Fernand Point
by Chef Jos Wellman

Fernand Point

Throughout his 57 years of living, [[Fernand Point]] enjoyed life immensly. He was 25 years of age when he went to Vienna and had already spent the better part of his youthful years in the kitchen. He worked with his father Auguste Point, who ran a small buffet restaurant in the railroad station in the Louhans. It was here that his mother and grandmother, both excellent cordons bleu cooks, first introduced him to cooking as a small boy. (Cordon bleus is a french term literally translated as "blue ribbon." It refers originally to an award given to women chefs for culinary excellence)As far as Auguste Point was concerned his son's talents extended far beyond the little kitchen of the station restaurant. The railway's refusal to place the restaurant on its list of officially recognized establishments in 1922 provided Auguste Point with the impetus he needed. He decided to go to Lyon.

 

 

Fernand was impressed with the town's ancient Roman ruins, particularly the majestic pyramid that stood down the street from his new restaurant. The pyramid rested on a heaby stone base cosisting of four columns and four arches. Its point had been reinforced with steel bands, but otherwise it remains exactly as the Romans built it two thousands years ago. Over the years the pyramid and the restaurant F.P. named after it (de la Pyramide) became synonymous. He used the pyramid as his symbol. It appeared on the cover of his menus, specially-cast models were used to decorate presentation trays, butter molds were pyramid-shaped, even the puff pastries accompanying certain dishes were baked in the form of tiny pyramids.

Little by little the old nineteenth century building that had housed the restaurant Guieu was changed to suit the taste and style of the Point's. When the father; Auguste Point died in 1925, the new kitchen had just been completed.

Fernand was not only changing the appearance of his restaurant, he was creating his own special kind of cuisine and in the process transporting classic French cuisine. He put to rest many of the old taboos about la grande cuisine. He did not agree that one must bow down to the classical authorities. Why must he revere Escoffier and follow all his precepts without deviation if they are only half satisfactory at most to his taste? Monsieur Point believed that great cuisine is not static. The creative cuisinier cannot hold only to what was done in the past and go no further. One should retain the base, the foundation, and build on that, modifying and refining it to suit changing tastes in changing times. That is what he did--and he created a new cuisine for that century.

In addition to the cuisine he broke new ground for his fellow cuisiniers. Before Fernand the cuisinier never left the kitchen. The maitre d' hotel ran the restaurant and the chef kept to the stoves. Fernand was to change all that. He came into the dining room to talk to his clients. He sounded out their likes and dislikes and composed their dinner with them, creating dishes to their tastes. He was content to let his work speak for itself.

His marriage in 1930 helped the reputation of the restaurant; new wife Marie-Louise, became an intricate part of the restaurant. She supervised the service in the dining room, kept the books, paid the bills, hand wrote the menu, daily, and attended to all other details associated with running the business. Shortly after his marriage he bought a piece of land adjoining his restaurant and created a garden with trim green lawns and beds of flowers. There was a terrace for dining. A second story was added to the building and the main dining room was enlarged. When the remodeling was completed the restaurant de la Pyramide looked like a country residence.

Believing that dining was a total experience; the atmosphere, the ambiance, the cuisine, the wines, the clientele should all blend perfectly. No detail was too insignificant to be overlooked. He was known for saying, "I'm not hard to please, I'm content with the very best." His attitude was equally uncompromising. He insisted that his crystal be the finest Baccarat, his China the finest Limoges porcelain. The high standards of a great restaurant, he was convinced, can only be maintained at the cost of such items.

Running his restaurant with a firm and unyielding hand; the number of seats in the restaurant was strictly limited to fifty. When that number was reached, the President of the Republic himself would not have made it pass the door. Serving hours, too, were rigidly kept. The dining room was a kind of sanctuary where petty outside disturbances must not intrude under any circumstances.

A typical day for him at de la Pyramide began before sunrise. He promptly rose at 4:30 a.m. telephoned Les Halles, the great market in Paris. He ordered exclusively from quality suppliers he came to know and trust during his period of apprenticeship at Foyot's and the Hotel Bristol. Each merchant shipped his best merchandise to F.P. fresh daily by train from Paris to Vienne.

Fernand also apprenticed at the Hotel Royal in Evian. At the Hotel Royal he apprenticed along with Georges Bocuse, father of Paul Bocuse. Paul Bocuse later trained under F.P. at de la Pyramide for five years as did Paul Mercier, who was a brilliant cuisinier. Fernand came to rely on over the years and Paul Mercier took over de la Pyramid after Fernand's death in 1955.

Paul Mercier and F.P. would meet in the kitchen every morning to discuss the days events. There had never been a set or standard bill of fare at de la Pyramide; it changed day to day, depending on the best available supplies. Nor was there ever a printed carte or menu. The menu was never overwhelming; at most there were twenty items.

His attitude about money was extremely casual and reflected itself on the carte, which noted only a single price for dinner. Separate prices were never listed for the various items on the menu. Telling a journalist during an interview, "Cooking demands complete dedication. One must think only of one's work. When I began as an apprentice I was in the kitchen at five o'clock in the morning and I did not stop until eleven at night, with just a couple hours rest in the afternoon. That was my schedule in 1914 at the hotel Bristol in Paris. It has been my schedule ever since. It's too much isn't it? But la grande cuisine is pitiless!"

F.P. kept a small cream-colored notebook in which he jotted down his thoughts on cuisine and life. In his case the two were synonymous. These notes constituted a kind of gastronomic testament as well as a line of conduct to be followed by young cuisiniers. The notebook became known as "MA GASTRONOMIE."

Below are several quotes taken from the book which also provide more insite into F.P.

  • "The cuisinier loses his reputation when he becomes indifferent to his work."
  • "La grande cuisine must not wait for the guest; its the guest who must wait for la grande cuisine."
  • "Inattention never pays off in the kitchen."
  • "When one thinks of la grande cuisine one cannot think of money; the two are incompatible. La grande cuisine is extremely expensive-but that does not mean one cannot do very good cooking with inexpensive ingredients."
  • "Every morning the cuisinier must start again at zero, with nothing on the stove. That is what real cuisine is all about."
  • "Cookbooks are as alike as brothers. The best is the one you write yourself." "For a chef to be respected his superiority must not be in doubt. He must excel in everything; including pastry cooking and purchasing."
  • "In all professions without doubt, but certainly in cooking one is a student all his life."
  • "The best cooking is that which takes into consideration the products of the season."
  • "Wines that are too old are not suitable for cooking. Fire cannot give them back the strength they have lost."
  • "One of the most important things that distinguish man from other animals is that man can get pleasure from drinking without being thirsty."
  • "Success is the sum of a lot of small things done correctly."
  • "If the divine creator has taken pains to give us delicious and exquisite things to eat, the least we can do is prepare them well and serve them with ceremony."
  • "Every country, every region, has it's local specialties about which it's rash to say, "they're not very good," because nature supplies every taste."
  • "As far as cuisine is concerned one must read everything, see everything, hear everything, try everything, observe everything, in order to retain in the end, just a little bit."

    (From Ma Gastronomie by Fernand Point, copyright 1969 Flammarion; English language copyright 2008 The Rookery Press).