times were in their favour. The motor car was just beginning to become commonplace. The wealthy had taken to driving down to the South of France and Vienne, still a pretty Roman town, made for a delightful stop. More importantly, people wanted something different. The heavy meals, the grand restaurants, the formality; all of these things belonged to a tradition that was stagnant, one that Point would forever change. He was perfectly capable of creating showpieces, like the filets de sole Brillat-Savarin, a creamy lobster mousse jacketed in sliced truffles, surrounded by poached filets of sole on puff-pastry croustades, each filet topped with a lobster tail scallop and another, ruinously thick, slice of truffle. But his innovation, his genius, was to strip away the superfluous, the dogmatic, and to replace them with common sense. “Success,” he said, “is a lot of small things correctly done.” By 1933, three years after his marriage, Point had three Michelin stars, and his restaurant was known around the world. Two years later the great Escoffier was dead and La Pyramide was, as Prince Curnonsky pronounced it, “the summit of culinary art.”
LA CUISINE DU MOMENT The dishes that today are identified with Point’s heritage are the simple regional specialties that he brought to their apotheosis: gratin of crayfish tails, roast truffled chicken, foie gras encased in brioche. Nor did he fear to go simpler still, happily serving various omelettes, truite au bleu, or just a hot Lyonnais sausage accompanied by cubed potatoes. His passion, above all else, was for the produce he was about to cook. He felt that if the Creator took the trouble to give us these exquisite things, we should prepare them with care and present them with ceremony. Paul Bocuse, Point’s favorite apprentice and heir apparent, called it “la cuisine du moment.” The market was everything. Cooking, for Point, was to simply capture the taste of the food, then to enhance it. The chicken on the customer’s plate should taste of chicken—the very best,
most perfect chicken, prepared with meticulous care and cooked in such a manner that none of its essence be lost. Each ingredient was treated thus, so that no vegetable should lose its juice, no fish its firmness. Nothing would be done one moment before it had to be done. “Every morning one must start from scratch, with nothing on the stoves. That is cuisine.” But Point’s cuisine was in no way rushed. He experimented with his gratin de queues d’ecrevisses for years before he and his wife agreed that it was ready to appear on the menu. Mado, as he called her, was the only person he deferred to: she would test all of his creations, just as every day she would write out the new menu in her large, fine script. Neither was elaboration the mark of Point’s cooking. Art, in the words of Saint-Exupéry, is not when there is nothing more that you can add, it is when there is nothing more you can take away.
THE ESSENTIAL “Butter,” Point insisted. “Give me butter and then more butter.” He was merely emphasising a fundamental truth. Much fine cooking can be done without butter, but French cuisine lives and breathes it. It is essential to what gave Point’s food its luxurious and polished simplicity—the sauce. Never something used to conceal or mask a deficiency, but rather a complement to the perfection of his materials. “It is the sauce that distinguishes a good chef. The saucier is a soloist in the orchestra of a great kitchen.” The greatness of his kitchen was denied by no-one. In the years before the war, (and before the questionable benefits of television, or advertising) Point and his team were famous around the world. He enchanted everybody with the immense warmth of his personality, refusing to make any distinction between the famous and the unknown. He also had that love of practical jokes which seems to characterise great chefs: he was forever putting the lights out in the cellar when people were down there, and
Previous spread: A portrait of Fernand Point (1897 – 1955) hangs in La Pyramide Fernand Point, the restaurant he founded. La Pyramide, which has 2 Michelin stars, is now owned and run by chef Patrick Henriroux. Opposite: Point and his brigade at La Pyramide. Point’s reputation as the ‘father’ of modern French cuisine was based in part on the numerous great chefs that he influenced and trained.