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The Making of a French Chef in America : A CHEF'S TALE: A Memoir of Food, France and America, By Pierre Franey with Richard Flaste and Bryan Miller (Alfred A. Knopf: $25; 259 pp.)

July 24, 1994|Russ Parsons | Russ Parsons is the Times Food managing editor and author of the weekly column In the Kitchen

In the opening montage of Pierre Franey's PBS series "Cooking in America," there is one scene that is fixed indelibly in my mind: Franey, dressed in dusty saddle-poke garb, bounces across the prairie on the back of a horse. Rarely has a man looked more uncomfortable, yet he does it so earnestly--a Frenchman so doggedly trying to break out of his natural reserve and break through to American good-ol'-boy bonhomie--that it is kind of endearing.

That brief glimpse is probably more revealing than anything in his new autobiography/cookbook, "A Chef's Tale."

There is a minor tradition of French chef autobiographies and they seem to follow a pattern. Sun-Dappled Boyhood Close to the Land (whether it's Provence or Burgundy, it is always treated as the sole repository of honest French cooking), Early Lessons at the Table from Maman (a paragon of all honest French cooks), Teen-age Apprenticeship (which seems to us almost Dickensian but is warmly remembered by the author as a character-building experience), First Great Chef (slightly awe-struck, gradually becoming confident as the great man comes to recognize his potential) and, finally, The Big Break ("I was nervous, but knew I could do it").

If this sounds suspiciously close to American military or sporting autobiographies, it's no coincidence. While the career path for American-born chefs sometimes seems dictated by a sort of intellectual dabbling (there are an amazing number of art history majors), the classical French chef has climbed a ladder more akin to an Army officer or football star. It is not a life that encourages introspection.

Franey is typical in that he began his cooking career at 14, scrambling from peeling vegetables to polishing stoves at an age when most American boys were engaged in sandlot baseball and playing soldier. Work in this kind of kitchen was not creative, it was disciplined. The emphasis was not on creating new dishes, it was on perfect preparation of dishes codified 50 years before. It was not about painting, it was about brush strokes. As Franey points out, potatoes were treated like "diamonds . . . slicing seven--not six or eight--facets on each one."

After coming to the United States in 1939 to work at the French Pavillion of the New York World's Fair, Franey became chef at Henri Soule's Le Pavillion (generally regarded as the first great French restaurant in this country).

Yet Franey is atypical in one important way--he is one of the few French chefs of that day who became public personalities in this country and who actually affected the way Americans cook. Remember, the great popularizers of French cooking in America--James Beard, Julia Child, Waverly Root, M. F. K. Fisher, Richard Olney, etc.--were Americans. French chefs, as per their training, rarely ventured out of the kitchen. The kind of dining-room touring and glad-handing that is almost required of a chef today would have been regarded as unseemly. That kind of frivolity was for lesser souls, like maitre d's.

But even then, Franey's influence for much of his career was at one remove--through the offices of New York Times restaurant critic and food editor Craig Claiborne, who first befriended him at Le Pavillion. Before long, Franey--who had quit the restaurant world to become vice president of Howard Johnson's--was accompanying Claiborne on many of his restaurant review visits and helping him devise recipes for his weekly cooking stories. For many years, this contribution was never acknowledged: The reviews and recipes ran under Claiborne's byline only. Today, certainly, the ethics of this would be regarded as questionable.

The association continued--apparently quite happily for both parties--for nearly 20 years. Claiborne and Franey and his family lived nearly next door in East Hampton. Their working patterns were regular and revolved around Claiborne's dinner parties, which soon became legend. "I would cook," Franey writes, "he would figure out how to get a newspaper story out of it."

But by the late '70s, Franey--apparently at his wife's urging--"felt the need to cut back on the seven-day cooking weeks, which is what they had now become" and withdrew from the partnership. How much impact the success of his own New York Times column "The 60-Minute Gourmet" (ghostwritten, in a fine irony, by Claiborne's eventual successor as restaurant critic, Bryan Miller) had to do with that decision is not spelled out in the book (which is also ghostwritten by Miller and a former Times editor, Richard Flaste).

Then again, very little of a personal nature is revealed in this book. Franey is still reluctant to step out from the kitchen, treating autobiography as expanded resume: "I did this, then I did this, then I did this." Contrast this with Claiborne's own autobiographical cookbook of several years ago in which he not only came out of the closet as an alcoholic and a homosexual, but also revealed his first sexual experience--with his father.

Certainly, not everyone has led a life so full of anecdote, but still we would like to get more from Franey than the mean gruel that is offered here. In fact, the only time he opens up at all is when he talks about food. We find out much more about how he makes a turbot souffle than about how he feels about his relationship and break-up with Claiborne--or about his marriage, the death of his brother and father, his experiences as a foreigner in this country . . . or anything else for that matter.

What is the sense in writing an autobiography if you can't tell us any more about your life than we could have gotten by watching the introduction to a cooking show?

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