A Dinner in Praise of the Potato : A French Celebration Focuses on the Humble Vegetable

Times Staff Writer

An ode to the potato?

No, that's not a work by Lord Byron or Percy Bysshe Shelley.

It's a dinner honoring the humble vegetable.

This potato work was performed by chef Jacques Maximin, considered France's premier chef. He was recently at Antoine's at the Meridien hotel in Newport Beach in his capacity as consulting chef of the hotel chain, supervising the meal from the kitchen of his protege, executive chef Bruno Cirino.

Maximin, a small man with a larger-than-life presence in the kitchen said to match that of Napoleon at his crowning, is the executive chef of the three-star restaurant, Chantecler, at the Negresco Hotel in Nice.

He had dreamed up an extraordinary menu of nothing but potatoes to pay homage to the "year of the potato" as celebrated in France, and, of course, the man who popularized the potato abroad, Antoine-Auguste Parmentier, the 19th-Century horticulturist.

Planted First Potato

It was Parmentier who planted the first potato in France as a measure to ward off hunger in a country about to face mass starvation. Who knows, Marie Antoinette's head may have been spared had she uttered, "Let them eat potato," instead of "let them eat cake." The fool.

"Did you know that the potato started the French Revolution?" asked Antoine Vanacore, the Meridien's general manager. "It made the people feisty enough to fight for liberte, egalite et fraternite. "

It's an interesting theory. Potatoes could make people feisty.

I saw it happen at Maximin's potato dinner at Antoine's.

A friendly debate over the Bullet train connection between Los Angeles and San Diego had caused verbal jousting between Camp A and Camp B, until a fist came down with such a thud as to raise the pommes Parmentier a hair off the tablecloth.

"You see, I told you so. It's the potatoes," Vanacore said.

End of Year of the Spud

Luckily, the year of the potato will expire soon, or we really could be in trouble, and chances of Maximin repeating his ode to the potato is unlikely.

"They are not my favorite vegetable, but they are the basis of many interesting dishes," he said. The French, in fact, have thought up hundreds if not thousands of ways to use potatoes, and Larousse Gastronomique, the French encyclopedia of food and wine, describes and gives recipes for 124 of them.

Maximin served four dishes, which cannot be found in any French cookbook, including his own "Couleurs, Parfums et Saveurs de Ma Cuisine" (Robert Laffont, Paris), available in France.

"I haven't looked at a cookbook in 10 years. Everything I do is dictated by what the ingredient suggests," Maximin said.

Wrapped in Smoked Salmon

First course--potato wrapped in smoked salmon, then thinly sliced. The slices formed a ring around curly endive and red-leaf lettuce. The dressing was drizzled over the entire salad.

(Actually, they make wonderful hors d'oeuvres by themselves. Simply wrap smoked salmon fillet around a cooked, peeled narrow-long potato to completely cover, then slice into rings. Thickness will depend on how you serve the hors d'oeuvre. Thicker slices are easier to handle if served as finger food.)

Second course--a brandade of Turbot. Brandade is a method of stirring fish (usually salt cod in traditional cooking) with garlic and oil until a bready paste is formed. Maximin modified the idea by using turbot for this specialty from the area around Nice in a shallot cream sauce topped with paper-thin slices of potato. The surprise of finding the fish course in a shallow soup bowl added to the adventure of this unusual dish.

Maximin's cuisine is a specialty in itself, focusing only on the ingredients found in Nice. "I draw from the land, I cook from the land," he said, sounding like something Napoleon would say--or said.

California's rich bounty has offered him all the ingredients needed for his menu nicoise . "I can literally cook anything in California I cook in Nice. Everything seems to be available, " he said.

Third course--Parmentier de Canard, the potato dish named after the horticulturist, is simply pureed or mashed potatoes. In Maximin's version, the potatoes are the basis of a dish layered with breast of duck and goose liver slices piled in a deep bowl. The mashed potato topping is mixed with Gruyere cheese.

The same dish turned up in another form at Max Au Triangle in Beverly Hills, where Maximin was the guest chef for three evenings. Chef-owner Joachim Splichal is, like Antoine's Cirino, a protege of Maximin, going back to their days at Hotel Negresco, and before, at the three-star La Bonne Auberge in Antibes.

However, instead of using a bowl, Maximin stacked the layers to form a circle over a pool of rich brown sauce on a flat plate. The effect is deceptively simple; the taste extraordinary.

Dessert course: potato souffle with rum and candied sugar crystals. The souffle contains candied sugar crystals, which adds the extra sweetness needed.

Here is the signature dish of the meal. PARMENTIER DE CANARD

4 large potatoes

2 tablespoons whipping cream


Salt, pepper

1 duck breast (preferably Mallard duck)

4 slices duck liver or 4 (1-ounce) chicken livers, sliced

6 ounces shiitaki or other tree mushrooms

1 shallot, minced

1/4 cup grated Swiss cheese

Shallot Sauce

Cook potatoes in water until very soft. Drain, then peel and mash with whipping cream, 2 tablespoons butter and salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Place duck breast in baking pan. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Bake at 350 degrees 30 to 40 minutes or until meat thermometer inserted in center of breast reaches 150 to 160 degrees. Cut into thin slices. Set aside.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in large skillet. Add sliced livers and saute until golden on both sides. Remove livers and add mushrooms and shallot to pan. Add more butter if pan is dry. Saute until mushrooms are tender.

For each serving, spoon layer of mashed potato mixture onto plate and spread to 4-inch-diameter circle. Top with layer of mushroom mixture, then slices of duck breast and layer of liver slices. Top with another layer of potato mousse and sprinkle with Swiss cheese. Heat at 400 degrees 5 minutes. Spoon Shallot Sauce around each potato serving. Makes 4 servings. Shallot Sauce

1/2 pound shallots

Few black peppercorns

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons dry white wine

2/3 cup veal or beef stock

Salt, pepper

Chop shallots finely. Saute with peppercorns in butter until shallots are tender. Add wine and veal stock and simmer over high heat until liquid is reduced to glaze in pan. Puree shallot mixture with salt and pepper in blender to liquefy.

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