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Gerard Pangaud—culinary genius, business mediocrity, kitchen tyrant—is a one-man French cliche. And that’s one reason his American students love him.
Photographs by Pilar Vergara
Everyone calls Gerard Pangaud “Chef.” Not “Gerard.” Not “Mr. Pangaud.” Not even “Monsieur Pangaud.” Just “Chef.” Like “Maestro.” Or “Professor.” Or “Swami.”
Right now, Chef’s pose looks a little like a swami’s. He’s in a small restaurant kitchen, holding up his hands for a class full of lesser gastronomes to see. Not that you’d know it from the enchanted looks on the assembled faces, but the hands themselves—the small but strong hands of a stocky man, their color dulled by a light dusting of flour—are not, in this particular instance, of utmost importance. It’s what he does with them: There’s no space between his fingers.
And as he plops a slab of dough onto a metal counter, D.C.’s only two-Michelin-star chef explains, “When working a dough, it’s best to keep tight your fingers.” Keeping tight their own fingers around pencils, class members jot this wisdom down. When a famous chef talks, foodies listen.
Twenty-one people have wiggled into the kitchen for this week’s class: Pangaud; his two young staffers; his volunteer assistant, Jim Anderes; and 17 students, all of them amateur cooks. This makes roughly a dozen more people than the kitchen can comfortably accommodate.
Pangaud, however, moves around unimpeded. One minute, he’s rolling thin the dough that will eventually be transformed into the round biscuits on which he’ll place a series of multilayered, comically byzantine chocolate cakes. The next, he’s on the other side of the room, whipping egg whites and discoursing in intelligibly broken English about how hard it is to integrate dense chocolate with the resulting cloudlike substance.
The class members take it all in with the kind of casual seriousness that makes them look more like fans than students. Which is appropriate: The majority are regulars of Pangaud’s Saturday morning cooking demonstrations, which he’s been conducting—whenever his schedule allows—since he opened the restaurant, Gerard’s Place, early in 1993.
And despite the fact that the classes are meant for food and cooking enthusiasts rather than aspiring professionals, Pangaud takes the sessions even more seriously than his pupils. At one point during his dough demonstration, a clutch of students begin talking amongst themselves. “Do you want to teach the class?” Chef barks. “That’s no problem. I go play golf.”
A little later, when a student inquires about the number of egg yolks he’s using in the cake recipe, Chef is no nicer: “It’s on the recipe,” he snaps. “That’s why I give you recipe.”
The student, it should be noted, is the grade-schooler daughter of a couple of Saturday regulars.
Spend enough time in Pangaud’s class, though, and you get the feeling that he is playing the crabby chef for the same reason rock stars trash hotel rooms: It’s a ritual of the profession, and the public eats it up. Indeed, Pangaud is a veritable compendium of American cliches about France, from his failed restaurants to his accent to his self-description as “more of an artist than a businessman” to his nearly exclusive use of the plural when employing the word “girlfriend.” Kitchen cantankerousness is just part of what students are buying for $70 a session. Even recipe-ignoring youngsters seem to get the joke.
A married couple who claim to have attended every class ever given at Gerard’s Place introduce themselves as “groupies.” Anderes, who has even accompanied Pangaud on trips to France, says that he draws on his military training during every class: “I listen. I say, ‘Yes, Chef,’ and things work out OK.”
Pangaud, in fact, is a thoughtful and exacting instructor. If he occasionally snaps at questions, he also encourages his students to ask them. His classes, though, seem more about voyeurism and performance art than simple instruction. Today’s chocolate cakes are pure food porn, taking up most of this three-hour demonstration. In the same session, he also prepares foie gras, from cleaning to poaching to plating with wild mushrooms and a pinch of coarse salt. The entree is a wintry dish of sauteed cod with potatoes, celery, and artichokes.
But, gorgeous presentation and admiring acolytes notwithstanding, Pangaud does not fit the profile of a modern celebrity chef. He has no television show, he has authored no cookbooks (“My mother never used one”), and his most recent attempt to expand his empire beyond his one tiny restaurant failed with a quick and resounding thud.
Pangaud’s stature among foodies is considerable and well-deserved. In his teens and early 20s, the French native apprenticed with some of the most celebrated chefs in France. At the age of 28, he became the youngest chef ever to earn two stars from the prestigious Guide Michelin, an honor akin to culinary knighthood in France. He once prepared his signature dish—poached lobster with ginger, lime, and Sauternes—for a banquet at the Chateau de Versailles attended by numerous heads of state, Ronald Reagan included.
Bob Kinkead, chef and owner of Kinkead’s, the highly respected Foggy Bottom seafood restaurant, first met Pangaud more 20 years ago when he visited Pangaud’s restaurant in Paris. He calls the Frenchman “one of the best natural cooks I ever saw.”
And Chef’s a natural at a few other things, too. While preparing a ganache during class, he gets a bit of chocolate on his finger. It’s not an accident. He extends the darkened digit toward a pretty female student.
“It’s awful,” the student teases, having licked the finger clean. “I’ll need to try some more.”
Feigning horror, Pangaud asks, “Which is awful? The chocolate? Or the finger of the chef?”
Watch Pangaud work with his students or his restaurant staff, and you begin to understand that the way to learn from him is in bits and pieces. You may lack the equipment, ingredients, and manpower to duplicate his relatively simple cod recipe—for starters, it requires veal stock and the simultaneous cooking of potatoes, celery, and artichokes in separate pots—but you can come away from his demonstration with some valuable tips: A serrated bread knife is the best tool to use for cleaning an artichoke. When seasoning cod, leave the upward-facing side white and free of pepper.
And as for potatoes, “Believe me, it’s much better to salt the water than to salt the potatoes later. It’s a better taste. The best potatoes come from the seaside, because of the salt in the air.”
Pangaud repeatedly explains that every ingredient that ends up on one of his plates serves a purpose. As he peels and slices celery stalks into tiny little rods, he explains, “When I do a garnish, I don’t just look at the ceiling and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to do that.’ There’s a reason behind it.” He chose celery for this particular recipe because he wanted a variety of textures: Cod and potatoes are soft; celery is not.
At a class in December, Pangaud says that if he were to prepare the same dish in the spring or summer, he’d perhaps “lighten” it by adding tomatoes and herbs to the onions he cooks with a reduction of veal stock and white wine. To further illustrate his point, Pangaud mentions two different Van Gogh landscapes painted at different times of year: The colors and shades in the two paintings are radically different, though both depict the same scene along the river Seine. “Do you see what I’m saying?” he asks.
For many students, moments such as these—when the chef imparts the secrets of his craft while linking it to high art—are enough to justify the price of admission.
There are other benefits, of course. For one, classes always end with a three-course meal composed of the dishes just prepared, complete with formal, ladies-served-first table service and fine French wines.
The foodies lap up the ambiance. Lunchtime conversations between students revolve around butter that can be found only in the cheese sections of gourmet groceries. Or they discuss the criminal behavior of companies that label their “chocolate” as chocolate when it’s not really chocolate. After taking one sip of a ’96 Chateau de Chorey-les-Beaune during a post-class meal, one student immediately announces that the wine “needs another two years.”
“I think the chance to be able to go and work with a former Michelin two-star chef—I mean, there’s only one other in the United States,” explain Anderes, who along with his wife, Bonnie Anderes, has been assisting Pangaud in his classes unpaid for seven years. “And [Pangaud]’s an absolutely superb instructor. It’s just amazing what he can do with food and just organizing things. It’s phenomenal.”
Teaching a weekend gourmet how to devein duck liver is one thing. Pangaud, however, has higher goals for some of his professional acolytes: “[My] greatest ambition is to have one of the great chefs in the country to come from my restaurant.” And that prospect is actually a lot more likely than one of his Saturday students’ pulling off a flawless ganache.
Pangaud’s position in the galaxy/fraternity of chefdom means that he takes mentorship seriously. His current sous chef, Eric McCoy, has worked with Pangaud for three years. At 25, McCoy is young relative to the responsibilities bestowed on him. And because his boss’ schedule is erratic, he’s often left in charge of the $39 poached lobsters and $21 duck foie gras appetizers for which Gerard’s Place is known.
“When I took over as sous chef, I’m like, ‘I don’t think I’m ready for this,’” McCoy remembers. “He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll make sure everything is fine.’”
In fact, Pangaud’s past three sous chefs—McCoy, Lisa Nakamura (now at the French Laundry in Napa Valley), and Jonathan Krinn (now at Union Pacific in New York)—all thought hard before taking over the job. Pangaud likes his underlings green, mostly because he prefers to form young chefs in his own mold. Older, more experienced cooks, he says, “have already learned bad habits.” Plus, he asks, “Why do I need to hire someone strong to do my job?”
It’s important to Pangaud that the experiences of his proteges hew closely to his own; he’s arranged for both McCoy and Krinn to spend a summer overseas as a stagiaire—the French term for culinary apprentice—in a two- or three-starred French restaurant. Krinn credits Pangaud for getting him a position at Louis XV, chef Alain Ducasse’s three-star restaurant in Monte Carlo.
And if the Saturday morning regulars get the stage version of the tyrannical-French-chef cliche, his co-workers get the real thing. When Pangaud partnered with former Lion d’Or chef Michel Pradier, in 1998, to run Pangaud’s short-lived Georgetown bistro, Vintage, the marriage lasted only a few weeks. Acquaintances of both men say that Pangaud simply didn’t know how to make room in the kitchen for a chef of Pradier’s experience.
Nakamura, who credits Pangaud for getting her into the prestigious French Laundry, admits that she was scared at first to work for the short-fused chef; she half-jokingly mentions that her old boss could “get great volume” during his tirades.
And McCoy, the incumbent underling, says that Pangaud has “definitely mellowed” over the years. The sous chef calls his boss “a really, really nice guy. Some people don’t think that, because they see the classic French chef in the kitchen going, ‘What are you doing? I told you not to do it that way! Why don’t you pay attention to me?’….Everything that happens outside of the kitchen is a totally different story.”
Pangaud himself insists that he’s cut back on the yelling as of late, in a development he credits both to sobriety and to his need to attract, and keep, talent. But McCoy obviously knows Pangaud’s temper well enough to do a killer imitation when Chef has to cut out for an appointment one Saturday. Reacting to an imaginary kitchen crisis, McCoy offers a stream of heavily accented curse words. “Sheet!” he cries, stirring an imaginary sauce that clearly isn’t cooperating. “Sheet!”
The mousse-thick accent notwithstanding, Pangaud is actually well into his second decade on this side of the Atlantic. Lured to New York in 1985 by the legendary restaurateur Joe Baum, the man responsible for, among other things, turning the Four Seasons into a culinary mecca, Pangaud landed in the D.C. area five years after that.
By many measures, Pangaud’s career as a chef in America has fallen short of his youthful promise. Aurora, the restaurant he opened with Baum in New York, never found its financial footing. The Manhattan version of Gerard’s Place barely got off the ground. Starting at the Ritz Carlton in Arlington, Pangaud found more success in D.C., but a gourmet selection of personal foibles has helped keep the success modest. He openly admits that alcoholism and a less-than-acute business sense have broken his stride, and some of his friends speak sadly of the way in which he has, in their eyes, frittered away his exceptional gifts.
But great chefs are unlike other artists in that appreciating their work means being there at the point of creation; and Pangaud, who recently turned 48, is still producing. And he claims to harbor no desire to return to France or, for that matter, even to leave Washington. Paris and New York are sacred proving grounds for chefs of a certain caliber and ambition, but the pressures in those markets are intense and potentially ruinous. Pangaud doesn’t want any part of that. Not anymore.
“I am a recovering alcoholic,” Pangaud says. “New York was not the right place for me. So I tried to find a slower pace and a better lifestyle, and Washington is giving me that. It’s not as sophisticated or as glamorous as Paris and New York. But it’s a much better quality of life for a chef.”
Just because Pangaud has a home in Washington, though, doesn’t mean that he fully understands the country it represents. When I enter Gerard’s Place one Saturday morning for class, the chef is chatting with early-arriving students over coffee. “We live in a country where people understand the discipline of a football coach,” he’s saying, “but they don’t understand the discipline of a chef. I am not stupid, and it took me eight years of working in great restaurants to become a chef. Here, people want to do it in three years.”
Like all French-born and trained chefs, Pangaud honed his craft in restaurants only after a lifetime of being, well, French—meaning that he began his career with a bedrock appreciation of all things culinary. The son of two hairdressers, he grew up in a Paris suburb. He says that his becoming a successful chef represents the fulfillment of his father’s dream, but it was his mother who nurtured his talent.
“When she was cooking dinner, one of my games was to help her,” Pangaud recalls. His speaking voice is musical and slow-moving; he elongates many soft vowels, and certain words seem to gain a syllable on their way out of his mouth. “When I was little, I’d help her stir the vinaigrette. After a while, I would stir the vinaigrette by myself.”
At 15, Pangaud entered the Ecole Hotelier in Paris. Although the school is geared more toward educating aspiring hotel and restaurant workers than training chefs, Pangaud fell in with a teacher who ran a seasonal restaurant in the Basque country, at which Pangaud eventually served an apprenticeship. Later, in his early 20s, Pangaud took his first head-chef gig at Sankt Stefanskeller, a small restaurant in Germany with one Michelin star. By then, the young upstart had already worked under some of France’s most accomplished chefs, including Michelin-anointed knights Joseph Rostang and the brothers Pierre and Jean Troisgros.
The early stages of Pangaud’s career were a fairly typical—albeit rather accelerated—version of the classic French-chef-in-training story. Traditionally, underlings in French kitchens are forced to prove their mettle through years of servitude with little or no pay. Advancing through the hierarchy commonly requires performing menial tasks, impassively absorbing insults, and winning the approval of temperamental chefs who are generally unwilling to share secrets of the craft.
“I worked at a period when we were still working six days a week,” Pangaud explains, referring to his neophyte years. “Lunch and dinner. With a lot of verbal abuse. It’s a very difficult environment.”
But his devotion paid off. Pangaud became a chef-owner for the first time in 1976, when he opened Gerard Pangaud, a tiny restaurant near the stock exchange in Paris. Michelin awarded the restaurant one star shortly after it launched. A few years later, the chef earned two Michelin stars for a second eponymous restaurant, in the Paris suburb of Boulogne.
It’s hard to overstate the prestige bestowed on chefs—particularly French chefs—who achieve Michelin-star status. The French tire company, through its travel guides, has been rating European restaurants since 1920, the year it quit accepting advertising in order to cultivate an aura of impartiality. The annual guides offer no qualitative analysis of the restaurants they rate, only the ratings themselves. One star indicates “a very good restaurant in its category”; two stars signify a place with “excellent cooking, worth a detour”; and three stars, the highest rating, refer to “exceptional cuisine” worthy of a “special journey.”
Michelin deifies chefs in a way that can’t be expressed through American cultural idioms. Relatively few restaurants are awarded any stars at all—which only adds to the mystique of those that are. French chefs of a certain temperament strive blindly for the approval of Michelin’s team of anonymous critics. In France, says Pangaud, “even people who can’t afford to go to great restaurants” at least know the names of the most highly regarded culinary institutions.
As recounted in William Echikson’s Burgundy Stars: A Year in the Life of a Great French Restaurant, chef Bernard Loiseau (with whom Pangaud once worked) famously sank nearly $3 million into his La Cote D’Or restaurant in an attempt to gain a third star—”the ultimate symbol of culinary excellence,” according to Echikson. As one oft-repeated tale has it, chef Alain Zick’s 1960s suicide suspiciously followed his Paris restaurant’s losing its only Michelin star.
There are but a handful of Michelin-starred chefs cooking in America, ostensibly because the honor brings enough prestige at home that European chefs see little reason to relocate to the capitalist, burger-loving States. (Jean-Louis Palladin, late of Jean-Louis at the Watergate, has two stars; when Pangaud became the youngest two-star winner in history, he came in two months ahead of his old D.C. colleague, who now runs restaurants in New York and Las Vegas.)
Unfortunately for Pangaud, he’s also living proof that entering the U.S. as a culinary prodigy doesn’t guarantee that you’ll remain one. “I don’t pretend to be the best in Washington,” he tells me, “but I pretend to be one of the best. And sometimes I’m surprised at the number of people living here who don’t know my restaurant.”
It’s true that a certain sensibility is required to appreciate much of what transpires on Saturday mornings at Gerard’s Place. But the question remains: Do you need to be a foodie to appreciate wine humor?
“I’ve got a joke,” announces a student from the far end of the table. She’s a 50-ish woman, and I’ve seen her at classes before. It’s after Pangaud’s class one late-winter Saturday, and Chef has excused himself to meet with his accountant.
An edited version: Pierre, “a brave fighter pilot,” is kissing his lover, Marie, on the banks of the Seine. He pours wine over Marie’s lips. “When I have red meat, I must have red wine,” he explains.
Marie begs Pierre to kiss her lower, and he does, only after pouring white wine over her breasts. “When I have white meat, I must have white wine,” he explains.
“Kiss me lower,” Marie moans, and Pierre responds by pouring cognac in her lap and striking a match. Marie jumps, flaming, into the river. She emerges puzzled. Pierre is unrepentant. “I am a famous fighter pilot!” he cries. “If I go down, I must go down in flames!”
The laughter and applause are so riotous, I’m sure a few in attendance forget to properly appreciate their dessert.
Pangaud teaches three recipes a week—one appetizer, one entree, one dessert—and he doesn’t dumb them down for the amateurs. The coffee service beforehand and the luncheon afterward can stretch out for four hours. He doesn’t dumb those down, either.
During the stretches of free-form social interaction in his restaurant’s dining room, Chef enjoys the kind of solitude bestowed on those—heads of state, aging authors, Mick Jagger—who, thanks to the accepted epic quality of their achievements, have earned the right to seem wholly unapproachable, even in public. Pangaud’s often quiet presence is hard to ignore.
When the class adjourns to the dining room for lunch, there’s always a bit of confusion among nonregulars as to where they should sit. Does Chef sit at the table’s head? (Answer: Sometimes, not always.) If not there, where? Can I sit next to him?
Do I want to?
Pangaud’s kitchen performances are virtually free of pregnant pauses. He loves to debunk. Cookbooks? “Exercises in self-promotion.” Pre-made phyllo dough? It’s useful, even to those who know how to make it from scratch. So-called light sauces? A myth.
To demonstrate this last point, Chef lets everyone taste a chicken-stock reduction that’s been finished with butter. He then pours lemon juice from an old Amstel Light bottle into the saucepan and passes it around again. The class’s collective eyebrows raise in response to the sauce’s faux-light transformation as the chef discourses on the folly of calorie counters. “Look at the people in the room,” he says. “We are all people who love food, and no one here is fat.”
Indeed, though he ably fills out his kitchen whites, Pangaud is not a terribly big man. During lunch one Saturday, a student whispers—when conversation turns to Pangaud, it’s always conducted at low volume—that Chef looks like a combination between Bob Hoskins and Phil Collins, which is just about right. His thin, boyish smile has no doubt gotten him into and out of more than a few entanglements, and he flashes it opportunistically, like when he wants to soften the blow of a playfully cutting remark (“Now that’s a stupid question,” he says, smiling, after Bonnie Anderes asks him if he plans to brown some onions) or excuse himself from obligation (five scheduled appointments
and at least a dozen unreturned phone calls yield me a grand total of two interviews: one short, one over lunch).
At work, meanwhile, the chef wears the countenance of pure, dark-eyebrowed professionalism. The face is stern and round, and it is reflected in that of Vanessa, his college-age daughter. She enters the kitchen from a back door one day to help serve lunch to the class. After kissing her, the chef quips, “Nice haircut,” in reference to his daughter’s nearly bald dome. She shrugs off the remark on her way out to the dining room.
Cradling a raw veal roast with one hand and trimming its fat with the other, Pangaud conveys a Zen-like connection to the meat. He explains that he’ll sear the veal in grapeseed oil—”A very good oil. It doesn’t taste much”—and then cook it slowly on the bone—which “is best, because the bone provides humidity.” He won’t rely on a timer to determine when the dish should be removed from the heat. By closing his eyes and touching the veal, he says, he can tell whether the meat is done. When that moment arrives, “I let the veal sit. The blood will redistribute through the flesh.”
To my left, a woman pops to the balls of her feet and whispers to her friend, “I’ve been waiting for this all week.”
Like most restaurant kitchens that sit out of customers’ view, Gerard’s Place’s is not impressive to behold. The door on the walk-in fridge creaks. The pans are dark and dented from years of use. When orders arrive, they get threaded through a tiny space that’s dwarfed by a few counters and a relatively small stove. A student asks how big the restaurant’s staff is. “At the moment,” Chef replies, “not big enough.”
Pangaud explains that he spent the early part of the year coping with two key staff defections. He says that his departed cooks were married, that their “wives didn’t understand that they had to work nights.” He looks a bit drawn and heavy of brow, but, characteristically, his voice doesn’t beg pity. Facts are facts. Things could be worse, no?
Pangaud opened Gerard’s Place on a shoestring, a few years after arriving in D.C. to cook at the Ritz-Carlton—an improbable place to find destination food, and the site of his only unqualified stateside critical success.
Pangaud comes from a generation of classically trained French chefs who don’t shrink from tweaking conventions. At the Ritz, he served things like curry-spiked fried oysters topped with caviar on beds of shredded cucumber and turnip ravioli plumped with duck confit. In her April 1991 review, Washington Post critic Phyllis Richman wrote that Pangaud was “cooking brilliantly” and called his food “fascinating.”
Gerard’s Place, in contrast to the Ritz, is modest—at least once you consider its $100-a-head prices. The McPherson Square restaurant’s only dining room is small and narrow, with a low ceiling and no waiting area or bar. An artist’s depictions of simple, shaded geometric shapes hang on the walls. The atmosphere is intimate, classy in its austerity, and far from opulent.
Pangaud’s ex-wife, Michelle Pangaud, co-owns the restaurant and works as a hostess. Associates say any problems Chef and Michelle may have don’t show up at the workplace.
Pangaud contends that his restaurant’s simplicity reflects his art. “I want to have a relationship with my customers,” he explains. “I have achieved the power to express myself, and I think cooking is the art of taste. For some people, it’s more the art of painting than the art of taste. They do something beautiful, and then if they have the time, they do something good.”
But Gerard’s Place was not met with universal critical approval. “If you only tried Gerard Pangaud’s cooking at this little restaurant, you’d wonder how he’d ever gotten to be a big star,” Richman wrote in her review. Since then, the quality of the restaurant has remained at the mercy of the chef and his personal foibles.
By all accounts, the period starting around 1997 was a nadir for Pangaud personally, and many believe that his restaurants suffered as a result. The chef’s quick to own up to past mistakes—in retrospect, he even calls locating his two-star restaurant in Boulogne a bad decision—and if the quality of Gerard’s Place started to slip, the chef can recite a litany of reasons why: His marriage was on the rocks. He’d started to drink again. Vintage, which had just opened after a year of anticipation, was going bust. Friends say Pangaud seemed more interested in playing golf than in spending time at his restaurants.
But it was his effort to extend his personal brand that dealt him the most serious hit. Vintage tanked in under two years. Today, he says that he “took no pleasure in it,” adding that he had spent nearly all of his operating capital before the doors even opened and that, had he been sober at the time, he might not have even agreed to the lease. But the fact remains that Vintage was a poor facsimile of the kind of classic bistro it purported to be. It was mismanaged and blandly decorated. Pangaud was seldom seen in its kitchen.
Kinkead suggests that his friend’s business failures are simply a question of his nature. “Most of the chefs that have come from France that have opened restaurants in the United States have been particularly bad businesspeople,” he says. “They’re used to just cooking, not having to focus on the business end of it. In America, you have to focus on the business really, really strictly.”
And another of Pangaud’s industry friends, speaking on condition of anonymity, says his memory of a meeting with Pangaud around the time Vintage launched made it pretty clear that the chef’s focus was far from the bottom line: “He said, ‘My food is at Gerard’s Place. Vintage is my restaurant, but it’s not going to be my food.’ And I said, ‘Gerard, that’s not a convincing argument to people who go there and spend money and say, “I thought this was Gerard Pangaud’s restaurant.”‘”
Over lunch on a weekday at Gerard’s Place, I find Pangaud surprisingly animated. The restaurant’s filled with its usual business-class lunch crowd, but he does little mingling. Instead, he excitedly tells me about an old Escoffier recipe he has found for pheasant with blood oranges, tea, and walnuts.
“It’s good, huh?” Pangaud asks later, gesturing toward my roasted cod. “The crust of mushroom keeps the moisture of the fish.” I ask him what else goes into the crust. “A lot of butter. And to hold the butter, there are bread crumbs. And chives and parsley.”
As Pangaud gets up to leave me to my coffee, a customer nearby waves the chef to his table and hands him a card. The customer loudly explains that the card is for the hotel where he’s staying. After offering the chef a cigar, the man tells Pangaud to call the hotel’s front desk and ask the concierge to call him a cab.
Listening in, I brace myself for unruly behavior. The way I hear it, the man is both stupid and arrogant enough not to realize just who he’s talking to. Connoisseurs of the Guide Michelin—to say nothing of the foodies who pay $70 for Pangaud’s wisdom each weekend—would be aghast. But the chef just nods and smiles. I doubt that he calls the hotel himself. But the chef also doesn’t tell the guy where to stick that card.
Gerard’s Place remains in the upper echelon of D.C. French restaurants. Pangaud’s dishes are inventive, not showoffy, and they speak to his unique feel for French classicism and formal daring. A recent meal included a flawless cassoulet of wild mushrooms and crisp, melting sweetbreads. Juicy, rosy slices of duck breast came fanned out under a trio of blood orange sections with a “shepherd’s pie” to the side—duck confit with a mashed-potato crown.
And Pangaud still seems to love explaining the alchemy of dishes like his poached lobster, which is served split in its shell: “It contains all the flavors our palates are able to discern: salt with the lobster, sweet from the wine, acidity from the lime, and bitter with the ginger.”
Today, Pangaud contends that he’s happy with just one restaurant. Claiming three years of sobriety, he spends a lot of time ruminating over his craft. He’s even working on a book about cooking’s essentials, “like shape, like flavor, like texture, like the way you cut things”—a kind of millennial sequel to The Physiology of Taste, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s famous 19th-century bible of culinary appreciation. In keeping with his distaste for contemporary chef propaganda, Pangaud’s book, if published, will contain few recipes.
Nonetheless, any conversation with Pangaud invariably starts to play out like a Monty Python sketch about a French chef: the tales of past drinking, the perfectionism, the outbursts, the noncookbook, the failed bistro. If only he’d quit cooking in a fit of pique, the caricature would be complete.
In fact, the notion’s not terribly far-fetched. “I don’t see myself running a restaurant without cooking,” Pangaud tells me over lunch, hinting at a foreseen retirement to culinary academia. “I would like to do something which isn’t as demanding physically. I’ve got a lot of experience, and I know quite a lot of things. It would be much easier. I am pretty sure some school would be very happy to have me.”
“Everybody has ambitions,” offers Jim Anderes. “I don’t know if you get to a point where you know what you are and you’re not trying to be something more, but I think [Pangaud]’s kind of throttled back and doesn’t worry about being as intense.”
Kinkead suspects that his friend’s purported ambitions are less a reflection of his true desires than the symptom of someone’s accepting his circumstances. “I think he’s in a tough place right now,” he says. “He’s got a tough thing going with his marriage. He had Vintage fail. For a guy with the talent he has—and he has a lot of it—at this juncture in his career, he should have a couple of restaurants. He should be making plenty of money, so that when he wants to go out and play golf, it’s not detracting from any of his businesses.”
Still, Kinkead adds, Pangaud’s fortunes could change in an instant: “Some person could come down from New York and say, ‘This is the best place in America.’”
Attracting that second lightning strike requires constant vigilance. And it’s not clear that Pangaud is burning the midnight oil. On the night of my most recent meal at Gerard’s Place, I overhear a customer tell the hostess, “We were very disappointed that Gerard wasn’t here tonight.”
American-style scrambled eggs are a source of amusement for Pangaud—and, by extension, for his students. Standing before the class, he mimics the familiar manner in which Americans stir their beaten eggs around in a big hot pan. “I know,” he says, the low din of laughter surrounding him. “Your mothers probably made eggs this way.”
To see Pangaud demonstrate his recipe for croustade of scrambled egg with black truffle, the students gather close in around the stove. He explains that the French like their scrambled eggs soft and almost liquidy, kind of like a custard. The keys to making them, he says, are “low heat and no lumps.” Holding a sauce pan loosely in his hand, he gives the egg mixture a few preliminary stirs. “And patience.”
As he stirs, the chef reminisces about an early invention of his: an omelet stuffed with scrambled eggs and crawfish. It was a difficult dish to execute. “I needed to keep the eggs moist and the omelet moist,” he says, glancing to his side every so often to look at the students. “Try it. It took me 50 tries to get it right.”
After several more minutes, Pangaud turns around, holding the saucepan. “This is scrambled eggs,” he announces proudly. It’s a smooth, yellow, creamy substance, and it flows easily out of the pan and into the tart that the chef has waiting on the counter. He finishes the dish with a single, sheer slice of black truffle and then tilts the result slightly forward so that the class can see it. Someone gasps. Someone else snaps a picture. Everyone applauds. CP