February 5, 1973 | Vintage Insatiable
Paul Bocuse: Trial by Pig’s Bladder
Glory and three stars in the Guide Michelin are not necessarily convertible into big-time loot, and one day the great chef of Lyon, Paul Bocuse, realized he was never going to be as rich as the man who put cassoulet into cans.
About the same time, Melvyn Master, an ambitious young wine merchant, moved from London to Aix-en-Provence. Naturally, he was hungry. Hunger ultimately brought him to Lyon.
On Madison Avenue just below 34th street, William Sokolin was hungry for something more meaningful than discount liquors…about four years ago he decided that wine was infinitely meaningful.
D. Sokolin Wines and Spirits was just another account on Melvyn Master’s list. Then one boozy night last year, over a mellow bottle of Château Cantemerle, 1949, Master offered Bill Sokolin an exclusive franchise on Bocuse wines for most of the Eastern seaboard. Sokolin promised to love, honor and advertise. And that is approximately how the country wines served by Paul Bocuse in Lyon got into bottles wearing his own label, and how the Dinner of the Century began.
Almost a year ago Sokolin proudly boasted that the man from Lyon was coming to cook dinner – “just for us and a few friends.” But he couldn’t resist confiding the news in his midyear wine catalogue. Fourteen hundred reservations came in; Bocuse had agreed to cook for ten.
“Do you think I can charge $200 a person?” Sokolin brooded. Alerted now to Bocuse’s visit, investment banker Roger Yaseen was fiercely determined to capture the maître de cuisine classique for his own Wine and Food Society. “Sokolin has no cachet,” he wrote Bocuse, warning that the visit could turn into a commercial for a liquor store. Bocuse passed the letter to Master, and a Xerox went to Sokolin. Yaseen’s power play was observed with a sense of mounting intrigue and paranoia on lower Madison Avenue. Yaseen is clearly oenophilia’s young Macbeth. But who can resist him? Not Sokolin, with 1,400 reservations, pursued as if he were deb of the year…already turned down in his quest for a kitchen by Lutèce. “The Wine and Food Society can handle all the details for you,” Yaseen promised Sokolin.
And so it began, the intrigue and hysteria, the cross-oceanic phone calls and cables, the sharing of wines and one-upmanship, the clash of territorial imperatives. It was finally decided that the Wine and Food Society would sponsor a tasting of the Bocuse wines and supper at The Four Seasons for 200 one night; The Four Seasons would host a rerun the second day; then Sokolin would host the Dinner of the Century.
Four Seasons director Paul Kovi and Sokolin had difficulty communicating. “When I ask him a question in red, he answers me in blue,” Kovi complained. Yaseen neatly fertilizes the discontent. Poor naïf Sokolin! Now he is cast as primitive, now he plays the rogue. But Bill Sokolin has a grasp on reality: he controls the guest list. Jacqueline Onassis regrets. The Henry Fords will be out of town. Ditto David Rockefeller. Henry Kissinger’s commitments are too pressing. (For a few minutes in October, it looked as if peace and Henry were just around the corner. In December Sokolin had disinvited Henry “unless there is peace.”) William Buckley says he will be lecturing in California that night, and Pat would love to take his place. The town’s most celebrated and serious Big Mouth, Gregory Thompson, retired chairman of Chanel, U.S.A., darling of the organized grape nuts and epicures, must be invited, of course…and the great oenologist and author Alexis Lichine. Realtor and wine activist Ed Benenson accepts. Yaseen insists that his leader, Wine and Food Society President Howard Meighan, must be there. Sokolin reserves decision.
Yaseen asks me to fantasize a dream Bocuse dinner. Each gust will bring two bottles of his most precious wine. In print Bocuse has been praising simplicity. But it mustn’t be too simple, Roger Yaseen insists – “This is the Dinner of the Century.” He’d like to see food heaped on a groaning buffet. The Four Seasons’ Kovi demurs: “We are not equipped to do bar mitzvahs.”
Bocuse has scorned the fantasy menu, a sampler of his famed specialties, carefully balanced between the epic and the sane. He wants to do chicken in pigs’ bladders. He wants to do pudding. Yes, says Melvyn, pudding. Gloria Sokolin has asked the Agriculture Department not to notice the pigs’ bladders (and other seizables) in Bocuse’s baggage. Yaseen is sure all will be impounded at the airport. He has requested the ground crews to spirit the provisions away in event of a bust. Gloria has borrowed a Rolls-Royce. But what with chicks and woodcocks and 42 kilos of excess baggage, a Cadillac limousine must be rented after all.
January 16. Paul Bocuse is here. In the same spirit in which Americans carry Nescafe to France, Bocuse brings alone his own flour, salt, chickens, tarragon, bay leaf, crayfish, petits fours, truffled sausage, tomatoes, string beans, cream, butter, foie gras, woodcocks, a wild duck, sauce base in Baggies, and two kilos of truffles bigger than golf balls. If he seems nervous, it is because he expects that at any moment the notorious American Customs will find his pigs’ bladders – hidden now cunningly in the sleeves of his jacket and layered into his underwear, organic vessie for his newest evocation of a Renaissance dish. But the welcome is regal, the pigs’ bladders diplomatically ignored. Bocuse is to stay at the Yaseens', basking in elegance and his hostess’s virtuoso French. But first to the Four Seasons, to stash his treasury of cholesterol and fungus under lock and key.
January 17. Last night, ash-gray without sleep, Bocuse was honored by the Chevaliers de Tastevin at their installation dinner…an honor he needed about as much as a pound of margarine. But it was good publicity. Janet Yaseen’s dazzling breakfast plans fizzle because Bocuse is up at five, helping himself to grapefruit and coffee, ready to teach her any dish she would like to learn. Janet looks like a flyweight high-school sophomore. But her brain is a computer, her verbal style inflects like a paper cutter. Now, strangely, she is without opinion, perhaps for the first time since the age of three. Well then, he will do a poularde à la crème, Bocuse decides, and off they go to Gristede’s, where he snaps a few green beans and squeezes the avocados – hard. Janet quickly heads off mayhem by announcing to one and all that this unintimidated marauder is perhaps the world’s greatest chef. Bocuse shakes a carton of creamed cottage cheese, having spied the word “cream,” admires its density, shakes a carton of true cream, scowls at the anemia of its telltale slurp. “Il faut la reduire,” he says. “We must reduce it.”
Janet, in her million-dollar 67th Street museum-townhouse, is now apologizing for her pots – “He hates my pots.” “Next time you come, I’ll have copper,” she promises. From his gastronomic control center at Wertheim, the investment banking firm, Yaseen is inviting “a small and select” group for lunch, all very impromptu, ad-lib, unanticipated. And yet, as always, brilliantly calculated.
Roger Yanseen’s hand trembles as he uncorks the wine – a ’49 Vosne-Romanee (Bocuse insists on a red). “Will my wine be good enough for his poulet?”
Bocuse sips. “We have no ‘49s left in France,” Bocuse observes. He himself serves, selecting precisely the juiciest thigh or one peerless suprême. A benediction on Gristede’s – the chicken is superb. “Everyone says American chickens have no flavor,” Bocuse observes. “You are wrong.” Now he is off to doff his whites, already an hour late for rendezvous with Master and Sokolin at the Four Seasons.
The two entrepreneurs are spiffily suited, sipping Paul Kovi’s Hungarian wine poolside to cool their fury. “It’s not right,” Sokolin fumes, “to shanghai the guy and make him cook lunch.”
The wines for the Dinner of the Century are lined up on a sideboard in the private dining room for Bocuse’s approval. A fourth version of the menu, marked “absolutely final copy,” is hot off the house copy machine. Master pales. “Last time I visited Lyon, I ate fresh foie gras, loup en croûte, and civet de lièvre, and I blew up.”
“Cross off the floating island,” Bocuse instructs Kovi, “and take the brioche off the sausage.” Janet Yaseen nods.
“That’s the killer.” Bocuse broods: “I have been thinking last night about that chicken. Cross off Renaissance. I will do a simple poached chicken minus the cream.”
Bocuse wants to serve his own icy-cold Beaujolais-Villages throughout the dinner instead of mineral water. Kovi shudders. It will be controversial. Gregory Thomas will not approve. “It’s the fashion now in France,” Bocuse explains. The choice is his: will he bow to local prejudice or will he faire une petite revolution? Revolution it is. Master approves: “We’ll have this Musigny blanc with our fish and chips.” A Meursault-Perrières ’69 in magnum is marked for the crayfish soup and the foie-gras-and-truffle-salad. “That will be changed when Roger sees it,” Janet predicts. It is decided to serve the ’53 Château Margaux and Palmer ’55 in magnum with the chef’s simple little chicken. Bocuse asks for a bit of the Palmer to spike the sauce of his woodcocks. “Le droit du seigneur,” he calls it. Alas, there is no Burgundy worthy of the game birds. Benenson, asked for a Musigny, sent a Beaune. Now, in a crisis, he is persuaded to trade up. Yaseen has been holding back his Château d’Yquem. Now he gracefully agrees to let it stand with dessert against a $120 bottle of Trockenbeerenauslese that Sokolin has promoted from its importer.
Oh, M. Bocuse…whatever happened to the evolutionary movement toward simplicity in French cooking?
“The dinner is énormément trop,” Bocuse agrees. “It is a dinner for Louis XIV. Simplicity is for Lyon. This is New York.”
January 18. Janet Yaseen, who models, is off to New Jersey to pose for an Avon commercial. Master has a treacherous hangover. And Bocuse is casually fondling his imported provisions when I arrive in The Four Seasons kitchen at 11 a.m. on Dinner of the Century day. All by himself…not an apprentice or sous-chef in sight.
I have watched stretched-out wind-ups in my time. Procrastinating authors circling the typewriter, sharpening pencils. Legendary baseball pitchers pulling at the resin bag, conferring with the catcher circling the mound. But never, never ever, have I seen a more daring, foolhardy, stylish and calculatedly brilliant windup as is performed this day in the butcher’s corner of The Four Seasons’ giant kitchen by Paul Bocuse. Imagine – the maître de cuisine classique snaps his own green beans. He plucks his own woodcocks. Solo, alone, on his own, one rugged individual against the Big Mouths of the town. How casually he undresses his three blond beauties from Bresse – the Gabors of the poultry world, pale flesh, platinum blond coifs, festooned with pink bows and exotically jeweled.
Now it is noon and nothing is done. Bocuse breaks for lunch. The Sokolins and Master are lunching poolside again, and they want to spirit Bocuse away for photos next to Sokolin’s $700 store window display. Kovi’s cool is lukewarm. “We will get him back in half an hour,” Sokolin promises. “No one goes anywhere in New York and back in half an hour,” Kovi despairs. They make a bet: Moulin à Vent against two weeks in Philadelphia. Kovi retreats to his office where the sixth version of the dinner menu is rolling off the copier. Bocuse is back. “Ha,” says Kovi, “35 minutes. I win.”
First lunch for Bocuse, an elegant crabmeat salad stuffed into a red-pepper cornucopia. Joe Hyde, an old friend from days in the kitchen of Fernand Point, stops by to say hello and ambles out to the kitchen. Now the telephone. And now a hurried handshake with Café Argenteuil chef Maxime, who is cooking a Bocuse-inspired dinner for the Physicians’ Wine Appreciation Society and wants a half-hour consultation. He gets a minute and a half.
Four o’clock. Bocuse is now splitting string beans. The fish has not arrived. The sausages must poach. There are truffles to slice for salad and the belles of Bresse to stuff into their pigs’ bladders. A farce for the woodcocks is needed. Where is the fish? “it’s not caught yet,” guesses Bocuse’s sous-chef from Lyon, Jacques Maiguin. And now it seems like the chocolate cake is lost, yes, lost. Bocuse is sure he left it in the airport somewhere in Paris or Lyon. “No matter, we will make floating island.”
It is chaos, panic, doomsday. In no way can this dinner be served by nine o’clock. But now, suddenly, without a word’s being spoken, no request discerned, everyone is pitching in. Four Seasons chef Bernard Millien has joined Jacques and me delicately splitting string beans. The supervising chef of Restaurant Associates is slicing truffles and toasting croutons. Even Joe Hyde is bisecting beans. Janet Yaseen has arrived with menus for Bocuse to sign, but he is absorbed in ripping the insides out of a giant bass, arrived at last.
Yaseen arrives. Bocuse clicks his heels. “The Baron de Groot is upstairs making noises,” says Janet. “Bocuse invited him to the tasting. He thinks he’s invited to dinner.” “The best guess at the moment is that the last guest will be Vincent Price,” says Roger. “I’ll go to placate the Baron. Bring place cards.” Bocuse is stuffing his fish with tarragon.
“He’s scared,” says Janet. “He told me so this morning. ‘J’ai le trac,’ he said.”
And now it is eight o’clock. A French television crew is in the kitchen. And we are thirteen at the Dinner of the Century. Janet and Gloria are not to be shunted aside to their little orphan table outside the private salon.
Gregory Thomas is already complaining. “Why are you prostituting that glorious champagne with raspberry juice?” “It is M. Bocuse’s kir mix,” he is told. Ha. “I’m the last of the purists”, says Thomas.
Kovi softens the lights and admires his own silver swans and fishes filled with violets and the hyacinths planted in Styrofoam snow. “I wanted to bring spring to winter,” he says.
And now to table. “There is an air of expectancy,” Alexis Lichine observes, “like the moment before the bull enters the ring.” As the first wine is poured, even before the picadors strike, Sokolin cries out in pain. “It looks old to me.”
“It’s short,” says Lichine. “It’s oxidized. It’s lost all its freshness.” Gregory Thomas is being offended by a fresh sprig of parsley in the glorious crayfish soup. And Yaseen wants to call for his demi-sec champagne to head off Thomas’s outrage that Meursault is to be sipped with the foie gras.
That beginning…what a deception. For now Bocuse is attacking with every weapon: fresh foie gras and a simple salad of sliced truffles, the intoxicating genius of his sauce choron, that simple poached chicken stuffed with truffles and foie gras, more truffles and more foie gras cushioning the rare gamy woodcock. The slender bean threads are a brief flirtation with sanity in the foie gras fusillade. And the wine! What a glorious madness, to taste the ’53 Margaux next to the ’55 Palmer in magnum, a slightly ghostlike ’34 Cheval Blanc (“the taste of dead leaves,” says Thomas) beside the sensuous promise of the ’55 Mouton-Rothschild with the whimsical thimbles of goat cheese.
Oh there are recriminations.
“Would you prefer a glass of cold Beaujolais to clear your palate between courses?” Master ventures.
“Of course not,” Thomas retorts. “It’s a filthy idea. I prefer a good glass of Mountain Valley Spring Water.”
“Water rusts,” says Master.
“If the man needs a thrill, let him go drink his Musigny on a motorcycle,” cries Thomas. “I like Beaujolais. I’d be perfectly happy to drink Beaujolais throughout the dinner, but not between these great wines.” He turns to Sokolin. “Excuse my big yap.”
“I’ve heard about your big yap,” says Sokolin. “I think it’s marvelous.”
Benensen agrees. “Gregory, dear, Gregory, can be the most wonderful bastard.” The cigars are passed, and, after a mild complaint, repassed to the women.
“Are these nice Communist cigars?” Pat Buckley wants to know.
But the toasts are lofty, all passion at a simmer. Yaseen toasts Sokolin. Sokolin toasts Melvyn. Thomas and Lichine trade flattery sweeter than marzipan. There is not even a whisper of the word “overkill.”
Bocuse comes in to a standing ovation and cries of “Vive Lyon”. Now Gregory Thomas rises to his awesome altitude, mellow and beneficient over the ’45 port. He salutes the dinner as “rather remarkable…I don’t suppose I have been to a dinner more eclectic and more opulent.” Since the judgment can easily be taken as high praise, the conspirators are giddy and pleased.
Ah, dear M. Bocuse. In Lyon you are the master chef. In New York you are a king. We are lovers in a simple little foie gras affair. If we survive, we will meet again…
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