Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Vatel and the Sturgeon

Our new fish supplier in the City found us some farm sturgeon. Farm sturgeon gets a big Green Light on the list, so…….why not? We served it, homage á Etienne Merle, cold smoked and poached in white wine and heavy cream. Green peppercorns. Rich, rich, rich.....
We go way back with sturgeon. Our logo is sturgeon related……Our opening gift from artist Zevi Blum from a series of culinary engravings he had done in upstate New York while working for Steuben Glass. Funny, intense, beautiful.....Check Zevi's link.

Our drawing depicts a scene from the life of Vatel, a legendary sixteenth century chef. “Vatel” is also a must-see chef’s movie starring Gerard Depardieu and Uma Thurman.

Vatel’s world was the world of the Three Musketeers. He first worked for Fouquet, the finance minister of Cardinal Mazarin. Mazarin was the head of state for Anne of Austria (Geraldine Chaplin in that movie), the regent for her young son Louis XIV. Her affair with Lord Buckingham, and the crooked financial dealings of previous ministers caused a royal rebellion among the princes and generals. The baddest of these was The Great Condé. He not only rebelled against Mazarin and the Queen…..he stole Fouquet’s chef! The Condé fought against Mazarin with the Spanish for ten years, until Mazarin’s death and Louis’s accession.

The Condé lived at Chantilly, the still-gorgeous palace an hour from Paris. Vatel was officially the maitre d’hotel, as well as chef. This meant he was in charge of everything: grounds, staff, kitchens, farms, vineyards, stables, livestock, fisheries….you name it. The Condé ran his territory like an independent country, so Vatel had full powers, and full responsibility. The Culinary Karl Rove (his real name was, in fact, Karl Watel…..Swiss).

Ten years into Louis’ reign, he decided he needed to kick the ass of the Dutch and the Flems. He needed a general, and the Condé was still the best….even though his most recent experience was kicking Louis’ own ass. The Condé was broke after ten years of rebellion, and needed Louis’ money, but couldn’t let Louis know.

Louis came for a royal visit to hash all this out, with his full, treasury-breaking entourage. Think P-Diddy and J Lo coming by for the weekend…..with Liz Taylor.

Vatel was ready. For opening night, they served sturgeon. Sturgeon was (and still is in England) a royal prerogative. At Christmas, Prince Charles portions out filets to his Cool List. No one is supposed to serve it without royal permission. Well, to let Louis know what was what, and who was who…..Vatel was laying on the royal fish.

Sturgeon are enormous anadromous fish…They live in salt water, and return to fresh water to spawn, like salmon and trout. They are hard to kill, live a long time, and can run fifteen to twenty feet, easy. There was one famous sturgeon….I can’t remember where…that thrilled and appalled the public by eating ducks like popcorn in a public park. To cook the sturgeon, Vatel had to have special pans made, and to serve them, special giant silver platters. Timing was, of course, crucial. Failure was not an option. The galleys awaited anyone, Vatel included, who screwed up.

Sturgeon are always presented proceeded by a piper…..Union rules. In our logo, you see first Vatel with his mace of office, then the pipers, then here comes the sturgeon….An eighteen footer….

As Vatel made his entrance, the crowd was puzzled by the pipers….then stunned to see the sturgeon…being served by the general to the king. As in: “Fuck you, Louis… are in MY house. I make the calls here……”

As the procession came into the dining room, suddenly the first platter-bearer tripped. The others stumbled with him, and the entire fish came crashing down in a heap of steaming flesh, twisted silver, and screaming servants and guests. When the chaos died down, all eyes turned to Vatel, surely doomed to the galleys. He looked at the mess, shrugged his shoulders and turned to his assistant, “Ooops. See if we have another one…….”

On cue……out came more pipers…..and a 24 foot sturgeon! The all-time catering “Fuck you!”

I am still waiting for the right bride and/or mother-of-bride to pull this one on…….One would assume 100% deposit….

Post-script: The Condé got the job,and the money. Vatel did not do as well. For the next night’s dinner, he had ordered 10 tumbril’s of fish. Only one arrived. Vatel took out his sword, held the point against his heart, and ran into the wall. The ultimate chef’s tantrum….and the ultimate beleaguered chef’s guilt trip. His other legacy is Chantilly cream…..whipped cream with sugar….what a concept……Hey, and in the movie he gets to sleep with Uma Thurman!

And the movie’s tag line: “Some men are too noble to live among aristocracy….” Hold that thought, chef......


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