New York Haute Cuisine
On April 26, 1939, 98 Frenchmen sailed from Le Havre, France, on the Normandie.
They included chefs, maîtres d’hôtel, waiters, carvers, and wine stewards from the best restaurants in Paris. Their destination was the restaurant at the 1939/40 New York World’s Fair French Pavilion in Flushing Meadows, Queens, where they intended to serve authentic Parisian food to fairgoers. Although restaurants had been serving French food in New York before the World’s Fair, this would be the city’s first Parisian restaurant on such a large scale. These men would go on to define a new wave of haute cuisine in New York and, ultimately, America.
Located in the Government Zone among the pavilions of the 59 other participating nations, the French Pavilion was designed by the architectural firms of Roger Expert and Pierre Patout and built at a cost of nearly four million dollars. The building’s curves and huge windows emphasized its vantage point overlooking the Lagoon of Nations. The first two stories of the pavilion showcased the treasures of France: Gobelins tapestries, Sèvres porcelain, laces, silks, perfumes. A second exhibit, the France-Overseas Pavilion located in the Hall of Nations, displayed goods from French colonies: an incense burner from French Indo-China, Morrocan leather, and bronzes. Since the aim of the pavilion was to represent French culture and French culture could not be represented without a French dining establishment, a restaurant was built on the top floor.
Refined restaurant cooking was always considered one of France’s highest arts. But to establish a great French restaurant on American soil, a great French restaurateur was needed. The man selected for the job, Jean Drouant, owned three renowned Parisian restaurants: Pavilion Royal, Bois de Boulogne, and Drouant Place Gaillon, which was established by his father in 1880 and frequented by Pierre Auguste Renoir, Auguste Rodin, and Camille Pissarro. Specializing in seafood, its menu included dishes like lobster américaine, bouillabaisse, coquilles St-Jacques, poached turbot, and fluke au gratin. Chosen at the height of his influence to organize the restaurant at the World’s Fair, Drouant recruited his brother-in-law, Louis Barraya, who ran the Café de Paris and managed three other restaurants — the Pavilion d’Armenonville, Le Pré Catelan, and Fouquet’s — to assist. Together, the two men financed the operation and recruited staff from their own establishments as well as from restaurants around the country.
Henri Soulé, former captain of Café de Paris who would become the mâitre d’, and Marius Isnard, the future chef de cuisine, set sail on the French Line’s Normandie. This ship, the pride of the entire French nation, was capable of making the transatlantic voyage in about four days, compared with the usual seven. The French Line Company was an investor in the World’s Fair restaurant operation and, in fact, supplied all of its silverware. Soulé, Isnard, and Drouant traveled in first class, while the rest of the staff bunked in third class. Throughout the five-day voyage, the World’s Fair team met in the tourist dining room for briefings. The men were shown a movie on New York City and listened to talks by Soulé and Isnard about how the restaurant would operate.
The Normandie was an ideal choice for transporting the Fair’s restaurant staff, since the ship itself was, in many ways, a moving restaurant. The Normandie often served as many as 1,500 people a day — with the utmost elegance. Dinner began with an appetizer, followed by a fish course, a meat course, salad and cheese, and, finally, dessert. In addition to three large meals a day, consommé and fruit were served at 10:00 a.m., tea at 4:00 p.m., and a large buffet at midnight. The Normandie was so dependent on French foods that it carried enough French staples of wine, cheese, fish, frog legs, and even flour for a round-trip journey. This floating restaurant was a precursor to the World’s Fair pavilion: proof that the French could deliver great food anywhere.
Upon arriving in New York harbor, the entire contingent set off for the Vatel Club in midtown Manhattan. Named for the famous chef of Louis XIV who one day was so distraught at the lateness of the fish delivery that he committed suicide, the Vatel Club was a social club for chefs and also something of an employment agency. Although the World’s Fair staff had jobs, they used the Vatel Club as a means of locating housing around the city. (One of the staff members who wandered into the club that day, 18-year-old Pierre Franey, would later become president of the organization.)
Food was such an important aspect of the 1939/40 World’s Fair that a separate guide was published, Food at the Fair: A Gastronomic Tour of the World, that described each national pavilion’s restaurant and provided representative dishes. In the Japanese Pavilion guests might be served sukiyaki in a typical Japanese garden or in a Shinto shrine by kimono-clad waitresses. Spaghetti was available in the Italian Pavilion, or fairgoers could try a traditional Swedish smorgasbord. Food was available for every palate and to suit every budget.
It had been determined that the French Pavilion’s restaurant should be as French as possible without catering to American tastes, and Food at the Fair made much of this fact. In the pamphlet Governor General Marcel Olivier, Commissioner General of France for the World’s Fair and the chairman of the board of the French Line Company, described the intention of the restaurant: “The restaurant should be an exact copy of a typical Parisian restaurant of the finest class. That plan has been carried out and American visitors are able to dine in New York in an atmosphere identical to that found in the restaurants of the Rue Royale or the Avenue de l‘Opéra: same cuisine, same wine, same personnel, same charm.
When Le Restaurant du Pavilion de France opened to the public on May 9, 1939, The New York Times reported: “375 guests occupied every chair in the five semicircular tiers of the handsome glass-walled retreat that overlooks the Lagoon of Nations.... Every gesture of the staff, from the august Jean Drouant, director of the establishment, down to the most unobtrusive waiter signaled the pride of the employees in what was instantly signed, sealed, and delivered to the fair-going public as a retreat for epicures.”
According to Pierre Franey, then an assistant seafood chef at the restaurant, diners on its opening night enjoyed chicken consommé with cheese sticks, lobster Pavilion (a version of Drouant’s lobster américaine with added cream) lamb with potato balls and stuffed artichokes, cold capon in a tarragon aspic, and lettuce with asparagus vinaigrette. The meal was rounded off with strawberries, ice cream, and petits fours.
The World’s Fair pavilion was seminal in the development of fine French restaurants in New York. Well-trained French chefs, who were in New York because of the World’s Fair and loath to leave the city because of the Second World War, aligned with a metropolis that had a new appreciation for taste and class and, more importantly, could pay for it. These elements led to the creation of a restaurant — Le Pavillon — which by 1964 had spawned thirteen restaurants in other parts of the country. It had also influenced major food operations, including Howard Johnson, the Campbell Soup Company, and Nestlé. Those New York City restaurants, most of them of the “Le” and “La” variety (La Caravelle, Le Périgord, La Grenouille, Le Cygne, Le Mistral) established New York as a major gastronomic city in the mid-20th century.
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