DECEMBER 2002

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True To His Ovens
From France-Amerique

By Jean-Louis Turlin

Like all arts, cooking is only practiced with passion. Jean-Jacques Rachou belongs among the ranks of those who are passionate about what they do, and expect only to die close to their ovens.

Despite the 56 years he has spent in the kitchen and the right to a good retirement, the owner of "Cote Basque", a long-time member of New York's gastronomy scene, can’t see himself without his apron: "I do not see myself doing something other than what I have been doing all my life and I don’t envy the retirees".

Many of his colleagues, retired or not, return him the compliment. Who would envy his seven working days a week, from 9 a.m. to midnight with only a nap during lunch and dinner breaks?

"I am a hermit," recognizes Jean-Jacques Rachou, who doesn’t appreciate the pleasure of tasting from the kitchens of his peers. However, that has not kept him from having ideas on gastronomy in general and the fashionable changes that are affecting it.

"One speaks about new people, but one forgets the pioneers." It was in 1979 when Jean-Jacques Rachou bought the "Cote Basque", which opened in 1958 on the 55th street, from Henri Soulé, the true pioneer who, while creating the restaurant during the Second World War, launched great French cuisine in New York.

The culinary heritage of Mr. Soulé could not have fallen into better hands. The service might have changed, but certain traditional dishes are still served at the Cote Basque. Mr. Rachou remains a respectful master of the traditions of classical cuisine. For him, there’s no quarrel between the traditional cuisines and the modern ones: "without the traditional cuisine, the modern one wouldn’t exist. The second has less fat, but the bases are all the same. Everything is in the innovation and the search for new tastes, but one cannot mix anything with anything."

Jean-Jacques Rachou regrets one thing, which is the disappearance, in the 1970s, of a whole range of "average size, traditional restaurants where one doesn’t spend a fortune": L’escargot, Maud Chez Elle, Le Valois, Le Café Chauveron, Le Voisin, Le Pass, or Chez Larré…

The food sector is now occupied by Italian cuisine. Except for bars and breweries, the French meal seems to be only served in prestigious restaurants.

"Today, everyone wants to be located in the top-of-the-range", estimates Jean-Jacques Rachou. There’s an obvious economic reason behind that: costs cut too deeply into the margins of middle-priced restaurants. If it's the rent or the wages of unionized workers, a share of fixed costs in Manhattan is easier to include in prices that do not anger rich customers, even if one adds the seal of luxury service (the Cote Basque spends $125,000 in flowers each year).

But the race with "standing" has also its obstacles; Jean-Jacques Rachou complains about the difficulties of finding qualified personnel: "Good chefs let themselves be allured by the big money offered to them by Las Vegas hotels. There was a time when I provided lodging for my cooks. I cannot do it any more because of the infernal rents. That does not pose insurmountable problems, however, because I have a tendency to do everything myself in the kitchen"

The last sentence was said without the least trace of regret. Jean-Jacques Rachou regards himself more like a craftsman than an artist. Therefore, he doesn't leave his ovens. But he doesn't ignore the changes around him: "the Italians have found a good formula. They offer a simple cuisine, digestive and not very expensive, which corresponds to the daily style. One can make the same thing with the French cuisine without cutting down on quality. It is necessary to know how to evolve while remaining faithful to our traditions ".

Jean-Jacques Rachou is not ready to deliver this new recipe. But he is ready to take up the new challenges of a profession condemned to adapt ("My customers die," he doesn't hesitate to say). At 67 years, he still works as if he's 40 years younger.

For who and for what? The "what" is the passion. The "who" are his children and grandchildren. He's dream of retirement: to open a restaurant in Brooklyn in the same building where the latter live. To join under the same roof the two loves of his life.

Translated from French by Elias Saber

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