Fernand Point

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Fernand Point (1897, Louhans, in Bresse in Saône-et-Loire, Burgundy–March 5,1955) was a well-known French restaurateur in Vienne, a small city twenty miles south of Lyon, who for many years was the owner of La Pyramide, which was considered by many to be the greatest restaurant in the world. Although he died about twenty years before the introduction of what became called nouvelle cuisine, he is nevertheless considered to be the father of modern French cuisine because of the numerous great chefs that he influenced and trained: his insistence on absolutely fresh ingredients for dishes of regional background, his refusal to use the old-fashioned made-in-advance sauces of the "haute cuisine", and his quest for perfection in everything he served led, in 1933, his restaurant to be among the first to be given the newly introduced three-star rating by the Michelin Guide. Such master French chefs as Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, and Jean and Pierre Troisgros trained under Point and, applying his principles, eventually helped create the nouvelle cuisine of the late 1970s.

Biography

Born in Burgundy, Point was the son of a hotel-restaurant owner and during his youth trained in well-known restaurants such as Foyot and the Bristol Hotel in Paris, the Majestic in Cannes, and the Royal Hotel in Évian-les-Bains. In 1923 his father bought the hotel-restaurant Guieu in Vienne but died two years later; Point left his job at the Royal Hotel and took over the restaurant, which he renamed La Pyramide. With the help of his wife, Marie Louise, he would run it for the next 30 years. Five years after taking it over, he won his first star from Michelin; in 1933 La Pyramide was among the first twenty-three restaurants that received three stars, an accolade that it would retain for more than 50 years. It was again among the first seven three-star restaurants when, in 1951, this rating was resumed after the war. In 1955, the year of Point's death, there were 12 three-star restaurants, and his widow, who died 1986, managed to keep the restaurant in this top category. According to his obituary in the New York Times, however, ill-health during the last five years of his life forced him to turn over more and more responsibility for running the restaurant to Marie Louise. [1]

The eccentric

One of the first great chefs to also be the owner of his own restaurant, Point was a jovial eccentric who, in spite of his out-going personality, was both a perfectionist and intransigent in his demands upon his kitchen staff. An enormous man of 370 pounds on a frame of more than six feet in height and with a waistline of 66 inches, Point began each day by searching out the freshest ingredients at the local markets: he never served anything that had been cooked even the day before, as was the case in the greatest of French restaurants of the epoch. Later in the morning he would sit in the garden-terrace of his hotel-restaurant and open a magnum of Champagne to begin drinking while being shaved by a barber who came by specially for this morning appointment; for many years Point drank his magnum every day.

Les Pruneaux au Pichet

For many years La Pyramide was a magnet for the rich and famous as well as gourmets. The third Aga Khan was a frequent visitor and, as a token of esteem, once presented Point with a beautiful Persian pitcher made of terra cotta and ornamented with Islamic motifs. In return, Point invented a dessert, pruneaux au pichet (prunes in a pitcher), involving prunes soaked in port, then simmered in Bordeaux wine, then served cold with heavy cream. He put into the pitcher and served to the Aga Khan on his next visit. [2]

World War II

During World War II, Point first served refugees who were fleeing from the Germans who had invaded and controlled most of northern France. When the Germans took over his own region, he shut his restaurant for the duration of the war rather than serve the officers of the occupying forces. Today the restaurant-hotel can still be found at 14, Boulevard Fernand Point, a road that was renamed in his honor.

Accolades

Curnonsky, the so-called "King of Gourmets", once said of La Pyramide, "It is one of the best places, it is the summit of culinary art." And the celebrated French playwright and actor Sacha Guitry said of Point, making a pun in French, "Pour bien manger en France, un Point c'est tout "—"To eat well in France, a Period, end of sentence."

Butter and béarnaise

Point himself was well-known for some of his maxims, especially "Butter, give me butter, always butter!" and "A béarnaise is nothing but an egg yolk, a shallot, and a little tarragon. But it takes years of practice before the result is perfect." It is said that when Point interviewed a prospective chef for his kitchen, he would ask him to fry an egg. The chef would begin to cook the egg in one way or another, only to be stopped by Point, who would show him the only true way to fry an egg: he would melt some butter over extremely low heat, then carefully slip an egg into it. Covering the frying pan, he would then cook the egg slowly until the white was perfectly set from the mild steam generated by the process but the yolk remained perfectly liquid. It is also said that in his determination that nothing prior to that day's cooking be used, he would search the shelves and storerooms of the restaurant's kitchen to make certain that none of his cooks had hidden away any culinary shortcut such a super-rich sauce reduction called a glace de viande.

Menu specialties

At least before the era of la Nouvelle cuisine, La Pyramide maintained a steadfast adhesion to its classic dishes. The 1951 Michelin Guide gives the restaurant three stars for its cuisine and four knives and forks (one less than the maximum), denoting a deluxe establishment with a "beautiful flowered garden". As usual with the guidebook's starred restaurants, it lists three culinary specialties and two wines. For that year's edition, the specialties were gratin de queues d'ecrevisses (gratin of crawfish), truite farcie au porto (stuffed trout in port wine), and volaille de Bresse à la creme (chicken from Bresse). The two wines were Condrieu and Juliénas. In 1955, the specialities were, similarly, brioche de foie gras (brioche of goose liver), truite farcie braisée au porto, and volaille de Bresse à la crème, and the wines Condrieu and Beaujolais. The 1968 Michelin Guide shows that at La Pyramide tradition was still preserved: the specialties were salmon in champagne, stuffed trout in port wine, and chicken from Bresse cooked in a pig's bladder. The two wines were Condrieu and Chénas.

References

  1. "News of Food: Gourmets in Tribute to Fernand Point, 'Greatest Chef,' Who Died Last Week", by June Owen, The New York Times, March 9, 1955 at [1]
  2. "De Gustibus: From La Pyramide, The Apotheosis of the Prune", by Craig Clairborne, The New York Times, May 2, 1977, article and recipe at [2]