Culinary World Bids Au Revoir to One Of Its Masters

At 10:30 a.m. the aroma of freshly chopped onions, garlic, fresh herbs, and simmering stock mingled through the kitchen.

Even the meat being pounded on the counter looked as tantalizing as the freshly baked croissants nestled in a cloth-lined basket. Perhaps it's because this was the kitchen of one of Europe's greatest chefs - Freddy Girardet.

Last week Mr. Girardet hung up his apron for, perhaps, the last time.

After nearly 30 years of running his Restaurant de l'Hotel-de-Ville de Crissier, he decided to sell the landmark to his protege Philippe Rochat.

"Working with Freddy has been an experience," says Mr. Rochat. "It's an incredible place, I've learned a lot. Everything is so ... perfect."

When Girardet announced his departure, Pierre Schwitzguebel, president of the office of tourism of Lausanne, wrote that Girardet was a "brilliant and extraordinary ambassador of our country, our tourism, and our gastronomy," and that he helped to breathe new life into Switzerland's haute cuisine and contributed to a rise in the number of fine restaurants.

Life at the restaurant still begins about 8:30 a.m. when the cooks start slicing, dicing, chopping, and shelling. By 10 a.m. the fish flown in from the great Parisian market, Les Halles, is inspected.

This same regime, and Girardet's attention to detail, and especially his innovativeness are what propelled the chef to the pinnacle of the international culinary world, over which he reigned for decades. It's even more surprising to learn that this soft-spoken man once considered a career in the field of typography.

"My first memories of cooking are about my father who was a chef," Girardet said in an interview here recently, just before he retired, "My mother and I would wait for [my father] until he was done, about 10 o'clock in the evening, and then go with him to a cafe where he would discuss the day's events with his friends.

"My mother was also an excellent cook. So naturally I wanted to follow the profession; but they didn't encourage me because a cook is never home and the hours are difficult"

After the news broke that Girardet was going to retire and sell his world-renowned restaurant, it became nearly impossible to contact him by telephone. When asked if there was a disturbance on the line, a telephone operator said, "Yes, people are calling from all over the world."

For decades Girardet had been one of the standard bearers of haute cuisine. For nine consecutive years he ranked 19.5 out of 20 in the French guide book "Gault et Millau," which also named him one of three great chefs of the century.

He recently was awarded the Legion of Honor from France. In 1975 he won France's golden key of gastronomy. And he consistently rated the coveted three stars in the Michelin Guide.

Girardet has been considered one of those rare chefs who define an era. Armed with a chef's knife and whisk, he battled the nouvelle cuisine concept of a single stuffed cherry tomato garnished with a blade of chive, and returned to a more serious, traditional style of cooking founded on going back to basics.

Of all the signature dishes he has created - and he created two or so each year - Girardet says he favors his Cassoulet of Truffle and Artichokes; Warm Duck Liver with Vinaigrette; and Passion Fruit Souffle - an ethereal cloud of delight that is truly not of this earth.

Girardet was born in the canton of Vaud. After his father's death in 1965, he took over the family restaurant, and in 1969 he purchased the Hotel de Ville.

"The grand French cuisine has changed a lot since I started," Girardet says.

"When I was starting, the chefs only wanted to become stars. But that's not how you make great things so I didn't want that. A good, classic technique is what's needed, a base one can respect."

With that strong base, one also must use only the finest and freshest ingredients. For example, if a crayfish entree is on the menu and the tiny crustaceans turn out to be less than perfect, less than fresh, they would not be served.

And presentation, although always a factor, hasn't been Girardet's main priority. So what if the stuffed squab did not look as gorgeous plated, as, say a dish of mussels fanned out like a chrysanthemum in bloom you might find at another restaurant It was the food, the combination of textures and flavor, with perfect accompaniments that mattered most to him.

"The quality and taste are the most important," says Girardet. "The visual aspect is the least important. I'm not a Picasso. If the food has to be less pretty to keep its taste, that's what you do."

Being at the top for so long, Girardet has seen a parade of chefs come and go. Of those he considers influential there is Andre Soltner, the former owner of Lutece in New York City, Paul Bocuse, and his good friend, Joel Robuchon.

But as far as American cuisine goes, Girardet believes that too large portions still plague many restaurants in the US. And unlike in Europe, daily life is marked by too many instant dinners.

"Here food brings the family together, food is a symbol of life," he says. "Opening a can of ravioli lacks soul." With such a passion for food, one wonders whether Girardet can ever enjoy a meal out. He does, and often with his colleagues.

"When it's good and simple it's not difficult," says Girardet. "When it's mediocre and pretentious, it is difficult."

Now Girardet thinks about learning other cuisines, perhaps Middle Eastern, particularly Moroccan. Perhaps he will write another cookbook; he published one in 1982. And of course there is the possibility of opening a cooking school with Robuchon.

But after 18 hour days for 30 years, Girardet says he will likely take a little time to let it all sink in.

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