``Every once in a while in your lifetime you've got to do something simply because you enjoy it a lot,'' says Pierre Salinger, one of the few American members of the French Legion of Honor. This man who served as press secretary to President John F. Kennedy, as vice-president of Continental Airlines, and as correspondent for L'Express, and who is now chief foreign correspondent for ABC News, refuses to make any excuses for his current role as host of the 13-week PBS series ``Dining in France,'' which is airing at various times and days on PBS stations throughout the United States (check local listings).
``I don't really think it is a light subject,'' he insists in an interview in New York, where he has come to preside over a dinner to celebrate the series. Three chefs have flown over from France to prepare the gourmet meal at the Water Club, which included gazpacho de homard `a la cr`eme de courgettes; escalope de bar aux 'eclats de truffes; pi`ece de boeuf bordelaise `a la moelle; fromages de France -- St. Marcellin Affine; bouton de Culotte fourr'e d'Ambert; feuilletage au chocolat; poires poch'es and sauce caramel.
``I am doing something profound about a country,'' Mr. Salinger continues. ``I hope the series will give people a better view of France and the commitment of the French people to an art. Sometimes people have the impression that France is not a serious country, but the fact of the matter is that France is not only a serious country in cuisine and high fashion and perfumes, but it is also probably one of the most serious countries in the world in high technology.
``After all, it is the French who brought us the Concorde, who compete with the space shuttle with Ariane, who first built the airbus, who have Minitel, which is a telephone-transmitted computer service. And it is the French who invented the Smartcard. So I hope that, even though this series is concentrating on something which people think is the only thing the French do well -- cook and eat -- you'll get an impression about the seriousness of the French and their commitment to getting their job done with quality.''
The TV series has received mixed reactions. It is not a cooking show, and makes no pretence to be. Instead it concentrates on about 30 renowned chefs of France -- how they shop, cook, and present their food.
It visits their restaurants and observes the traditions and techniques of a wide variety of French cuisines, in the course of which there are an unusually large (for PBS) number of blatant commercial plugs. In addition there are visits to local wine festivals, regional markets, and chateaux.
Co-produced by CEL Communications and the Initial Groupe in association with FR3 French Television and KQED/Golden Gate Productions of San Francisco, the series is a gastronomic travelogue that will appeal to viewers' appetites for adventure as much as to their appetite for food.
According to Salinger, ``The show tries to show how the region in which a chef works is dominant in determining his style. French chefs rely for their principal dishes on the produce of the region. So we see a lot of linkage between the chefs and the local geography.''
Salinger says that ``nouvelle cuisine'' was a big hit for a while because it was associated with eating good food and not gaining weight. ``But then people began to get a little tired of just these little pieces of everything on big plates,'' he continues, ``and French cuisine is now moving back to the old style -- but without so many heavy sauces. What remains mostly is the determination to make a dish look beautiful. The idea is that you remember what the dish looked like long after you have eaten it.''
On this trip to the US Salinger finds a major improvement in American cuisine. ``Good American restaurants are realizing the importance of quality in the produce they use,'' he says. ``It's very different now than it was 25 years ago.''
Salinger's favorite dish? French Charolais beef, pan fried by Pierre Troisgros at his restaurant in Roanne.
Salinger's favorite dessert? ``Jacques Maximin at the Hotel Negresco in Nice makes a fabulous chocolate dessert which resembles the hat worn by the doorman.''
Salinger is disturbed by the anti-French feeling he has observed in America. ``I can understand the American resentment of the fact that the French refusal to allow American planes to fly over France enroute to Libya complicated the raid, but the majority of the French people agreed with the raids and think their government should have allowed the flights. The French are not anti-American.''
Is Salinger, who has lived in France since 1968 now a citizen of that country?
``No, no. no! I'm a citizen of the US. I do not have dual citizenship or even dual allegiance. I am committed to the US. I just live and work over there.''
Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.