The Last French Restaurant in the World

By Colman Andrews

Published on September 3, 2002

There is a sign in chef Michel Bourdin's little office in the middle of his sprawling basement kitchen at the Connaught—the legendary old-style small hotel on Carlos Place in London's Mayfair district—that reads: GOOD COOKING IS THE ACCUMULATION OF SMALL DETAILS DONE TO PERFECTION. Outside the office, on every side, about two dozen men and women of varying ages, nationalities, and degrees of experience, most of them dressed in blue chef's pants, white tunics, sensible shoes, and white paper caps or toques, are scurrying to and fro carrying trays of raw pastry or tubs of greens, or standing at their stations, chopping, whisking, stirring, arranging, paying attention to small details, courting perfection.

The results of their labors, and of Bourdin's rigorous, old-fashioned, but enduringly vital approach to the culinary arts, are served in the Connaught's two dining rooms, The Grill Room and The Restaurant—which offer identical menus, prices, and standards of service, although the former is smaller and slightly frillier, with pale green predominating in the color scheme, while the latter is wood paneled and cloaked mostly in regal red. (As Bourdin puts it, "The 'stage' is different between the two, for them to do their little act.") I sometimes think of the Connaught's dining rooms, collectively, as the last French restaurant in the world. As it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between the best French-influenced contemporary cooking of Paris, Madrid, New York, and Tokyo, that is, the Connaught remains dedicated to a classic Gallic style of creating and presenting food—a style that has all but disappeared even in France itself. "In keeping with tradition," reads a note at the bottom of the menu, "we have maintained the style of menu designed by Auguste Escoffier, circa 1880." I doubt that there's another menu in the world today that makes that claim—and makes good on the promise it implies.

In her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather describes a French-born missionary priest serving dinner to his bishop in the wilds of territo-rial New Mexico in the mid-19th century. The first course is "a dark onion soup with croutons", which inspires the bishop to remark appreciatively, "[A] soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup."

I don't know whether Michel Bourdin has ever read Willa Cather, but I feel safe in saying that he would understand the bishop's sentiment perfectly—and that there are nearly a thousand years of history, generally speaking, in his own food. "When I was young," Bourdin tells me one day, "you'd judge a restaurant on three things: its terrine maison, its potage, and its tarte aux pommes." You have the feeling that he'd be quite happy to be judged by those criteria himself—although he does offer diners a considerably broader choice of dishes.

When Bourdin—a calm, elfinly stocky man of 59 with expressive eyebrows and a slow but genuine smile—took over the Connaught kitchens from his predecessor, Daniel Dunas, on March 17, 1975, he inherited a menu that he describes as "basic hotel food with some British dishes". Today, he likes to say that the menu is "three in one"—that is, about a third each British dishes, hotel classics, and his own creations and specialties. But everything—not just the pate de turbot froid au homard, the feuillete d'oeufs brouilles aux truffes du Perigord, and the medaillons de sarcelle "Belle Époque" but also the smoked Scottish salmon, the mixed grill, and the steak, kidney, and mushroom pie—is prepared and served with an Escoffier-like precision and respect for the comme il faut.

"What is interesting in the cuisine I am doing," says Bourdin—who was sous-chef at the very traditional Maxim's in Paris and then chef at the old-style Pavillon Royal in the Bois de Boulogne before coming to the Connaught—"is that it's a bit like classical music. It has been tested by so many people over the years that if you keep doing it properly, you will always be safe. But it has to be done properly. People tend to forget these dishes. It's interesting to maintain the standard."

Witness, for example, well… Bourdin's terrine, which looks almost rustic in its meaty authority but turns out to be very delicate in flavor, and very rich ("It absorbs a lot of gelatin," Bourdin notes). The recipe belonged to Alex Humbert, onetime chef at Maxim's. Paul Bocuse used to have the same terrine on his menu. Now Bourdin is teaching its secrets to his young English and French acolytes.

Another dish imported from Maxim's is jellied consomme Cole Porter, christened after the great songwriter, an habitue of both the Parisian landmark and the Connaught back in the 1930s. "It's a very springlike consomme," says Bourdin, "made with chicken stock and beef and pretty little new vegetables." He quotes approvingly the longtime proprietor of Maxim's, Louis Vaudable: "Change nothing and you will change everything." French-kitchen Zen.

A classic dish that was on the Connaught menu when Bourdin arrived, and still is, is oeuf en surprise—a subtle savory souffle bolstered beneath its ethereally light surface with little pieces of fresh lobster meat. Then there's the kipper pate, a smoky, salty, full-flavored paste of cured herring so addictive that for several years I could never persuade myself to order any other appetizer at the Connaught. This recipe, too, was developed by Bourdin's predecessor in the hotel kitchens. "I don't do it quite the same way," he admits. "There used to be soft herring roe and eggs in it, for instance." But the Connaught has bought its kippers from the same source, J. Curtis on the Isle of Man, since 1902—and Bourdin shows me the original recipe, which Dunas scrawled for him on the back of a piece of decorated paper in which an orange had been wrapped. "I believe I'm only the fifth chef who has cooked at the hotel since 1897," observes Bourdin proudly. "And we've all been French."

Bourdin does create dishes of his own, of course, but they tend to be respectful variations on the classics rather than astonishing new constructions involving unexpected combinations of ingredients. "In the time of Escoffier," he says, "chefs talked of three or four flavors in one dish—your brain really can't handle any more than that at one time—and always made certain that the main ingredient wasn't covered up." One dish that Bourdin is particularly proud of is sole jubilee, which he invented for Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee, in 1977. I watch chef poissonnier Guillaume Brard put the dish together, slowly poaching some perfect little soles in a fish fumet enhanced with chablis, parsley, peppercorns, and shallots ("If you cook the soles too fast," he offers, "they split"), then carefully lifting them from the liquid, fileting and boning them, and heaping mushroom duxelles in the center of half of them. He then seasons the soles, lays another filet over each, gently seals the edges around the duxelles, and presses a mold over each arrangement of fish to form a dome shape. Next, he adds the fish scraps and bones to the fumet and reduces it till the pot is almost dry; then he swirls in a generous amount of cream, simmers it, and passes the sauce through a sieve. As he checks the seasoning, a pastry cook, Isabelle Hamard, brings over a parchment-lined tray of raw puff-pastry shells decorated, in Queen Elizabeth's honor, with a crown surmounted by a globe from which a cross protrudes. Brard encloses the soles in the pastry, bakes them briefly, then naps them with the sauce. The dish turns out rich, deep in flavor, memorable—food that simply feels different in the mouth from most of what we eat today, more resonant, more satisfying.

As befits a restaurant of this stature, the Connaught is happily profligate with black truffles, which show up, among other places, with foie gras and with scrambled eggs, atop textbook tournedos Rossini (which are best accompanied, incidentally, by the kitchen's perfect little pommes soufflees), and in both the irresistible saucisses maison and the pureed potatoes "Cadurcienne" that accompany them. Truffles are also an accent in dishes like pintadeau (young guinea fowl) with morels and other wild mushrooms, cloaked in sauce supreme, drizzled with sauce Perigueux, and garnished with cubes of foie gras, chervil, and a julienne of truffles. Bourdin even flavors creme brulee with bits of black truffle (a wondrous conceit, as it turns out, the seductive earthiness of the tubers enobling the nursery-food sweetness of the custard and burnt sugar) and serves a "cocktail aux diamants noirs"—which is a brandy alexander made not with plain brandy but with the blend of port, brandy, and madeira in which the truffles are steeped before cooking.

The Connaught truffle locker—which over the course of a year holds more than 400 pounds of truffles, about $150,000 worth, all peeled, vacuum packed, and quick frozen—is near Bourdin's office. Inside the office, the walls are covered with photos of royalty, famous chefs, and epic dinners (Bourdin's brother was famed photographer Guy Bourdin, who died a dozen years ago, and he says ruefully that they had planned to do a book together); testimonials from illustrious customers; and certificates attesting to Bourdin's membership in the Academie Culinaire de France (which he founded), the Club des Cent, and the Association des Maitres-Cuisiniers de France and to the fact that he has been granted an honorary culinary-arts degree from Johnson & Wales University in North Miami. "I think of my office as a confessional," Bourdin tells me, sitting at his small, crowded desk. "We've had people working here from the ages of 16 to about 70. I hear all kinds of problems."

He takes his role as culinary paterfamilias very seriously, encouraging the young people who come to work for him to make a commitment to their craft. "I ask my cooks, when they first arrive to work as apprentices, to stay for at least three years. After that, they can become a second _commis _[assistant], then, after a few years more, a first commis. After that, I encourage them to go somewhere else for a few years to get a different experience. If they come back, I might take them on as a chef de partie [in charge of a section of the kitchen, like fish or sauces]. My _chefs de partie _tend to stay about ten years. In any case, I think it takes 12 to 15 years to create a chef. Just learning the basics takes eight to ten. Then you need about five years to learn management and to develop your own identity. Merely to become a cook doesn't take so long, of course—but then the foundation is very fragile."

It's no accident that Bourdin's kitchen has turned out many top chefs over the years. Claude and Michel Troisgros both worked here; so did Philippe Braun, who now has two stars at Laurent in Paris, and Larry Forgione, one of the pioneers of contemporary American cooking at An American Place in New York City. (In addition, both Wolfgang Puck and one-star Lyonnais chef Pierre Orsi apprenticed under Bourdin at Maxim's.) The lesson he hopes he has taught them all, he says, is "Cook simple, cook well."

There were rumors abroad a few years back that Bourdin was leaving the Connaught, or that the Connaught wanted to modernize its cuisine. The rumors, happily, were false, and Bourdin is still a good decade from retiring. Meanwhile, he seems to be doing an admirable job of training possible successors, and he seems happy with the regard in which his cuisine is widely held. "In 1975," he tells me, "Michelin gave us one star for each dining room. In 1977, each was promoted to two stars. Three years later, both were demoted to one, which we retain to this day. I have no problem with this at all. It is the correct rating, I think, because for one-third of my menu I am Michelin, and for two-thirds I am Connaught. You have to make up your mind who to work for."

Working for the Connaught, and for its customers, has obviously required a certain tempering of culinary ego for Bourdin over the years, a certain acceptance of the necessity of offering avocado cocktail and roast sirloin of Scottish beef alongside the medallions of goose foie gras in port gelee and the flambeed saddle of hare with juniper. But this is part of the mix, part of the Anglo-French culinary connection that dates back at least to Escoffier.

Anyway, Bourdin has a surprise up the sleeve of his chef's tunic: sometime late this year, he revealed to us just before we went to press, he wants to separate the Connaught's two restaurants. The organization of the kitchen would remain the same, but The Restaurant would serve only British and traditional hotel dishes, while The Grill Room would become Escoffier Grill and offer only those "Michelin" specialties of his, in luxurious new Belle Époque surroundings, with heirloom table settings—and a black-tie dress code. "In the meantime," adds Bourdin, "I would just be happier if more ladies wore hats."

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