Madeleine Kamman : A Controversial cooking teacher who says the next great chefs will be American men and women.


There is a medieval French queen in Madeleine Kamman. You can see it in her strutting walk. All that is missing is the bejeweled crown, the ermine train and a golden staff to mark each step with a firm rap.

She was showing a photographer and a reporter through the bright kitchens and dining rooms of Beringer Vineyard, where she directs the School for American Chefs and teaches a six-month master’s course to eight hand-picked professional chefs. Suddenly Kamman stopped and peered at a chocolate chip cookie laying pitifully in the corner of a door.

“This is disgusting,” she said. Her guttural French accent retains a prickly edge despite 30 years’ residence in the United States. “People eat cookies and leave them on the floor.”

A sous chef and an assistant working on the evening’s dinner eyed one another. No one picked it up.

Yes, she’s feisty. Other descriptions, less kind, ooze from lips that have quivered before her wrath. Words like “fierce” and “brutal"--in the knuckle-smashing taskmaster sense.


The late James Beard, who found in Kamman a true friend during his long, fatal illness, accurately--and appropriately--described Kamman’s personality as “peppery.” “We had a nice friendship,” Kamman says. “I used to call him at night to cheer him up.”

But more than any other, Kamman loves the appellation “controversial,” which is often applied to her.

“I know I am controversial,” she says. “I took a stand on women in the professional kitchen before Women’s Lib came into the picture.” Kamman has been an ardent fighter for women’s rightful place in the professional kitchen. Indeed, all of her books--she has written seven--are a celebration of women, particularly of the work of women.

Born in Paris and educated in modern languages at the Sorbonne, she gained restaurant experience early, working at her aunt’s Michelin-starred restaurant in Touraine in the Loire valley in the ‘40s. In 1960 she married an American engineer and moved to Boston.

There she opened a school for prospective professional chefs in 1973. “The challenge led me to operate a restaurant,” she later wrote. “I became very controversial, which probably meant that I was in a place I was not supposed to be. I had transcended the limits imposed on women by generations of professional chefs and found myself succeeding in a so-called male profession.”

In 1979 she gave up both the school and the restaurant Chez la Mere Madeleine, which she had run with the help of students, and moved back to France to open a restaurant in Annecy. She only returned to the United States in 1984.

Boston hadn’t agreed with her. “The East Coast is a cold place with cold unyielding people who didn’t appreciate what I came to offer,” she says. “It’s a place with puritanical attitudes hard to take.” Boston was also where Julia Child was the doyenne of French cooking, as author and “French Chef” television cooking show personality. “The French cuisine Julia was doing was not my French cuisine, and I am French,” Kamman says.

Both women accurately represented their cultures. Child captured the imagination of an adoring but finicky American public that was prepared to like French cuisine without unfamiliar ingredients such as chicken feet and caul fat.

Kamman, on the other hand, was intent on bringing to the tables of her American public the authentic modern cuisine de terroir, which has also been called cuisine des femmes, cuisine de misere, or cuisine du coeur ; the classical, often simplified bourgeoise cuisine of the French people in its multiple facets.

To Kamman, Child’s cooking was an “old fashioned” French cuisine she had abandoned back in the ‘30s. In her definition of modern French cuisine she included nouvelle cuisine, which she termed cuisine personnelle, a cuisine derived from a chef’s individuality and personal culinary experiences, whether influenced by Oriental cuisine or health concerns.

Unlike Child’s playful approach to food, Kamman’s is an intensely serious and passionate attachment to cooking for which most Americans in the last 50 years have been, and probably still are, psychologically unprepared.

Kamman believes this will change: “At the beginning of the century Americans were much closer to the French cuisine. Unfortunately there was a Depression, women started to work and convenience foods took over.” Now she thinks it’s safe to say that the new generation of great chefs will be American rather than French, and will consist of a 50-50 ratio of women and men.

Her restaurants have been lauded as the best in the United States by Paul Bocuse, father of cuisine classique nouvelle. Her books have received coveted awards (“Dinner Against the Clock” won the RT French Award in 1973). Her Public Broadcasting System television cooking show has drawn praise and acclaim. Her lectures and appearances around the country have been publicized in major publications.

Yet her fame has hardly rivaled Julia Child’s. “I am not for comparing people, any more than you can compare Picasso to anyone,” says Kamman. “No, no, we are very different. Julia was a cookbook writer and television cook. I ran restaurants very successfully, I write books, I am a trained chef and I have a television show.”

Why has fame eluded her? Perhaps she answers the question when she declares, “I have a French psyche Americans do not understand. A sense of belonging to a place like France is important. I represent France.”

When Child was asked what contributions she thought were made by Kamman, she reeled off a few. “I think she is finally making it,” said Child with faint praise. “She has been successful at Beringer, she’s a wonderful teacher. Certainly her new book has gotten a lot of publicity. She has a strong following of students. People seem to appreciate her scientific contributions.”

To point only to to Kamman’s scientific contributions might not do her justice. Kamman’s is a holistic approach to cooking. To her, a good chef must have an educated heart as well as educated hands and head. “I call it a ‘holy Trinity,’ ” she explains.

“It has become apparent to me over the years that without geology, geography and history as support disciplines, there is absolutely no way to understand the food of any region properly,” she writes in her latest book, “Madeleine Kamman’s Savoie” (Atheneum Press). Significantly, the book is about the cuisine of an Alpine province of France. Kamman strongly identifies with its harsh climate and austere lifestyle.

Science, she thinks, is but one component of the whole. “I am often asked why I place such emphasis on scientific background,” she wrote in “Madeleine’s Kitchen.” “Because Escoffier himself in Le Guide Culinaire went beyond the empirical knowledge transmitted both by chefs and women, and he caught my fancy. His approach felt rational and sane.” Kamman’s “The Making of a Cook” is a veritable textbook (a joyful one, at that) describing chemical reactions without chemical formulas.

As director of the cooking school at Beringer, she has decorated her office in a Frenchified royal blue color scheme carried out down to feminine blue floral patterned pillows for the chairs and one for her tired feet. The walls are filled not only with pictures--her two grown sons, a husband whose work keeps him on the East Coast and her culinary “family” of favorite students, such as Cindy Black and Gary Danko--but charts showing the full scope of mankind’s progress since the Stone Age.

Scattered throughout her three homes she keeps three sets of encyclopedias (“Americana,” “Britannica” and “Larousse”) and the Durants’ “History of Civilization” along with 600 cookbooks and 2,000 literary volumes. “What is lacking in education,” she said, “is not the how, but the why. I’m here to teach why.

However, she credits her American students’ curiosity for her inspiration. “The American public taught me that 30 years ago,” she says. “ ‘Why do you do that?’ they ask constantly. French counterparts don’t ask, so I would say I learned a lot from my students in America.”

It was Kamman’s why-and-wherefore approach to cooking that attracted Gary Danko, who began studying with Kamman toward the end of her Boston period and now is executive chef of the winery kitchens and restaurant at Chateau Souverain. “He’s an exceptionally beautiful cook,” she says. “I look for people who are well disciplined. I don’t want people who are not curious.”

Danko had a hard time convincing Kamman to take him as a student. “I had heard about Madeleine while attending the Culinary Institute of America,” he recalls, “but after reading her ‘Making of a Cook,’ I was infatuated about the hows and whys of cooking.

“When she refused to accept me in her class, I loaded my Volkswagen with ducks, geese and homemade cheese and bread, knowing that she would respond to wonderful ingredients. I wanted to show her what I could do.” In her culinary curriculum, Kamman provides students with a tableful of ingredients as a test of their creativity and technical prowess.

It worked. Danko became associated with Kamman at her schools and restaurants, both at Annecy and in Glen, New Hampshire, where she first settled on her return to the U.S. He also won a cooking scholarship to Beringer’s.

“Madeleine’s school is a finishing school for chefs,” he says. “She makes people think about a dish relative to components and reinforces the seasonal food approach.”

Patricia Windisch, resident chef at Beringer Vineyards, today works independently of Kamman but acknowledges her influence. “I still hold true to Madeleine’s techniques,” she says. “I have adopted her lighter style in cooking--less butter and cream, more use of vegetable purees, lots of olive oil, more plain and pure meat reductions, and adding drinking wine to part of the cooked dish.”

Mark Dierkhising, owner/chef of All Seasons Cafe and the Silverado Restaurant & Tavern in Calistoga, a CIA graduate and former student of Kamman’s, speaks of her as a “fighter” and an inspiration who loves young people.

“I used to do classes for people who dabbled,” recalls Kamman, “silly women with big red fingernails. Who needs them? It’s a very big bother for a teacher to deal with people who are not dedicated.” Now she limits her teaching to professionals.

Kamman conducts 20 classes per year, allowing two weeks per class. The remaining two months of the school year are devoted to screening future applicants. Entry to the Beringer culinary scholarship program is by competition. Applicants are required to have two years’ experience in a professional kitchen and are asked to submit a menu and recipes.

Kamman’s school curriculum begins on the first day with history of Western food, followed by food chemistry on the second day. “In my class we talk about current events so our society is valued,” she says.

“The food we cook is very modern. I force my students to do modern things,” she says.

Kamman’s definition of the modern cuisine she teaches dovetails with that of nouvelle cuisine , or cuisine personnelle, as she prefers to call it . In “In Madeleine’s Kitchen,” she wrote: “It is the French cuisine as it has always been--updated for the Twentieth Century, simplified quite a bit, rejuvenated by foreign and ethnic ingredients, lightened in texture by both the adoption of Oriental techniques of cooking and modern man’s worry about his arteries, and the expanse of his waistline, and truly personalized by cook or chef who cares to bring to the stove her or his font of technical and historical knowledge. . . .”

For Kamman, however, a chef steeped in the cuisine bourgeoise tradition handed down by French women over the centuries, the cooking of the home is integrated with her cuisine. By the time she arrived in America in 1960, she had already “abandoned flour-bound sauces, and used quite a bit of the French provincial food--ideas from great-grandmother, great-aunts and grandmothers and mother.”

Kamman, who sees today’s restaurant foes as labor cost and economy “at all cost,” frets over the “total capitulation” of chefs.

“I can see all kinds of things under the guise of modern cooking, but not using stock and butter and cooking with water, of all things! What’s wrong with a nice little sauce? Just two little tablespoons? When you have to cut out stock and butter because they are the most expensive items and add to it the question of diet, you get garbage.”

She prides herself on instilling in her students a sense of romance about food. “Even the names we give our dishes are revealing,” she said. Names such as “quail in a summer field” and “pheasant in a winter underbrush” say it all.

For the 1990 Beringer wine auction dinner in Napa Valley this week, the menu will offer “A touch of nasturtiums in greens with a flan of zucchini and critters; late Spring bed of vegetables and flowers with tournedos of veal; an assortment of cheeses; berries of the summer in Nightingale (Beringer) and mango nectar with rose germanium ice cream.”

James Beard described Kamman’s energy as unbounded. Her day begins at 4 a.m., with a hour or two devoted to writing 25 to 30 cookbook pages. She is currently working on her eighth book, this one on poultry. By 8 a.m. she is ready to breakfast with her students, then begin the serious business of lecturing and cooking until 5 p.m., with a break for lunch with students on the patio in good weather.

Once done with classes, Kamman is ready to go home to “collect” herself. “I walk four miles, work on my book and listen to Mozart,” her most treasured composer. Her own eating habits are simple. She prepares a soup stock to which vegetables and grains are added daily.

Her husband, whom she met when she worked as a reservations manager for Swiss Air in 1959, continues to work on the East Coast. “Of course I miss life without my husband and friend,” she said.

Perhaps that is all that is missing in her otherwise full life.