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End of the Girardet Era

March 05, 1997|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Great French chefs are a uniquely collegial and competitive lot. They support one another and root for one another, and when the souffle falls or the Michelin star disappears, they weep for one another.

But they also vie fiercely with one another, and if you get to know almost any French chef well enough, you are likely to hear how some other famous chef isn't as good as he's reputed to be or as he used to be.

In more than 20 years of eating in fine French restaurants in France and throughout the United States, I know of only one French chef who has escaped this backbiting by his peers: Fredy Girardet.

Maybe it's because Girardet is actually Swiss (even though his food is most decidedly French). Or maybe it's because Girardet really is (or was?) the best

Shortly after turning 61, Girardet retired Nov. 30 from his eponymous restaurant in Crissier, 10 minutes from Lausanne.

Restaurant Girardet earned three stars from the Guide Michelin and four toques from GaultMillau, Michelin's top rival. More important, perhaps, Girardet himself has had the universal respect of his peers.

"After my first meal at Girardet's, I aged 10 years," says Michel Guerard, whose cooking at the three-star, four-toque Pres d'Eugenie in southwest France has also made him one of the most highly regarded chefs in the world.

Michael McCarty, one of the leading pioneers of the new American cuisine and the proprietor of Michael's restaurants in Santa Monica and New York, calls Girardet "the Einstein of cuisine."

No wonder so many famous three-star chefs in France have sent their sons to Girardet for their kitchen apprenticeships. And no wonder diners had to make reservations several months in advance to eat at Girardet (which accepted no credit cards and required a nonrefundable $100 deposit for most of those fortunate enough to get a reservation).

So why did Girardet retire? After all, 61 isn't that old. But being a chef is hard work, both physically and emotionally, and these days, it's increasingly difficult financially as well.

When I ate at Girardet in 1994, he told me that, with people worrying more about both their health and their finances, they were less inclined to indulge themselves at great restaurants. In Switzerland, he said, the problem was especially acute: The country is so small and so isolated that it was more difficult to get the best, freshest food products. The ingredients he could import were subject to heavy tariffs.

With a staff of 40, only 61 seats in the restaurant and his own insistence on only the best raw products--no matter where they have to be flown or trucked in from--his costs and prices were both high.

His restaurant was still full every night, but he said then that he could see a time in the not-too-distant future when that would not necessarily be true.

When we spoke again a few weeks before he retired, though, he tended to minimize this threat as a factor in his decision to retire.

La grand cuisine is part of our culture, he said, and just as there will always be people who drive Rolls-Royces and wear designer clothes, so there will always be those who want, as Girardet put it, "something better to eat than Planet Hollywood."

*

Girardet said he was retiring simply because the time was right. It was time for a change in his life, and--more important--Philippe Rouchet, his sous-chef for 17 years, might have left if Girardet hadn't.

Rouchet had often told Girardet that he hoped to succeed him one day, and last spring, Rouchet was offered an opportunity to run his own restaurant. He told Girardet that he would prefer to stay but that at 43, he thought this might be his last chance to be the No. 1 chef somewhere.

Girardet had figured on retiring in two or three years anyway, he said, and since his restaurant was so closely identified with him, he knew he might have trouble finding a buyer willing to pay his price, especially if both he and his longtime top assistant were gone. But if Rouchet could muster the financial backing to take over Restaurant Girardet himself, Girardet could avoid that problem and be assured his legacy would be carried on by the man he had trained.

That's exactly what happened.

So far, Girardet seems to be enjoying his retirement. "I just talked to him the other day," maitre d' Jean-louis Foucqueteau said last week, "and he has no plans yet to do anything else."

Ironically, Girardet never wanted to run his own restaurant. He didn't even want to cook; he wanted to play soccer. But his father ran a modest bistro in the Crissier City Hall, and young Fredy learned the fundamentals of cooking from him.

Still, it wasn't until a year after his father died, when his mother sent him on a wine-buying trip for the family restaurant, that cooking became his passion.

It happened over one meal.

At the suggestion of some wine growers in Burgundy, Girardet had stopped for lunch at Les Freres Troisgros, the first truly fine restaurant he'd ever been to and one of the pioneers in the creation of contemporary French cuisine.

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