“Chef Malik, would you like to come to California and cook with me this summer?”
Her French voice crackled with sincerety and authenticity and I can remember thinking this could only be one particular woman on the other end of the line. Madeleine Kamman. Several months later I was flying to California’s Napa Valley to spend two amazing weeks with the her. Although she was a contemporary of Julia Child, Madeleine chose to have her greatest influence on the restaurant business and the American chef. In 1988 Beringer Vineyards asked her to create a finishing school for working chefs. She wrote the curriculum, created the course studies, wrote the press releases and opened the doors.
When I was accepted to The School for American Chefs, I was speechless. In those two weeks of July, 1990, I learned more about food than I had in my entire life. Why artichokes grow where they do, why certain regions are better for grapes, why wheat fueled conquering armies, why beer was the best method of purifying water in ancient times, why herbs are to be used at the very end of the cooking process, and so on and so forth. There was only four of us, Kurtis Baguley, pastry chef of San Francisco’s Mandarin Oriental and Mark Malicki, chef of Iron Horse Vineyards, Maureen Pothier from Rhode Island, and dumb me from Charleston. We shared breakfast, lunch and dinner for 14 days and she took us all over the Napa Valley, San Francisco, and Sonoma Valley. Lunch at Domaine Chandon, Dinner at Souverain, baguettes from Acme, a wine tasting at Heitz with the Heitz’s, lunch at Chez Panisse, cheese, wine, and a bounty of fresh produce followed by more wine. My most memorable event of those two weeks was a visit to Chateau Montelena for a barrel tasting. I didn’t know much about wine but I did know they made some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon in the world. And the cabernet we had out of the barrel was so awful, I couldn’t swallow it. As I looked around for a spit bucket she pointed at me and remarked “Now you understand the artistry of this winemaker, yes?”
Then it hit me. Because only a true artist could taste that tannic, arsenic-like juice and know he would create something beautiful and timeless some 18 months later.
My two weeks at the School for American Chefs were the most amazing two weeks of my professional career and I only wish I had been more mature at the time. She opened my eyes to the many possibilities of food and wine, and the beauty of life’s often small pleasures. At the end of those two weeks, she pulled me aside and invited me to spend a year with her learning and cooking. “You need some finesse John, some polish, and here is where you will get it.” I was shocked and spoke about it with my bride. I turned her down. I was an east coast guy and so young and immature, and I turned her down.
Madeleine had a profound effect on the American restaurant scene. She helped encourage and guide the talents of some of our best known chefs at a time when American chefs were just starting to explore regional American cuisine. Chefs such as Jimmy Schmidt, Peter Hoffman, Paul Prudhomme, Joanne Weir, and more. And her fiesty attitude towards the dominant male chef mafia at the time was ground breaking. Her dedication in “When French Women Cook” is generations ahead of its time: “This book, in its own way a feminist manifesto, is dedicated to the millions of women who have spent millenia in kitchens creating unrecognized masterpieces…” And that book? It was published in 1976. Imagine if she were still alive today and cognizant, she would’ve marched down to Mario Batali’s place and dragged him out by his ear, and given him a scolding the likes only a French grandmother could.
She’d been suffering with Alzheimer’s for ten years and had been out of the public eye for a lot of that time. After losing my Mom to ALZ and spending my three years as F & B director in retirement communities and watching one too many families struggle with the effects of Alzheimer’s, I can understand that decision. Such a pity that she wasn’t able to enjoy her later years and the adulation she was due.
Thank you Madeleine. I did not deserve those two weeks and I’m so thankful you believed I did.