In the 1950s, when French-born chef Lucien Robert came to Boston, the city was just beginning to stir after decades of slumber. The cuisine was largely Anglo with few aspirations. For the Brahmins, food was not a discussion or a consideration; the blander the menu, the better, as in green beans boiled for 45 minutes.
Into this culinary backwater came Robert, who opened three restaurants, creating dining experiences at his 33-year Maison Robert, which he ran with his American-born wife, Ann, that were imbued not with gaudy glamour but with quiet elegance. Robert, Boston’s premier French chef, died of pancreatic cancer on Feb. 20 at age 87.
But even in Boston, there were connoisseurs who knew what they wanted and were not afraid to ask for it. And what they wanted was French. Culinary value came from France in those days in the generalized form of French food (no further category needed). We didn’t yet know, unless we’d been there, that France is made up of regional ingredients, foods specific to certain areas, even techniques used only in one place. Once the food left France, it became only “French.”
Americans viewed French food as unitary, as haute cuisine, even if it was bourgeois bistro food — that wonderful onion soup, tripe a la mode de Caen, or the fantasies of Careme. The late Julia Child, a frequenter of Maison Robert, brought from France the skills, the taste, and the passion to teach the rest of us. But for those preferring a restaurant’s white tablecloths with discreet service that made you feel important, we had the lessons of Lucien Robert. His Maison Robert (and the two Maitre Jacques restaurants before that, in Back Bay and at Charles River Park) was where Bostonians learned to eat and love calves’ brains, sweetbreads, and foie gras. In Old City Hall, in a renovated French Second Empire building not unlike those in Paris, Robert’s reputation and clientele expanded. He served celebrities like John Wayne, Joan Collins, and Elton John. The late mayor Kevin White was a regular, and some customers ate there several times a week.
Restaurateur Lydia Shire cooked at Maison Robert for four years. There she learned a new version of the classic veloute, one of the French “mother” sauces, and found Robert’s version groundbreaking. He oven-roasted, rather than simmered, the roux until liquid and golden, before finishing the sauce with stock and wine. She still makes it.
The kitchen at Maison Robert, as Shire remembers it, was egalitarian, a place without gender barriers to success. The pay was low — she remembers starting at $2.63 per hour and sometimes raises were 10 cents — but there was support and encouragement. She recalls a family feeling, encouraged at the 4:45 p.m. staff meal with bottles of Rhone wine, which, she says, fueled, rather than dissipated, the cooks for the evening run. Lucien and Ann Robert expected the best of their cooks and got it. At several points, nephew Jacky Robert of the Petit Robert Bistros cooked in the kitchen, as did the Roberts’ daughter, Andree.
And in the front of the house customers’ high expectations were met. Service was the best kind: unremarkable, meaning that it was seamless and invisible. Chef Raymond Ost of Sandrine in Harvard Square says that in France service is a highly skilled profession. At Maison Robert, service was based in relationships of trust between chefs, staff, and customers.
And when needed, service could be unorthodox. Daniel LeClair, professor and chair of applied social science at Boston University Metropolitan College, who, with his wife, Elaine,was a regular at the restaurant, remembers that John Wayne came for what he assumed would be his “last supper,” the night before heart surgery at Mass. General. He requested the vault, a small room used for private parties. Surrounded by his family, Wayne ordered drinks.
As Wayne’s daughter Aissa writes in “John Wayne: My Father,” her brother ran to call their father’s doctor, who said he could have one drink, and one only. So Wayne ordered one martini, “as large as the bartender can make it,” dealing with doctor’s orders with the swagger one would expect of the Duke. Maison Robert took care of him.
French heritage survives in Boston, in chefs who have worked with Robert, and in other places where French attention to detail prevails. Boston food has undergone many changes in the more than half a century since Robert opened his doors. Today, people know more, they have traveled more, and they appreciate the generosity of restaurants with true service.
Ost, the Cambridge chef, wonders if the respect for the professional authority of good French cooking will persist, even as new thinking manages our culinary choices. Cuisine moderne, with its lighter touch and reductions, may be welcome to those seeking less fat, and they are also a fine addition to French culinary scripture.
Bostonians still want the pleasure that dining represented to Lucien Robert, and to his faithful clientele. Robert was the first chef and restaurateur to show us the possibilities. Merci.
Merry Corky White can be reached at email@example.com.