"Fernand Point was not one of your gym-going, globe-trotting, Ph.D.-equipped chefs. He was a roast-chicken-for-breakfast-eating, two-bottles-of-Champagne-at-lunch-drinking, big fat (no way around it) guy, the stereotype of the mid-20th-century French chef and almost without question the most influential of his time.
His time was on either side of World War II, and his place was La Pyramide, about a half-hour south of Lyons, often considered the mecca of French cuisine. During the war itself, he fed refugees from the north and then closed for six months rather than feed the occupying forces. His lifestyle was legendary, as was his cooking. (His wine cellars, too — though they were overseen by Mme. Mado Point. They had their share of great Burgundies and Bordeaux but also brought respectability to Rhone wines, even the still-overlooked whites. Mme. Point also ran the restaurant after her husband’s death in 1955, by most reports brilliantly.) Everyone ate at La Pyramide, or wanted to. Half the great French chefs of the next generation — men like Bocuse, Chapel, Outhier and Vergé — trained under him.
Point did not leave much in the way of records; little more than menus (done daily of course) and a few notes. His philosophy was to start with the provisions that arrived in the morning and cook from there, but his skill and experience were so great that the results were evidently incomparable, and a real advance from the heavy, preplanned, sauce-based cooking of his predecessors Escoffier and Carême.
He also left behind more than a few aphorisms, which covered more than food. There are gems: “Each morning the cuisinier must start again at zero, with nothing on the stove”; “Success is the sum of a lot of small things correctly done”; and the famous “Butter! Give me butter! Always butter!”
After he died, his notes and some ephemera were gathered into a book and published as “Ma Gastronomie.” I first heard of it in 1980 or so, when the Connecticut chef Steve Wilkinson introduced me to Point’s marjolaine, the greatest dessert ever. (Layers of nut-laced meringue, ganache, vanilla butter cream and praline butter cream. Yes, it’s in the book, and yes, you can make it, but it may take some practice, as well as a more detailed cookbook.)
I bought the book and learned from it, but I didn’t attach myself to it the way that a new generation of chefs did. (Many of whom trained with Bocuse, Chapel, etc.) Among those was Thomas Keller, who famously runs Per Se in New York and the French Laundry in California, and who wrote the introduction to the current edition.
I’ve known Keller for 20-odd years, but we’ve never cooked together, and this new edition seemed like the right excuse. We settled on about 10 dishes, 3 of which are printed here. Point’s “recipes” might more rightly be called inspirations, and although many don’t present much of a problem for the experienced home cook, when grazing through the book I found that a third of them contain truffles, crayfish, foie gras or some combination thereof.
We weren’t going there. We wanted to explore Point’s style and sensibility, not his ability to use the priciest ingredients available. We focused on fish and shellfish dishes, an amazing soufflé “stuffed” with a poached egg and a supersimple steak with mustard-herb butter.
In the hands of a chef of Keller’s stature, the recipes came to life — as I’m sure Point would have appreciated — and Keller was able to stay close to the spirit of each. (The book gives you little choice other than improvising; few recipes are direct.) I was most impressed with Point’s fried-egg “recipe”: warm butter, don’t let it sizzle, slip in the egg, keep the heat low, wait until the white is creamy and the yolk hot. It’s perfect, foolproof, easy, yet not intuitive. The chef himself would undoubtedly have cooked and eaten a dozen at a time."