REMOVE the white chef’s jacket and Louis Outhier could pass for a stockbroker. Dressed in a pencil-striped shirt with white collar and dark blue tie, the slightly nervous but engaging three-star French chef looks every inch the businessman.
Of course he is. If his restaurant L’Oasis on the French Riviera is not as well known in this country as the restaurants of Paul Bocuse and Jean Troisgros, it is because he has not engaged in American promotional tours, lent his name to a line of china, canned goods or wines, or written a cookbook. He calls such promotion ”show biz,” refuses to participate and will brook no further comment on the subject.
Mr. Outhier’s newest venture, Restaurant Lafayette in the Drake Hotel at 56th Street and Park Avenue, is one of seven Swissotel restaurants in such widely scattered places as London, Bangkok, Osaka and Boston for which he is consultant. Mr. Outhier staffs the top positions in these restaurants with chefs who have trained at L’Oasis for at least four years. Three are now at the Lafayette, and the chef de cuisine, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, opened several of the other Swissotel restaurants for Mr. Outhier before coming to New York.
Although the chefs cook Outhier recipes, their own style and ability inevitably intrude. ”I don’t want them to be like robots,” Mr. Outhier said. ”It is part of the evolution.”
The Outhier method has been described by the Gault-Millau guide to France as ”a combination of unaffected classicism and personal style.” His individuality is reflected in Oriental touches gleaned from visits to Bangkok. One of the most interesting is a dish of lobster and apples sauteed with Thai seasonings – lemon grass, ginger and curry.
Thai seasonings are a long way from Mr. Outhier’s apprenticeship at the shrine of what he calls ”modern light French cuisine,” Fernand Point’s La Pyramide in Vienne. With Paul Bocuse and Jean Troisgros he was among Mr. Point’s last pupils. After three years he became ill and Mr. Point sent him south to the Riviera for his health. He never returned.
Born and reared in Belfort, near Switzerland, Mr. Outhier got his first glimpse of the sea on the Riviera. ”And when I saw the sea, the sky, the colors, the houses, the ambience, I didn’t want to leave,” he said.
There may have been days he was sorry he left as he struggled in his new restaurant in La Napoule near Cannes. ”When I started I had a very hard time,” he recalled. ”It took 10 years to make it work.” To survive he combined his restaurant with a pension for families, serving lunch and dinner daily. Not until after he got his second Michelin star in 1965 did he give up the rooms and concentrate on the restaurant. The third star was awarded 17 years ago.
Some of his famed L’Oasis dishes are on the Lafayette’s menu, which may cheer Americans unable to make reservations at L’Oasis, where a ratio of 60 percent French diners to 40 percent foreign is maintained. ”Otherwise you get the impression that it’s a restaurant for Americans,” Mr. Outhier said. He feels New York is ready for his cooking. ”Americans are not waiting to have another French restaurant in New York,” he acknowledged, ”but there is room for a new restaurant because it’s like music. By eating in all these different restaurants you can appreciate the whole evolution of French cooking.”
Mr. Outhier finds it difficult to describe that evolutionary process. Like other chefs of the ”nouvelle cuisine” generation of the late 1960’s, Mr. Outhier now disdains the expression. ”There are only two names for cooking – good or bad,” he said. ”French cooking is very difficult to describe because it’s very complicated.”
Yet the dishes themselves are simple. Mr. Outhier, now 56 years old, has never forgotten Mr. Point’s advice: ”To make it simple is very difficult.”
His innovative use of ingredients distinguishes his food. Rather than prepare bass in traditional puff pastry, he uses a pate brise because it holds its shape. His recipe produces a rich golden crust in which rests a perfectly steamed fish. Apple pancakes become aristocratic crepes in his hands with the simple addition of a piquant sauce of apple cider.
Mr. Outhier is the first three-star chef to open a New York restaurant. Every three months he will spend a week in this country at his Restaurant Lafayette in New York and Restaurant Le Marquis de Lafayette in Boston, which opened in 1985. ”To observe, to smell, to see if there is a good ambience,” he said. ”It’s like a doctor taking a pulse.” Between visits, he telephones his chefs around the world three times a week.
When he is away from L’Oasis, his eldest daughter and his wife mind the store. Mrs. Outhier does the books and Francoise manages the restaurant. His youngest daughter, Nathalie, now in Switzerland training to be a chef, is his hope for a second generation of Outhiers in the kitchen. SAMPLING OF RECIPES FROM L’OASIS Eggs With Oysters Noel 4 large eggs Salt to taste, if desired Freshly ground pepper to taste 3 tablespoons butter 4 shucked oysters chopped very fine 4 tablespoons heavy cream whipped 1 teaspoon grated fresh horseradish 1 teaspoon lemon juice 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper 2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds.
1. Starting about half an inch from the top of each egg and using a serrated knife or a medium-size pair of pointed scissors, carefully cut around the small end of the egg. Lift end of shell off and discard.
2. Empty the contents of the egg into a mixing bowl. Reserve the shell. Continue preparing the remainder of the eggs in this fashion.
3. Rinse the empty shells with hot water and drain carefully. Remove the membrane. When cool, arrange the shells, open end up, in egg cups.
4. Add salt and pepper to eggs and beat until well blended.
5. Place a skillet on the stove and add about 1/2 inch of water. Bring the water to a simmer. Place a smaller saucepan in the water and in it melt 1 tablespoon butter. Add eggs and cook while gently stirring constantly all around the bottom and sides with a wire whisk. When slightly thickened, add the remaining butter and blend well. Remove from the heat.
6. Using a spoon, put equal amounts of scrambled eggs in the empty shells, filling them three-quarters full. Spoon 1 chopped oyster into each shell. Spoon equal portions of whipped cream mixed with horseradish, lemon juice and cayenne pepper over the oysters and cover tops with sesame seeds. Mixture will protrude above the shell. Serve immediately. Yield: 4 servings Baked Sea Bass in Crust With Basil The pastry: 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 1 3/4 cups cold butter, cut into small pieces 2egg yolks 2 teaspoons salt, if desired 1 teaspoon sugar 4 tablespoons ice water. The bass: 1 2 1/2-pound sea bass, weighed with head and tail on, then cleaned, with fins removed Salt to taste, if desired Freshly ground pepper to taste 10 fresh basil leaves 1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water
1. Place all pastry ingredients except water in the bowl of a food processor and blend for 5 seconds. Add water gradually and blend until pastry pulls away from the sides and begins to form a ball. On a floured board, shape the dough into a ball. Wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it until ready to use.
2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
3. Place the fish on a flat surface. Sprinkle its cavity with salt and pepper and stuff it with the basil leaves.
4. Divide the chilled pastry in half and roll out one half into a rectangle 16 by 9 inches. Arrange the pastry on a large baking sheet. Arrange the fish lengthwise over the center of the pastry. Brush the pastry all around the fish with the egg yolk mixture.
5. Roll out the remaining pastry in a rectangle and place over fish. Press the pastry around the sides of the fish to seal it. Use a sharp knife to cut pastry around fish, leaving a border of about 1 1/2 inches. If you wish, trim the pastry into the shape of a fish and decorate the top with cutouts or a scale pattern using a No. 6 pastry tube to indent the dough. Brush pastry with remaining egg yolk mixture.
6. Place the fish in the oven and bake for 30 minutes or until pastry is lightly browned. Reduce to 400 degrees. If necessary cover crust with aluminum foil. Cook for 15 minutes more. Serve immediately with tomato coulis with basil. Yield: 4 servings. Tomato Coulis With Basil (Stewed tomatoes with basil) 5 ripe tomatoes, about 1 1/2 pounds 2 tablespoons butter 1 tablespoon finely chopped shallots Salt to taste, if desired Freshly ground pepper to taste 2 tablespoons thin strips of fresh basil.
1. Drop tomatoes into boiling water for 12 seconds to loosen skin. Peel tomatoes with a paring knife, cut them in half and squeeze to extract seeds. Chop tomatoes coarsely. There should be about 2 cups.
2. Heat the butter in a small saucepan. Add shallots, cook briefly and add the tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste. Add the basil and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Serve immediately with the fish. Yield: 4 servings. Apple Crepes 1 large apple (Granny Smith or golden delicious) 4 teaspoons all-purpose flour 4 teaspoons sugar 1 large egg 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract 1/2 cup heavy cream 4 teaspoons butter Cider butter sauce (see recipe).
1. Peel the apples and core them. Quarter each and cut each quarter in 4 equal slices.
2. Preheat oven to high broil. Place flour in a mixing bowl. Add sugar, egg and vanilla while stirring with a wire whisk. Add cream and beat to make batter as smooth as possible.
3. Heat 1 teaspoon of butter in an 8-inch nonstick skillet. Add 4 slices of apple and brown lightly on both sides on medium heat. Arrange the slices in center forming a star. Pour one-quarter of the batter evenly over the apples, keeping star intact. Cook about one minute or more until light brown.
4. Transfer to plate, reversing the crepe. Continue making crepes with remaining ingredients. Pour a little warm sauce over all. Yield: 4 servings. Cider Butter Sauce 3/4 cup sweet apple cider 4 tablespoons butter at room temperature 1 teaspoon lemon juice 1 tablespoon Calvados.
1. In a small saucepan add the cider, bring to a boil and simmer until reduced to Y cup. Remove from heat.
2. Swirl in the butter, and add lemon juice and Calvados. Serve with crepes. Yield: 4 servings.
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