Jacques Manière

Nowadays any self-respecting young male chef will be turned out to the nines when appearing on the television media he courts: he will wear impeccable whites, sport a trim beard (or trim designer stubble), boast at least one Michelin rosette, adjudicate on MasterChef and, if he is lucky, be romantically involved with a budding actress. Leading women chefs will usually be lower-key and, unlike most of their male counterparts, more focused on their cuisine than on their image.

Jacques Manière (1923-1991) was a very different animal from today’s media darlings. A brilliant chef of the old school, he deliberately kept out of the limelight. As a leading French food writer, Jean-Claude Ribaut, has noted with regret, there is no plaque celebrating Manière’s achievements on the wall where his most famous restaurant, Le Pactole, once stood.

But then Manière was a volatile maverick throughout his zigzagging career. Early in World War II, when he was just 18, he joined the Free French Forces (FFL) and Chief of Staff Jean de Lattre de Tassigny’s troops in North Africa. Manière ended up becoming a parachutist with the British Special Armed Service (SAS) – where he was eventually dismissed after having a row with a superior officer and slapping him in the face.

After the war, Manière spent some time working in a factory that specialised in canning cepe mushrooms and foie gras. It was there that he taught himself how to cook. It was only at the ripe old age of 32 that he landed a job at a leading Paris restaurant, Chez Max. He went on to the even more celebrated Lapérouse, before finally opening his own establishment, Le Pactole, in a dingy working-class suburb of Paris reminiscent of the setting of Marcel Carné’s Le Jour se lève. In addition to his work at the restaurant, he would make crèmes caramels for the canteen of a nearby factory.

People in the know soon started talking about Le Pactole as the new place to eat at, and in 1966 two leading food writers of the time, Henri Gault and Christian Millau (who later founded the Gault-Millau Guide), decided to take a closer look at Manière’s culinary skills. They reacted with enthusiasm: his cuisine was, they said, remarkable for its ‘exceptional diversity and delicacy.‘

In their wake, the Michelin Guide sent two of its inspectors to suss out Le Pactole. They too were impressed by what they tasted. Their routine inspection required them to examine the toilets, which were housed in a small hut in the backyard of the restaurant. Their reaction was: ‘We don’t think much of your conveniences.’ Manière, poised on the brink of possibly earning a valuable rosette and seeing his career take off, was unapologetic: ‘Messieurs,’ he enquired politely, ‘have you come here to eat or to shit?’

Illustration: Desclozeaux, from Rouge de Honte by Jean-Claude Ribaut and Desclozeaux (Menu Fretin)

Contrary to some reports, Manière was not as a result banned for life from the Michelin Guide; but it did take some ten years for that ‘bible’ of gastronomy to relent and grant him a rosette (such was the absurdity of his absence from its roll-call of leading chefs).

By that time, Manière had moved Le Pactole to a more central location on the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris. It was there that I sampled my first taste of Manière’s cuisine. All I can remember of that meal in those far-off early 1970s was its entrée – an extraordinary succession of three cold vegetable dishes: very thinly sliced raw field mushrooms in a delicate cream- and paprika-flavoured vinaigrette, finely shredded white cabbage and grated apple with lemon juice (a kind of coleslaw), and a reverberant cold ratatouille.

But Le Pactole eventually proved too cramped for Manière’s ambitions, and in 1979 he opened Le Dodin-Bouffant, a stone’s throw down the road.

Meanwhile Manière had produced a trail-blazing book, La Cuisine à la vapeur (Denoël 1985), which was later translated into English as Cuisine à la Vapeur: The Art of Cooking With Steam (translated by Stephanie Lyness; Morrow 1995). His experience in canning had encouraged him to learn all there was to know about steaming as a cooking technique. He devoured Denis Papin’s late 18th-century classic, Nouvelle manière pour lever l’eau par la force du feu (which paved the way for the technique of pressure cooking).

Manière remarked in his book on steaming that Curnonsky and Marcel Rouff had already described, in their multi-volume gastronomic tour of France (see my post on Tarte Tatin), a perdreau à la coque, a steamed partridge dish ‘delicious in its Biblical simplicity, if that term can be used to describe a bird stuffed with foie gras’.

Manière was chiefly interested in cooking with steam at zero pressure, a much gentler method than the more widespread technique of pressure cooking, and one that preserved the flavours and vitamins of the ingredients intact. He also revolutionised the utensils used in steaming, enlarging the classical round two- or three-tier steamer to a rectangular version capable of accommodating a large joint of meat or a fish such as a turbot.

His book on cooking with steam is remarkable in many ways. His instructions are always very precise and his advice is in every case extremely practical. He tells the reader how to avoid the pitfalls of steaming. He indicates how much water is required for steaming and how long the cooking should take place. He specifically notes when the lid of the steamer should be kept on, and when it should remain half-open. He explains how you can keep food warm without overcooking it.

But above all one is constantly struck by the sheer inventiveness of his recipes. Papin had shrewdly observed: ‘I am not one of those who believe that it is a waste of time to work on new discoveries, be they the most trivial, and who are convinced that everything has already been invented.’

Manière shared that view. One of his signature dishes was œuf à la coque Céline. He points out in his book on cooking with steam that the dish had nothing to do with the novelist, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, but was named after Céline Vence, a prolific food writer of the 1970s and 1980s. She had remarked one day that cooks on the whole did not invent much, but were content simply to draw on the huge culinary legacy left by their predecessors. ‘I bridled as I listened to her,’ Manière thought, ‘and I put my imagination to work… What could be simpler than an egg? But what with? Through an association of ideas, I got to thinking about other eggs, sturgeon’s eggs – in other words caviare. But everything would be cold by the time I served it. How could I heat it? By flambéing it? The caviare immediately made me think of vodka. That was how œuf à la coque Céline saw the light of day and proved a great success at Le Pactole, where customers continued to clamour for it even after I’d taken it off the menu.’

The recipe involved cutting off the top of a raw egg, scooping out its white, filling the resulting cavity with caviare, adding a generous spoonful of warmed vodka and flambéing the lot.

Manière’s regular customers at Dodin-Bouffant included François Mitterrand, who lived locally before he became president, and his culture minister, Jack Lang.

Manière was often seen as a kind of Jean Gabin figure with a very short fuse. On a shoot one day, when a television cameraman asked him to repeat a scene for the third time, Manière picked up some calf’s lights and threw them in his face. On another occasion, when a customer complained that he was having to wait too long for the dish he had ordered, Manière simply showed him the door.

His philosophy was simple: ‘A good meal is like a play: you have to know how to wait for it, prepare it and deserve it. And food brings people together. If Brillat-Savarin [the noted 18th century gastronome and epicure] were alive today, he would have given the following piece of advice to our politicians: spread a few more white tablecloths on the green baize, and the affairs of state will be much improved.’

Jacques Maniere
Photo: Alain Jacques Manière

But despite Manière’s fiery reputation, and to judge from my own experience as a customer and food writer, the man I knew in his prime was unfailingly kind, engaging and humorous, with a penchant for slightly risqué jokes (possibly inherited from his army days).

I remember him proudly showing me round the basement of Dodin-Bouffant, a vast ecosytem of aquariums full of live seafood awaiting consumption by his customers above. There were lobsters, sea-bream, mussels, oysters and various other shellfish – including violets (sea figs), one of which he fished out and cut open for me to eat raw. Also present in the tanks were scavenging prawns, whose job was to keep the water clean.

One day Manière took me into his kitchen, where two apprentice chefs were nervously waiting for him to demonstrate how to cook fried eggs with a frilly circumference (you add salt to the butter before frying them). He put on a mock demonstration of cantankerousness, pretending to shout at them for their incompetence. But they clearly worshipped him – and nicknamed him ‘papa’.

Manière, as we have seen, tended to kick against the pricks. He refused to adopt the traditional French system of charging customers three times what the restaurant had paid to purchase a bottle of wine. He would simply double the price, thus making each bottle something of a bargain. This got him into trouble with the tax authorities, who thought there was something fishy about the inexpensiveness of his wine list. He was forced to prove his honesty by showing them all his invoices.

He loved discovering and encouraging little-known wine-growers, sometimes bottling the wine himself in order to keep the prices down. Such vignerons included Henry Marionnet of the Domaine de la Charmoise (Touraine) and Eloi Dürrbach of the Domaine du Trévallon (Coteaux-d’Aix-en-Provence).

Similarly, Manière adopted the age-old – but nowadays illegal – tradition of giving away the arlequins (food left uneaten on customer’s plates) to grateful down-and-outs who would gather in a tiny back street by the rear entrance of Dodin Bouffant.

Manière and some of his fellow chefs used to organise an informal snack at Dodin-Bouffant on Saturday mornings, when they would exchange their news, ideas and recipes. As one contemporary remarked, their ‘chef’s hats were not nearly as inflated as they are today.’ His fellow guests included many chefs who went on to form the so-called school of ‘la nouvelle cuisine française’, such as Michel Guérard, Pierre and Jean Troisgros, Jean Delaveyne, Roger Vergé, Guy Girard and Alain Senderens. Senderens later remarked that the 1970s were a kind of ‘golden age’ when chefs tended not to copy or envy each other.

After writing a book of low-calorie recipes for the Méridien hotel chain and travelling the world helping to train their chefs, an increasingly weary Manière sold Dodin-Bouffant and moved to the Ardèche department in southern France, where he and his wife had a house. But he was itching to get back into the cooking profession, and soon opened the Auberge des Trois Canards in a suburb of Valence. But it proved to be the end of the road for this most extraordinary of chefs, who died of cancer in 1991, largely forgotten by the public but warmly remembered by those who knew him.

As Michel Guérard wrote to Manière’s son, Alain Jacques, some time after his father’s death: ‘Rest assured… the chefs of that period and those who came afterwards will never forget what your father was – a self-taught cook of genius, a wonderful culinary host who sprinkled each of his dishes with a few fragments of his enormous heart.’

Many thanks to Alain Jacques Manière and Jean-Claude Ribaut for the invaluable information they gave me about Jacques Manière.

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