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The Legacy of L'Ermitage : Cuisine: Even indirectly, you've eaten the restaurant's food. Chef Jean Bertranou may be the father of the American food movement.

July 25, 1991|RUTH REICHL | TIMES FOOD EDITOR

When L'Ermitage opened in 1975 it was a restaurant for rich people. When it closed last week it was an institution. Why should you care? Because even if you've never been to an expensive restaurant--and have no intention of setting foot inside of one--it changed the way you eat.

When Jean Bertranou opened L'Ermitage, what we all understood to be "good food" was Continental; it relied mainly on meat. "American food," of course, meant hot dogs and hamburgers and steak. Vegetables were still being called "rabbit food," and if you went to the supermarket you might find an array of say, 20 or 30 kinds. Fresh herbs were all but unknown. Chasen's and Perino's were vying for the title of "Best Restaurant" in Los Angeles, and people who wrote guidebooks were saying things such as: "Los Angeles has not developed much of a distinct regional cuisine."

"Jean Bertranou," said Wolfgang Puck, seven years later when he opened Spago, "is the one who showed us what could be done. It was the opening of L'Ermitage that showed that something more was possible in L.A."

Before L'Ermitage, people in Los Angeles who cooked French food were merely following French recipes. After L'Ermitage, cooks began to understand that French cooking was an attitude, not a formula. Jean Bertranou brought the French spirit into Los Angeles kitchens. If Julia Child enabled people to master the art of French cooking, Jean Bertranou enabled us to master the flavor. He knew that it was impossible to cook good French food without good products. And he discovered that good products were possible here.

Long before Wolfgang Puck was preaching the gospel of freshness, Jean Bertranou had found out that almost anything can be grown in Southern California. When he couldn't find haricots verts-- the sweet, tiny green beans of France--he simply found someone who would grow them for him. The ducks here didn't please him--he started a farm. (He smuggled the eggs for his farm into the country by camouflaging them as Easter candies. If asked by the customs inspector what the eggs were, he intended to crack one open and offer it to the inspector to eat. "Remember," he once said to a friend, "that in my part of France we are all smugglers.") His ultimate dream, never realized, was to start a still larger farm and raise everything.

What he did raise, however, was a whole generation of young chefs. Half of the talented Americans now working in Southern California kitchens once worked for Jean Bertranou. He taught them more than how to make beurre blanc.

"That was the greatest kitchen I've ever worked in," says Kazuto Matsusaka, now chef at Chinois on Main. "It was such a wonderful place to learn. And not just cooking." Bertranou's ultimate lesson was that cooking is more than recipes; it is having the courage to follow your instincts.

And that is why his legacy is so large. Michael McCarty was the first to absorb Bertranou's lessons and step out on his own. After spending months haunting the kitchen at L'Ermitage he opened Michael's in 1979; he was the first to actually employ the later-overused term, "California Cuisine." "We're serving California food cooked by California chefs," he boasted--but his very first menu featured "smoked salmon from L'Ermitage."

Today smoked salmon is commonplace; in those days it was rare. Jean Bertranou was the first chef in Los Angeles to own his own smoker. "He was the first to do everything," says John Sedlar.

Sedlar himself worked at l'Ermitage for a year and a half and then left to open his own restaurant. At first Saint Estephe was little more than a junior L'Ermitage. But what Sedlar had learned in Bertranou's kitchen prompted him to go back to his own roots, and before long he was incorporating his grandmother's dishes into the menu. His first Southwestern menus seemed remarkably daring: In 1982, the very idea of American caviar was radical--the idea of American caviar on blue corn pancakes seemed downright mad. But the food was spectacular, and Saint Estephe became the first in a long line of restaurants featuring Southwestern cuisine. It also was one of the first restaurants in America to showcase what later came to be called "American Regional" cooking. It was not such a giant step from John Sedlar's chicken with jalapeno chiles to the Santa Fe chicken sandwich with chiles at Carl's Jr.

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