January 30, 1978 | Vintage Insatiable

Murder in the Kitchen

          There is nothing quite like the exaggerated unreality of a Hollywood movie set on foreign location. It is a behavioral zap zone, breeding bizarre liaisons, perverse hungers…fast, heady, doomed affairs. In my journalistic wanderings I have visited isolated movie sets. Everyone talked endlessly of deals, of sex and money. But this film was different. Never have I encountered so many people so utterly obsessed by food.

          I suppose an epidemic of galloping gourmandism should not have been unexpected. After all, the location was Paris. The film: Someone Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe. The sets: Maxim’s, the mellowed salon of the Lucas-Carton restaurant, the grungy subterranean kitchen of Laperouse, the spacious modern canteen that feeds the Lido of Paris. George Segal plays fast-food mogul. Jacqueline Bisset is Natasha O’Brien, food writer, pastry chef, television personality…a woman with a weakness for amorous chefs. Robert Morley waddles about as the publisher of Epicurus magazine, firing a receptionist for sneaking peanut butter, sending day-old quiches to the poor at Christmas.

          “How long will you be with the film?” Someone asked Joss Ackland, the English actor playing the majordomo of Queen Elizabeth’s royal kitchen.

          “Three more meals,” he replied.

          The film crew had gathered in the Lido kitchen at 4 am. The Lido’s chefs had been hired to play the royal cooks. Between takes, actors fluted mushrooms and nibbled radishes smeared with butter. Technicians haunted a service pantry concocting French Dagwoods -- sausage-and-pork terrine with hard-boiled eggs and mayo on thick slabs of country bread. Everyone complained about the food. The producer had lost twelve pounds. The assistant producer had gained twenty.

          There was endless gastronomic nostalgia. George Segal recalled his first meal at Maxim’s, in 1959: “I remember it began with bisque homard, ham in champagne sauce, and very old wines.” He smiled, dimpling, in rapturous recall. Lynn Guthrie, associate producer in charge of everything edible, fussed over a flock of pastry-wrapped pigeons. Guthrie, just back from a $500 weekend pilgrimage to Lyon, clutched a recipe for lobster ragout. It was Guthrie who decided there was only one possible consultant for this film -- “My idol, Paul Bocuse.” And signed him up. Guthrie is a young man with a bulging belly. “My endocrinologist back in Los Angeles is going to be furious,” he brooded.

          So it’s not farfetched that a restaurant critic should be summoned to this scene of gastronomic crime. I’d read the book by Nan and Ivan Lyons, with its Lucullan reducing diet -- four ounces of whole-grain fresh Beluga caviar, 296 calories; four ounces of Bollinger Extra Sec ’59, 109 calories; four ounces of roast pheasant, 184 calories. And I’d read the delicious film script by Peter Stone. In the script the greatest chef in London is roasted in his own oven. The greatest Italian chef is drowned in his lobster tank. The greatest French chef is squashed in his duck press. And Bisset as Natasha O’Brien is surely next. I know little of mayhem. But I do know my mayonnaise. If someone were needed to coach Natasha…my way with a whisk was not to be sneered at.

          Alas, Jacqueline Bisset assured me she needed no coaching. “I’m a cook myself,” she confided. “A potato freak.” She dipped a finger into a prop bowl of melted chocolate and licked it.

          There was a brief recess. “We had to send out for champagne,” director Ted Kotcheff explained. Kotcheff, who once worked as a short-order cook in his family’s Toronto restaurant, had decided the queen’s majorodomo should get quietly sloshed as the scene progressed. The great chefs were cooking for a queen. Four bottles of costly Roederer Cristal arrived. “You see what happens when we ask for ordinary champagne,” Kotcheff complained.

          He popped a fat raspberry into his mouth. A second into Bisset’s. A third into mine. The berries were thawing, ready to grace the bombe. “We couldn’t get into the queen’s actual kitchen,” he explained. “Not even to snap a Polaroid. But someone who knew someone who knew a footman told us it was modern.” So here we were. “Is the chocolate standing by?” Kotcheff called.

          Bisset rolled up her sleeves. A make-up man sprayed her arms with glistening perspiration. Out of the freezer came her half-done bombe. “If there’s one thing I can’t stand when I’m cooking, it’s people in the kitchen watching me. It makes me hysterical.” She slathered the bombe with whipped cream.

          A little more authority,” Kotcheff coached.

          A professional pastry chef wiped the bombe clean of cream. With each rehearsal the bombe got smaller.

          Kotcheff took Bisset aside. “I’d like your delivery a bit more tart.”

          “Piss and vinegar,” she said.

          “That’s tart.”

          Across town, Yanou Collar, publicity counselor to France’s gastronomic superstars, was getting nervous. “They are asking Paul Bocuse to prepare a bombe for the press on Friday and this morning they are switching it from raspberry to chocolate.” She was annoyed. “Paul is not a coat hanger you take down whenever you please. If they’d done the meal as it was written in the script, it would have been a Mel Brooks movie. Imagine. They were serving woodcock with orange and ginger. Poached oysters béchamel -- do you believe it? Béchamel!” Mlle. Collart was on the phone. “Well, is it raspberry or chocolate?”

          I could not wait for the dénouement. I had to run across town to pick up some chocolate truffles. I filled my canvas sack with nut breads from the bakery of Poilane, made a fast detour for cheese, lest I starve on the return trip. Brooding. Who would want to kill great chefs? Preposterous. If anything, it is the great chefs who might like to kill…a food writer, perhaps. And a likely killer is the restaurateur insulted by a critic’s bite. I collected a few plots for gastronomic murder.

          Frank Valenza, proprietor of the Palace, responded with a gust of enthusiasm. “If I wanted to kill, I would invite her for dinner, poison her, let the fat collect in a pan, and make a Yorkshire pudding…or stuff her till she explodes.” (When murder is mentioned, restaurateurs seem to envision a female victim, for some reason.

          “I would use hallucinogenic mushrooms,” James Beard mused. “It would be very gentle. If I had to kill, it would be benign. I can’t see a quick stab using the Cuisinart. Poisoning with mushrooms at least would let people die happily. Though I wouldn’t be so nice with Karen Hess. I would freeze-dry her.

          “I would have beautiful mushrooms I’d gathered myself. Then when she died I’d say, ‘Oh, my, I made a boo-boo.’ It wouldn’t be murder; it would be negligence.” That from Paul Steindler, proprietor of Paul’s Restaurant.

          And for Edmond Bory, patron of Fauchon, Paris’s supernal “delicatessen”: “You take the whisker of a tiger and mince it fine, mix it with mushroom duxelles, and bake it in a tart. Serve with béarnaise. The slow death that results will be undetectable.”

          From George Lang, restaurant consultant and ultimate epicurean scholar: “I just happen to have written a short story about a gastronomic murder. Lang’s method: poached fugu fish -- the tiger fugu, deadliest variety -- with the traditional daikon radish, of course, dried red pepper, a touch of wasabi, and finely grated ginger mixed into rice and vinegar.”

Providing a continuous lifeline to homebound elderly New Yorkers