He thinks food is better than it used to be. He thinks technology’s a dream. Roger Verge is one of the world’s most famous chefs--and he loves L.A. : 3 STARS in LA : The Original Celebrity Chef
Roger Verge is holding court. The proprietor of the three-star Le Moulin de Mougins sits, his white mustache twitching slightly, while an editor from Architectural Digest pulls out photograph after photograph of Verge’s home. He peers at the image of a lamp. “Ah yes,” he says, caressing it with his hand. Like a good student, he begins cataloguing its virtues. “I try to give pleasure to everyone,” he whispers.
Verge, “with his burnt-almond eyes, his white mustache, his noble bearing and his sweet words,” is, as the Guide Gault-Millau somewhat caustically says, “the very incarnation of the great French chef for foreigners.” Conscious of his role, he is constantly on the move, a missionary who carries the good word about French food to various corners of the world.
Right now, he is proselytizing in Los Angeles. Other three-star chefs have, of course, shown up from time to time to cook a meal or two, but Verge, who does nothing by half-measures, has brought along his chef, his sous-chef and his menu for “Roger Verge Week” at Champagne. “I did it out of friendship,” he says. “You know Patrick (Healy) worked with us for more than a year, so I thought it would be nice. Our restaurant is closed now (Le Moulin de Mougins closes every year from the end of January to the beginning of April), and I like Los Angeles so much. Besides,” he adds, “I have so many friends here.”
Indeed. One night Verge goes off (with no back-up assistance) to “cook a little dinner” for a few of those friends--Michael Douglas, Jack Nicholson, Sylvester Stallone, Danny De Vito. On another occasion, his old pal James Coburn (“you know, he spent six weeks at the Moulin”) stops by. Mougins is less than five miles from Cannes, and its film festival, and so Verge speaks casually of drinking wine with Sergio Mendes, of eating a meal with Anthony Quinn. And then, of course, there are his food friends--Wolfgang Puck, Michel Richard, Joachim Splichal.
In the world of food, Verge is a prince. Chefs love him because he--along with Paul Bocuse--virtually invented the celebrity chef. “When I was young and I had a girlfriend, I would never tell her that I was a chef,” says Verge, who was determined to change all that. He and Bocuse got out of the kitchen and into the limelight, taking a profession that had always been considered mere drudgery and making it glamorous.
This was not hard for Verge, the restless son of a blacksmith from Commentry, a village smack in the middle of France. Unlike ordinary chefs, who laboriously work their way up in the profession, Verge was a comet who used cooking as a passport to the world. He never stayed very long in one place, moving from Paris to Casablanca, from St. Moritz to Jamaica. Eventually he ended up in Africa. “I believe,” he says, “we can all do whatever it is we want to do.”
What Verge ultimately wanted to do was open a big-deal restaurant. Trusting his luck, he opened Le Moulin de Mougins in 1969. Before the year was out, he had gotten his first star in the Guide Michelin, an almost-unheard-of feat. In less than five years, that venerable institution had bestowed the coveted three stars upon Verge. And then the chef started looking around for other worlds to conquer. “I like to take risks,” he says.
And so he has a second restaurant in Mougins, the modest L’Amandier (one star), a cafe in Monte Carlo and a restaurant at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. He’s about to open a restaurant in Tokyo. But that’s just for starters. This businessman-chef also has a couple of cooking schools, a boutique, his own line of china and glassware, and a huge variety of food products bearing his name. His latest coup: a state-of-the-art stove made by Bonnet and bearing his name.
“He is really up on the newest products available to chefs,” says Patrick Healy. “He is always moving with progress, constantly bettering his equipment. Nobody has a kitchen like his.”
Other chefs are famous for their constant lamentations about the way things were in the past; Verge, on the other hand, is a thoroughly modern man who couldn’t be more pleased with the present. He is enormously enthusiastic about the benefits of technology. “Cooking is evolving in a wonderful way,” he says, pointing out that this makes it possible to create the food of the past with the labor force of the present. “We don’t need apprentices who start at 12 and work for nothing,” he says. “We don’t need people who work 100 hours a week. We have all these objects.”
“These objects,” Verge firmly believes, “not only permit you to do things faster but also better.” He speaks of mixers that allow a chef to emulsify a sauce almost instantly, of processors that make the arduous work of creating a quenelle amazingly easy. He talks of how difficult it used to be to make ice creams and sorbets--now a snap--and then speaks lovingly of the very latest technology.
“Have you seen these new induction stove tops?” he asks. “They bombard the food, through the pot, with heat.” His eyes twinkle. “Amazing! This is much hotter than an open flame--but if you put your hand on it, it is completely cool. They are wonderful new tools. You can boil a huge pot of water in seconds. And the new ovens--they are like computers.”
Verge is also pleased with the improvement in produce. Almost everyone else in France will tell you how much better raw ingredients used to be. Verge disagrees; he actually thinks products have gotten better. He calls people who don’t agree “des vieux rabat-joies” (old killjoys). “What you want in cooking,” he says, “is to be able to depend upon the regularity of products. In the old days that was difficult; now it is easy.”
Verge is especially enthusiastic about what he calls the “remarkable evolution of vegetables here in California.” This is, he says, quite a change. “When I came with Paul Bocuse in ’74 to make a meal at L’Ermitage, we didn’t trust any of the local products. We brought everything with us. Now you can come with your hands in your pockets.” For their week at Champagne, Verge and his chefs used only locally purchased ingredients.
Still, he believes, fish continues to be a problem. “There is so much chlorine in the water,” he says, “and you can taste it in the fish.” And while he thinks that our pigeons and ducks are perfectly delicious, he shakes his head over American chickens. “They spit water when you cook them,” he laments.
These are, however, just about the only negative things Verge has to say about America--and Los Angeles in particular. For this man, who sprinkles his speech with words such as adventure, daring, risk and freedom, the United States is a dreamland. “In France,” he says, almost wistfully, “you are immediately beaten down when you want to go too far with your ideas. Here there is a kind of liberty. You can permit yourself to dare.” As for Los Angeles, he says admiringly that it has “the most adventurous cuisine in the United States.”
But the menu that Verge chose to bring to this adventurous city is, for the most part, remarkably tame. Replete with fancy ingredients--baby zucchini filled with a mix of black truffles and mushrooms, a tartare of salmon served with caviar, lobster fricasseed in Sauternes--and complicated techniques, it is standard three-star fare.
There are, however, a few exceptions: the three recipes found below. Each demonstrates, in its own way, why Roger Verge is such an important chef. The scallop dish is a particularly deft and elegant combination of unlikely elements: scallops, oranges and artichokes. The dessert, which is simplicity itself, draws upon the new availability of ethnic ingredients, taking a traditional dish and giving it an entirely new twist. And the third is Verge’s homage to home cooking; here he has elevated a simple stew to three-star status.
Taken together, they represent the joie de vivre that Verge brings to his cooking. For this three-star chef, life really is a feast. Just thinking of the stew, he inhales deeply and smiles his big smile. “Ah,” he says, “how good that smells.”
Roger Verge week took place during the first week of February. It was so successful that 600 hopefuls on the waiting list never got to taste Verge’s food. LA SALADE DE NOIX DE
ROSACE ET SON
(Scallop Salad With
6 small to medium artichokes
Juice of 1/2 lemon
7 ounces mache (lamb’s lettuce)
12 large scallops
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon whipping cream
7 ounces cold unsalted butter
Remove leaves from artichokes and place central portions in saucepan with boiling water to cover. Add lemon juice. Cook 15 minutes over medium heat. Remove chokes, trim stalk ends and cut artichoke bottoms into fine slices. Wash and dry mache.
Cut each scallop into 5 horizontal slices. Arrange 2 sliced scallops (10 slices) in overlapping rosette on small individual piece of baking parchment. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Repeat with remaining scallops.
Peel zest from 1 orange and cut into very fine matchsticks. Peel pith from orange, then remove segments and set aside. Squeeze juice from remaining 2 oranges and reserve for orange butter. Cook orange zest matchsticks in 1 tablespoon water with sugar and 2 tablespoons orange juice over low heat until lightly caramelized. Reserve for garnish.
Place reserved orange juice in saucepan and reduce by half. Add whipping cream and bring to rolling boil. Reduce heat to medium and whisk in 5 1/2 ounces butter, small amount at time. Season to taste with salt and pepper and keep warm.
Melt remaining 1 1/2 ounces butter in small non-stick skillet over medium heat. One at time, slide each sheet of parchment with scallop rosette onto plate and reverse over skillet. Cook, scallop-side down, 30 seconds or until lightly browned. Invert pan to remove. Keep warm.
Arrange mache leaves around outer edge of 6 chilled plates. Make smaller circle of sliced artichoke bottoms over top. Slide scallop rosette, cooked side up, off parchment onto center of each plate, retaining or re-forming rosette.
Drizzle orange butter over top and garnish with orange segments, chervil sprigs and caramelized orange zest. Makes 6 servings.
AND RAISIN TARTE
1/4 pound dark raisins
4 golden Delicious apples
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup granulated sugar
4 sprigs mint
Place raisins in saucepan with water to cover and bring to boil. Remove from heat and set aside.
Peel and core apples. Cut each into 10 segments, then saute in butter until tender. Drain raisins. Add to apples along with 1 tablespoon cinnamon and granulated sugar.
Stack 3 sheets filo, each brushed with melted butter, on top of each other. Cut sheets into 5-inch squares.
Place 1 stacked filo square, buttered side up, in oven-proof skillet brushed well with melted butter. Top with 1/4 apple mixture, then second filo square. Sprinkle top with powdered sugar and bake at 400 degrees 5 to 6 minutes or until golden brown.
Remove skillet from oven and heat over burner until filo is browned on bottom. Invert onto serving plate. Sprinkle top with additional powdered sugar and cinnamon and garnish with mint sprig. Repeat procedure to make 4 servings.
4 1/2 pounds boneless leg of lamb
2 carrots, coarsely chopped
2 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
2 onions, coarsely chopped
2 heads garlic, split in half
1 bunch fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
Zest of 1 orange
2 lamb or calves feet, split
2 (750-ml) bottles Cote Rotie wine
1 quart Demi-Glace
1 basket pearl onions, peeled
1/2 pound white button mushrooms
Trim most of fat from lamb and cut in 2 1/2-inch cubes. Combine with carrots, celery, onions, garlic, thyme, bay leaves, orange zest and lamb or calves feet in oven-proof casserole. Add wine and marinate in refrigerator 24 hours.
Place covered casserole in oven and roast at 250 degrees 7 hours or until lamb is fork-tender. Remove lamb and cover with damp cloth. Continue to cook feet until tender, then remove. Remove bones from feet and cut meat, if any, into small cubes. Cover and set aside.
Cook wine and vegetables on top of stove until reduced by half, then add Demi-Glace. Cook again until liquid becomes thick sauce consistency. Strain and set aside.
Boil pearl onions until tender, then drain. Saute mushrooms in small amount of butter. Remove from heat and combine with lamb cubes and onions. Bring wine sauce back to boil. Whisk in 1 1/2 tablespoons butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour over lamb mixture. Makes 8 servings.
(From “The Art of
10 pounds veal bones, cut in 2 to 3-inch pieces
1 1/2 pounds meat sinews, tendons and scraps
1 pound onions, peeled or unpeeled, quartered
3/4 pound carrots, cut in 1-inch pieces
1 large head garlic, separated into cloves, unpeeled
1 bunch parsley
3/4 pound celery hearts
4 to 6 bay leaves
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 1/2 pounds tomatoes
Spread bones and meat scraps in even layer in 1 very large or 2 smaller heavy roasting pans. Roast at 400 degrees 1 1/2 hours, stirring every 20 to 30 minutes. Bones should be browned, but not burned.
Add onions and carrots to pan. Continue roasting, stirring twice, 45 minutes longer.
Remove pan from oven and, using large skimmer, lift out bones and vegetables and transfer into large stockpot, preferably stainless steel or enamel. Pour out all fat accumulated in roasting pan and discard. Add enough water to pan to cover bottom, place on stove and, using flat-ended wooden spatula, scrape bottom of pan to dissolve all solidified juices. Add to stockpot.
Fill stockpot with water to within 2 to 3 inches from top and bring to boil. Boil gently 2 hours, then skim off as much fat as possible from surface. Add garlic, parsley, celery heart, bay leaves, thyme, peppercorns and tomatoes. Bring back to boil, then boil very gently 8 to 10 hours or overnight.
Strain stock through very fine sieve (should measure 5 quarts). Chill.
When stock is cold, remove any fat from surface. Place stock back in stockpot and boil down to 2 1/2 quarts. Cool.
When cold, scoop into large chunks. Wrap in plastic wrap or foil and freeze. Makes 2 1/2 quarts.
Note: If ripe tomatoes are not available, substitute 3 cups canned Italian plum tomatoes.
1 1/2 pounds potatoes
1/2 cup milk
1 cup unsalted butter, cut in small pieces
Freshly ground pepper
Peel and cut potatoes into large cubes. Cook in salted water until tender. Drain. Press through ricer, then place in food processor.
Bring milk to boil. With motor running, add milk and butter to potatoes. Process just until blended. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes about 1 1/4 cups.
Note: The amount of butter is correct. Fancy French food is rich!