“I’d like to start by saying that there’s only one great chef here,” Geoffrey Zakarian told the crowd at last night’s “Three Great Chefs for One Great Meal,” held at Zakarian’s Lamb’s Club restaurant, “and his name is Alain Sailhac.”
Even though Zakarian was giving himself and Zakarian Hospitality culinary director Eric Haugen far too little credit with that statement, the guest (and chef) of honor at the dinner was indeed Sailhac, the legendary French chef who received the first-ever four star rating from the New York Times at Le Cynge in 1977. He has also mentored many acclaimed chefs, including Zakarian, Terrance Brennan, and David Bouley, in the kitchen at Le Cirque, where he served as executive chef from 1978 to 1986.
“I was introduced to Sailhac by Terrance Brennan right after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1981, and when I told him I wanted a job he said, ‘I don’t have a job,’” Zakarian reminisced. “So I told him that I’d work for free, and he said, ‘Come tomorrow.’”
“At Le Cirque, it was like the world came to me in food,” he continued. “I learned everything I know about food from Alain. He’s really an encyclopedia of food.”
The meal was paired with wines from the Wölffer Estate, and started with a traditional pâté en croûte, followed with a fluke tartare with grapefruit gelée, spicy cucumber, pistachio, and dill. It was “the modern dish of the evening,” according to Haugen. Up next was Zakarian’s butter-poached Nova Scotia lobster with braised lettuce, garlic and bottarga melba, and black truffle sauce. After that came the main event: Sailhac’s Colorado lamb eye of round in an olive jus, accompanied by an artichoke heart stuffed with shredded lamb shoulder and topped with a dollop of lemony hollandaise. It was astoundingly delicious; audible groans could be heard from the tables around us.
To be able to sample Sailhac’s cooking was an extraordinary privilege, and the opportunity to hear Sailhac and Zakarian reminisce about being in the kitchen during Le Cirque’s glory days — from the nonchalance they felt about seeing Ronald Reagan’s name in the reservation book to scrambling to prepare a special request for Frank Sinatra — was a real treat. Zakarian hinted that the dinner may have been the first of a series. Fingers crossed: It’s clear that there were plenty more stories to tell.