Petites Histoires des Grand Chefs

It was the 90s and a lady friend from Mar del Plata in Argentina was dying to have dinner at La Tour d’Argent, the internationally acclaimed monument to history and gastronomy. The owner, M. Claude Terrail, didn’t just present food, he made his profession shine.


It was the 90s and a lady friend from Mar del Plata in Argentina was dying to have dinner at La Tour d’Argent, the internationally acclaimed monument to history and gastronomy. The owner, M. Claude Terrail, didn’t just present food, he made his profession shine.

In the history of the restaurant business you can count on one hand the professionals of this caliber such as Jean-Claude Vriniat of Taillevent and René Laserre of Laserre.,, I will always remember his response to a journalist who chided him for not having modified his menu after losing his 3rd Michelin star: ” Does one demand that the Comedie-Française change their repertoire.”

14tour-1.190Claude was known for two things: the flower in the lapel of his always impeccably tailored suit and le baisemain, the courteous hand kiss, that he delivered with complete deference to all his female guests.

Founded in 1582 by the great chef Rourteau, L’Hostellerie de la Tour d’Argent was to become the crown jewel of French cuisine, frequented by kings and dignitaries. Henry IV, Louis XIV, Cardinal Richelieu and the writers Madame de Sévigné, George Sand, Alfred du Musset, Balzac, Proust, not to mention celebrities and artists.

It was in 1911 that La Tour d’Argent fell into the hands of the Terrail family. André Terrail was the official supplier of French wines to the courts of England, Russia and Prussia and he stocked his cellar with exceptional wines.

As a smart entrepeneur, he also supplied the hotel George V and turned over the kitchen of La Tour d’Argent to François Lespinas, former chef to the King of Egypt, who earned a third Michelin star in 1933. His son Claude dreamed of being an actor. Far from being an obstacle he took over the reins of the restaurant after the Second World War, reinventing the job due to his charm and manner, sense of hospitality and legendary elegance. He transformed this cathedral of gastronomy into a theater where every night was a celebration.

The famous dining room with it’s own express elevator crowns the top floor of the building and offers views of Notre-Dame, la Seine and l’ile de la Cité.To be seated at the bay window was considered a privilege. He shared the life of an actor having been engaged to Ava Gardner and was a friend of Sacha Guitry, Frank Sinatra, Orson Welles, Errol Flynn, John Wayne and many others.

Today La Tour d’Argent retains but one star but it’s fame remains intact.

Duck number postcard Tour d'Argent

Wanting to please my charming friend I decided to reserve a table with a view of Notre-Dame. At 8:30 we presented ourselves in the lobby and were lead to the elevator and seated. After an apéririf and langoustines we were ready for the main course, the famous canard Tour d’Argent for two. Each duck from Challans has been numbered since its creation in 1890 and is served according to an unchanged ritual. The duck is sliced on a pedestal table, the carcass is crushed in a silver press to extract the last drop of juice, then sprinkled with cognac,lemon juice and madeira. Our duck arrived whole on a silver platter and was proudly presented by the maitre d’ who was as stiff as a judge.He awaited my approval. I admired my beautiful plump duck with the golden skin exactly as I wished.

But there, next to my duck, was an unexpected accompaniment. Were my eyes deceiving me…was it possible? Yes, it was a giant cockroach, its skin crunchy like the bird.  His presence was at the very least anachronistic, we aren’t yet prepared to accept insects, even though they may be the protein of the future!

Not wanting to be a wise guy, preferring to be discreet, I summoned the maitre’d  and told him that we had loved the entrée but wanted to change our main course.  I would, of course, still pay for the duck.

He said: “Monsieur, is our duck too rare?”

I responded:”Take a look at the serving platter?”

He turned on his heels and rushed towards the kitchen. Not long thereafter a shocked M.Terrail approached me. “Monsieur Nahmias, may I please apologize” and added something extraordinary that I will never forget.” I’ve been fighting these bugs for twenty years and I still can’t get rid of them.” The entire dining room team bustled about me even more attentively.

After dessert M Terrail came back to the table and said:

“M. Nahmias, you haven’t visited our wine cellar, have you?”

I knew that he had the most prestigious cellar in the world with over 500,000 bottles of extraordinary vintages of Petrus, Cheval Blanc.. So I received a personal guided tour. Out of the blue he asked me:

“M. Nahmias, what is the year of your birth?” And he handed me a 1945 Cognac in a beautiful wooden box.

Knowing M.Terrail to be a little “tight with a buck” I knew this was an enormous gesture on his part. He wanted to buy my silence. I have kept this secret until today?

Excerpted and translated by Terrance Gelenter with apologies to the Academie Française.

Petites Histoires de Grand Chefs is available on line and at bookstores in France.

Video interview in French

Philippe Labbé ,who earned two stars in first year at Paris' L'Abeille,after a stellar career at La Chèvre d'Or in Eze Villages has just taken over the kitchen, and we can only hope that the majestic setting will once again have cuisine to match.-Terrance

 New Review by Dick Aherne

"Albert Nahmias' collection of conversations with some of France's food and restaurant geniuses of a few years ago is marvelous.  Unfortunately it is only available in French.  But no need to sigh over that - candidly I doubt it would translate well.  It is written in that breezy conversational style used by Parisians and people of the world, from journalist to abstract intellectual.  Delightful, sophisticated, full of style, etc.  But a style that often eschews such staid English-language conventions as sentences, and much punctuation, in favour of phrases, hyphens, paragraphs that trail off....
The book's a wonderful reminder of one of the most creative periods in cooking, preparation, and appreciation of food.  This legendary "nouvelle cusine" of which he largely writes can, with the passage of a few years, now be seen for what it was: just one more evolutionary phase in the centuries of French attention to how to make the most of their natural bounty. 
Largely, and happily, as Nahmias' conversations show, the era's young creators went about their innovations with the tools and techniques of the ages.  If, for example, truffe sous la cendre was as good a candidate as ever existed for "best single dish of all time", well, then, yes, nouvelle cuisine would include a truffe sous la cendre.  But it would be a better truffe sous la cendre.  
I think it's perfectly fine that much of what he glorifies is thus in a sense not nouvelle at all . As in past centuries the traditions and practices live and grow only through constant questioning of the old, through fresh new approaches, fresh ideas about the oldest of habits and products.  
In other words except perhaps in the fevered minds of a few largely NY and California food writers of the time and since - whose banality and cliches can be painful to endure - the nouvelle cuisine  scene Nahmias pictures is really one of "old ways are best ways".  With the understanding that that only works if in a culture which values - brings along - bright new creative minds.
I was delighted with his selection of "geniuses".  Though sorry he did not include two I consider among the best of all - Pacaud, of Ambroisie in Paris, and the Haeberlins at the Auberge de l'Ill in Illhaeusern.  His encouraging style I think would've done well with both.

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