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The rebirth of 'Ma Gastronomie'

November 7, 2008 |  1:30 pm

MagastronomieA new English edition of the cult book that is a paean to French chef and legend Fernand Point came out this week, published by Rookery Press. The first English edition of "Ma Gastronomie" was published in 1974, a yellow-jacketed book with a mountain of a bow-tied man on the cover, and soon became a culinary classic. Who wouldn't revere a man who began each day by shaving outdoors with two magnums of Champagne chilling in a giant ice-filled stone mortar by his side?

The Rookery edition freshens the look of the book. It has a new cover and an introduction by Thomas Keller, and it's squatter and thicker. But otherwise, it stays true to the original -- the text, Point's recipes and notes, and photographs and illustrations from the French edition. "The one major difference is that we went into the recipes and converted all the measurements to all the standard U.S. measurements," Rookery publisher Tracy Carns says. The recipes now include volume measurements (with metric measurements in parentheses).

The first English edition of about 30,000 books had been sold out by the early '90s. It was published by Lyceum, a small imprint run by Frank and Patricia Shannon Kulla, who persuaded Charles Flammarion -- publisher of the 1969 French edition -- to sell them the rights for an English version. They wrote and adapted much of the text. "They made the book happen," says Carns, who decided to publish the new edition after taking note of "Ma Gastronomie" on chefs' lists of favorite out-of-print books.

"Every chef had to have their own copy. And it's still that way," says Frank Kulla, who has since retired from publishing and now...

runs a bed-and-breakfast in Maine with his wife. "I really wouldn't expect anything else because of the nature of the man and his accomplishments."

The Kullas spent the spring of 1974 in France, interviewing Point's wife and his disciples. Point died in 1955 at age 58, but his wife, Marie-Louise ("Mado") continued to run the restaurant, La Pyramide, in the town of Vienne, south of Lyon, faithful to Point's recipes and credos and retaining his Michelin three stars. Mado had encouraged an English-language version of "Ma Gastronomie," according to Frank Kulla.

"We had talked about how we would approach it," he says. "There was almost nothing said in the French edition about Point’s disciples -– Paul Bocuse, Jean and Pierre Troisgros, Alain Chapel. At the time, there were 18 three-star Michelin restaurants and seven were run by his disciples. That was really remarkable – hadn’t happened before and hasn’t happened since." 

So from about 10 hours of the Kullas' taped conversations came two of the most compelling chapters in the book -- the funny anecdotes included in "F. Point, Restaurateur" and "A Day at Chez Point," which depict a generous practical joker who also was a demanding taskmaster. "I'm not hard to please," Point said. "I'm content with the very best."

"We thought to give people a feeling of the day-to-day operation of the restaurant ... from the viewpoint of the other chefs who absolutely loved this man," Frank Kulla says. "They would do anything for him, really. They had such tremendous admiration for him. And I think that comes through in the text."

The recipes from Point's own notebook aren't for beginners. "Mado didn't want them changed that much," Kulla says. "We honored her wish and kept true to what he said. They presume a knowledge of French cooking. It's not for the amateur, but I don't think that put people off."

The Kullas tested recipes in their own kitchen. "There's quite a detailed recipe for the gateau Marjolaine," Frank Kulla says, "because it's so well-known and so many people had tried to make their versions of it in different restaurants. We never had it anywhere the way it was at Point's. So we said, 'Let's see if we can really spell it out.' " After a lot of trial and error, "we put it together, and the only place that I've tasted one like it was at La Pyramide itself. Try it. It's a marvelous cake."

-- Betty Hallock

"Ma Gastronomie," Rookery Press, $40.