“Jean Bertranou,” says Mark Carter, chef-owner of Los Feliz’s cozy neighborhood restaurant Duplex, “taught me to obey the Napoleonic Code. You don’t ask questions, you just go in, take over the country, and when they tell you to get out you reply, ‘But I’m already here.’ ”
When it comes to cooking, Bertranou took over this particular part of the country some time ago. He opened L’Ermitage 15 years ago; French restaurants in Los Angeles haven’t been the same since.
Tales about chef Bertranou are legendary. He was the first Los Angeles chef to commission farmers to grow vegetables just for his restaurant. When he wanted to start a duck farm, legend goes, he wrapped eggs from French ducks up in chocolate and smuggled them into the country as candy. These were just some of the stories making the rounds as the celebrated La Cienega Boulevard restaurant marked its 15th anniversary on Sunday night.
“Bertranou,” says John Sedlar of Manhattan Beach’s innovative St. Estephe, which pioneered haute Southwestern cuisine, “did everything first. You know he was the first chef in L.A. to have a smoker? When he wanted something, he got it.”
Bertranou, who died in 1980, probably would have liked the anniversary party he got on Sunday night. Current owner Dora Fourcade invited seven chefs who had worked with him back to cook for the occasion, and they did him proud. They include some of the most interesting young chefs in the country, and while each demonstrated his own unique style, every one of the chefs spoke about how much he had learned during his tenure at L’Ermitage.
“Bertranou built such a solid kitchen,” said Sedlar as he served his elegant Southwestern fare (salmon mousse tamales with lobster salsa and a rattlesnake of caviar), “that in terms of sheer ambition nothing has come close to it since.” “During the years that I worked in the kitchen,” said Roy Yamaguchi, who came from his Roy’s of Hawaii in Honolulu to serve lemongrass salmon with Thai peanut sauce and pickled ginger, and shrimp shui mai, “I learned more than I learned anywhere else. And once I even had the pleasure of Bertranou working beside me for two weeks. I burned myself twice and couldn’t say ‘ouch’ because I wasn’t man enough to let him know I’d gotten hurt.”
Kazuto Matsusaka, head chef of Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main in Santa Monica, served lobster risotto and lamb with cilantro vinaigrette. “You know,” he said, “when I walked into the kitchen today it was so familiar I felt like I’d hardly been away. This is the greatest kitchen I’ve ever worked in. And not just for cooking-- Michel Blanchet is such a hard-working chef, you really learn from him.”
Blanchet, who has been at the restaurant since the beginning (“Not many chefs stay fifteen years in one place,” he said) seemed slightly embarrassed by the accolades. “I invented this fresh salmon with sea urchin on potato just for the anniversary,” he said. “Have some. And please try some of these oysters tartare with two caviars. They’re new. I’m using Crescent Beach oysters from Washington.”
Crescent Beach oysters weren’t around in Bertranou’s day--and he’d probably be shocked if he could see what some of his former chefs are now cooking. Even Jean-Pierre Le Manissier, who came on a visit from France with Paul Bocuse in 1980 and stayed to work in the restaurant (he is now chef at the Four Seasons on Doheny Boulevard) is serving Asian-inspired dishes such as tuna yakitori. And Byron Gamel, now of La Serre, cooked a very untraditional veal in mole sauce for the celebration.
“We gave people a good base,” said Michel Blanchet, who became head chef upon Bertranou’s death.
“It was amazing,” said John Sedlar. “When you came in, you’d go to Michel, shake his hand, go down the line and shake everybody’s hand. Then you’d go to your (station in the kitchen) and stand there and work. You didn’t talk. When the night was over, you shook hands with everyone down the line again and went home. It was like going to school. Most kitchens aren’t like that today, but we all learned a lot.”
“The point,” said Blanchet, “is that once you know what you are doing, you can go in many directions. Like this.” He pointed around the room at all the people (there were more than 200 guests) happily eating the offerings of the visiting chefs.
“When Jean died,” said Mark Carter of Duplex, dishing up tea smoked chicken with spicy noodle pancakes and fabulous desserts (he was Bertranou’s pastry chef), “I realized I’d gotten what I could. At some point, after all, you have to get kicked out of Paradise.”
And sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get to go back again. Just for a visit.