Sausage, snails, and crawfish tails: Elyse chef cooks all

For 35 years, Joel Normand has cooked for France's presidents and state

There are many ways to judge a president of France. How assiduously he cultivated his country's influence abroad, for example, or how successfully he ensured its prosperity at home.

Joel Normand judges them by what they like for lunch.

Mr. Normand, head chef at the presidential Elyse Palace in Paris, where he has worked for 35 years, has little time for politics, but a lot of time for lunch. As the creator of dishes served at state dinners, he invests even the lowliest vegetable with almost sublime significance.

"The president exercises his functions at table.... The contents of his plate contribute to the prestige of France," Normand writes grandly in the preface to his just-published memoirs, "The Fifth Republic at the Stove."

When you take food that seriously, it is easy to see how even the most momentous events of modern history can become clouded by culinary concerns.

For example, the student riots that shook Paris in May 1968, sparking fears of a second French revolution, meant only one thing: On May 10, at the height of the crisis, Gen. Charles de Gaulle sent back his fillet of sole, Provenal chicken, and brioche almost untouched. Matters must be grave indeed, young Normand thought.

In fact, the details that Normand lets drop about the gastronomic tastes of his bosses tend to confirm the impressions they left on the world of politics. General de Gaulle, an austere military man, ate sausages and mashed potatoes happily, and never complained if his food arrived cold. (The palace kitchens are 100 yards away from the president's private dining room, connected by an underground tunnel.)

Georges Pompidou, an avuncular figure, was a trencherman who favored traditional French cuisine - "food that stuck to his stomach," in Normand's words. For official meals, he personally went over the menus that his chef proposed.

Those meals present French cuisine at its very best, but the Elyse chef must follow rules that none of his colleagues at Parisian restaurants need heed: To avoid any diplomatic gaffes, no pork appears on the menu, nor is there ever any alcohol in the sauces.

Valry Giscard d'Estaing, an aristocratic type, brought more-refined tastes to the presidency, including a penchant for nouvelle cuisine that rankled his old-fashioned chef. The two had quite a falling out over how best to line an apple tart - with custard, as the chef would have it, or with apple pure, as the president wished.

Franois Mitterrand, too, had strong views on food - so much so that he hired a private chef and his team to prepare his personal meals, while Normand took care of official dinners. Mr. Mitterrand took both teams with him on state visits abroad. Underlings thought nothing of being dispatched to Britanny, 200 miles away, to bring back the freshest and choicest oysters for supper.

Normand's current boss, Jacques Chirac, "likes everything," the chef reports: snails, charcuterie, cockles, lamb, blood sausage, chipolatas, cheese omelets. "An easy customer," says Normand. "Demanding, like any president, but not difficult to feed."

But if de Gaulle's stoicism, Pompidou's bonhomie, Giscard's vanity, Mitterrand's arrogance, and Chirac's appetite revealed themselves at table, some things had to be kept secret.

Such as the scramble that ensued when the chef planned to serve braised salmon with crawfish tails to the late King Abdel Aziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia, and only discovered after the menus had been printed, two days before the dinner, that there was not a crawfish to be had in the whole of France. They were out of season.

Fortunately, a restaurateur friend recalled having heard that crawfish were never out of season in Turkey. A phone call to the foreign ministry, another call to the embassy in Ankara.... The diplomatic bag from Turkey smelled somewhat peculiar the next day, but "the honor of France was saved without the king or General de Gaulle having the least idea of the gymnastics that the kitchen had been through."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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