My father did a lot of entertaining and event planning for the Dade County Medical Association in Miami, Florida, when I was growing up. For my 14th birthday in 1966, our family went to La Parisienne Restaurant on Miami Beach to celebrate. We ordered and ate snails for the first time. This was mostly a dare between my brothers and me but it turned out I loved them. They arrived bubbling in the garlicky butter with fresh parsley and lemon juice, and I sopped up every drop with the crusty French bread. We were off to a great start.
The entrée my father had ordered arrived next. It was rack of lamb á la bouquetiere, and I was awestruck with the presentation. The vegetables were beautifully arranged on the silver platter and framed the racks of lamb, whose individual ribs had been tipped with fancy paper crowns. There were colorful clusters of green broccoli, orange baby carrots that had been trimmed to identical size, beautiful whole mushrooms and neatly arranged asparagus spears. This in turn was all framed by a border of Duchess potatoes that had been mashed, piped through a pastry bag and then placed under the broiler until the ridges made by the fluted pastry bag tip were delicately browned. The waiter then carved the lamb, table side, into cutlets, arranged them with the vegetables on our plates and served us. My father ordered a bottle of his beloved Volnay from Burgundy and we were allowed to have a glass as well. “Wahoo,” I thought. “THIS is living!”
Dad was a member of the Chaine de Rotisseurs and the Physicians Wine Guild, and I adopted his passion for cooking and fine French wines. He let me take tastes of many different wines, both at home and when we dined out. Not only did he love to cook, but we also used to frequent the restaurants of the classic 1960s hotels like the Fountainbleu, Doral and Eden Roc. Back then, if it was fine dining, the restaurant genre virtually had to be French. Smitten by all of this, by the time I turned 15 years old I was learning to cook and reading books about the history and traditions of the French wine regions. Of course, you could not read about the wines without encountering a detailed account of the gastronomy. I also learned about the great gastronomes in history. Prosper Montagné, Auguste Escoffier, Antonin Carême and la Varenne became my culinary heroes. Their names were more meaningful to me than the ‘60s sports heroes, like Johnny Unitas or Yogi Berra were to my brothers. Yes, I was quite the young geek!
For my 15th birthday I got an omelet pan – I swear. All the other kids in the neighborhood were out riding their bikes or throwing around the pigskin, while I was in the kitchen whipping up a Gruyère omelet. Thanks, Mom. The thing that really sealed the deal for me came in high school when I learned if I asked for French wine in a liquor store they would never ask for identification. “A nice bottle of Corton, please,” and I was in. My expertise was understandably very limited and my ability to pronounce the wines in French was limited to two syllables. I focused on the reds of Burgundy, my father’s favorite region. We would buy a couple of bottles of two-syllable Burgundy, do a little shopping at a gourmet store and then head off to the beach with our booty. I would cook escargots, bubbling up in their shells with garlic and butter in a Dutch oven, and grill duck over the charcoal. People around us flipping burgers and drinking beer thought we were nuts; we sure thought we were cool.
An old copy of the encyclopedic “Larousse Gastronomique” (left) became my bible. I even named my dog after the author later in life. Specifically my copy was the 1961 Crown edition, which was the first English translation of the monumental work, and not the more modern and watered down (but certainly more practical) version. I could spend hours perusing the pages and reveling in the lore – entries about sumptuous banquets, biographies of culinary superstars, and the vague, sketchy recipes that often seem insane by any standard today. One of my favorite recipes is for meat extract. It starts out with ingredients calling for a calf (or one-quarter of a beef carcass), two dozen old hens, a couple of sheep and a large pot. Large pot … no kidding. The trivia and information in this book, which you can find relatively easily and cheaply on Amazon.com, is wonderful for anyone with a penchant for learning about pre-World War II wine and wine with foods, and deepening their understanding of French food and wine. And it is not only a great resource, but a lot of the information is really a hoot!
Another seminal book for me, written by an American in 1958, is Waverly Root’s “The Food of France.” The book divides France into three primary domains, based on the principal type of oil mainly used in different regions: olive oil, butter or lard. This ingenious approach demonstrates how climate and terrain dictate what can be grown, and how regions at opposite borders can share very common elements used in defining the cuisine. Where you have mountains and colder climates, lard is the only logical choice – olive trees don’t grow and cows are not practical for the terrain. Where olive trees flourish, you will be in a much warmer climate. Leeks, garlic and fresh herbs are bountiful, along with the rice and even the similarity of fish that come from the warmer Mediterranean waters. Find arable land and a cool climate such as in the north, and voilà – butter and cream. Compare a Mediterranean fish soup, redolent with olive oil, garlic and saffron, with one from the north containing butter, cream and possibly potatoes, and you’ll easily see how long ago the regions shaped the cuisines. This book was instrumental in creating the sense of connectedness between products and places for me.
For most of my early career as a chef, and even when I entered the wine trade in 1979, I was immersed in French cuisine and was a diehard Francophile in terms of my wine preferences. I was really confident of my knowledge of the classic wine and food matches. I could dazzle people with the regional rationale and all of the pseudo-sciences that explain why certain It all goes back to the principle so clearly stated in “Larousse Gastronomique,” that the choice between red or white, dry or sweet wine, should always be to offer choices with every course and make sure that our ideals of wine and food pairings are put aside, “if the guest prefers.”
Here are the principles of truly great French wine and food:
- Be proud of your history, land and culture.
- Grow food and grapes with great care; then prepare your cuisine and make your wine with passion.
- Ensure your love of family and community are always held in greater importance than propriety and any sort of false rules of wine and food matching.
- Eat the foods and drink the wines that you love the most.
- When you share wine with others, offer your guests a choice of wines and do not presume everyone is going to like the intense dry red or high-acidity dry white wines, regardless of our personal passions or convictions.
My unabashed passion for French cuisine and French wines has never diminished and the love affair continues to this day. When I am entertaining, I still love to cook classic French foods and truly love to immerse myself and others in the rich diversity of French wines. But you can bet I do not impose my idealistic wine and food pairing folly on my guests. When you come to my house, you can have white wine with the lamb, red with your oysters, and you will probably be thunderstruck at how wonderful the wrong wines can be with most dishes. I will serve the wines I love but am always delighted to open another bottle of something different, if my guests prefer.