From France…Teacher/Editor Walter Ruhlmann's Dad's Life As a French Chef in Calif

Story by Walter Ruhlmann

I haven’t told you that my parents used to live in California in the late 50s early 60s.

The thing is my father was a cook on board of a ship during his state service which he did in the navy – young men didn’t have the choice, until 1998, we all had to register and be conscripted – my brother and I also went into the navy. At the time whan my father did his, it lasted 12 months – mine was due for 10 months, I did 3 and went off sick with 7 months left.

He embarked on a ship to NYc and because of a brzakge at some point on board, they had to stay 6 whole months in NYC. He fell in love with the States.

Later, my father went back to the US on his own first working at the Beverly Hilton in LA, then went back to France to marry my mother and adopt my elder brother and they all flew to LA, then moved to San Francisco. They left because mum was homesick and heard about deaths in both families which she couldn’t bear being far away from. So they all came back in 63 – as far as I remember. I was born 11 years later as you know.

I’m sending you a paper clip from an American cuisine critique and another one in French when dad received a distinction in the late 70s just to show you who my dad is (was – he is retired now of course) on the photo, next to him is mum. I had just been born at the time.

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“1955: Story by Mike Jackson

 Cuisine a ‘Way of Life’ for  Experienced Chef, Disciple of Escoffier

 Cook’s Night In. I always wear tennis shoes when turning out Jell-O. Gives you chance to jump back when the stuff splashes, Escoffier, the great French chef, worked in a black frock coat. These differences in our clothing caused me to wonder how other chefs were going about their kitchen craft these days. Thought it was time to talk with one. We could swap trade secrets.

 Man I discussed dish doings with was Michel Ruhlmann, chef of the Escoffier Room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Ruhlman is one of the 65 specialists who feed 3000 to 4000 daily in the hotel’s three dining rooms, banquet halls and through room service. They are all under the direction of Gabriel Comte, chief chef.

 Since its opening in August 1955, with a $100 per plate feast, The Escoffier Room has been a gathering place for gourmets. Ruhlmann presides over its kitchen with a retinue of three cooks, one pantry boy. He shows up for work  at 4, serves the first meal at 7. He wears white jacket and pants, puts on his high bonnet only for special occasions.

 Ruhlmann is in his mid-30s, a serious type with brown eyes and hair and a lithe way of walking. He likes to cook over charcoal, doesn’t go in for timers, thermometers or gadgets. He knows when a dish is ready without the need to look at a dial.

It’s a nice life. But he hopes, soon to return to his native Normandy village of Forge les Eaux. One thing that draws him back is a wonderful dessert called Drouillon, apples wrapped in pastry and served with cheese.

 “Here,” he said, “everyone is in such a hurry. There’s no time for small pleasures and conversation. Here, no one walks. In France, I do not need a car.

 Back home, Ruhlman walks to the butcher, chats with neighbors along the way, meets with the farmers when they bring their vegetable carts into town.

 “Every week we had picnics,” he aid. “Always in the evening is singing and dancing. We enjoy life.”

 “LOCAL GOURMETS, says Rurhlmann, are most likely to order Dover Sole Michel, duck or soufflés. Men prefer snails, filet or New York cut steaks and Cherries Jubilee. Women go for lobster, chicken, French pastry. We eat less fish than do the French and more sweets. The French finish their meals with cheese and a glass of red wine.

” All Ruhlmann’s attitudes, like those of any chef, are deeply influenced by George Auguste Escoffier. Escoffier was called “The king of chefs and the chef of kings.” Nobody knows the brave man who first ate an oyster, but King Edward VII was the first to have a go at frogs’ legs. Escoffier served them up in a wine boullion covered with champagne aspic. It was only one of hundred dishes he created.

“More important than Escoffier’s innovations in kitchen technique and his creations, was his complete break with the past. Until 1880, ladies did not dine in public. When Charles Ritz made the Grande Hotel de Monte Carlo the most luxurious restaurant in the world, it was Escoffier who prepared special dishes for women, worked with silversmiths and the Waterford crystal factory to set a table that equaled that of Europe’s finest homes.

 “NOW, EVERY top restaurant reflects the Escoffier touch. There is hardly a sauce or specialty that cannot be traced to him. Escoffier, himself, would probably pass up them all. He ate simply, on soup with rice and fresh fruit.

 “I have a feeling Escoffier would’ve been elated by my Jell-O. But he died in 1935, when all could cook was marshmallows over a campfire.”

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Walter Ruhlmann is a teacher and editor living in France.

To check out his website, please click here

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About June Morrall

1947 - 2010
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