A Recipe For Fame

March 10, 1991|By Ruth Reichl | Ruth Reichl,Los Angeles Times

Roger Verge is holding court. The proprietor of the three-star Le Moulin de Mougins restaurant near Cannes, France, sits, his white mustache twitching slightly, while an editor from Architectural Digest pulls out photograph after photograph of Mr. Verge's home. He peers at the image of a lamp. "Ah yes," he says, caressing it with his hand. Like a good student, he begins cataloging its virtues. "I try to give pleasure to everyone," he whispers.

Mr. Verge, "with his burnt-almond eyes, his white mustache, his noble bearing and his sweet words," is, as the "Guide Gault-Millau" somewhat caustically says, "the very incarnation of the great French chef for foreigners." Conscious of his role, he is constantly on the move, a missionary who carries the good word about French food to various corners of the world.

Right now, he is proselytizing in Los Angeles. Other three-star chefs have, of course, shown up from time to time to cook a meal or two, but Mr. Verge, who does nothing by half measures, has brought along his chef, his sous-chef and his menu for "Roger Verge Week" at the restaurant Champagne.

"I did it out of friendship," he says. "You know Patrick [Healy] worked with us for more than a year, so I thought it would be nice. Our restaurant is closed now [Le Moulin de Mougins closes every year from the end of January to the beginning of April], and I like Los Angeles so much. Besides," he adds, "I have so many friends here."

Indeed. One night Mr. Verge goes off (with no backup assistance) to "cook a little dinner" for a few of those friends -- Michael Douglas, Jack Nicholson, Sylvester Stallone, Danny De Vito. On another occasion, his old pal James Coburn ("you know, he spent six weeks at the Moulin") stops by. Mougins is less than five miles from Cannes, and its film festival, and so Mr. Verge speaks casually of drinking wine with Sergio Mendes, of eating a meal with Anthony Quinn. And then, of course, there are his food friends -- Wolfgang Puck, Michel Richard, Joachim Splichal.

In the world of food, Mr. Verge is a prince. Chefs love him because he -- along with Paul Bocuse -- virtually invented the celebrity chef.

"When I was young and I had a girlfriend, I would never tell her that I was a chef," says Mr. Verge, who was determined to change all that. He and Mr. Bocuse got out of the kitchen and into the limelight, taking a profession that had always been considered mere drudgery and making it glamorous.

This was not hard for Mr. Verge, the restless son of a blacksmith from Commentry, a village smack in the middle of France. Unlike ordinary chefs, who laboriously work their way up in the profession, Mr. Verge was a comet who used cooking as a passport to the world. He never stayed very long in one place, moving from Paris to Casablanca, from St. Moritz to Jamaica. Eventually he ended up in Africa.

"I believe," he says, "we can all do whatever it is we want to do."

What Mr. Verge ultimately wanted to do was open a big-deal restaurant. Trusting his luck, he opened Le Moulin de Mougins in 1969. Before the year was out, he had gotten his first star in the "Guide Michelin," an almost unheard-of feat. In fewer than five years, that venerable institution had bestowed the coveted three stars upon Mr. Verge. And then the chef started looking around )) for other worlds to conquer. "I like to take risks," he says.

And so he has a second restaurant in Mougins, the modest L'Amandier (one star), a cafe in Monte Carlo and a restaurant at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. He is about to open a restaurant in Tokyo. But that is just for starters. This businessman-chef also has a couple of cooking schools, a boutique, his own line of china and glassware and a huge variety of food products bearing his name. His latest coup: a state-of-the-art stove made by Bonnet and bearing his name.

"He is really up on the newest products available to chefs," says Mr. Healy. "He is always moving with progress, constantly bettering his equipment.

Nobody has a kitchen like his."

Other chefs are famous for their constant lamentations about the way things were in the past; Mr. Verge, on the other hand, is a thoroughly modern man who could not be more pleased with the present. He is enormously enthusiastic about the benefits of technology. "Cooking is evolving in a wonderful way," he says, pointing out that this makes it possible to create the food of the past with the labor force of the present. "We don't need apprentices who start at 12 and work for nothing," he says. "We don't need people who work 100 hours a week. We have all these objects."

"These objects," Mr. Verge firmly believes, "not only permit you to do things faster but also better." He speaks of mixers that allow a chef to emulsify a sauce almost instantly, of processors that make the arduous work of creating a quenelle amazingly easy. He talks of how difficult it used to be to make ice creams and sorbets -- now a snap -- and then speaks lovingly of the very latest technology.

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