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The Chef for Every Age

Before Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali, or even Alice Waters, there was X. Marcel Boulestin

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here is one thing above all you must avoid when making an omelette," advised the chef in a thick Anglo-French accent, "and that is an inferiority complex." He recommended a thick iron pan — "extremely hot," heated empty for "a good twenty minutes" so that most of the cooking takes place off the fire — and insisted the eggs be beaten lightly with a fork, and only at the last minute. A decisive flick of the wrist will help you turn the edges inward; the final product is shaped with the fork, "and the omelette" he said, "white, perfect, slides silently onto the dish."

The chef’s name is Xavier Marcel Boulestin, and the show, Cook's Night Out, aired on the BBC in January of 1937, for the benefit of those poor British souls whose at-home kitchen staff had vamoosed for the evening. If that sounds a little niche, consider that a television just then cost an inflation-adjusted price of more than seven thousand dollars; only the super-rich could afford them.

Boulestin’s omelette, white and perfect, is considered to be the very first dish ever cooked on television. In the four subsequent episodes of Cook’s Night Out, he prepared filet de sole Murat, escalope de veau Choisy, a salad, and crêpes flambées ("each of which can be prepared as a separate dish, while the whole together make an excellent five-course dinner"). The show aired right after New Fashions in Furs and was followed by ten minutes of Gaumont British News and Cabaret: Eric Wild and his Tea-Timers.

Alice Waters is often cited as the progenitor of the modern farm-to-table movement, emphasizing seasonality and cooking simply with good ingredients. Important as she is, she had many illustrious predecessors, among them Elizabeth David and Sybille Bedford — cooks and writers who brought to the home kitchen a particular and characteristic elegance, associated with the simple, convivial pleasures of the table; with cooking and food as part of a relationship with nature; with economy, restraint and good sense. But the parent of them all — to my mind, their "onlie begetter" — is X. Marcel Boulestin. He was the first in the twentieth century to describe the way we like to cook and eat now, which is to say, the way we live.

Even when cooking for that rarefied BBC audience in 1937, Boulestin remained as unaffected and matey as he had been in all his celebrated cookbooks, beginning, in 1923, with Simple French Cooking for English Homes. His voice was that of a gifted amateur, speaking naturally, as if to a friend. Unassuming, inclusive, preferring deliciousness and fun to luxury, and beauty and simplicity to fuss, Boulestin might have been cooking and writing yesterday, not nearly a century ago. He was cosmopolitan, a man of the world, and also a man of the earth, of the land. His modernity is partly rooted in his feeling for the outdoors, and his preference for what is local, delectable and a little untidy. The images of his childhood home in the country, its kitchen and gardens, as he recounts in his autobiography, Myself, My Two Countries, can linger in the modern mind as a dream for one's own future, rather than the curiosities of a distant and irrecoverable time:

In the storeroom next to the kitchen were a long table and shelves always covered with all sorts of provisions; large earthenware jars full of confits of pork and goose, a small barrel where vinegar slowly matured, a bowl where honey oozed out of the comb, jams, preserves of sorrel and of tomatoes, and odd bottles with grapes and cherries marinating in brandy ... sacks of haricot beans, of potatoes; eggs, each one carefully dated in pencil.... peaches, pears hollowed out by a bird or a wasp, figs that had fallen of their own accord ... It is no doubt the remembrance of these early days which makes me despise and dislike all primeurs, the fruit artificially grown, gathered too early and expensively sent, wrapped in cotton wool, to "smart" restaurants.

It was a life of profusion and sun-warmed, pleasant disarray; in his grandmother’s garden — "large, wild and not too well kept" — there were fruit trees among the flowers, "so that one could either smell a rose, crush a verbena or eat a fruit." As a teen growing up in the country, he would bicycle with friends to lunch at some distant village inn: "An omelette, a sauté of chicken, a salad, cheese and a drink of the local wine... is there even now a better meal?" (Nope! Nor is there in 2016.)

In every age, there appears some genius of the art of living who seems always to know the right thing to do and say, the right music to listen to and clothes to wear, and the best things to offer at table. This is obvious; less obvious is that these instincts can somehow transcend time, so that the values whence they spring can be passed forward in an unbroken thread, as in The Conduct of the Kitchen:

It will be noticed that in our week [of menus] there are many salads. Personally, I would have a salad at every meal. I am told by people who know that salads are good for our health, that they contain vitamines [sic] or proteins or whatever it is. This is a poor inducement to our eating salads. The only true and human reason is that they are pleasant and useful.

Elegance and éclat can be brought into the humblest household, with just the exercise of patience, love and care. Proportion, cleanliness, order, pleasure, ease and open-hearted affection, a desire to please everyone who walks in the door? These things cost nothing. Indeed the mini-Trimalchios of Silicon Valley and Wall Street demonstrate every day that extravagance, as a rule, precludes taste. Better by far to be in the kitchen yourself, getting your hands covered with flour, as he writes in What Shall We Have To-Day?:

The truth is that one cannot possibly give an exact recipe; it is the part of the cook to take it in and work on it in an intelligent way. Having first tasted what she is doing, she must adapt the recipe to the strength of the gas, the acidity of her vinegar, the size of her vegetables, the quality and the freshness of her meat. If she does this, she is safe, safe even from an exact (and bad) recipe.

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orn in Poitiers in 1878, Boulestin launched himself into the world with a little inheritance from his adoring grandmother, and he was at various times a ghostwriter, soldier, translator, art dealer, interior decorator, French teacher, music critic, author, and restaurateur. There were the beginnings of a literary career—first as a music critic in Bordeaux, and later as secretary and ghostwriter to Henry Gauthier-Villars (known as "Willy"), the first husband of novelist Colette, in the bosom of the art scene in Paris. Still in his twenties, Boulestin was "taken up by this most Parisian couple, both amusing, brilliant, witty, [who] knew everything about everybody, the latest scandal and the latest bon mot."

All this was very thrilling for an ambitious young man from the country. "[Willy] showed me life as my provincial mind never conceived it," he writes in his autobiography, Myself, My Two Countries. He appears in the novels of both of his benefactors as a droll, clever dandy with exaggeratedly gay mannerisms: Hicksem in Colette's Minne ("un garçon précieux"), and Blackspot in Willy's Une Plage d'Amour ("un parfait swell londonien"). In the book Indiscrétions, Willy once described Boulestin this way:

Ce Marcel était un peu filou et énormément pédéraste. Il s'en vantait. Un jour que je lui déconseillais la fréquentation des apaches, garçons-bouchers et divers costauds dont il faisait ses délices, lui conseillant de leur préférer, puis qui'il voulait du masculin, des gosses encore gracieux d'une jolie sveltesse éphébique: Pensez-vous, me dit-il, je ne suis pas pour cure-dents.

This Marcel was a bit of a crook and an enormous pederast. He boasted of it. One day I advised him against consorting with the apaches, butcher's-boys and various beefcakes in whom he delighted, advising him to prefer instead, since he wanted men, nice slender lovely ephebes: "Says you," he told me. "I am not for toothpicks."

It was illegal to be gay in England in Boulestin’s time, and throughout Europe the gay scene was underground, but it was so deeply intertwined with the worlds of art, music, design, and literature that its character is vividly intelligible, even from the distance of many decades: beauty-minded, flamboyant, fey, shocking, witty. A lifelong Anglophile, Boulestin emigrated to London in 1906, where he hung out with Robbie Ross, Lord Alfred Douglas, and the rest of Oscar Wilde's old crew. (Wilde had died in Paris in 1900, and Boulestin saw him in the year of his death, "aged and tired, having drinks at the Grand Café.") In the London theaters, where the audience wore evening dress every night (not just on first nights, as in Paris), he saw Henry Irving in Robespierre and George Grossmith, of D'Oyly Carte fame, at the Gaiety Theatre. He describes "the splendid fun," as he called it, of English barmaids, "all piled up hair, plump bust and quick wit." He discovered mint sauce and Indian curry, the latter "at Romano's, where it was then prepared once a week by a Hindoo. I secured the recipe for both preparations."

Boulestin’s first professional venture in London was a decorating shop. It did well at first, but succumbed to the chaos and scarcity that followed the Great War; suddenly former clients were setting up shop as decorators themselves, and his trust fund was running out fast. In the course of liquidating the business, he tried to sell some etchings made by his friend J. E. Laboureur to Theodore Byard, a director of the publishing house Heinemann, and on his way out Boulestin asked, just casually, whether a cookbook might be of interest. Just the thing, said Byard. The contract was produced and signed on the spot, and an advance of £10 paid. Thus it was that success came to Boulestin at last, and handsomely, in the form of Simple French Cooking for English Homes, and its successor, A Second Helping, even the title of which evokes something of the author's sweetness and sense of fun. A columnist called "Penelope," writing in "The Women's Page" of the Aberdeen Press and Journal in March of 1925, thought so too:

The recipes he gives are within the reach of "people who have a good cook, those who have a plain one, and those who have not got one at all" ... To the simplest comestible he adds something unusual — even carrots and turnips are requested to present the "charm of youth"! — while his spontaneous humour bubbles out everywhere, nowhere more happily than in this: — To make a risotto, "Put into the frying-pan a pound of rice. Do not wash it. Wash your face, wash your hands, wash your conscience, but do not wash the rice."

At the time, the most influential books for home cooks — which had been written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — were square as hell, dull, doctrinaire, zero-fun textbooks for the efficient discharge of housewifely duties. Neither Mrs. Beeton's Big Book o' Scolding 'n' Plagiarized Recipes (more properly known as Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management), first published in 1861, nor Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery for Private Families, nor Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, nor Charles Francatelli's Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (!) had the faintest use for what you might call taste, or cool.

The principal aim of these early authorities seems to have been to create a giant, all-encompassing searchable database-in-a-book, so you could look up any recipe, answer any question. There wasn't the vaguest attempt at style, let alone wit, or chic, or anything really, outside of the stiffest, most formal "receipts" and formulae you can imagine — in Mrs. Beeton's case, everything in your world was strictly prescribed, from servants' wages to what colors your dresses should be. ("To those ladies having dark complexions, silks of a grave hue are adapted. For blondes, lighter colours are preferable ... the colours which go best together are green with violet; gold-colour with dark crimson or lilac; pale blue with scarlet.")

Boulestin breezed into this stultifying atmosphere like a gentle zephyr. No cookbook writer before him, to my knowledge, had attempted to communicate the plain delight of cooking and entertaining for oneself and a few friends, or to connect real elegance with uncomplicated techniques that any interested person could practice at home. His books are full of interesting and pretty ideas, some decidedly old-fashioned, and others that put one in mind of, say, Lucky Peach. He made soups almost exclusively with water, rather than stock; he makes marvelous dishes from leftovers, not for penance, but because they're delicious; he thought a meal worth eating should take an hour and a half; he mixes chopped fresh sorrel into the eggs for an omelet, which "should be made rather thick, so that, the inside being less cooked, the sorrel which is there remains almost raw." He advises keeping a notebook containing the preferences of all your guests, and to record the menu and guest list of every party, so as not to present any visitor with the same dish twice.

Boulestin served all wines, no matter their age, temperature or type, from a decanter; "he never liked the shape and colour of wine bottles standing on the table," wrote the culinary authority André Simon. "They were of the greatest use, of course, but their right place was the cellar or pantry... He was a born artist, and he was right." A tiny and trivial detail, no doubt, but that is just the sort of thing that would ravish André Simon, or Sybille Bedford or Elizabeth David. Or me.


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n 1923, at the age of forty-five, Boulestin met Henry "Robin" Adair, who would become his partner in business and in life for the next twenty years. Adair had lived in Jamaica, and loved sunshine and fine living. He was just a little stuck up and sniffy, compared to his newly famous French boyfriend. But by all you can tell from their various writings, they were a perfect match. It is a deep pleasure to read their works, and to consider their accomplishments and their life together, so free and so richly collaborative as it was for long years. I most heartily recommend (the very scarce, alas) Myself, My Two Countries (Cassell, 1936) as well as their three co-written books, which are fortunately not so scarce, and really useful, as well as fine reading: 127 Ways of Preparing Savouries and Hors-d'Oeuvre, 101 Ways of Cooking Potatoes and 120 Ways of Cooking Eggs. (The Duchess of Windsor's personal copy of the last was sold in the epic Sotheby's auction of the Windsors' estate in 1997.)

Mural from Boulestin's original restaurant; photo by Print Collector/Getty Images

In 1925, Adair and Boulestin opened a catering business together. Their first gig was a luncheon party, held in their own flat, for Virginia Woolf and Vogue editor Dorothy Todd (apparently Woolf didn’t care for restaurants). The party was so successful that those in attendance practically demanded that the two open a restaurant. "Boulestin" made its debut in Covent Garden in 1927, and remained a very big deal, and wildly expensive, even when I lived in London in the mid-eighties.

There is a disconnect between the extreme luxury of Boulestin's restaurant, and the simplicity expounded in his cookbooks. This seems to me likely to have been the influence of Adair, judging from the books he wrote on his own; also, though, a fine London restaurant in the late twenties would necessarily be catering to rich people who expected a certain kind of luxury. I wonder what kind of place they would have opened today.

In any case, before the Second World War, everybody who was anybody frequented Boulestin; gay fabulosos like Ivor Novello (Winston Churchill's alleged one-time lover), Diaghilev, and Noel Coward; royalty, business magnates and artists alike. It was dizzyingly groovy, too, everything about it. "The prettiest restaurant in London," said Cecil Beaton, whose word in such matters was law. There were paintings and murals, circus-themed, by Laboureur and Marie Laurencin, sumptuous silk brocades designed by Raoul Dufy, and the best food, wine and liqueurs in town: the beef, mutton, cream and butter were all English, but the vegetables, fruit, cheese and coffee were flown in from France. The atmosphere was low-key and intimate. "In a prominent place is an immense bottle of 1869 liqueur brandy de la maison," wrote Eileen Hooton-Smith in The Restaurants of London (Knopf, 1928 — published during Prohibition), "a graceful reminder that the place studies drink equally with meat." Hooton-Smith gives the menus of two "very excellent" meals she ate there:

LUNCHEON
Jambon de Bayonne
Omelette Boulestin
Poulet Sauté au Champagne
Poire Bourdon
A light white wine (Muscadet)

DINNER
Caviar
Truite Royale
Nantais au Pommard
Timbale de Petits Pois
Crêpe Verlaine
Claret (Bordeaux Rouge)

The restaurant, or at least its name, has outlived its founders; after the original shuttered in 1994, it was re-opened by restaurateur Joel Kissin in 2013. Some accounts speak of visa troubles, and others of an annual holiday thoughtlessly taken at the wrong time, but whatever the cause, the summer of 1939 found Boulestin and Adair at their holiday place in the Landes. Adair got sick, too sick to flee when France fell, in Elizabeth David's telling, and he was eventually arrested and interned by the the Germans. To be near Adair, Boulestin lived in occupied Paris, where he died after a brief illness four years later, at the age of sixty-five; Adair survived the war and died in 1956.

1899 portrait by Leonetto Cappiello (via)

Something unendingly lovely and precious died with those two, something I hope I am reanimating, just slightly, when I pour the wine into the decanter.


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ncreasingly, we will be forced to correct the immoderation of the past in all matters concerned with feeding people — overfishing, the overuse of chemicals and pesticides, reckless air travel, and waste of all kinds. It's comforting to know not only that there have long been good guides to how to manage things mindfully and without excess, but also that this new, saner way of life is more beautiful, more satisfying and more fun.

Plus it's a pure delight to read the lifehacks of 1926, in The Conduct of the Kitchen.

Do not be afraid of touching fish or onions with your hands, if you wash them immediately in cold water, there will not be any trace of smell left two seconds afterwards, but beware of hot water; it is fatal, the smell will stick in the opened pores of your skin for hours.

Ultimately, Boulestin's genius springs from a willingness to love the world as it comes, something learned from the happy, plentiful childhood I hope someday all children can have. "In summer I led a marvellous life, the garden and the kitchen my favorite places. In those days methods of cooking were very primitive; that is to say, they were perfect, giving results which I did not sufficiently appreciate... One could buy a Cézanne for three hundred francs but we were ignorant of Cézanne. Toulouse-Lautrec painted posters, Marennes oysters cost two francs fifty a dozen, and a brochette of kidneys seventy five centimes; one ate well, one lived well without noticing it."

Here is the key insight common to the works of all history's great advisors and friends to home cooks, from Anthony Bourdain to Elizabeth David to Boulestin: The only life is in this moment, and the only way to live well is to live, fully and instinctively, simply — "without noticing it."


Maria Bustillos is a writer and critic.
Editor: Matt Buchanan
Header photo copyright © BBC Photo Library, used with permission
Audio recording via British Library Board

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