2000s Archive

The Three Musketeers

Originally Published December 2002
They come from southern France—friends, cooks, and heiresses of a proud tradition. The Nouvelles Mères Cuisinières gather behind the stove for an unforgettable feast.

It was morning in Paris. In the cafés there was the hiss of milk being steamed for petits crèmes. By the Sèvres-Babylone métro entrance, in the 6th arrondissement, a city worker, in green uniform, hosed down the pavement, and two exquisitely dressed school-going children turned to wave to Maman, who was standing on the balcony of their apartment. Close by, where the Rue d'Assas meets the Rue du Cherche-Midi, in the second-floor kitchen of Restaurant Hélène Darroze, three chefs—Ariane Daguin, Anne-Sophie Pic, and Hélène Darroze, the restaurant's owner—gathered to prepare a dinner that would stand as a testament to the two separate major influences on their careers.

The first was the culinary custom of the Mères Cuisinières. In a profoundly late-19th- and early-20th-century tradition, women, often working at coal-burning stoves, usually a long way from Paris, introduced a simmered, domestic note into the rigors of French gastronomy. By remaining at the family restaurant for their entire careers, these women came to define the very place in which they labored, just as Mère Blanc did for the tiny hamlet of Vonnas, in the Bresse.

Juxtaposed with this continuity, the trajectories that had brought two of these three chefs and businesswomen to Darroze's kitchen seemed like a study in contrasts. Mère Blanc, after all, never traveled to Paris with three assistants and two huge blue ice chests on the upper deck of the TGV. Mère Brazier never tipped a porter in Newark Airport to carry her 78-pound Styrofoam container of foie gras. And Mère Adrienne surely never welcomed anyone to her Montmartre restaurant wearing deck shoes and a valentine Swatch, and carrying a red cellphone that played Vivaldi when it rang.

The second major influence brought matters closer to home. The three women, ranging in age from 33 to 44, were all daughters of famed chefs, and the dinner, to which leading gastronomes, selected purveyors, château owners, journalists, and Mère Brazier's granddaughter Jacotte had been invited, was also intended to be a tip of the toque to their fathers. The legacy of the Mères may have been elusive, but this one was concrete. Culinary traditions are passed on from generation to generation, though here there was a twist. Neither André Daguin nor Francis Darroze, who would be guests at the dinner, nor Jacques Pic, who died in 1992, had encouraged their daughters to pursue a career in cooking. But they had. When you're a cook's child, you get restaurants through the pores. You live by the tempo of a kitchen without being in one—the hour you play with your parent is between lunch and dinner, and the grazing good-night kiss that shouldn't wake you comes at midnight. These women had gone out into the world, into different fields of study, only to find that their passion lay, as it had for their fathers, at the professional stove.

So there was both a maternal and a paternal side to the evening. Together, they represented a formidable undertaking. If the three women seemed somewhat sanguine, it may have been that as the daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters of chefs, they understood that, in cooking, the greatest acknowledgment is getting a dish right. The three chefs, together with the assembled brigade, were intent on doing just that.

The kitchen itself was set up in the traditional French way, around a stove where cooks have visual contact with one another at all times. Just now, though, they had their backs to it as they worked. A young Greek helped Daguin stuff prunes marinated in Armagnac with foie gras mousse; Keren, from Jerusalem, cleaned gooseneck barnacles; and Sarah, from Poitiers, cut the chorizo made by Pierre Oteiza from free-range pigs that roam the Basque country eating chestnuts. The newest arrival cooked spinach for the staff lunch, nervously lifting it with a spider into a bath of ice water; a much more assured young man, who would soon be leaving for Michel Rostang's restaurant on Anguilla, seared pigeons that had been marinated in olive oil and piments d'Espelette on an old freestanding grill.

This magnificent piece of equipment, with twin flues and the manufacturer's name embossed on its shutters, had been brought up from the Darroze restaurant in the Landes when it closed in 1999. "In winter there, it's dead these days," Hélène Darroze said as she tried to explain the closing of a restaurant that had been owned by the same family for generations. With its burning coals, the grill seemed a monument to a France that no longer existed, for it conjured a time when restaurants depended, not on seasonal visits from international gastronomes, but on the itineraries of the traveling salesmen known as VRPs.

These salesmen (voyageurs représentants placiers) headed out on Monday morning and returned home on Friday night. The prestige of the restaurants that lined the roads they traveled are proof of the quality they expected. Hostellerie de la Poste, Hôtel de la Côte d'Or, and Lameloise lined Route Nationale 6; Point and Pic took care of Route Nationale 7. As Ariane Daguin spread foie gras mousse over cured duck breast, she recalled the bargains they expected, and how they played one restaurant against the other. "The salesmen would say, 'Hey, the coffee is included chez Daguin,' or 'At Darroze, they give you the Armagnac.' "

Those were the days when Daguin's grandmother took over the central courtyard of the Hôtel de France once a year. She would set up pans and cauldrons, and all the local farmers would bring their cèpes. The farmers would sell them, and the grandmother spent the day sautéing and putting them up in Mason jars to use until cèpe season came around again.

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