Behind the Scenes at Le Pavillon
There is a tiny kingdom where rivers flow champagne, where the mountains are made of caviar, where always it is spring and roses are forbidden to wilt. This understandably smug monarchy -- bounded on the south by the exhaust fumes of Manhattan’s busy 57th Street and on the west by the moneyed bustle of Park Avenue is the restaurant Le Pavillon, fabled fortress of a la grande cuisine. Reigning over it is a shy, tense, stubborn and uncompromising Frenchman named Henri Soulé.
In circles where cooking is regarded as the highest Art and the roll call of the century’s great chefs is delivered with near-sepulchral reverence, Soulé is ranked among them even though he is a maître d'hôtel and not himself a chef. To many celebrants of haute cuisine -- especially Frenchmen -- Le Pavillon is the only French restaurant in America. To others it is, at least, the best.
Now, after hesitating to brave that door for years, I was about to find myself dining at Le Pavillon twice a day. And all in the guise of duty. For I had been assigned to penetrate the inner sanctums of the Pavillon and return with M. Soulé’s darkest secrets -- recipes, methods of preparation and decoration -- information that any woman could put to use in her own kitchen. I had no reason to expect that M. Soulé would be eager to hand out secrets. From what little I had heard of Le Pavillon, I had every reason to fear he would not. Here was obviously a no-nonsense martinet of a man whose glacial aloofness allegedly could curdle hollandaise.
Soulé did not live up to expectations. He wasn’t a monster at all, and within minutes he was confiding the secrets of Le Pavillon’s success. “Always the best ingredients. The freshest. The most expensive. When the recipe calls for champagne, not any old champagne will do. It must be a vintage year. But great cooking begins with the stock. Always you must start with the stock. It’s like the alphabet.”
But these were scarcely the secrets I had hoped to uncover. What I hoped to find was that Tiffany taste at dime-store prices. Fortunately, by the third cup of coffee that was brought to me, M. Soulé has concluded that the best way to tell the Pavillon story was for me to spend a day in the kitchen. Hand tingling with the maître’s kiss, I said au revoir.
It’s 10 A.M. Tuesday (Le Pavillon is closed Sunday and Monday). Through the double doors, down the stairs and into the kitchen -- an enormous room dominated by a huge black range, already pounding with heat, and islands of stainless steel.
The calmest man in the kitchen is in command, Chef Clement René Grangier. He offers me the seat at his desk. From a slightly yellowed clipping I learned that Chef Grangier had come to Pavillon by way of Bordeaux, Claridge’s in Paris, the kitchens of the S.S. Normandie, the Plaza Hotel in New York, the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., and the Ambassador, and that he is in the fourth year of a five-year contract at a salary of $22,000. His wife is a Southerner -- her specialties in the kitchen are corn fritters and spoon bread. They have four children. “My son is a genius,” Grangier confides. “They are studying animals, and he tells the teacher: ‘A cow gives milk, a bull gives bull-ion.’”
I am free to wander the kitchen, big as a ballroom, with ells leading into adjacent squares -- the pastry corner, the salad and coffee annex, past the dumbwaiter to the cleanup equipment, even into the giant walk-in cold boxes, holding everything from boeuf à la mode en gelée (a jellied beef dish) to chunks of choice turtle.
To the left of the desk hangs the lunch menu, everything à la carte, from Caviar Malossol ($10) and Melon ($1.50) to the lead-off special of the day, Coutre-Filet, Nouilles aux Gratin ($6.25).
Half-sides of prime beef, precious enough to be swathed in white gauze sarongs, are trundled across the floor to the meat box. In a corner buttressed by heavy wooden butcher’s blocks, Freddi, the lone Italian in this mostly French platoon, is manicuring a miniature leg of lamb -- the tenderest infants that cost Le Pavillon $30 a side (it must not be overcooked; until you have eaten rare leg, rose not just pale pink, you can’t imagine how delicious lamb can be, even older spring legs).
In the pastry annex Pierre, the morning pâtissier, is lining up the confections that will grace the rolling dessert cart -- rings of chestnut puree sweetened and buried beneath whipped cream (Mont Blanc), the strawberry tart, chocolate mousse and flaky napoleon. Vincent, the apprentice in charge of soups and vegetables is sculpting carrots -- every oval must look exactly alike. Every few feet along the work counter is a box of salt, a canister of Ac’cent, a milk carton or two of heavy whipping cream and a foot-high crock heaped with butter. Half a dozen tall metal canisters stand in a hot-water bath -- these are the sauces, truffled, sour-creamed enriched with red wine and marrow, steeped in Madeira. Rolland, the young mustachioed saucier is whipping a stream of rich yellow broth into a mound of butter-flour mixture in a pan as big as a baby’s bassinet with an outsize wire whisk -- this is the basic white sauce to be enlivened later with egg yolk or whipped cream. Against the far wall, near the aromatic bubbling caldrons of simmering stock, Guillaume, who has washed and peeled Pavillon vegetables for 26 years, is feeding chunks of fresh Parmesan cheese into the grinder. Grinding your own makes a difference.
As the clock nears 11:30, the pace picks up. Freddi is setting out platters of jellied filet, cold baked ham, pâté de fois gras in a pastry crust, all for the cold table. I watch him pour off the water from a bowl of soaking cucumbers and wrap the cucumbers in a dry towel, which he wrings over the sink. Works better than patting endlessly with paper towels. Rolland attacks his sauces with rhythm, grace and arrogance.
It is 11:30 and time for the employees to eat lunch.
Chef Grangier motions to me, as guest of honor, to his own chair at the head of one of the long tables. What will I have? “Sweetbreads.”
He sautées them himself, the first actual cooking I have seen Chef Grangier do this morning. I am honored. He pours red wine into my water glass.
At noon, André, the bachelor waiter from Marseilles, comes flying down the stairs -- André never walks -- with the first lunch order. “Un command, Chef,” he says. “Un sole gourmets,” Chef cries. “Un coutre-filet. Deux asperges.” The chef himself is busy cutting paper-thin slices of smoked salmon. Fernand, the young German poissonier (he cooks the fish and has earned Grangier’s highest accolade -- “better than a Frenchman”), poaches three neat fillets of sole in a copper saucepan he takes from a hook over the steam table. Why are professional cooks such fanatics about copper? “They hold the heat and spread it evenly,” Grangier explains. Thin copper won’t do. It must be at least one eighth of an inch thick, with a tin lining. (“I’ve been busy buying them used. Even with the cost of retinning, used is less expensive than new.”)
Fernand has placed the poached fillets over a puree of mushrooms cooked in cream and is topping it with a blanket of sauce, part hollandaise, part whipped cream, part the liquid he poached the fish in, reduced by boiling. I am shocked to see him adding water to the hollandaise. “A little warm water keeps it from turning into scrambled eggs,” he explains.
Chef Granier is as tranquil as though he were passing the day on a country picnic; the only sign of temper flares when a waiter does not seem to know whether the customer has ordered shad roe or shad and roe. By three o’clock the lunch business is over, and it is difficult to believe 110 meals have been served. The staff makes it look effortless.
I run upstairs to tell M. Soulé how well my research is progressing. “You may kiss me,” he says. We brush cheeks left and right in the Gallic manner. Am I charming him or is he charming me? “After three days in our kitchen you will be able to cook lunch for me,” he predicts.
The staff eats dinner at 5:30, but I am still woozy from the richness of lunch and from tasting, tasting, tasting all day. Everyone tastes. And feels. Feel the chicken, feel the chateaubriand, feel the mousse de sole.
Pierre, the evening poissonnier, is mincing truffles for the champagne sauce. “Expensive,” he says. “I know, the chef tells me they cost twenty dollars a dozen.” At $1.85 for one in a tiny can at gourmet food stores, I hope I don’t become addicted. Should you, try them by the half dozen. They cost less that way and will keep indefinitely if stored in a jar of brandy.
Waiters resting during a lull, sip black coffee from a glass, and the coffee man explains why Le Pavillon’s espresso is coffee-er coffee. “Instead of starting the coffee with water, I use freshly brewed coffee. It’s twice as strong.”
By 10 P.M. I have collapsed at the chef’s desk. The butcher’s bill catches my eye. 50 LBS. VEAL BONES, it says. “Veal bones?” I asked M. Grangier. “But, of course. For the stock.”
The stock again. We always come back to the stock. I am strangely depressed. What have I learned today except that high-heeled pumps are suicide in a 12-hour kitchen tour? I have learned that any woman in America would cook as well as Chef Grangier, given 40 years’ experience, strong motivation, unlimited money and a kitchen with built-in poissonnier, saucier, pâtissier, vegetable apprentice, cleanup help and a full-time governess to amuse the children.
But if we’re to be really serious about classic French cooking, we must start with the rudiment. Stock isn’t really that mysterious. It freezes beautifully (try it in one-cup lots) and will keep in the refrigerator for several days (fish stock should be boiled up every two days to keep it from spoiling). Many sauces freeze well too. I have a friend who even freezes béarnaise, although I have read it is impossible.
Even a few tablespoons of leftover sauce are worth saving -- they transform lowly vegetables. Broccoli Bordelaise, for instance. Or cabbage in a sauce suprême.
But I must leave. My husband is due home from work at 11 P.M., and I haven’t a thing to serve him for dinner. How heartless of me to offer him bacon and eggs after a day at Le Pavillon! I reach in my purse for the keys, and find a foil-wrapped package -- inside, three handsome filets mignon. Someone has fallen for me -- besides my arches, that is.
Wednesday, I carry my sneakers with me to Le Pavillon. It seems ridiculous to sit down for lunch. Since 10 A.M. I have done nothing but eat. An almond cookie from the pastry chef, a sliver of pâté maison en croûte (a pâté of duck livers with chunks of tongue and truffle in a pastry crust) from Freddi.
Nothing is wasted in this kitchen. Le Pavillon can be as frugal as it is extravagant. Leftover lamb goes into moussaka (a lamb-and-eggplant dish), leftover bread into bread pudding, chicken into Émincé de Volaille Florentine (minced white meat in a rich cream sauce on spinach) and Côte de Volaille Pojarsky (ground chicken and veal patty sautéed in butter). Even today’s plat du jour, ham mousse, is a plot. M. Grangier works egg whites into ground ham and then heavy cream, a bit at a time, with a wooden spoon in a metal bowl set over ice. Even a pro like Chef Grangier likes to try a practice mousse first. This tiny experimental mousse becomes my lunch, half of it covered with a truffled sauce, half with sauce smitane (paprika and sour cream added to a basic brown sauce).
A last, a lesson I can afford.
Tonight in my satchel -- next to the sneakers -- I find a tiny leg of lamb. And in my purse a jar of chocolate mousse.
Thursday. There is a big run on asparagus. Each platter is dispatched upstairs covered with a hot-water-soaked- napkin, to keep in heat and moisture. Spinach puree is heaped into silver dishes in fluted mounds. “You may say the spinach at Le Pavillon is always decorative,” Vincent suggests, flourishing an example he was about to embellish with a knife, “when we have time,” he adds lamely, as an impatient waiter grabs it from his hand.
It is clear that American and French cooks are incompatible in the vegetable department. Flavor and appearance are all the French care about. Vitamins are our obsession. By the time Vincent has blanched (dropped the vegetable into a huge kettle of boiling salted water until crispy tender), cold water plunged (to set color preserve texture, halt the cooking process), refreshed, sautéed and pureed a string bean, it will be impotent, but beautiful.
I’ll go along with Vincent for beauty over vitamins, in company dinners, at least -- if you save vegetables for the last minute, you can blanch and sauté, avoiding the cold-water plunge and the reheating altogether.
Vegetables are a constant frustration for the even-tempered M. Grangier. “We do not do true French cooking,” he says, with a candor that might unnerve Le Boss upstairs, M. Soulé. “We can only do good imitations. The butter is not the same. We have not the same fishes. Even the eggs are different. And milk. Agggh! But we do our best.” He shrugs.
Friday. The food looks good. There are flecks of red pimiento in the sauce blanketing Filets de Sole Pavillon, tiny strips of black truffles in the lobster sauce, a shower of green parsley on potatoes rissolé, a hedge of unsnipped parsley ruffling the huge cold bass on the buffet table.
Even an indifferent cook, or a great one on melancholy days, can pass off rather ordinary fare as something special with a fluted mushroom or twisted slice of lime or just everyday butter pressed into a ramekin and given a pattern. (Chef Grangier does it to fresh-made butter with a loose-weave transferring the cloth’s pattern to the butter with just a bit of pressure.) Thin veal cutlet becomes Escalope de Veau Liegeoise by being topped with an octagon-shaped slice of lemon sprinkled with chopped parsley and cooked egg yolk, topped with an anchovy-wrapped olive.
Tonight I’ll try it myself with the two lovely veal steaks I’ve inherited from my unknown admirer.
Saturday. All week I have been trying to wake at 6 A.M. to meet Pierre, the morning pastry chef, and find out what makes his soufflés stand up (a dash of cornstarch in the egg whites, he confides). In my sneakers, black silk Balenciaga and floor-length apron (I’m cooking lunch today for M. Soulé, his chief deputy, M. Martin and Chef Grangier), I am allowed by Pierre to whisk the cream for his chocolate mousse into heavy peaks -- to be authentic, a wire whisk in a metal bowl over ice.
He advocates Crêpes Pavillon as a handy way to use up leftover crêpes. “But leftover crêpes is not a common household problem in America,” I explain to him.
A sample convinces me: Crêpes Pavillon -- thin pancakes stuffed with souffé mixture, topped with toasted almonds, served with a run-flavored vanilla sauce, are worth starting from scratch. And if you’re going to make crêpes anyway, why not make a few extra? They freeze beautifully.
There is a crisis in the kitchen. Chef -- gentle, sweet, placid Chef Grangier -- is in a fury. And furies are never wasted. Always there is just provocation. This time it is the carrots. They are too skinny to be carved into the required Pavillon ovals. It is an insult to his honor. He storms to the telephone and calls the vegetable supplier. “What is it with these carrots? I don’t want dis junk. Don’t send me dis junk! Come pick them up at once.”
He slams down the receiver. Banishes the offending vegetables from his sight. Smiles. “They know better than to do that to me.”
It is nearing three o’clock. I plan to create something memorable for M. Soulé’s lunch. But he must watch his cholesterol, I am told, and many of his gastronomic joys are denied to him. He has ordered hamburger hand-chopped, not machine-cut, of course. At the rate I am chopping, it will be five before we dine. Fernand and his muscular right arm take over. How unchallenging this lunch is to be! Martin and Chef dutifully dine on hamburger. I order one of Vincent’s beautifully poached eggs, cold and set on a gelée studded with minced chicken by Freddi and topped with a large round of truffle. We sip champagne in Baccarat crystal, debate the comparative pleasures of food and love (what else does one discuss with three Frenchmen?), finish with tossed lettuce, endive and watercress, some fine Brie cheese, coffee and cigars all around.
I am looped, and from the eyes and eyebrows of my companions it is obvious I have said something indiscreet. But I am pleased when M. Soulé pronounces me the very first female cigar smoker in Pavillon history.
Ladies Home Journal, New York section, 1964.