City Paper is not for tourists
You had intended to accomplish an adventure this summer. You were serious about it. There were unspeakable longings for romancefor wine-lit evenings in exotic locales, for madcap wanderings through Europe, exquisite meals, surprises, thrills. Washington was swampish and chock-full of tourists. You had to get away, and you required something extravagant. But then, somehow, Labor Day arrived, and all you had to show for your summer was a T-shirt purchased on a bender in Rehoboth.
There is hope for you yet. Adventurer and culinary devotee Stuart Stevens had the summer you so desperately wanted and was nice enough to write about it in Feeding Frenzy: Across Europe in Search of the Perfect Meal.
To be fair, there should be a warning label on this kind of book: Reading This May Cause Relentless Envy. Stevensnovelist, screenwriter, head honcho of the Stuart Stevens Group political consulting firm, and travel writer (Night Train to Turkistan and Malaria Dreams)seems to have an uncommonly eventful and enjoyable life. While others dream, he is in motion. We are told that Feeding Frenzy was conceived while he and fashion-maven Rachel “Rat” Kelly were working out one spring night in a Manhattan gym. Between one-arm curls, they began to yuck it up over the idea of traveling to Europe and eating in every Guide Michelin three-star restaurant in a single month. Hearing about such people making such plans could invoke supreme contempt, but Feeding Frenzy is deeply pleasurable even for those of us who are perennially grounded, perhaps because when Stevens does something he goes well over the top, and it is impossible not to enjoy the ride.
For instance, Stevens decides the gustatory jaunt must be negotiated from behind the wheel of a 1965 Mustang. He has one shipped over to England pronto and drives away: “The Mustang leapt down the gangplank. A pair of workers in white smocks jumped for safety. ‘I can’t stop!’ I yelled, redundantly.” It turns out the Mustang’s brakes don’t work. As one dock worker put it, “Now, mate, you are buggered but good.”
No, not really. Not ever. Debacles and danger serve only to further the adventure. Nothing will stand in the way of visiting Alain Senderen’s Lucas Carton, Bernard Pacaud’s L’Ambroisie, Michel Guerard’s Eugenie-les-Bains, Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV, not to mention the establishments of Pierre Gagnaire, Paul Bocuse, and Georges Blancthe list goes on until every one of Europe’s 29 three-star restaurants has been conquered. And nothing will prevent the consumption of consommé de homard aux épices et raviolie at La Tante Claire in England, or Bocuse’s Pigeon en feuilleté au chou nouveau et au foie gras.
Stevens’ exuberance is total. In Night Train to Turkistan and Malaria Dreams he revealed himself to be a determined, driven traveler who celebrates extremes. He is again in commando mode in Feeding Frenzy, this time concerning fine dining. In Paris, not even three stars are enough for Stevensevery minute of the day must be spent searching out culinary pleasures. “With pockets stuffed with hunks of bread, I embarked on a mad search for cheese. The thought of finding the perfect Camembert, a tart swiss, a creamy chevre actually sent my pulse racing. It was like I was stalking some elusive animal, the trail growing fresher, and an encounter likely just over the next rise.” When his travel companions balk at the fact that he will not join them at the Louvre for fear of missing out on the perfect croissant, he throws down the gauntlet: “You can see wonderful photos and reproductions every day of the week anywhere in the world. But what good is it looking at a photo of one of Michel Brusa’s great baguettes?…What? You guys think I’m ashamed that I intend to spend the entire day running around from bakeries to fromageries to markets to pastry shops?”
Stevens’ heedlessness never trounces his judgment, however. Here are some of his thoughts about L’Ambroisie: “I started with Pastilla de thon aux abricots secs, vinaigrette composée; tuna in a phyllo-like crust with olive oil and capers and bits of lime. Crushed pistachios decorated the top. Crushed pistachios? They looked silly and lonely. It was a whopping big piece of tuna cooked far too long for my taste. Dried apricots were inside. The list of ingredients reads like a gag dish: tuna, olive oil, capers, lime, pistachio, apricots? But somehow it was wonderful, the best dish I’d had since I’d come to Francebut would have been even better if cooked less.”
While Stevens is unabashed about his strong opinions, his criticisms are seasoned with dashes of generosity. He is down on the poor quality of American produce, yet he doesn’t become a scold and is ever alert for the unusual perception. Who would have believed that a thoroughly rarefied culinary consciousness could be made to praise Junior Service League cookbooks? “Yet I’ve always liked these cookbooks because there is something wonderfully proud and assertive about them, despite their oppressive cuteness. Right there in print these women are proclaiming to the world that their cottage cheese salad rings are the best! This is Mohammed Ali exulting in his greatness, Joe Namath proclaiming victory the night before the Big Game! But it is about food. Food of the most banal and literally canned type imaginable. Still, it is their food! The cuisine of Cincinnati, the toast of Tyler! You think you’ve tasted quick-frozen tomato salad? Forget it!”
This bit comes between paeans to Laurie Colwin, A.J. Liebling, and Stevens’ “hero” Waverly Root, discourses on Fernand Point and Auguste Escoffier, an account of why the Gault-Millau guide books do not in the final analysis hold up against the reliable, snobbish Guide Michelin, and wonderful conversations with the delightfully eccentric three-star chefs of Europe.
Regarding nouvelle cuisine, Michel Guerard tells Stevens that it “wasn’t a revolt. We didn’t throw down our saucepans and declare that Escoffier was wrong. We built on our classical training the way a painter does.” A few nights later, “Gagnaire appeared before us and asked if ‘it would be your pleasure that I simply cook for you?’ It was such a charming old-fashioned turn of phrase…” After which, Gagnaire returns to the kitchen to whip up an 11-course meal. Gagnaire’s style, according to Stevens, is actually a hip reversion to “the old, pre-nouvelle days when menus would be filled with portentous but inexplicable items like Veal orlov or Pigeon Prince Rainier. To Pierre Gagnaire, his vague descriptions were important. ‘I want to suggest to the diner what I’m about to do but not be tied down to a recipe or some predictable formula. Every time I cook a dish it is different, never the same. Or why should I cook?’” Stevens concludes that “Gagnaire’s food had an attitude, a certain in-your-face brashness that was irresistible. It was Food as Personality….For all its trendy hipness, it was the logical extension of the Personality Cult cooking perfected by Paul Bocuse.”
When not actually eating, Stevens is taking 10-mile runs through the hills of Provence. Or telling a young Algerian about a meal he’d cooked by the River Niger: “The centerpiece was an oversized gar I’d caught….I filleted it, which was the only thing I could imagine doing, wrapped the fillet in tin foil with bits of onions and some old garlic cloves I’d bought in the Timbuktu market, and buried it in the coals of a driftwood fire.” Or rhapsodizing on the wonder of French gas stations: “I was intoxicated by their irresistible sensual appeal. If not careful, I could waste unbelievable amounts of time wandering from one aisle to the next…hovering in front of the refrigerated section that offered a half dozen different kinds of pâtépâté at a gas station!and a dozen or more cheeses.”
En route to the final restaurant, the Mustang’s engine catches fire. At this point, Rat’s boyfriend Carla New York attorney and one-time Special Forces officer in Vietnamhas joined them. Always prepared, Carl leaps from the car to extinguish the flames. Unfortunately, he does so with a bottle of Ruinart champagne, a case of which Stevens has intended to return to the States with. “He uncorked a bottle in record time, and, with a quick shake, was soon spewing my favorite champagne in the world all over the hood of the smoldering Mustang. Great white clouds of steam joined the black smoke. By now, a half dozen cars had stopped, the crowd drawn by the hope of something truly disastrous unfolding. ‘Ahhh, the champagne!’ shouted a wizened old fellow in a beret. Then he quickly reached into the cardboard case and brought out a bottle and started to uncork it. ‘Zee Mustang!’ the man in the beret cried. ‘Forget the car!’ I yelled. ‘It’s insured! Save the champagne!’”
Too late, a crowd of helpful Frenchmen and women gathers, all willing to do their part to help the American and his burning Mustang. What does our good adventurer Stevens do? Earlier he has confessed to fears “that such gross indulgence of superb eating would ruin my enjoyment of the food. But the scary reality was that I found it perfectly normal to spend three or four hours an evening eating.” Just so, he cuts his losses in the glorious and extravagant way we expect him toby digging into Poulet de Bresse a la Crème later that warm summer night at Georges Blanc’s.CP