He loved butter and practical jokes, had an insatiable appetite and was inclined to start his mornings by shaving outdoors with two magnums of Champagne on ice by his side. At one point, nearly half of the Michelin three-star chefs in France had trained in his kitchen.
It’s no wonder that Fernand Point is revered by modern chefs and “Ma Gastronomie” — a book about him and his restaurant, the legendary La Pyramide — has a cult following. But the book has been out of print for decades, a situation that has been corrected with a new English edition published by Rookery Press.
It’s the book chefs love to love — chefs such as Thomas Keller, who wrote the new introduction, and Charlie Trotter. If you’ve seen the first English edition of “Ma Gastronomie,” published in 1974, you might be surprised. It certainly isn’t the coffee table book, filled with lush photographs and detailed recipes, we’ve come to expect from cookbook publishers. A recipe for sole hollandaise is three sentences; the first one is: “Cook a whole, well-cleaned sole in a court-bouillon and place it on a platter.”
But the book still draws food-loving readers, if not for its recipes then for its portrait of a man wholly devoted to the spirit of dining.
“Through Chef Point’s words I finally understood and discovered a higher sense of purpose. ...” Keller writes in the introduction. “Cooking was not just about technique and providing sustenance; it was about nurturing.”
The Rookery edition freshens the look of the book but keeps the original text, Point’s recipes (now with U.S. volume measurements) and notes, and photos and drawings from the French edition.
The first English edition of about 30,000 books was sold out by the early ’90s. The yellow-jacketed book with a mountain of a bow-tied man on the cover became a cult favorite not long after it was published (Julia Child wrote a review). It’s punctuated with quotes from a culinary hero: “Before judging a thin man, one must get some information. Perhaps he was once fat.” Or “Butter! Give me butter! Always butter!”
The book wasn’t written by the great chef himself (though Amazon.com lists Point as the author). For much of the text that has captured his followers (the funny anecdotes about Point), we have to thank a couple who once ran a small imprint called Lyceum and now run a bed and breakfast in Maine.
Frank and Patricia Shannon Kulla persuaded Charles Flammarion, publisher of the 1969 French edition, to sell them the rights for an English version. “They made the book happen,” says Rookery publisher Tracy Carns, who decided to put out the new edition after taking note of “Ma Gastronomie” on chefs’ lists of favorite out-of-print books.
“Every chef had to have their own copy. And it’s still that way,” says Frank Kulla. “I really wouldn’t expect anything else because of the nature of the man and his accomplishments.”
The Kullas spent the early spring of 1974 in France, interviewing Point’s wife and his disciples. Point died in 1955 at age 58, but his wife, Marie-Louise (“Mado”), continued to run La Pyramide in the town of Vienne, south of Lyon, faithful to Point’s recipes and credos and retaining his Michelin three stars.
“There was almost nothing said in the French edition about Point’s disciples — Paul Bocuse, Jean and Pierre Troisgros, Alain Chapel,” Kulla says.
So from hours of taped conversations, with them and Mado Point, came some of the most compelling parts of the book, which depict a generous practical joker and demanding taskmaster.
“We thought to give people a feeling of the day-to-day operation of the restaurant ... from the viewpoint of chefs who absolutely loved this man,” Kulla says. “They would do anything for him, really. They had such tremendous admiration for him.”
Recipes from Point’s notebook — such as “pate chaud de becasses” (woodcock pate) and poulet Jean Cocteau (roast chicken with Madeira-brandy reduction, cream and crayfish butter, named for the poet-novelist-filmmaker) — aren’t for beginners. “Mado didn’t want them changed that much,” Kulla says. “We honored her wish. ... They presume a knowledge of French cooking.”
The Kullas tested recipes in their own kitchen. “There’s quite a detailed recipe for the gateau Marjolaine because it was so well-known and so many people had tried to make their versions of it,” Kulla says. After a lot of trial and error, “we put it together, and the only place that I’ve tasted one like it was at La Pyramide itself. Try it. It’s a marvelous cake.”