A gathering of gourmets

February 20, 1994|By Jack Smith

At a discreet signal from the front of the hall, the assembled guests -- some six score men and women, all formally attired -- put down their glasses of champagne, and the black-frocked attendants slip quietly out into the Belvedere Hotel's lobby and close the doors behind them. A hush falls over the room as those remaining inside take their seats and wait for the ancient ceremony to begin.

There are a few words reminding the audience of the gravity of the event before a distinguished-looking man with close-cropped white hair and a vivid green sash over his dinner jacket stands in front of the group. He carries a broadsword in his hand, and looks for the first new disciple to approach.

"Sidney Blumenthal," a voice calls out, and a tall, silver-haired man in his 70s rises from the audience and walks over to stand by the man with the sword, who intones the arcane litany. "Je vous consacre chevalier de chaine." "I anoint you chevalier of the guild."

With that, he taps the other man lightly on the shoulder with sword, and the first of the evening's 13 initiates returns to his seat, now wearing the purple sash of the chevalier and beaming with happiness. He is no longer merely Sidney Blumenthal, successful electrical contractor, patron of the arts, high-handicap golfer and avid bridge player; he is now a member of one of the oldest societies in the Western world. It is a fraternity so elite, so discriminating, that even the French couldn't abide it, and outlawed it for the better part of two centuries.

The Chaine des Rotisseurs claims descent from the society of medieval chefs -- goose roasters, actually -- who organized in 1248 to uphold culinary standards in the royal court of France. For the next five centuries, the Chaine prospered; then came the Revolution, and the guild's goose was, so to speak, cooked.

It remained little more than a footnote in history until Charles de Gaulle came to power in postwar France and the French government, perhaps with an eye to the franchise potential of Gallic elitism, reinstated the group's charter.

The first American chapter was formed shortly thereafter in New York City, with a membership mostly comprised of food professionals -- people who cooked, distributed or wrote about food. This began to change in the '80s when, fueled by the richesse of Reaganomics, eating became a Status Statement. Americans discovered designer water and power lunches, and membership in the Chaine soared tenfold toward its present numbers of more than 7,000 in 140 chapters in every major city in this country. (The Baltimore chapter, begun 15 years ago, has 80 members.)

Recent members, though, are more likely to be doctors and prosperous entrepreneurs than chefs. Modern-day Chaine participants are united by a culinary taste for the extravagant, the refined and the exotic. There are no precise criteria for membership; one needs only to be proposed by a member, then pay a relatively modest $275 initiation fee, annual dues of $375 (to support various enterprises of the organization), plus the price of attendance at the monthly or so dinners. For example, this evening's affair at the Belvedere has set each Baltimore chapter member back $120.

Once admitted, the new member may begin his or her ascent by arranging a dinner party, finding a new source for wine, or providing some other service to the group -- through a hierarchy that rivals the court of Byzantium in its complexity. Those holding entry-level rank are the chevaliers and dames. Officers hold such resonant titles as argentier (treasurer), charge de presse (press officer) and bailli (chapter president). There are also regional and national officers, appointed at the whim of those above them, the highest-ranking of whom belong to the conseil magistral, the society's international governing body.

Members further signal their status in the society through an elaborate array of ersatz-diplomatic sashes, ribbons, pins and "medals of honor," giving this evening's dinner an air of international intrigue and fantasy. "Just look at all the beautiful people here tonight," urges the Chaine's Duke Goldberg as he surveys the crowd at the champagne reception that precedes the induction ceremony. The men are sleek and self-composed in their tuxedos, the woman bejeweled and shapely in form-fitting gowns. For that matter, when it comes to style, Mr. Goldberg himself -- who will, this very evening, assume the presidency of the Baltimore chapter -- is no slouch.

A former amateur four-wall handball champ, the new bailli is in his 60s, yet remains the picture of youthful vigor. He's broad-shouldered and lean, with a curly, jet-black mane. Where his male conferes have contented themselves with the conventional black bow tie, Mr. Goldberg, a Stevenson resident, evokes a pre-Victorian mood, with a snowy white riding stock cascading into the V of his dinner jacket. In lieu of formal pumps, he sports a pair of handmade, snakeskin Wellington boots from Italy.

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