After having spent an afternoon with Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenée the longtime expat journalist and author of The Perfectionist´: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine and the just published I’ll Drink to That Rudy Chelminski, accompanied by his wife Brien met me at the literary in-spot in the 6th, Les Editeurs, for –surprise, un café!
TG: When did you first come to Paris?
RC: I came in ’61 as a student at Sciences Po.
TG: From where? (Conversational license)
RC: I was born and raised in Connecticut. After college and a couple of years in the Army I was working in Denver at The Rocky Mountain News. In ’60 I got a French Government fellowship to come to Sciences Po. I did that for a year and then went back to New York and was hired by LIFE magazine and six months later I was sent back to Paris as a correspondent where I stayed until LIFE died in 1973.
TG: Did you have a specific beat?
RC: No, anything in the world that wasn’t the states. I was in the Congo, Cyprus, and Vietnam. I had a little two-year hiatus between ’68 and ’70 as Moscow Bureau Chief I was Chief of Myself. And then back to Paris in ’71 and by ’73 LIFE was dead and I was faced with the prospect of going back to the states and working with TIME magazine or NEWSWEEK so I decided to simplify my life and stay in Paris as a freelancer. As you know all freelancers are bathing in money and it’s an easy life. In ’76, the year of the canicule (heat wave) we moved to the country where for the price of an apartment in Paris we could have a big house in the country next to Fontainebleu and we’ve been there for the past 31 years.
TG: Why did you stay in France?
RC: I like Paris. When I was here as a student the French government paid me richly-400 francs a month to live. I like the French way of life and Paris is beautiful. And I suppose my sense of aesthetics is a large part of it, I enjoy the culture, the food, the wine. I would say that for style of living Paris is the center of the world.
TG: Do you remember the first French wine that you drank?
RC: No, but undoubtedly it was at my parents’ house. My parents had both been more or less raised in Europe, my father in Switzerland and my mother with her parents who blew their money making the grand tour.
I can however give you a little anecdote about wine. As a student on 400 francs a month ($100 a month) I was always broke; I had to pay for the hotel and eat on that money. I ate in a student restaurant for one franc-entrée, plat, dessert and wine. I came over on the Flandres on a Fulbright travel grant and on the way home I was on the Queen Elizabeth and I couldn’t imagine not having wine on the boat which I couldn’t afford so in Le Havre I went to the nearest cut-rate shop and bought a dozen bottles of the cheapest red rot gut I could find and confided it to the ship’s sommelier in the tourist class restaurant and with every meal that Englishman would very solemnly bring out my wine and serve me. I’ve since graduated to more elegant stuff.
TG: Do you remember your first glass of really good French wine?
RC: It was a 1964 Meursault Charmes which I had with Brien at a hotel in Ireland at Drumoland Castle. It was just shortly after we were married and my LIFE magazine boss had just done a story on Irish castle hotels and he called the owner and said: “ Help these guys out, please,” so we got 3 or 4 days free and that’s when I tasted my first great wine.
TG: And you knew it instantly?
RC: Oh, yeah. It was a big experience. A curious thing but all of my most memorable experiences with wine have been with whites rather than reds-a great Meursault and even a sauvignon blanc from time to time. I think that whites tend to be more aromatic than reds.
TG: When did you begin to really educate yourself about wine?
RC: Almost as soon as I was married and stopped traveling so much. In about 1970 I started getting plugged in to French gastronomic establishments through Paul Bocuse who is my friend, mentor and hero. I love him dearly. I had helped out with a TIME Magazine interview with Paul and got to know him. We became good friends and from him I went to Michel GUERARD, Alain CHAPEL, Pierre TROISGROIS and all the other great chefs.
TG: Paul almost seems American in size, appetite and marketing style.
RC: Nah, the Americans don’t have that sort of appetite. The Americans don’t have the balls that Paul Bocuse does. Paul gets away with it. He’s a fantastic man. He gets away with something that would never pass in the states. He lives openly with three women, his wife and two mistresses. “Il trompe ses maitresse.” (He cheats on his mistress.) One is the mother of his son, the second one, Patricia, runs his businesses outside of the main restaurant and it’s one big happy family. But he’s an amazing man. He knows everything there is to know about food and cooking. He’s very intelligent. Every three star chef is smart, passionate.
TG: Your previous book, THE PERFECTIONIST: LIFE AND DEATH IN HAUTE CUISINE was about Bernard Loiseau’s suicide in anticipation of the loss of a third Michelin star. Talk about the pressures involved in achieving and sustaining a 3 star restaurant.
RC: Bernard was a kid when he started-sixteen when he apprenticed to the Trisgros boys in Roanne and he just happened to arrive in the very week when they won their third star. Pierre and Jean Trosigros offered champagne to the kitchen staff and that was unknown-you just don’t give champagne to the kids working in the kitchen. And it sounds hackneyed but from that moment on Bernard had stars in his eyes. He said: “Someday I’m going to reach that-and he did win three stars but he exhausted himself doing it and he was also bi-polar and manic–depressive. For a period in the nineties he was the hot thing but at the end of the nineties his cuisine began to go out of fashion and Bernard was shattered. He didn’t know how to do anything else but the cuisine he had developed. In 2003 rumors were flying that he would lose a star and it was a Monday in February of ’03 at his restaurant in Saulieu when he went home and killed himself. There were only two clients in room that could seat 100 people. I would say he went mad.
TG: When did you first start to appreciate Beaujolais?
RC: That was in 1971 when I first met Bocuse. I had my first meal at his restaurant and he served a Brouilly, one of the very good crus of the Beaujolais. He then sent me up to see (Georges) Duboeuf who was delighted to see people who are interested in Beaujolais wines. He always sends journalists to see his friends and I then began to taste other Beaujolais. Most people don’t realize that there isn’t just one Beaujolais, but thirteen. There’s generic Beaujolais, Beaujolais Villages, Nouveau Beaujolais and the ten crus. Within the cru there are several gradations but the most special is Moulin-a vent. It is usually the most expensive and longest lasting. As I mention in the book a 1929 that was drank by a colleague a few years ago was absolutely perfect and worth any Volnay (Burgundy) he had ever had. You can say that as a general rule Burgundies are bigger wines than Beaujolais, no question about it, but they are also much more expensive but as Frank Prial said: There are few great Burgundies and they tend to be overpriced whereas there is very little bad Beaujolais and the very good Beaujolais are absolutely superb.
TG: You resurrected a name from my wine past that I hadn’t heard in years but who I quoted frequently in my youth, Alexis Lichine. Talk about this force of nature and self-invention.
RC: I met Lichine and spent two nights at Chateau Prieure-Lichine and he even sold me a few cases of Prieure-Lichine 1975. He was quite an extraordinary guy. In a way he was a bluffer like any raconteur, like any guy with a big personality. You have to say that he knew wine from A-Z. He was passionately devoted to it. This being said there was nothing he loved better than giving lectures about wine, himself and his beautiful wife Arlene Dahl. He was something of a fabulist but he could get away with it because he had the underlying quality of really knowing his business. So you would go to his place and he’d instantly invite you to dinner and put you up for the night, pour you beautiful wines and tell you what a great guy he was, in a sophisticated, subtle way.
He and his early partner Frank Schoonmaker originated the system, that has almost become universal, except in France, of varietals, of referring to wines not as Mersault Charmes but as a sauvignon blanc, or pinot noir. It was a much more honest system because Gallo and others would no longer label their wines as Beaujolais or Bordeaux. They would call it according to the grape.
TG: Talk a little more about Georges and the Beaujolais Nouveau phenomenon that to some degree has discredited the great crus.
RC: There is a feeling around the world that Duboeuf invented Beaujolais Nouveau but he didn’t-it had been around for centuries. When Duboeuf got into the wine business it was already being bottled and sold in stores but he recognized it as a phenomenon and asked his vignerons to vinify some of their wine as Beaujolais Nouveau. You vinify by macerating for four or five days instead of eight or nine. It’s a simpler wine, a pleasant little wine.
TG: My Thanksgiving wine.
RC: Exactly. As I say in the book Thanksgiving breaks up the early winter routine in the states and in France there is nothing to break it up between the end of summer vacation and Christmas it just gets colder and rainier and more depressing. So around Nov 15 (third Thursday in November) was the perfect time to break this with a little glass of sunshine-Beaujolais Nouveau. It’s a fun thing to do.
TG: How would you describe Duboeuf’s importance in the French wine industry?
RC: He’s tremendously important. He’s the number one negociant in Beaujolais of course. He is not the biggest in France but he’s passionately devoted to wine, totally honest and he loves the area he comes from. He’s a model of modern capitalism. He started literally with two bottles of wine on the back of his bike and he built up a mini-empire.