French Food is Dead — Long Live La Cuisine Classique

With the death of Robert Treboux of New York’s Le Veau d’Or, an era is passing with him

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Courtesy Dominique Treboux

Robert Treboux

Monsieur Robert, as he was sometimes called, died on August 22, and with him an era ended. Robert Treboux was an elderly Frenchman who ran Le Veau d’Or, New York’s most venerable outpost of la cuisine classique, which defined fine dining for decades in the U.S. and abroad. The canons of French cookery, handed down from Marie-Antoine Carême to Auguste Escoffier to Fernand Point and Paul Bocuse, were a universal language of gastronomy, at least for rich people. From Salt Lake City to Saigon, if you wanted to have a classy meal, you could expect escargot, blanquette de veau, tripes a la mode de caen, and a plentiful flow of butter-enriched sauces.

That’s all over now, and Monsieur Robert’s death is an opportune moment to look back on it. I miss it. I think we are the worse for its loss. And the reasons are social, rather than culinary.

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French food had an international influence in the 20th century for several reasons, all of which are defunct. It was commonly agreed to be the best food in the world. France, as an imperial power, was exporting its culture around the globe. And trained French chefs, who bore the same relation to gastronomy as Shaolin monks do to kung fu, were ceded taste-making authority nearly every place they landed. The prime example of this in the U.S. was the international tasting area at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, where the star was the French Pavilion. It was so popular, in fact, that its chef, Henri Soule, moved Le Pavillon to a permanent location on 55th Street, where it became the epicenter of haute cuisine in America. Later Soule left and opened Lutèce, which then itself became the epicenter of haute cuisine in America. Treboux was the last of the direct disciples of Soule; he was a waiter, rather than a chef, but his immersion in Soule’s ethic, passed on to him by his masters in France, was carried forward to Le Veau d’Or, where it was lovingly embalmed for half a century. Even today, you can go there — and hardly anyplace else — for a dinner of vichysoisse, foies de volaille sauce madère  (chicken livers in madeira sauce) and crème caramel or floating island for dessert.

Of course, this antique version of French food passed out of fashion decades ago. As early as the 1960s, a new generation of French chefs were perfecting the tiny portions stranded at the center of big white plates known as “nouvelle cuisine,” the progenitors of today’s annoyingly overmeticulous — to me, anyway — tweezer food. Nouvelle cuisine was not just a change in style; it was a class difference as well. The old cuisine, even in its grandest form, was essentially an elaboration or elevation of home cooking: the so-called cuisine bourgeoise that was the cornerstone of all French cuisine. A Lyonnaise workingman or Norman housewife might not have been stuffing their chickens with foie gras or truffles, but the basic flavors of their fare — butter, wine, roasted or sautéed meats, long braised stews — constituted what we might call French comfort food. Nouvelle cuisine was the plumber’s son who, thanks to his father’s success, wears a Halston suit and speaks with the accents of Exeter and Harvard.

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Le Veau d’Or was a throwback to that earlier, homier food and, as such, the last bastion of celebrating ordinary, Western middle-class food. We don’t really see that any more. We will eat the street food of Mexico or Thailand, but in America, as in France or England or Spain, the food that elicits the greatest admiration is food the likes of which have never been produced in anyone’s home. Which is fine; it makes perfect sense in economic terms. Why would you pay hundreds of dollars unless there was some special added value? And to be fair, the great gastronomes of mid-century wouldn’t have been happy with a leg of lamb or cassoulet such as you might see in a rustic bistro or inn. But I believe that in those days it was a matter of degree, rather than of difference.

So, a little old man who ran a stuffy restaurant in Manhattan is dead. But an era has died with him, and I’m sorry to see it go. In the end, history makes relics of us all. But some changes are for the worse.

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