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Madeleine Kamman : A Controversial cooking teacher who says the next great chefs will be American men and women.

June 07, 1990|ROSE DOSTI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is a medieval French queen in Madeleine Kamman. You can see it in her strutting walk. All that is missing is the bejeweled crown, the ermine train and a golden staff to mark each step with a firm rap.

She was showing a photographer and a reporter through the bright kitchens and dining rooms of Beringer Vineyard, where she directs the School for American Chefs and teaches a six-month master's course to eight hand-picked professional chefs. Suddenly Kamman stopped and peered at a chocolate chip cookie laying pitifully in the corner of a door.

"This is disgusting," she said. Her guttural French accent retains a prickly edge despite 30 years' residence in the United States. "People eat cookies and leave them on the floor."

A sous chef and an assistant working on the evening's dinner eyed one another. No one picked it up.

Yes, she's feisty. Other descriptions, less kind, ooze from lips that have quivered before her wrath. Words like "fierce" and "brutal"--in the knuckle-smashing taskmaster sense.

The late James Beard, who found in Kamman a true friend during his long, fatal illness, accurately--and appropriately--described Kamman's personality as "peppery." "We had a nice friendship," Kamman says. "I used to call him at night to cheer him up."

But more than any other, Kamman loves the appellation "controversial," which is often applied to her.

"I know I am controversial," she says. "I took a stand on women in the professional kitchen before Women's Lib came into the picture." Kamman has been an ardent fighter for women's rightful place in the professional kitchen. Indeed, all of her books--she has written seven--are a celebration of women, particularly of the work of women.

Born in Paris and educated in modern languages at the Sorbonne, she gained restaurant experience early, working at her aunt's Michelin-starred restaurant in Touraine in the Loire valley in the '40s. In 1960 she married an American engineer and moved to Boston.

There she opened a school for prospective professional chefs in 1973. "The challenge led me to operate a restaurant," she later wrote. "I became very controversial, which probably meant that I was in a place I was not supposed to be. I had transcended the limits imposed on women by generations of professional chefs and found myself succeeding in a so-called male profession."

In 1979 she gave up both the school and the restaurant Chez la Mere Madeleine, which she had run with the help of students, and moved back to France to open a restaurant in Annecy. She only returned to the United States in 1984.

Boston hadn't agreed with her. "The East Coast is a cold place with cold unyielding people who didn't appreciate what I came to offer," she says. "It's a place with puritanical attitudes hard to take." Boston was also where Julia Child was the doyenne of French cooking, as author and "French Chef" television cooking show personality. "The French cuisine Julia was doing was not my French cuisine, and I am French," Kamman says.

Both women accurately represented their cultures. Child captured the imagination of an adoring but finicky American public that was prepared to like French cuisine without unfamiliar ingredients such as chicken feet and caul fat.

Kamman, on the other hand, was intent on bringing to the tables of her American public the authentic modern cuisine de terroir, which has also been called cuisine des femmes, cuisine de misere, or cuisine du coeur ; the classical, often simplified bourgeoise cuisine of the French people in its multiple facets.

To Kamman, Child's cooking was an "old fashioned" French cuisine she had abandoned back in the '30s. In her definition of modern French cuisine she included nouvelle cuisine, which she termed cuisine personnelle, a cuisine derived from a chef's individuality and personal culinary experiences, whether influenced by Oriental cuisine or health concerns.

Unlike Child's playful approach to food, Kamman's is an intensely serious and passionate attachment to cooking for which most Americans in the last 50 years have been, and probably still are, psychologically unprepared.

Kamman believes this will change: "At the beginning of the century Americans were much closer to the French cuisine. Unfortunately there was a Depression, women started to work and convenience foods took over." Now she thinks it's safe to say that the new generation of great chefs will be American rather than French, and will consist of a 50-50 ratio of women and men.

Her restaurants have been lauded as the best in the United States by Paul Bocuse, father of cuisine classique nouvelle. Her books have received coveted awards ("Dinner Against the Clock" won the RT French Award in 1973). Her Public Broadcasting System television cooking show has drawn praise and acclaim. Her lectures and appearances around the country have been publicized in major publications.

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