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The Last Days of Haute Cuisine: The Coming of Age of American Restaurants

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Combining an insider's passion with down-to-earth humor, chef and food writer Patric Kuh traces the evolution of American high-style restaurants from the 1941 opening of Le Pavillon to the recent rise of less traditional restaurants, such as Le Cirque, Spago, and Danny Meyer's Union Square group. Kuh takes readers inside this high-stakes business, sharing little-known anec Combining an insider's passion with down-to-earth humor, chef and food writer Patric Kuh traces the evolution of American high-style restaurants from the 1941 opening of Le Pavillon to the recent rise of less traditional restaurants, such as Le Cirque, Spago, and Danny Meyer's Union Square group. Kuh takes readers inside this high-stakes business, sharing little-known anecdotes, describing legendary cooks and bright new star chefs, and relating his own reminiscences. Populated by a host of food personalities, including Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, and James Beard, Kuh's social and cultural history of America's great restaurants reveals the dramatic transformations in U.S. cuisine. "If you believe we are what we eat, this is the book that tells you who we are." (The San Diego Union-Tribune) ßAUTHORBIO: Patric Kuh is a Paris-trained chef who has worked in preeminent restaurants in France, New York, and California. He has written a novel, as well as numerous articles for Gourmet, Esquire, Salon.com, and Los Angeles magazine.


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Combining an insider's passion with down-to-earth humor, chef and food writer Patric Kuh traces the evolution of American high-style restaurants from the 1941 opening of Le Pavillon to the recent rise of less traditional restaurants, such as Le Cirque, Spago, and Danny Meyer's Union Square group. Kuh takes readers inside this high-stakes business, sharing little-known anec Combining an insider's passion with down-to-earth humor, chef and food writer Patric Kuh traces the evolution of American high-style restaurants from the 1941 opening of Le Pavillon to the recent rise of less traditional restaurants, such as Le Cirque, Spago, and Danny Meyer's Union Square group. Kuh takes readers inside this high-stakes business, sharing little-known anecdotes, describing legendary cooks and bright new star chefs, and relating his own reminiscences. Populated by a host of food personalities, including Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, and James Beard, Kuh's social and cultural history of America's great restaurants reveals the dramatic transformations in U.S. cuisine. "If you believe we are what we eat, this is the book that tells you who we are." (The San Diego Union-Tribune) ßAUTHORBIO: Patric Kuh is a Paris-trained chef who has worked in preeminent restaurants in France, New York, and California. He has written a novel, as well as numerous articles for Gourmet, Esquire, Salon.com, and Los Angeles magazine.

30 review for The Last Days of Haute Cuisine: The Coming of Age of American Restaurants

  1. 5 out of 5

    Virginia Arthur

    I needed a book cover for my new mid-size tablet and it occurred to me I could just use a hardcover book and cut a hole through the pages so they match the shape of my tablet then, voila, just insert my tablet inside the book. This meant trying to find a terrible book. I have never set out to find a terrible book and not sure why, the thought of it seemed very fun. This is likely a commentary on my social life. Since I was playing in the eastern Sierras, I decided to go to a small independent bo I needed a book cover for my new mid-size tablet and it occurred to me I could just use a hardcover book and cut a hole through the pages so they match the shape of my tablet then, voila, just insert my tablet inside the book. This meant trying to find a terrible book. I have never set out to find a terrible book and not sure why, the thought of it seemed very fun. This is likely a commentary on my social life. Since I was playing in the eastern Sierras, I decided to go to a small independent bookstore in town. How hard can it be to find a cheap if not free terrible book in a local bookstore? I'll just run in and run out. Won't take long at all! Upon entering the bookstore, a young man was taping boxes together in which he was putting books. Since I have been going to this bookstore a long time, of course, you know it, I was slammed with the sadness that like so many others, this little independent bookstore had finally called it quits. This threw off the ten minute errand significantly because I needed time to be very sad. I decided not to ask. After drifting around the store to remember it, take in the idea it might be closing, I got back to the task at hand—maybe it would even end up helping them out since they might be grateful to get rid of their terrible books. I asked then explained. After complimenting me on the idea (which may not be a great idea if books get destroyed...read on), he took this book off a shelf where it was sitting all by itself. “We've had this one for awhile,” he said. I read the title out loud then laughed. “Yeah, I can't wait to cut this baby up!” I declared. He gave it to me for a dollar. Owing strictly to the cover, which shows 'the beautiful people' dining in luxury, wine glasses and white linen upholstered chairs, I was sure it would lament the end of the days of snobbery (and it does in one context), reek of white elitism, be racist even. I couldn't wait to take a knife to it and sculpter le canard. But since I have never murdered a book before, I thought the least I could do before I killed it was flip through it, maybe even read it, especially because of the endorsement on the back by the late dearly missed Anthony Bourdain. For the millionth time, you really can't tell a book by the cover. (Maybe we should just get rid of covers). Totally outside my 'genre comfort zone', it's not a book I would have selected to read even though I like to cook (but when the cooking and chef shows got competitive and dramatic if not stupid (of course), I lost all interest). The other thing about the book I loved was it smells like perfume. I am still looking for a terrible book to destroy because this book was definitely not it and apologies to the author. It turned out to be one of the most interesting books I have ever read. This is the story of America by the plate (and the palate), the immigrants that brought their culinary culture with them and how they enhanced and are still enhancing what is becoming American culture. Maybe some of us remember the first wave, French cooking. How can anyone possibly forget Julia Child or in my case, my big brother with a bath towel around his shoulder, imitating her in her distinctive high ringing voice. “And now, I will attempt to put the dressing up this duck's--” “That's enough,” my dad hollers. I'm sorry but most of what I remember about Julia is all the times I doubled over in laughter but this is what you get from kids raised by working class parents just happy to put any food on the table at all. Kuh's book starts out, as with just about everything else 'American', with the French. There was French cuisine in New York City, if you were one of the exclusives, the wealthy. Most of NYC's common folk that included the new immigrants, could never afford it. This is where the snobbery came in, Kuh explains, but this all changed at the 1939 World's Fair. “The fair was held within sight of the Manhattan skyline” on a piece of land Life Magazine described as “a desolate, swampy, stinking expanse called Flushing Meadow.” At this World's Fair was a French restaurant called the French Pavilion where the average person “with a taste for twisted cheese sticks” could now see how the other side lived, or at least peek over the fence meaning they could afford to eat there. Welcome to Paris, my plebs. “In the first month of operation, the restaurant served 18,401 meals...the second month, 26,510." “Grover A. Whalen (president of the fair) may have cared about “the people” but Henri Soule' (destined to become one of the most famous French chefs in the world) had only cared about the right people." So here we have it, elite gastronomy meets hot dogs and cheese sticks. Did Grover and Henri speak to one another? If so, I can't help but imagine their conversations. Voici l'Amérique, mes amis français. Kuh develops this theme through the rest of the book, the tension between the 'authentic' European model and the Americanized version that of course, included forming an organization with the rather nebulous name of “Restaurant Associates” and everybody was invited to the party. Major influencers were Oregonian food polymath James Beard (The Four Seasons) and restaurant 'choreographer' Joe Baum. Food writers, such as Beard himself, Caroline Bates, Elizabeth David (among others) also wielded power over the restaurants and some of these anecdotes are pretty funny including staging the whole thing before they got there. I found it fascinating when Italian cuisine in America (cooked by Italians who immigrated to America) started to push French cuisine to the side just a bit, the Italian food was criticized for being a little too down-to-earth if not “homely”. “My opinion of Italian cookery is not too high,” Beard wrote in 1955. By 1975, we have arrived at Chez Panisse in Berkeley I remember when Chez Panisse birthed because I was living in California at the time with my big sister. There seemed to be stories about Alice Waters all over the place. This time also parallels the rise of the coffeehouse over that of the saloon, something that is so manifested in our daily life, we don't even think about it anymore. (How many people do we know (or knew prior to COVID) that called Starbucks their office?). Chez Panisse as a new gastronomical paradigm was anticipated decades before by Elizabeth David (1950), “David's ideal eating place would never be the grand Parisian restaurant...She would feel most at home in the small, bustling restaurants of Europe, the quayside cafe's, the bistros, the trattorias, the routiers, those noisy, lively restaurants where French truck drivers ate. “Good cooking is honest, sincere, and simple,” she wrote, positing her culinary philosophy against “the absurd lengths of the complicated and so called Haute Cuisine,” and any romanticism about “California agriculture” was exposed as a fraud by Kuh. I was pleased he did this since so much of California is myth. At that time (and still to some extent) California agriculture, primarily corporate, was cut off from—well, Californians. Much of the labor in California was about exploiting the Dust Bowl poor, Latinos, the Chinese. The refreshing “wildflower” in the glass vase in fact came from a chemical-laden corporate large-scale florist operation, not a natural meadow behind the restaurant. “With coverage in the national press, the source of California agriculture was no longer seen as an idyllic, indeterminate spot but, as in Steinbeck's time, a very real place of grim migrant labor camps.” Enter Chez Panisse and the words that come to mind are local, authentic, elegant. With Chez Panisse, the mint sprig on the plate did come from the herb garden behind the restaurant, the figs came from a tree down the street that grows next to a creek, and the geese came from a local farmer, be assured, with no impact on the species as a whole. We call it “Farm to Table” now in California and nearly everyone I knows grows a garden, is a farmer, never misses a Farmer's market and/or is a member of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). It's not myth anymore. Chez Panisse shuttled this movement in (and Kuh mentions, as of 2001, when the book was published, Chez Panisse was grappling with the costs of success—crowds. Again, this was in 2001). From these we move into Wolfgang Puck (as of page 163) and cooking food differently, such as wood fired pizzas, vegetables. This expands into Italian cooking which I found kind of ironic. In this part of the book you can't help but be struck that while the pretentiousness of French food was waning, it was only increasing with Italian food, once admired for its simplicity and authenticity, but we all know it all comes around again sooner or later and here we are now with manufactured “neighborhood” restaurants like Applebee's that try to mimic the original American cafe, something everyone wanted to get away from in the beginning in favor of the elite dining experience... The closing of the book says it all when Henri Soule', there at the World's Fair in Flushing in 1939 when the new multi-national Americans would be 'allowed' to experience fancy French dining, Henri Soule', “the Michelangelo, the Mozart and Leonardo of the French Restaurant in America” (New York Times), dies, and there is no American funeral service for him. He is returns to his native France-in a coffin. For me, the definition of a good book is one that elicits from me some kind of emotional response from tears to intellectual curiosity. Again, I was surprised and touched by just how many memories of my childhood arose, many nearly forgotten, like going to the Italian restaurant, Moran's (a family surname, and no, we were not related as far as I remember) every Christmas Eve, in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, 25 miles from our suburban “ghetto”. We met my aunt and uncle, cousin, there. I remember the Italian owner of the restaurant (Look! It'za the Morans(a)!) always greeting my parents, my aunt and uncle, with much fanfare, hugs, and offering them shots of something, that at seven years old, I had no idea what it was but it didn't matter because the whole experience was so magical and amazing. I also remember, I think it was my 12th birthday, when my parents told us the sad news that the restaurant had closed. After that my mother started making spaghetti at home and everyone would come over. It was just as magical though of course, in a different way. I remember doing cartwheels and somersaults in the living room and my dad snatching a black shiny “Stork's Club” ashtray from the coffee table just before I crashed into it. He made it clear nothing was to happen to it. I don't know if I ever saw it again. (I have no idea why it was so special or who it came from; wish they were still alive so I could ask). The month I lived in Italy...I still prepare my food in much the same way. I love cannellini beans and pomodoro (which for me is slicing up a homegrown tomato, pouring olive oil on it, and sprinkling it with some Italian seasoning; takes 30 seconds. I have found some rather ridiculous “approaches”, recipes for it online, one that takes an entire day. When I lived in Italy, I didn't meet anyone who took an entire day to make pomodoro. Maybe I hung out with the wrong crowd). 40 years+ in California and still have never eaten at Chez Panisse. I googled them and they still exist. FYI, you have to call ahead at least two days in advance “at noon”. Well okay then. I guess there is still time. I don't think this book was about Haute Cuisine as much as about the democratization of cuisine and do not despair because there is still plenty of what it is essentially, fancy dining with lots of affectation, out there. It will never end because socioeconomic arrogance is a critical component of the American if not human, psyche. (Rick Moranis's terrified face pressed up against the glass of that fancy restaurant in Ghostbusters. Nobody noticed or cared, too busy dipping into that fondue. It's all part of the experience, you see). The human species also very much likes ritual and dining “fancy” demands it. This isn't going to change either. We call it “atmosphere”, “ambiance”. “You never take me anywhere fancy anymore” is not going to go away, except now the choice of fancy is more culturally diverse and interesting. It has become American and I don't think this is anything to grieve about. I thoroughly enjoyed this “terrible” book. Bon Appetit!

  2. 4 out of 5

    Patrick Brown

    "It was as if French cooking had finally succumbed under all the social aspirations that for so long it had been made to carry. A shift in perception was needed to revive it. That shift would occur in California, in the most unlikely of places: across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, in a restaurant with a collective philosophy located in a building that had once been plumber's store. It had a honeysuckle hedge and a monkey puzzle tree in front and it was called "It was as if French cooking had finally succumbed under all the social aspirations that for so long it had been made to carry. A shift in perception was needed to revive it. That shift would occur in California, in the most unlikely of places: across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, in a restaurant with a collective philosophy located in a building that had once been plumber's store. It had a honeysuckle hedge and a monkey puzzle tree in front and it was called Chez Panisse." This paragraph typifies the best and the worst of this book, and indeed, of nonfiction writing of this type in general. If I'm reading a history of something, -- and I think this book is fundamentally a history -- I want it to do two things: to give a context to each event, explaining why each thing happened when it did and where it did and what the significance of the events were and to make the actors of history come alive. On the first account, Kuh succeeds admirably. His writing is clear and concise, and his conclusions follow logically and fluidly from the facts. He traces the story of fine dining in America from Prohibition through the age of elite French restaurants like Le Pavillion and La Caravelle, places where the maitre d' used an application for a house account as a means of vetting the applicant not only of financial standing but also of social status, through the California cuisine revolution sparked by Chez Panisse, the celebrity chef phenomenon (personified here by Wolfgang Puck), and into the age of mass-produced fine dining, such as is currently on display in Las Vegas, in Danny Meyer's Union Square group restaurants, and, to a lesser extent, in the Lettuce Entertain You restaurants. Along the way he gives well-crafted portraits of M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, Alice Waters, and, most of all, Le Pavillion owner Henri Soule. It's here that the book falls short, often quite literally. In the chapter on Chez Panisse, for instance, Kuh deals with Alice Waters more as a phenomenon than as a person. There is no real sense of Waters and Tower as people, and as a result, it felt to me that he came to somewhat stock conclusions about why Chez Panisse became, well, Chez Panisse. Same for Wolfgang Puck. The more I read the book, the more I felt frustrated by its lack of depth. Here is a 235 page book that probably would've been perfect at 400 pages. It's well-written, it's compelling, it's conclusions are often sound, but it feels sparse, as if the author either didn't have access to some of the people he wanted to profile, or he simply didn't have the time. This is most evident during the section on Lettuce Entertain You. Kuh travels to Chicago to interview LEY president Richard Melman. Melman keeps him waiting in his office for several hours, then gives him a brief and fairly shallow interview. At the end, he offers the aphorism that all restaurants are hot dog stands. While this is interesting, and Kuh does fine work riffing on the Disneyfication of fine dining (even giving credit to Thomas Pynchon for coining the term), it feels slight. It feels like Kuh got screwed out of the interview he wanted, and instead wrote a stub of a chapter. Too many chapters in this book feel that way. Nonetheless, this is a fine book on the history of recent gastronomy in the US. I recommend it to anybody who has ever wondered why every restaurant they go to suddenly offers small plates and has distressed plaster walls, antique photographs, and tea candles on every table.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Alana Cash

    There was something very sad about reading this book because the author is writing that the days of elegant restaurants in which the clientele were also elegant is now gone. The author doesn't address attire, but jackets and ties used to be required for men in certain restaurants and some restaurants kept supplies in the coat check room for diners who were not appropriately dressed. Now, you can find workout clothes and sneakers anywhere. In a subtle way, the author makes clear that expensive di There was something very sad about reading this book because the author is writing that the days of elegant restaurants in which the clientele were also elegant is now gone. The author doesn't address attire, but jackets and ties used to be required for men in certain restaurants and some restaurants kept supplies in the coat check room for diners who were not appropriately dressed. Now, you can find workout clothes and sneakers anywhere. In a subtle way, the author makes clear that expensive dining is not the same as elegant dining and this book makes that clear. Chain restaurants, even expensive ones, are leaning toward being factories. For me, the book was not about food - although there are many references to menu items and types of cuisine, chefs, and restaurants. For me the book was about a way of life that is gone. Restaurants now are much more superficial and chefs are driven by investors, not the art of food. This book is very well written. Very interesting. I loved it.

  4. 4 out of 5

    erik

    I loved this book. It starts with the first elitist days of fine dining in America, when restaurants would hand-pick their customers based on social status, and takes you through the industry events (credit cards, the four seasons, chez panisse, etc) that led to restaurants as we know them today.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Lizzie

    Reading it felt like a delicious meal.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Annette

    Just starting my third time reading this (in preparation for teaching a class on the history of restaurants)... Loving it as much as the first time nearly 15 years ago.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Danny

    Yet another fantastic book about the history of the restaurant business...

  8. 5 out of 5

    Carol Collins

    I almost abandoned this book but didn't. I found it thought provoking. Restaurants are not something I normally read about or think about, but this book led me to do so. I almost abandoned this book but didn't. I found it thought provoking. Restaurants are not something I normally read about or think about, but this book led me to do so.

  9. 4 out of 5

    James McCrone

    I love this insider's look at the restaurant business. Kuh gives both a personal and historical view on the state of cooking, restaurants and chefs. I love this insider's look at the restaurant business. Kuh gives both a personal and historical view on the state of cooking, restaurants and chefs.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jeffrey Hart

    Great book about the rise of American cuisine. Everybody is in it and the big surprise for me was the background information on the origins of Chez Panisse.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Tuesday H

    The beginning of this book is a bit hard to get through. The writing and plot lines seem jumbled and it almost assumes you have a bit of background in America’s restaurant industry. That being said, the book is very useful and enlightening, even if not delivered in the most pleasurable way. It made me realize how far restaurants have come in such a short period of time and grateful for today’s food-centric culture.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jo

    Having started with an interest in hotel/restaurant college courses, I once romanticized the thought of going in the direction this book so eloquently states, but due to my vision impairment didn't complete that direction. This book exemplifies the inglorious changes that have forever changed the industry. A must read on society and culture has changed/been changed by the way we dine. Having started with an interest in hotel/restaurant college courses, I once romanticized the thought of going in the direction this book so eloquently states, but due to my vision impairment didn't complete that direction. This book exemplifies the inglorious changes that have forever changed the industry. A must read on society and culture has changed/been changed by the way we dine.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jessica Haider

    A history of fine dining in America...focusing mostly on restaurants in NYC.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Chuck Bradley

    Culinary History

  15. 4 out of 5

    John Brogan

    Very slow read, kinda sucked, but informational, for sure!

  16. 4 out of 5

    John

  17. 5 out of 5

    Ic4miles

  18. 4 out of 5

    Stuart

  19. 5 out of 5

    Dennis

  20. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie Fisher

  21. 5 out of 5

    Lucas

  22. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

  23. 5 out of 5

    Bethaa

  24. 5 out of 5

    Melinda

  25. 5 out of 5

    Esther

  26. 5 out of 5

    Linda Hope

  27. 5 out of 5

    Michael

  28. 5 out of 5

    Bridget

  29. 4 out of 5

    Audra

  30. 4 out of 5

    Susan Villeneuve

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