Burt Wolf's Table: France - #208

BURT WOLF:   France, the cultural center of the western world.  It's the place to take a look at how a classic chef is trained, to find out what the monks of a 16th century abbey were drinking to keep up their good health.  We'll find out about a widow who took over her husband's champagne business and made it famous.  And we'll cook up some easy and great-tasting recipes.  So join me in France, at Burt Wolf's Table.

If there's anything that fascinates the people of France, it's fashion. Many of the great fashion houses of France line the Avenue Montaigne.  Christian Dior, Chanel, and Christian Lacroix on one side.  Nina Ricci and Guy Laroche on the other.  Quite a street.

The Champs Elysees, with its Arc de Triomphe, mark the top of the Avenue.  The River Seine and the Tour Eiffel sit at the bottom.  The neighborhood is a namedropper's dream.  And right smack in the middle is the Hotel Plaza Athenee.  It's great from the outside, and everything gets better as you head in.  Look at the detailing on the door plates, and the workmanship in the lobby. 

Just to the right of the entrance area is the Galerie de Gobelins, which is named after the famous glassworks that made the chandeliers.  That's where the hotel serves its afternoon tea.

One of the most beautiful parts of the Plaza Athenee is the internal courtyard.  During the late spring and summer, the walls of the building are completely covered with ivy and the place is packed with tables, umbrellas and guests.

Well, as you probably guessed by now, it is not late spring or summer.  It's actually early April, and it's still pretty chilly in Paris.  Whoever it was who wrote the song "April in Paris", either he wasn't here at the time, or he was getting paid off big bucks by the French Tourist Association.  I did want you see the courtyard, however, when it's at its best.  Here’s a photograph.

Let me try that again. 

One of the most beautiful parts of the Plaza Athenee is the internal courtyard.  During the late spring and summer the walls of the building are completely covered with ivy, and the place is packed with tables, umbrellas and guests.

Hmm, I think the birds help a lot.

The main restaurant is Le Regence. The room is about as beautiful as a restaurant can get.  The hotel is also very proud of Le Relais.  It's a more informal restaurant that opened in 1937, and has been the place to see and be seen ever since.

Over the years I've looked at the famous guest list in hundreds of hotels.  The same names keep popping up.  Elizabeth Taylor.  Marcello Mastroianni.  The Queen of Denmark.  The King of Spain.  These folks are always on the road.  It's almost as if their parents won't let them come home.  But the most unusual name I've ever seen on a guest list is right here at the Plaza Athenee.

She was born in 1876 in the Netherlands, and her real name was Margrethe Zell.   She had a popular stage act, pretending to be a Javanese dancer.  When her show lost its popularity, she went to work as a spy for the Germans, and became one of the most famous spies of the 20th century.  She was known as Mata Hari.  And this was her room at the Plaza Athenee.  She would come here with French military officers, and use her.... (CLEARS THROAT)  “charms” to gain information. “Oh, my dear, did you have a hard time at the... oh, what unit did you say you were in?”  Seems to have worked.

The French Revolution of the 1780's changed the face of France in many ways.  It uprooted an ancient system of government and issued in a period of mass confusion.  During the reign of terror that was part of the French Revolution, thousands of nobles were sent to the guillotine.  One of the side effects of those executions was to put the cooks of the nobles out of work.  Thousands and thousands of cooks without any hope of ever getting their job back.  “Getting their job back,” they couldn't even get a letter of recommendation any more.  To earn a living, they literally invented the idea of the modern restaurant, and opened dozens of them all over Paris.

One of the functions that restaurants have served ever since then has been to give the people of a town or neighborhood a chance to get a good look at each other, to show off a bit.  Le Relais is famous for that.

Gerard Salle is the executive chef, and his job is to oversee every aspect of the hotel's food and wine service.  We were talking about the differences between the recipes used in home cooking, and those that are used in most restaurants, and I asked him about the traditional Sunday chicken dinners that were served in his childhood.  In response, he cooked the following chicken fricassee. 

A chicken is cut into twelve pieces and salted and peppered.  A little vegetable oil goes into a saute pan.  The chicken goes into the pan, skin-side down, and cooks for fifteen minutes.  Then the chicken comes out of the pan.  Two cups of button mushrooms get washed quickly and go in.  Cooking the mushrooms in the drippings from the chicken adds flavor and color.  A cup of cream goes in and cooks for a few minutes. Then the chicken goes back into the pan to mix with the mushrooms and the sauce.  In a separate saucepan, a cup of baby onions are cooked in a little water and butter.  At that point the chicken comes out of the pan, and the chef places it on a serving dish.  The onions go on, some asparagus, the mushrooms and the sauce.

Another piece of work in an entirely different way is the hotel's English bar, with its rather gentlemanly atmosphere. The walls of the bar have a collection of photographs that show the famous entertainers who have stopped in for a drink.

So what are the famous and fashionable drinking these days?  Well, it's actually a series of drinks that go back to the old Benedictine monks.  During the early 1500's, a monk by the name of Don Bernardo Vincelli began making an elixir. He made it in a Benedictine abbey in the French town of Fecamp.  


Bernardo had grown up with a great understanding of spices and how they were to be used both for flavoring and medicinal effects.  His secret formula for the distillation contains 27 different exotic spices and local herbs.  For almost 300 years the monastery reproduced Brother Bernardo's recipe.  The monks felt that the drink gave them strength and kept them healthy.  However, during the French Revolution, both the recipe and the manufacturing technique were lost.  During the early 1800's, however, a man by the name of Alexandre LeGrand was looking through a bunch of books in his family library, and he came upon a group that belonged to the monks.  Inside one of them was Brother Bernardo's original recipe.

LeGrand started to experiment with the formula, and was eventually able to produce an extraordinary drink which he began to offer to the public under the name Benedictine.  Monsieur LeGrand was kind of an amazing character.  He built this fantastic replica of a Renaissance palace to house both his manufacturing facility and a museum.

He was an early believer in advertising and commissioned artists to produce Benedictine posters.  He also asked them to design various other things that contained the Benedictine graphic. He was so successful in promoting his drink that soon people began to make counterfeits.  This display is made up of bottles that try to pass themselves off as the real thing, but are actually just fakes. 

As a result, LeGrand was deeply involved in the development of laws to protect brand identification.  Alexandre LeGrand translates into English as Alexander the Great, and in the history of distilled spirits, he sure was.

In 1937, a bartender at New York's 21 Club mixed some Benedictine together with some French brandy and created the drink called B&B.  Shortly after, the company that made Benedictine decided to do the blending themselves,  and began to offer B&B in a bottle.  Today these two products, Benedictine and B&B are still made in the little French town of Fecamp.

Today's drink at the Plaza Athenee is called a Marco Polo.  And it's made by mixing together one part Benedictine, one part cognac, and three parts of orange juice.  A variation of that is called a Sunny Day.  Two parts Benedictine to three parts of grapefruit juice.  They both get served with ice.

Well, those old monks certainly had a way with vitamin C.

The Plaza Athenee is named after the mythical Greek goddess Athena.  Athena is the goddess of wisdom, and I can't think of a more perfect symbol for the Plaza Athenee.  A number of America's most talented chefs got their training right here in this kitchen.  Two of the most famous are Pierre Franey and Jacques Pepin, both of whom have very successful television shows. 

Even today the hotel has a classic program for apprentices.  You start in the vegetable area where you learn to clean and prepare various vegetables.  Every once in a while, if you appear to be skillful, that is, you'll get a fruit to challenge your talents.  That goes on for about two months.  Then it's off to the breakfast and soup area.  That's your first contact with heat.  And now you're really cooking.  Actually you're just boiling most of the time, but it's clearly a step in the right direction . A few months more and it's off to sauces, followed by grilling, fish cookery, food purchasing and storage, and finally the arts of pastry and candy-making.

Two years of hard work, and they're ready to go out into the world and do some serious damage to other people's waistlines.  Actually, that's unfair of me to say.  Everything is okay in moderation.  It's just that in this environment, I find it very hard to be moderate.

Another dish from Executive Chef Salle is fish provencale.   Gerard starts by putting a little stock or vermouth into a saute pan, and a little vegetable oil.  Then the fish goes in, and the pan goes into a 350 degree fahrenheit oven for twelve minutes.  When the fish comes out of the oven, it goes onto a pan that allows the chef to trim off the bones that catch the juices that are dripping from the fish.  The fish will always have more flavor if it's cooked with its bones in.  The fish is transferred to a plate.  Some cooked spinach goes onto one filet, then some fresh tomato sauce.  A little more tomato sauce on the second filet, which is then placed on top of the first.  The sauce is made by taking the juice that drips off the fish during the baking, and heating it in a saucepan with a little butter, and a few pre-cooked fava beans.  The fish goes onto the serving plate, and the sauce goes on top.  A little more of the tomatoes as a garnish.

No discussion of French food would be complete without a souffle, and Gerard has one with a chocolate base - my favorite.

The technique for making a souffle is really pretty straightforward.   A little milk is heated in a saucepan, and some sugar goes in.  Some butter is melted in a second pan, and some flour is whisked in to make what is called a roux.

I love it when a great chef asks me to help him.

When the flour is fully incorporated in the butter, the milk is mixed in, and a few egg yolks.  And finally, melted chocolate.  What you have now is the basic chocolate mixture.  That sits aside while some egg whites are beaten until they stand in peaks.  That should take about five minutes of beating.  Just as they begin to get stiff, some sugar is added in.  The beaten egg whites are then gently folded into the chocolate mixture.  That gets poured into molds with inside walls that have been given a light coating of butter and dusted with sugar.

One of the tricks that professional chefs use to make a souffle rise is to coat the inside of the mold with butter, and then to coat the butter with sugar.  When the souffle starts to rise up in the heat of the oven, instead of crawling up a shiny, smooth wall that's difficult, it has a texture like sandpaper, and that makes it much easier for the egg whites to crawl up.  It's a great idea.

Then into a 400 degree fahrenheit oven for ten minutes, and they're ready to serve.

Well, I think it's time to get out of the kitchen, and take a look at some of the more famous sights of Paris.  Paris is a great city for walking, and for most people walking is a great thing for your body.  I'm walking at the pace of four miles per hour, so if I do this for 45 minutes I will have covered three miles.  And my doctors tell me if I do that four or five times a week, I will have the basis of an exercise program that won't stress my body, and will help me with my good health.   They also think it might actually retard the effects of aging.  So let's do it!

That's the Louvre.  Its construction began in the 1200's as a royal fortress.  It first became a museum just after the French Revolution.  Nice place.  Lots of paintings with food.

When you look down the street from the Louvre toward the Arc de Triomphe, you're looking down the Champs Elysses.  In the 1400's it was a dump for butchers.  But in the 1500's, the Queen Mother, Catherine DeMedici, built a little chateau here and began the development of a series of parks.  The place soon became the fashionable spot to hang out.

The Place de la Concorde.  One of the most beautiful and dramatic parts of Paris.  The aldermen of Paris wanted to get on the good side of King Louis XV, so they built this place in 1755 and gave it as a gift to... to the Well-Beloved.  That was his nickname, the Well-Beloved. 

Well, I promised to stop here at Place de la Concorde, and thank a well-beloved friend of mine.  He's the chef at Air France.  I flew here to Paris on an Air France Concorde.  Took me a little over three hours from New York City.  It's quite amazing.  Not only did they serve an excellent meal on board, but they were kind enough to let my camera crew go into the kitchen and film the recipe.

The recipe is for a classic French apple tart called a tarte tatin.  Chef Michel Martin starts by peeling, coring and quartering ten apples.  Then he butters a pan and coats the bottom with a third of a cup of sugar.  The slices from eight of the apples are arranged in the pan.  The two remaining apples are chopped and scattered on top.  A little sugar goes on, a few dots of butter.  And finally a sheet of puff pastry dough that's fitted to the top of the pan.  A few holes in the dough to let out the cooking steam, and into a 375 degree oven for 60 minutes.  When it comes out, the pan is heated on a burner to caramelize the bottom, and then it's flipped over so the dough ends up on the bottom, and the apples on the top.  The classic tarte tatin.

A little further along on this walking tour, and you're confronted by the Arc de Triomphe.  It was commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 to honor the French military.  The church St. Mary Magdalene, known to Parisians as La Madeleine.  It looks more like a Greek temple than a Christian church, and these days it's undergoing a major renovation.  To keep it looking good, a life-size reproduction of the facade has been painted and hung up.

An amazing piece of work, but not a new idea for this city.  In 1810, the Empress Marie Louise was supposed to make her triumphal entrance to Paris, and pass under the Arc de Triomphe.  The only problem was the arch was a little bit behind schedule, and only stood about a foot and a half high.  Not very impressive for an empress.   So the architect made a life-size painting on canvas, and hung it from some scaffolding.  Two hundred years later, they're still doing the same stuff.

And there is the most famous symbol of the city of Paris, the Tour Eiffel, the Eiffel Tower.

When it was completed in the late 1800's, it was the highest manmade object in the world.  As we all know, the highest manmade object in the world today is the U.S. national debt.  And speaking of debt, I'd like to talk about a lady to whom everybody who works in television owes a debt of thanks.

She came to us through the efforts of public broadcasting, and she changed the way millions of Americans cooked.  She was the French Chef.

But how did Julia Child get to be the French Chef?  The proper technique for the preparation of rognons de veau a la grande moutarde is not something you pick up on the way home from the supermarket.  She learned to be a French chef right here in Paris at a cooking school called Le Cordon Bleu.

The history of Le Cordon Bleu goes back to the 1500's.  There was a society of knights who wore blue ribbons to mark their membership.  They also had a big deal reputation for good eating.   King Louis XV once told his girlfriend, Madame Du Barry, that he thought only men made great professional chefs.  Well, a little while later in what appeared to be a totally unrelated event, Madame invited Louis over to her place for a little late supper.  It was a wipeout dinner, at the end of which the King commented that he thought the new guy working in Du Barry's kitchen was as good as anyone working in his own royal household.  At which point Du Barry informed the King that her chef was indeed a woman, and that she thought the King owed her chef a Cordon Bleu in honor of her skills.  From then on , Le Cordon Bleu has been associated with good cooking.

The Cordon Bleu cooking school got started here in Paris in 1895.  In the 1950's film "Sabrina", Audrey Hepburn is sent to the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris to get her culinary education.  It was the only proper thing to do since this place is really the world's top-ranked cooking school for French technique.

If Sabrina was going for the ultimate, the Grand Diplome, she'd be taking a series of five courses spread out over nine months.  What if she had to get back to making movies?  Okay... three- to five-day intensive classes.   What if she had to get back to Cary Grant?  No problem.  One-day workshops.  They'll have you back in time to dress for dinner.


This was the first school to set up a teaching system that starts with an instructor showing the students how to make the dish.  It allows them to sample the proper taste and finally sends them off to their own individual cooking area to reproduce the recipe.  It takes time to learn this way, and it takes money to give each student his or her own ingredients, and cooking equipment, including a four-burner range and oven.  The students come from all over the world.  Right now in these classes, over 30 different countries are represented, and it's been like this since the beginning.

This is Cordon Bleu chef Didier Chantefort, and he's demonstrating the technique for pork with prunes.

A little oil and butter go into a saute pan.  The pork filets go into the pan and they're browned.  While the meat is browning, an aromatic garnish is prepared.  Thyme, parsley and a bay leaf are wrapped in a leek.  When the meat is brown on all sides, it's removed to a large casserole.  The instructor uses a fork but doesn't press it into the meat because he doesn't want to make any holes that would let the meat juices drain out.  The aromatic garnish goes onto the meat.  Some chopped onions and chopped carrots are browned in a pan.  A little flour is added.  The flour will help bind the sauce that he'll be making in a minute.  The onions and carrots go in with the meat, and the pan that they were cooked in is deglazed with white wine.  Deglazing is a simple process.  Whatever is cooked in a pan is removed and a liquid is poured in.  The heat is turned up and the pan drippings are scraped into the liquid.  The liquid is cooked down to about half the original volume to thicken the sauce, and that's deglazing.  And that's poured onto the pork.  A little meat stock is added.  The cover goes on, and it's into a 375 degree fahrenheit oven for 25 minutes.  At that point the pork comes out of the oven, and out of the pan.  The sauce is finished off by skimming the liquid for any impurities, and passing the clean sauce through a sieve.  That particular form of sieve is called a Chinese hat.  The vegetables are pressed to get out all of the juices and their flavors.  The drippings are then heated and a little cream is added.  A cup of pitted prunes come in.  The prunes have a natural sweetness that gives the dish a rich flavor.  Prunes are actually an ideal flavoring for pork and poultry recipes.  A few more moments of cooking, and the dish is ready to plate.

In 1772, Philippe Clicquot announced that he was going into the wine business.  Philippe's family had been living in the champagne district of France since the 1400's, and had become rather prosperous middle-class merchants.  It was not unusual for a family of this type to make and sell a little wine from the vineyards on their land.  But now Phillipe was getting real serious about making great champagne.

In 1798, Philippe's son, Francois, became a partner in his father's business.  He had a plan for expanding the business by using traveling salesmen who would stop into any town in Europe where they thought they could get a respectable order.  Business was doing quite well when suddenly Francois died.  His widow took over the business.  She was only 28 years old at the time.  And what a time it was, too.  The Napoleonic wars were underway, and Europe was a wreck.

Nobody, but nobody was interested in ordering champagne, and besides, you couldn't deliver those orders anyway.  The British Navy was blockading all of the ports, and the overland roads were unsafe.  And if by some miracle you actually got a valid order and you were able to deliver it, you probably would not get paid.  And it was in this magnificent business climate that Madame Clicquot spent her first few years at the company. 

You have got to love this woman.  She must have been made of steel.

As soon as the war ended, and the royal house of France was restored, Madame Clicquot made a shipment of champagne to Russia.  The Russians loved the quality, and very soon Clicquot became a household name.  Of course, it was the household of the Czar, but it's always been important to have your name mentioned in places of power.

When Madame Clicquot took over the business they were shipping 50 thousand bottles a year.  When she died in 1866 at the age of 89, they were shipping 800 thousand bottles a year.  Quite an increase in the business, and all due to the efforts of this one woman.  She also bought some vineyards to make sure that she had a good supply of top quality wine, and she never gave up her search for improving the quality and techniques of her own champagne.  The business is literally named after her.  Veuve Clicquot means the Widow Clicquot.


This is Edouard Denazelle, whose family has been giving direction to the company for many decades.  And these are the company's ancient caves, through which he will direct me.

“Tell me about the caves.”

EDWARD DENAZELLE:   Well, these caves are quite ancient.  They are between 1800 and 2000 years old.  They were....

BURT WOLF:   These caves are made of limestone chalk that was deposited here thousands of years ago when this part of France was actually at the bottom of an ocean.  The ancient Romans knew about these caves, and used them to quarry large stones.  The stones formed the walls of the forts for Julius Caesar's army.  The champagne in these bottles starts out as the juice of a grape which is brought here in a wooden cask.  This is the most northerly area in Europe for quality wine grape growing.  North of here are the beer drinkers. 

The natural yeast on the grape turns to sugar and the grape juice to alcohol and carbon dioxide gas.  The result is called wine. 

The wine from each growing area is held in a separate barrel.  The art of the champagne house is really to blend together all the different wines to get a perfectly balanced champagne.  The wine sits in these bottles and the growing yeast inside causes bubbles to form, which is what champagne is all about.

The early champagne makers could only produce a champagne that was cloudy, because the dried yeast cells remained in the bottle.  And then a system called riddling was developed.  The bottles are slowly turned upside down until all the yeast sinks down to the neck.  The table that makes that easy is called a riddling table.  It was developed by Madame Clicquot from one of her desks.

After a few years in the cellar, the cellar master checks the yeast sediment in the bottle.  Then he opens the bottle...


And lets the pressure blow off the sediment.  At that point the bottle is recorked so we can open it later.

Well, that's all from France.  Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for good things to eat and drink at Burt Wolf's Table.