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Dining Reivew : Merci, Bocuse! Says Protege Olhats

October 19, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWPORT BEACH — Who among you hasn't dreamed of having your most influential teacher return to bestow approval on your achievements, of having the master appear to validate the path you have chosen? Exactly that happened to chef Pascal Olhats Monday night when his mentor, celebrated French chef Paul Bocuse, was honored at a special dinner at Olhats' restaurant.

More than 100 guests came to Pascal to see Bocuse, to purchase signed copies of his new book, "Regional French Cooking," and to eat a dinner inspired by recipes from his three-Michelin-star restaurant just north of Lyons on the banks of the Saone, where Olhats says he spent two of the happiest years of his life.

At 69, Bocuse remains the most famous chef in the world, the ambassadeur of French cuisine, a regal, commanding figure in his chef's whites. He also is a most quotable man, as he demonstrated when he got up to address the crowd of eager diners, between the crayfish and veal courses.

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"France wouldn't be what it is today," he intoned in French, aided by translator Steven Brauer of Mumm's Champagne, "if it weren't for June 6, 1944." Bocuse has a good reason to be so resolutely pro-American: He was severely wounded during the war, and an American transfusion helped saved his life.

The dinner was an unqualified success. Olhats paid homage by attempting to duplicate Bocuse's famous soupe aux truffes , crowned by a pastry hat of the sort Bocuse created for then-French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing in 1975. I am lucky enough to have eaten Bocuse's own version in France, and I shall never forget the experience. This one may not have been as chock full of foie gras or as redolent of shaved black truffle as the prototype, but no one was heard complaining.

There followed a light gratin of crayfish and lobster, a tasty veal chop with chanterelle mushroom and a quirky white chocolate interpretation of an Opera cake with homemade vanilla bean ice cream. Throughout most of the evening, Bocuse stood beaming near the entrance to the kitchen, his white toque perched upright atop his head. Occasionally he would sit to sign his book or to autograph copies of the evening's menu, speaking pearls of wisdom.

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Answering questions from admiring guests, he proved as masterful at the art of conversation as he has proved in the kitchen. Asked by a health-conscious gourmet about the harmful effects of butter and cream, he scoffed: "Nous sommes cuisiniers, pas medecins " (we are chefs, not doctors). Touche and amen. Bocuse has built a life around simple, rich cooking. If you have to ask, you'd better not indulge.

You can catch chef Bocuse at a special dinner in his honor tonight at the new Citation restaurant next to Hollywood Park in Inglewood or Thursday night at Pinot restaurant in Studio City.

Failing that, have Pascal prepare one of the Lyonnaise-style dishes that surface from time to time in his restaurant.

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