Fernand Point's Ma Gastronomie

"There are many people who claim to be good cooks; just as there are many people who, after having repainted the garden gate, take themselves to be painters."

A new edition of Fernand Point's 1969 Ma Gastronomie is set to be re-released today (buy at Amazon). The cookbook/biography/hagiography, long out-of print, is one of the undisputed culinary classics — the reissue has an introduction by no less than Thomas Keller (video below), and Charlie Trotter told the Wall Street Journal that "if someone said to me I could only have one cookbook, this is the one."

Chef and owner of the famed restaurant La Pyramide in Vienne, south of Lyon, he gained three Michelin stars (obviously) and trained an entire generation of French master chefs. Building on the classics of la grande cuisine, he was both the culinary and cultural intermediary between Escoffier and nouvelle cuisine; his peers called him Le Roi.

Point is not very well known today—by now he's at least three generations removed from today's culinary world. But that removal is a matter entirely of time, and not at all one of relevance. On the contrary — from the book, Michelin three-star disciple Pierre Troigros had this to say:

Fernand Point put to rest many of the old taboos about la grande cuisine. He didn't agree that one must bow down to the classical authorities. Why must he reverse Escoffier and follow all his precepts without deviation if they are only half satisfactory at most to his taste? Monsieur Point believed that great cuisine is not static. The creative cuisinier cannot hold only to what as dine in the past and go no further. One should retain the base, the foundation, and build on that, modifying and refining it to suit changing tastes in changing times. That is what he did—and he created a new cuisine for this century.

There's an entire section devoted to Point's thoughts on cuisine and life from a notebook he kept, "a gastronomic testament as well as a line of conduct to be followed." His most well-known epigram probably being "Butter! Give me butter! Always butter!" Ma Gastronomie also includes over 200 recipes in an inimitable narrative, shorthand style, or what he called "abbreviations for the working cuisinier." His recipe for a "simple omelette":

Whip the yolks and white of the eggs separately. Add the beaten egg yolks, salt and pepper to sizzling butter in a skillet. When the eggs begin to set, add a good spoonful of crème fraîche and the beaten egg whites. Keep the pan moving over a high heat to avoid having the omelet stick to the pan.

On the bottom line:

Separate prices were never listed for the various items on the menu. The same was true of diners' bills. Aperitifs, wines, champagnes, coffee – nothing was itemized... If someone argued about the cost, Point made them the gift of the bill—and also invited them to dine elsewhere in the future.

On recipes:

"He knew how the old classic recipes were prepared," Jean Troisgros remembers, "but he was not especially concerned with following them 'to the letter.' He built on them and created his own recipes. It all came out of his head..."

On customer interaction:

Before Point the cuisinier never left he kitchen. The maitre d'hotel ran the restaurant and the chef kept to the stoves. Point changed all that. He came into the dining room from the kitchen and talked to his clients. He sounded out their likes and dislikes and composed their dinner with them, creating dishes to their tastes.

Video: Thomas Keller on Fernand Point

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