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Bernard Loiseau

Een Engelstalig artikel van Rudolph Chelminski SAVING THE FRENCH DREAM

By Rudolph Chelminski


(published by William MORROW)

There aren?t many dreams left in France anymore.

Piaf is long gone, leaving only the faintest, half-forgotten fragrance of La Vie en Rose still hanging in the air. Montand did his final curtain call a few years ago, to join the ghosts of Chevalier, Gabin, De Gaulle, Sartre, the Impressionists and the hundreds of nameless apaches whose berets, half-smoked Gauloises and world-weary manner brought a sex-charged electricity to the legendary romance of Paris by night.

Alas, Paris is choked with cars today, the accordion music has been supplanted by a rock beat, the politicians are talking not of grandeur but percentage points of the Common Agricultural Policy, and even Deneuve, the last stunning vision of beauty?s pure transcendence, is drifting toward 60. Life goes on, but the world has changed.

Leave the capital, though, and take to the roads of the provinces, the ancient pays of Brittany, Burgundy, Languedoc, Provence and all the others that invaders have coveted since even before Caesar. There, in this lush, astonishingly varied countryside that is very much like a natural paradise, something of that lost vision reappears and nostalgia are served and soothed, compliments of Mother Nature.

And, it should be added (in all due humility), with a little help from the hand of man, too ? because where nature abounds, there is the magic of French cuisine, as sure as night follows day. The French way of life is as indissolubly tied to great food as sunshine to a beach ? unimaginable in any other way ? and the fountainhead of French cuisine is and always was the countryside. The auberge, the provincial inn where a cornucopia of matchless local produce allows cooks in love with their creations to spin sorcery, is at the heart of what remains of the French dream today. It is at the table that the French are still most deeply in touch with the national genius, and if Paris signifies outrageous prices, rudeness and hurry-up to most tourists these days, the provincial tables are retreats to an earlier time of easygoing friendliness, calm and well-being. The provincial masters play variations on gastronomic fugues developed over centuries not in urban palace hotels but in farm kitchens. It is a different world with Haeberlin in Alsace, with Bocuse in Lyon and with Bras in Auvergne.

And in Burgundy there is Loiseau and La Cote d?Or. Very special, this one.

No one is quite like Bernard Loiseau. Boundlessly enthusiastic and energetic, he is also un inquiet, a perfectionist who sees disaster just around the corner if he does not work 24 hours a day to make his place better than it was yesterday. When he took over the Cote d?Or in Saulieu while still in his twenties, it was like a midshipman acceding to the bridge of the Queen Elizabeth. Just before the war and until the sixties, the Cote d?Or had been one of the most celebrated restaurants in France, the shrine where the great Alexandre Dumaine made magic with crayfish, chicken and trout. But the grand old barn had fallen on hard times since the master retired and, like the once-fabulous Laperouse in Paris, fell into ill repair and disrepute, unanimously abandoned by both gourmets and the Michelin Guide. Heads were ashake throughout the French gastronomic establishment when Loiseau, the wunderkind, threw in his lot and staked his career on bringing the inn back to glory. Poor guy, they agreed. He?s going to break his teeth on that bone.

Loiseau trumped them all. Turning that demonic energy of his up several notches, he worked and worked and borrowed and borrowed until, within the space of two decades, he had taken La Cote d?Or from a virtual ruin to what is now arguably the most luxurious and tasteful auberge in France (or anywhere else, for that matter). Where Alexandre Dumaine had a few perfunctory rooms, Loiseau made suites, 32 of them, in antique wood, stone and tile, and appointed them with period furniture and fireplaces, balconies, terraces and Jacuzzis. Where Dumaine had little more than a dining room, a lobby and a courtyard, Loiseau landscaped an English garden and built private lounges and seminar rooms, then added a fitness center, a wine-tasting cellar, a boutique and a billiards room. The ruin he began with is now the flagship of the Relais & Chateaux chain. So much for the comforts, then. But what about the food?

That?s even better. It is important to keep in mind that La Cote d?Or is not a hotel with a restaurant, but a restaurant that offers five-star hotel accommodations as well. Bernard Loiseau is first and foremost a cook, and as he progressed from a skinny, vibrant kid to the universally admired master chef he is today, his cooking followed the same ascendant line, growing sharper, less derivative, more and more strongly marked by the personal signature of its creator. Papa Michelin followed his progress approvingly, awarding him his first star in 1977, his second in 1981 and his third ? the apotheosis of all chefs everywhere ? in 1991. There are 20-odd three-star establishments in France, and Loiseau?s is perhaps the most interesting of the lot, for several reasons: for the debauch of comfort and elegance with which he endowed sleeping, dining and relaxing rooms; for the bright, youthful staff he brought together under the affably perfectionist Hubert Couilloud, my candidate for the best maitre d?hotel in France; for the generalized atmosphere of luxurious calm that approaches something like serenity; but most of all for the cuisine.

?Revolutionary? is an egregiously overused word, but it is something close to a revolution when a French cook abandons, for all intents and purposes, fats and fonds and demi-glaces, when he eschews cream for his sauces and ditches fumets de poisson, the fish stocks so widely used elsewhere to give depth of taste to seafood. The result is an extremely refined cuisine of essences that can be made only at the last minute with the freshest of ingredients, and requires extraordinary skill and timing on the part of kitchen staff, who work almost exclusively with Teflon pans. Heart and health are served by the radically low-fat cuisine that results, but the miracle is that Loiseau does not sacrifice taste or texture in the process. By clever infusions, by juggling natural aromatics (especially truffles) and concentrating tastes by reduction, Loiseau achieves that ancient ideal of French cooking ? things should taste like what they are ? while taking his guests on a gustatory masterpiece of invention. If his card contains all the sorts of delices that gourmets would expect in a three-star restaurant ? caviar, foie gras, turbot, lobster, sweetbreads, lamb, truffled chicken ? the way they come out is new, unexpected, surprising but always glorious.

Loiseau?s influence is already making itself felt in the world of contemporary French cooking, but rare, indeed, are those who even approach the precision of his touch or the subtlety of his taste. Many try, but then again, there is no one quite like Bernard Loiseau.

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