the canopy. That rotten awful canopy." His benign owlish face becomes the angry owl. "That rotten awful things. The shame of New York City. You can't cook with a pencil," he says. He says it often. It is one of his favorite lines. "The former management…" He sneers. "It is not necessary to mention those people. Just write down 'the former management.' They greeted people sitting down. Without a tie. In white socks. White socks! So rude." White socks. That explains everything."
Inside, "Filthy, filthy, filthy, every inch of the place," mourns Soulé. "And in the freezer -- put this down. Give him the worst. The former manager -- a guy like that -- supposed to be so efficient. There were 22 gallons of ice cream in the freezer and a pound of caviar. Rotten. He took the flatware, but he forgot the ice cream and his rotten caviar."
TUESDAY, MAY 11. La Côte Basque is under siege. One week to official opening. Six days until Henri Soulé's private pre-opening party. Soulé is under siege, too. Several hundred dear friends, many of them long-lost are insisting upon a table for lunch Tuesday at La Côte Basque. Would you let them die of beri beri, M. Soulé?
He sits in shirtsleeves and suspenders in the deserted Pavillon between lunch and dinner, accepting and rejecting imperiously. Not even the authority of request on that particularly weighty Crane stationery with the Tiffany indent on the envelope can intimidate him.
Martin, "my right man" (right-handed man, perhaps?) summons Soulé to the phone. "Good afternoon, sir. Oh you would? And where have you been for the past three years? We haven't seen you at Pavillon." Then, hanging up, "what nerve they have."
In circumference, Soulé is as monumental as might be expected of anyone with daily access to Le Pavillon. He carries his five-feet-five-inches as if they were 10, withers offenders wordlessly with owl-eyed disdain from behind round tortoise-shell-rimmed glasses and moves with the speed and purpose, although with not quite the style, of Jean-Paul Belmondo.
"You may say that Henri Soulé was near tears. All these details. The telephone at La Côte Basque is still not working. The gas man came, but the gas still isn't on. And now, the wrong-sized dessert forks. But he hopes to open on Tuesday.
"As long as you have your health and your money, you can do anything. Henri Soulé has his health and his money. I suppose I should not talk about money. Just put down, 'Henri Soulé has his health,'" He makes a perfect "O" of his mouth, encircles the rim of his glass with it and tosses an ounce or so of Armagnac against the back of his throat.
"The rich are very thrifty. And the poor are very extravagant. The rich will come to Côte Basque because it's not expensive. The poor will come because the rich are there."
And who will eat at Le Pavillon?
"Henri Soulé has friends who never travel second class."
WEDNESDAY, MAY 12. "That's good stuff," says the upholsterer, scrubbing red velvet cushions with Renuzit under the watchful eye of wiry, gray-haired Raymond, who is wearing a tired sport shirt and espadrilles. "It don't leave no rinks."
The room is a jungle of upside-down chairs and barstools, shrouded banquettes, giant rolls of carpet, velvet and white felt bathed in the luminescence of the murals -- Basque landscapes by Bernard Lamotte set off by beams and pillars of pecky something, an unidentifiable wood.
"Everything is going to be hosty-totsy," the upholsterer promises.
Through the swinging doors into the pantry -- a musty dank odor and chaos.
Downstairs, the scrub-down is in its third week. Dishwashers with prune-skinned hands are surrounded by grimy porcelain and tarnished copper. The scent of vanilla rivals the odor of the disinfectant.
The potato chips have arrived, as has currant jelly by the gallon and enough Accent to flavor all the watery vegetables in all the roadside beaneries of America for a year.
Many of the cooks are La Côte Basque veterans, reassembled from interim jobs. The chef is Roland Chenut, who is only 32, slim, dark, muscular from whisking 10,000 sauces into shape at Le Pavillon. He was apprenticed at 14 in Monbeliard, France, to the former saucier at the Tour Eiffel in Paris and came to America, by way of Bermuda, directly into Le Pavillon's kitchen and the aegis of Chef Clement Rene Grangier. Grangier will be executive chef of both kitchens now.
"Nervous? No. Excited? Yes. But Monsieur Soulé gives you his confiance, and then" -- Roland shrugs -- "you just do it."
Cool and philosophical in the wide-open plains of Le Pavillon's kitchen, below the Ritz Towers at 111 East 57th Street, Grangier contemplates his dual role with Zen-ful equanimity. "You can do many thing wiz ze telephone, non? You can call -- so many places. The fish man, the butcher. La Côte Basque, Santo Domingo."
Roland arrives from La Côte Basque with a list. Everyone has a list. Roland's current list concerns work schedules and salaries and le question de desserts. There is the cheesecake dilemma, he informs Grangier, "Mr. Rosen served cheesecake."
"Laissez tomber le cheesecake," cries Grangier. (Translation: Forget it!) "If I want cheesecake, I go to Landy's (Lindy's?). They make it better."
THURSDAY, MAY 13. La Côte Basque. The accountant has a list, a pot pourri of messages "from le boss." He tells Raymond, "put down Mr. Roosevelt and a part of eight for dinner Tuesday night."
Raymond is dubious, the accountant, annoyed. "These are orders from Monsieur Soulé," he repeats. "Put it down. Roosevelt, eight."
Raymond writes,"Rosenfeld, eight."
"Not Rosenfeld. Roosevelt. The president's son."
Below, in the kitchen, the gas is on, at last. Pâtissier Louis Fusari has stashed away his 4,000th cookie and moved on to macaroons. Five men are manicuring filets of sole.
Grangier, free from lunch at Le Pavillon, strides past the steam table, looking eerily executive in black mufti. Even his straw hat is black, its striped band darkly sedate. He moves from pantry to pantry like a purposeful tank. "What a mess! Oh, what a mess!"
Something is wrong with the coffee machine insert. Grangier holds it up to the light. "It has windows in it." Grangier makes a face. "Now I must to go to Hammaschlemmer for a new one."
There is no guest list for Monday. No menu for Tuesday lunch. "The boss, he drives himself crazy with La Côte Basque," Grangier complains. "These people they never work before together. They need training. You can't have 200 people the first day, or no one will eat and everyone will go blah-blah-blah all over town."
Midafternoon. Le Pavillon. Soulé in shirtsleeves pours over reservation lists. "Ah, mon petit amour," he coos into the telephone. "It's going to be a very private party Monday night. Don't tell anyone. Everyone is going to be mad. Just the friends of Le Pavillon. The lawyers, the accountants, the press, Martin, his wife, the bar man at Pavillon, his daughter. We are a very mixed group."
A persistent rumor plagues Soulé. "Get me the office," he instructs Martin. And then into the phone: "Do you have a Roosevelt for Tuesday dinner? Roosevelt? Rosenfeld? Lequel Roosevelt? Did Henri Soulé tell you? You tell that man to stick to his accounts. Leave my business to me."
FRIDAY, MAY 14. La Côte Basque. The settees are still shrouded in white, the tables and chairs still a jungle of upturned legs. The upholsterer is still at it. "I'm exhausted," he admits, "but it's a first-class settee. Not another like it in the city. It's all by handsewn. You know the master. He's gotta have the best. That's how it's gotta be. What is life? Business, that's life."
Grangier arrives, in executive black again, bearing four larding needles stuck into a wine cork. He presents them to his protégé, Roland, as if they were some kind of decoration of valor.
Roland is disturbed because he ordered pork belly and got fatback. Grangier gives him an English lesson. "You got to say, 'Gib me salt pork belly. Pork salt belly. No gib me fatback.'" Grangier asks to see the locker room and lavatory. Roland leads him through a maze of stairs and back corridors. "If a cook goes to the bathroom, we never get him back," says Grangier. "Quelle expedition."
Le Pavillon. Soulé announced that he and M. Grangier intend to be in two places at once. Two plump Houdinis. Actually, Soulé plans to favor La Côte Basque at lunch, Le Pavillon for dinner, always reserving the right not to be anywhere when expected -- but, rather, everywhere. "When you go to your doctor, you do not wish to be treated by his nurse. When Henri Soulé went away for three months, business dropped 60 percent. We will be all over, Monsieur Grangier and I. Put that down."
SATURDAY, MAY 15. The ubiquitous upholsterer is now repairing barstools. A painter arrives to touch up the ceiling. A carpenter is sanding the mahogany rolling buffet cart.
Roland is ecstatic about the ratatouille. "It's just like Pavillon, non?"
The pastry chef is squeezing miniature cream puffs out of a canvas tube. His assistant, Taid Mohammed ("10 years in Parisian kitchens") draws tracks atop each puff with the back of a fork. "I work wiz Point," says Mohammed, invoking France's greatest chef, the late Ferdinand Point. "Yes," Taid giggles. "Wiz Point. West Point, U.S.A."
SUNDAY, MAY 16. Raymond and the captains finish stapling fresh white felt onto table tops at last. All feet are now on the ground.
MONDAY, MAY 17. The pastry man comes in early. The dishwashers are still scrubbing copper. The telephone upstairs at La Côte Basque has been ringing since nine a.m. Raymond is reading a telegram to Soulé over the phone: "Encore ou en laurel in your wreath of success. Bon chance." Well, nobody said Western Union is bilingual.
"Laissez tomber le telegram," mutters the unsentimental Grangier, taking the phone and trying to pin Soulé down on how many to expect for tonight's party.
Everyone is at lunch. But at 11:45 the meal ends with an almost three-dimensional sense of urgency. Grangier is everywhere. "Oh what a mess!" The room is criss-crossed by waves of hysteria. It is the hour of the quénelles. Roland has been observing Grangier's quénelle style for years. A Grangier quénelle is four days in the evolution, from delivery of fresh pike and sole to the dousing in champagne and lobster sauce.
Grangier has lost his cool. He shouts commands to Roland like a Gallic Ben Casey, his fury flamed by a mechanical flaw in the kitchen mixer. It is definitely the School of Pavillon. Quénelles are a delicate confection. As Grangier dribbles five quarts of heavy cream, ounce by ounce, into the mix, it seems the fragile batter will be curdled by so much hate -- for the mixer company, the pressure of time, the vagaries of quénelles and the occasional interruptions of a courier reporting from M. Soulé above: "There will be 160 for the party tonight." Four minutes later, a second message updates the first. "There will be 167."
"We will plan for 200," Grangier announces through clenched teeth. "The machine is merde."
The second batch of spinach boils over.
A determined female backs Soulé against the bar. She wants to know if her friend at the Ritz towers has reserved a table for Tuesday lunch. "Sorry, no," says Soulé.
"But she promised, and I've been away," the lady, a coquettish 55, persists poutingly. "Didn't you get my card from the Orient?"
"Oh, but of course. You were so kind," says Soulé. Even so, Tuesday is out of the question.
"But I have five girls meeting me here. What shall I do?"
"You could have lunch at Pavillon," Soulé suggests.
He cannot believe his ears. "The Pavillon," he snaps, turning away.
"Oh… yes… well, I guess we could." She brightens. "Maybe we could come and just have a drink at the bar."
Soulé draws himself up to a full and overwhelming five-feet-five. "Ladies do not drink at Henri Soulé's bar." She leaves, broken, humbled, demoralized.
It is after four now. Grangier is working on the second batch of 150 quénelles. The kitchen is as hot as a steam bath. The tables above are set, pink name slips fluttering in crystal wine glasses.
TUESDAY, MAY 18. The pastry man beats up a storm of egg white and whipped cream. The previous night's party, rumor has it, was a brilliant success. A shortage of lemon ice was the only error.
Now the striped bass is poaching on its stubbly bed of vegetables. The salad man is drying endive. It even smells like Le Pavillon, buttery, with hints of rum in the sauce anglaise and vague whiffs of almond.
The kitchen is curiously calm. Is it the anti-climax?
Upstairs, Soulé is playing musical chairs. Baron Rothschild, Pauline Trigere, Mrs. Joshua Logan, beautiful Carol Bjorkman of Women's Wear Daily. How does Papa Soulé love you? Let us count the ways.
Noon. The cashier tallies his change. Five minutes after. Soulé buttons a vest to hide the stains on his tie, slips his jacket off the back of Sol Hurok's chair. Another five minutes. The bartender puts on his jackets.
Outside, under the canopy --"Henry Soul'l La Côte Basque" it is written, but there's no time now for correction -- a photographer awaits the first fashionable. A few unfashionables are already seated.
Now, suddenly, everyone at once. Mrs. Nixon. Hermione Gingold, topped by a tall flutter of cocoa fluff: Bill Blass, pinstriped: Trigere, an arm load of bracelets. Cheeks graze.
In the "status" stations everyone seems to know everyone else. There is great cross currents of table-to-table conversation. Like camp, you know. Summer camp.
"Soulé is mad," says Mildred Custin, president of Bonwit Teller, but lovingly.
There is more air-kissing and cheek-rubbing in the socialite corner. The waiters' eyes are glazed. Soulé rushes about, pressing cold striped bass on all his pets.
Then, suddenly, in a champagne haze, it is 3:30 p.m. Only a few people linger over coffee. Soulé has disappeared. Houdini. Just as he promised. He is lunching now himself. At Le Pavillon.
But, of course.
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