Portland's food scene circa 1982
Gaining perspective on a long career requires occasionally revisiting the path taken. Sometimes a glance backward informs how movement forward might unfold. Last spring, I picked up a conversation started in 1977, with Chef Xavier Bauser, whom I apprenticed under until 1982. His basement kitchen in downtown Portland’s historical Benson Hotel was the classroom for my culinary education.
Trained in Switzerland in the 1950s, Chef Bauser taught classical European cuisine in the classical European manner: Chefs blistered the hides of incompetent underlings, imposed strict hierarchical rules, and barked commands like “Do not speak unless spoken to.” Better than joining the US army, I was told. But Chef’s Swiss army was just as demanding.
During my three-year apprenticeship, I was introduced to cooking on a professional level. I moved slowly and deliberately through knife skills, soups and sauces, vegetable cookery, banquet production, and a la carte cooking supplemented with lots of exercises in critical thinking. I found that every movement required my attention, as one small mistake resulted in a quick, stern verbal correction from the chef.
Chef Bauser took his culinary apprenticeship at a time when Auguste Escoffier’s influence could be seen in menus across Europe. A French chef, Escoffier modernized and popularized cooking methods so that a diner in Brussels could enjoy the same version of Coquille St. Jacques a la sauce Mornay as a diner in Lyon. Chefs, trained to cook using these standardized methods, could then travel throughout Europe, easily applying their skills to any kitchen. Eventually, the classical dishes and techniques traveled to the United States, where they were called “Continental Cuisine.”
Under Chef Bauser’s tutelage, I learned to cook a large repertoire of classic dishes. But not by following a recipe. The only written recipes were for the waiters, who finished a list of still familiar dishes tableside: Caesar salad, Steak Diane and Bananas Foster. The cooking techniques used to prepare these dishes are still used today, but the names have all but disappeared. The farm-to-table movement has replaced them, with menus that highlight key flavor components and ingredients, where those ingredient were grown, and by whom. A cooking technique might be mentioned, but only if it’s a selling point or necessary description.
A foundation in classical European cuisine becomes the springboard from which a cook can explore his/her own style of cooking, defining their niche in the marketplace. When I had my own restaurant, I’d sometimes interview a young cook who wanted to work for me. Far too often, the cook would mention wanting to cook “my food,” meaning his/her own, not mine. When I heard that phrase, the interview usually ended. Such an apprentice had little room to learn and grow.
I have followed the careers of my classically trained colleagues, and twenty-five years later, some are still making the same dishes. Which isn’t to say that there’s no demand for those dishes, only that a cook should evolve with the marketplace, stay current with American cuisine and leave his/her own creative mark on the profession.
It’s hard to imagine the Benson’s basement kitchen in Portland's current vibrant and highly visible food scene. A kitchen where chefs and cooks were rarely seen, let alone asked to comment on the state of cooking in America. Chef Bauser’s kitchen is a relic of an era that was structured and bound by the European model of classical cuisine. It was also a kitchen where an apprentice could receive an excellent, paid education and depart a journeyman cook, qualified to participate in the wide and ever-changing world of cooking.