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A French Affair

July 28, 1988|BARBARA HANSEN | Times Staff Writer

"Is anyone interested in making anything but pasta salads these days?"

Julia Child sat there bemused, contemplating the flood of pastas and other quick and easy upstarts that are competing with the serious food that is her life's work.

Child, the ultimate icon of French cuisine in the United States, had a more immediate reason for concern: She has another book on the way. Titled "The Way to Cook," it will be her thickest volume yet, a compilation of past columns, the recipes from her video cassettes, dishes from the television series, "Dinner at Julia's," and other material. The book is due out in October, 1989. Will anyone care to read it? Child had only to look about her for reassurance on that score.

Crowded on and around the terrace of a bright pink chateau were scores of Southern Californians who had traveled for hours by bus to have lunch with her. On the table was further reassurance: a sumptuous French repast prepared by chefs who also had traveled miles to show off their art. There was, by the way, not a pasta strand in sight.

The occasion was a Bastille Day party at the Brander Vineyard at Los Olivos. The chefs, assembled by Guy J. Gabriele of Cafe Pierre in Manhattan Beach, worked under trying conditions: an improvised outdoor kitchen, an hour's delay in arrival of the buses and a heat wave so intense that it clarified the butter pats as they sat on the tables and took the chill off the wines in seconds.

But these were pros: people like Michel Blanchet of L'Ermitage in Los Angeles; Roland Gibert of Califia in Manhattan Beach; Jean-Luc Chassereau, who recently sold his restaurant, Le Cookery, in Sacramento; Jose Dahan, chef-owner of J'Adore in Palos Verdes; Ramon Cardenas of Cafe Pierre and Guy Bergounhoux of the Chalkboard in Santa Barbara.

Their goal was to show that French cooking is alive and well in the midst of California cuisine. "Just because you do a reduction and put in cilantro does not change the fact that the idea of the reduction comes from France. The basics haven't changed in hundreds of years," Gabriele said.

Nevertheless, French food has been slighted. "There is so much confusion with all these new trends that we forget what French cuisine has done and we ignore it," he said. Designed to reaffirm the French connection, the menu "was more classical than if we were to do a dinner without that topic in mind," Gabriele observed.

The closest to nouvelle was Chassereau's dessert, a terrine of strawberries in aspic made with red wine and Port. "Years ago, it would have been done with cream, like a Bavarian cream, and that would have made it much heavier," said Chassereau, a former executive chef and chef-instructor at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.

One dish was so foreign to conventional tastes that its composition was not revealed until after lunch. This was Roland Gibert's specialty, pieds de cochon farcis (boned, stuffed pig's feet). The secret part was the filling--snails and brains. Guests also did not know that the little bundles were tied with caul fat.

"We asked ourselves, what could we do that is so French, that would shock people a little but would start conversation," said Gabriele, explaining why the dish was chosen.

Still another dish might have shocked the health conscious if they had known how it was prepared. This was Bergounhoux's Salade de Confit de Canard, a duck leg accompanied by baby lettuces in oil and vinegar dressing. A confit is meat preserved in fat. For this dish, the duck legs were covered with melted duck fat and baked, then drained, patted dry and grilled. "They do not absorb the grease. Why, I don't know," said Bergounhoux.

The cooking method was devised to preserve meats in days when there was no refrigeration, he explained. Covered with fat, the meat could be stored at room temperature without spoiling. Child liked this dish and lamented the current "period of nutritional fear and danger" that inhibits the enjoyment of such foods.

Lunch started with an assortment of pates and terrines. Cardenas contributed an unctuous pate of duck liver flavored with Port wine and Armagnac and a rabbit terrine that included green peppercorns and hazelnuts. Dahan layered grilled eggplant, basil-flavored tomato sauce and goat cheese for a terrine with sunny flavor. Gibert stuffed cabbage leaves with crayfish, and Blanchet wrapped creamy salmon mousse in smoked salmon for a roll that when sliced revealed two shades of pink.

Next came quenelles-- fluffy poached dumplings of turbot with a bright yellow sauce flavored with saffron and curry powder, another dish from Cardenas.

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