The Daily Meal Hall of Fame: Fernand Point

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The Daily Meal Hall of Fame: Fernand Point

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In an era of obsessively secretive chefs, Point shared his knowledge freely.

With the help of The Daily Meal Council, we have selected ten key figures in the history of food to honor this year in our Hall of Fame. This is why Fernand Point, arguably the most important French restaurateur of the 20th century, belongs on the roster.

Fernand Point (1897–1955) was a chef, a restaurateur, a gourmand, and a philosopher. What else would you call a man who once wrote "One of the most important things distinguishing man from other animals is that man can take pleasure from drinking without being thirsty"? This line appears in Ma Gastronomie, a collection of his recipes and observations published 14 years after Point's death. So do these: "Great cuisine must not wait for the guest; it is the guest who must wait for great cuisine," and "If the divine creator went to the effort of giving us delicious and exquisite things to eat, the least we can do is prepare them well and serve them with ceremony," and "In all professions without doubt, but certainly in cooking, one is a student all one's life."

Point was born into a family of restaurateurs in the Burgundian town of Louhans, northeast of Mâcon, where his father ran the railway station buffet. It was at his father's place that Point, as a boy, first worked in a professional kitchen. He left home as a teenager to apprentice in hotel kitchens in Paris, Cannes, and the spa town of Évian-les-Bains. In 1922, his family moved to Vienne, just south of Lyon, where his father established a small freestanding restaurant in a nineteenth-century building near the Gallo-Roman pyramid (in fact, more of an obelisk supported by arches) that was one of the town's main attractions. In 1924, the year before he died, his father retired and left the restaurant to Point.

As a chef, Point embraced the classical French culinary canon, but saw no reason to be enslaved by it. Almost from the first, he began developing new dishes and reorganizing the organizational structure of the kitchen. In 1930, he married a young Vienne hairdresser who used to come regularly to the restaurant with her parents. Marie-Louise, known as "Mado," took over management of the dining room. But just as he refused to be bound by the old rules of cuisine, he refused to be chained to the ovens.He liked talking to his customers, learning their likes and dislikes, customizing menus. He may well have been the original chef–restaurateur, in the sense that we understand the term today.

One of the reasons Point is particularly important is that he was arguably the first prominent chef who expanded his purview to include the dining room. He went back and forth between the two halves of the restaurant constantly, overseeing the men (and they were always men in that era) who were cooking his food, but also keeping a close eye on the way that food was served and the reactions of the diners. He liked talking to his customers, learning their likes and dislikes, customizing menus. He may well have been the original chef–restaurateur, in the sense that we understand the term today.

Point also gradually remodeled and expanded the place he had dubbed La Pyramide, after the nearby obelisk, and brought in the finest table linens, china and crystal, and silverware. He chose the wines. (It is said that he was instrumental in convincing his friend Pierre Taittinger to vinify champagne in a drier style than had been the norm, making it fit to drink with savory as well as sweet courses.) He was easy to please, he liked to say; all he required was the very best of everything.

By 1926, the restaurant had earned two Michelin stars. In 1932, he won the third.

If a chef may be judged at least in part by those who learned from him, Point deserves still more laurels. Through his kitchen passed such future luminaries as François Bise, who was to win three stars of his own at his Auberge de Père Bise in Talloires; that grand monument of Lyonnaise cuisine, Paul Bocuse; and a number of Bocuse's colleagues in the creation of the convention-shattering Nouvelle Cuisine of the 1960s, among them Jean and Pierre Troisgros, Alain Chapel, and Louis Outhier. All, they later said in various ways, were inspired and encouraged by Point to think beyond Escoffier, beyond the old ways — and (this was a principal tenet of the Nouvelle Cuisine) to embrace local, seasonal ingredients with almost religious fervor.

Point was a large man, and he liked to eat. It is said that he rose early every day and ordered all the food that would be required from his regular purveyors (he forbade the recycling of leftovers from the previous day; "Every morning the chef must start again at zero, with nothing on the stove," he wrote. "That is what real cuisine is all about") and then sat down to a solitary breakfast — a light snack, like two or three roast chickens — accompanied by a bottle or two of Champagne. For his 50th birthday, on Feb 25, 1947, he cooked a modest dinner for his friends (and himself): foie gras parfait, warm woodcock pâté, a mousse of trout from the Rhône with crayfish sauce, cardoons with truffles, beef à la royale (stuffed with ham and truffles, garnished with cockscombs and more truffles), aspic-glazed cold truffled Bresse capon, Saint-Marcellin goat cheese, a marjolaine (invented by Point, this now famous cake is an elaboration of the classic merinque-and-buttercream confection called the dacquoise), lemon sorbet, and assorted fresh fruit, all irrigated with Dom Pérignon, Château Grillet 1945, and Hospices de Beaune Cuvée Brunet 1937.

He was generous with others as well as himself. In an era of obsessively secretive chefs, he shared his knowledge freely. He loved serving large portions to his customers, and roamed the dining room making sure that everyone was satisfied. He assigned young chefs to work side-by-side with their most experienced colleagues. "It is the duty of a good chef," he wrote in Ma Gastronomie, "to hand down to the next generation all that he has learned and experienced." He could be generous to those who didn't work for him, too. The tale is recounted in Ma Gastronomie that Point one day encountered a young stranger gazing at the La Pyramide — the obelisk — and asked why he had come to town. “I wished to visit this place so that I could tell my friends I had been to La Pyramide,” he answered, meaning the obelisk, to which Point replied, “You have not been to La Pyramide until you have dined at La Pyramide.” He then invited the young man to the restaurant, where he served him, gratis, a spectacular lunch.    

"Success," wrote Point in the notebooks that became part of Ma Gastronomie, "is the sum of many small things done right." He also wrote "As far as cuisine is concerned, one must read everything, see everything, hear everything, try everything, observe everything, in order to retain in the end, just a little bit." It's hard not to wish, longingly and almost certainly in vain, that some of today's instant "celebrity" chefs would read and understand that sentiment.

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