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Carte Blanche in the Kitchen

Jean-Marie Lacroix

by Maxine Keyser

Chef Jean-Marie Lacroix When, after 20 years as the eminence grise at the Fountain restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel, Jean-Marie Lacroix announced his retirement, the community was desolate. Despite the fact that the then sous-chef, now exec, Martin Hamman, did, and still does, admirable work in the kitchen, Lacroix was a great favorite with even those people who claim that they don't eat French food. We weren't unhappy too long, for an announcement came from The Rittenhouse Hotel that they had made a deal with Lacroix to completely redesign and run their dining room—it would be entirely his. As David Benton, the general manager says:

"Lacroix was given absolute freedom with all of his ideas, and he had a hand in everything, from the kitchen design to the flowers. This empowers the chef and raises the level of the whole place."

Indeed, when I meet Lacroix in his glorious pale green and yellow dining room, he is picking dead leaves off of one of the plants. A soft-spoken, almost diffident man, with white hair and blue eyes, he is obviously thrilled with his eponymous restaurant.

Maxine Keyser: Maître, when I first reviewed your new restaurant I said, "You could never convince me that Lacroix was anywhere near retiring. This venture is that of a young, eager chef, bursting with ideas, who is yet to hit his stride. " Was I right?

Jean-Marie Lacroix: Oh yes, I was, as you say, bursting with ideas, and The Rittenhouse gave me carte blanche to do what I wished. I always wanted to design my own kitchen, and had an idea for a menu that would allow the diner to create his own menu, and spend less money while doing it. I am free to experiment, so my diners can choose their meal of three courses for $55, four courses for $65 and five courses for $75. They can select any dishes and have them in any order they wish.

Maxine: When you say you are experimenting, are there things in your kitchen now that were never there before?

Lacroix: Well, I am doing foam, which I like, and am using a great many Asian spices, of course, but North African seasonings interest me the most at the moment. Also, we find that more people are interested in cheese now, so we pay particular attention to the cheese tray.

Maxine: I believe that French chefs, with their classical training and discipline, are the backbone of our cuisine. Is this true of any other group? Do you agree?

Lacroix: Yes, you can only start to experiment when you have the traditional skills to work with. French training is essential, even the Italian chefs know this. Here, we send young chefs to live and work in France for two weeks every year. We have a European tradition in our kitchen.

Maxine: Are you feeling "the French backlash" since the Iraqi situation?

Lacroix: People don't complain about the food, but many say they will not drink French wine. I don't argue with them-we serve them a different wine.

Maxine: I've known you for some time, but I don't know where you come from.

Lacroix: I was born in Epinal, in the Franche-Comte region, and was trained at Thonon les Bains. I cooked all over France, Switzerland, England, Scotland and Canada, until I came to the Fountain in 1983.

Maxine: When you are in France, where do like to go the most?

Lacroix: Oh, I like the small, more rustic restaurants that a number of my friends own. But, I do like to go to Gagnaire as well.

Maxine: Ah, Gagnaire is not shabby. Where do you go on your time off here?

Lacroix: I go around to see the other French chefs-we are all friends and we eat together. I also go to New York to visit my friends there.

Maxine: Do you see any trends developing for the future?

Lacroix: Not really. We are all aware of the global cuisine-Italian, Latino, Asian-and we observe all these influences, and we cook seasonally and buy locally whenever possible. Maybe, I'd like to revive some of the old dishes-lately, I'm thinking about quenelles of pike…

Maxine: Let me know when you put them on the menu!

TFP Interview with Chef Jean-Louis Lacroix

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