Trying to cook from Madame Saint-Ange can be maddening. A dish may call for a stock described in one chapter, thickened by a method described in another chapter and finished in a way described in yet another chapter.

It is clear that Madame intended this to be a work of instruction rather than something a cook would dip into when he felt like making dinner.

And that, undoubtedly, was how an earnest grad student like Aratow would have approached it.

Living in Paris while his then-wife was on her Fulbright scholarship (they had spent the previous year in Italy on his), he took to cooking as a break from his comparative literature studies.

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Chez Panisse beginnings

WHEN they returned to Berkeley the next year, the couple began giving dinner parties. One of their frequent guests was a cinema buff named Tom Luddy, who ended up asking Aratow if he would like to help out his girlfriend, a would-be restaurateur named Alice Waters. (There is a strong bond between cinema and Chez Panisse -- the restaurant's name comes from a character in a Marcel Pagnol movie).

"They had found some backers for a restaurant, and he said Alice could cook, but she couldn't handle a commercial kitchen by herself; she needed some help," Aratow remembers.

As the chicken poaches, he begins to prepare the sauce, measuring equal weights of butter and flour in an antique French balancing scale and then whisking them together in a saucepan.

The butter and flour mixture is a little thick, so he adds more butter to make a smoother paste. Then he sets it aside to cool. Madame recommends combining the stock and the roux when both are lukewarm.

Aratow says he joined Waters at Chez Panisse on the condition that they would hire workers to do the actual cooking while he supervised, making sure the dishes were prepared according to Madame Saint-Ange.

"The idea was to open a restaurant like a French bistro, good solid country fare," he says. "We wanted to serve things that were not on anybody's menu back then -- boeuf bourguignon, poulet au blanc, cassoulet -- things that most people hadn't heard of. But they were all there in Madame Saint-Ange."

Then a couple of the cooks quit, and as part-owner he had to step in.

"Honestly, I thought I was going to die, the stress was just brutal," Aratow says. "We were flat broke. I'd be trying to figure out how to make payroll and I'd step into the kitchen and find a pool of fetid water under the refrigerator and start panicking about how much food had gone bad and how much we could save."

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'See, no lumps'

THE chicken is done, so he removes it from the pan, strains the poaching liquid, reduces it by half and sets it aside to cool. After a few minutes, he whisks the cooled liquid into the cooled roux and then heats it. Gradually it thickens to a smooth, thick sauce.

"See, no lumps," Aratow says. "Just like Madame says." The broth fully incorporated, he begins beating whipping cream into the sauce.

At about the same time Aratow was becoming disenchanted with the restaurant world, Hollywood beckoned. He cashed out his half of the restaurant for $9,000 and headed south with a friend to make movies.

He had worked in film in the Bay Area, making mostly what he describes as "abstract shorts and really self-consciously arty things."