Obituaries

Madeleine Kamman, 87, renowned chef and author who ran sought-after cooking schools

Ms. Kamman ran restaurants and cooking schools in New England, California, and France, and trained some of the finest chefs in the country.
Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/file 1986
Ms. Kamman ran restaurants and cooking schools in New England, California, and France, and trained some of the finest chefs in the United States.

Madeleine Kamman believed that preparing a meal properly, and teaching chefs how to do so, required an all-encompassing knowledge. Chefs, she would say, need to understand the science of how ingredients mix; the history, geology, and topography that produce a region’s cuisine; the creativity a kitchen affords; and the harsh practicalities of managing a restaurant.

“Is there an art more complete than the one we are teaching?” she asked in a 1985 Globe interview. “More than any other art, cooking is a complete art, one that will involve the stamina of your body and the tenderness of your heart, balanced by the intellectual capacity of your brain.”

In Newton Centre and France, in New Hampshire and California, she ran restaurants and cooking schools, and she trained some of the finest chefs in the United States. An advocate for women in a profession dominated by men, she said she could tell the difference between meals prepared by women and men, and said the former were better. She traced her beliefs to her own childhood and adolescence in France, working in her aunt’s Michelin-starred restaurant.

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“I was raised by a woman cook in the kitchen,” she told the Globe in 1980. “And she was the best in Touraine at the time. I was raised with those standards of perfection.”

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Ms. Kamman, who had been suffering from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, was 87 when she died July 16 in Middlebury, Vt.

“At a time when many were celebrating, championing, and translating French cuisine for an American audience awakened to the pleasures of the table, Madeleine Kamman instead trained a generation of chefs and food lovers to understand and appreciate the authentic cuisine of her native country,” Mitchell Davis of the James Beard Foundation said in a statement.

Over the years, the foundation presented Ms. Kamman with the foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award and honored her with other awards, including Cookbook of the Year.

“She was serious about technique and passionate about flavor, and we eat better for her commitment to the craft of the kitchen,” Davis added.

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Ms. Kamman’s teaching was as exacting as her work preparing meals, and she could be blunt. That approach drew praise and, given the profession’s gender disparity, a certain amount of criticism.

“I am a feminist,” she said in the 1980 interview, in which she spoke dismissively of male chefs — crowned with hats she likened to a “big phallic symbol” — who stood in kitchens with their arms crossed over potbellies.

She recalled that “one of the great reproaches” she faced was that she “wanted to be an artist. Well, what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with wanting to be an artist? If I had been a man with a great hat on my head, I could have passed myself as great chef so-and-so and nobody would have batted an eye.”

Ms. Kamman added: “But the mere fact that as a woman I requested the privilege of being an artist, well, sister, let me tell you, that was quite interesting. How did I dare, huh? Well, I dared.”

She first drew national attention in Newton Centre with her restaurant, Chez la Mere Madeleine, and her cooking school, Modern Gourmet, which she ran for most of the 1970s.

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Tiring of the region for a variety of reasons (“Boston and I are a bad marriage,” she would later say), she returned to France at the outset of the 1980s and launched a cooking school in Annecy. Stymied by taxes and biases against women when she tried to open a restaurant there, she returned to New England a couple of years later.

‘We eat better for her commitment to the craft of the kitchen.’

— Mitchell Davis, James Beard Foundation, on the late Madeleine Kamman 

This time, she settled in the White Mountains in Glen, N.H., some 150 miles north of Boston, and opened Auberge Madeleine, a cooking school and restaurant. In the late 1980s, Ms. Kamman founded the School for American Chefs at the Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena, Calif. She eventually settled in Vermont, where her two sons live.

Her several books include 1971’s “The Making of a Cook,” along with “Dinner Against the Clock” (1973), “When French Women Cook” (1976), and “The New Making of a Cook” (1997), an expanded version of her first book that ran more than 1,200 pages.

Among her many students was Jimmy Schmidt, who worked at Ms. Kamman’s Chez la Mere Madeleine and went on to run restaurants across the country.

In the kitchen, Ms. Kamman taught “the chemistry, as opposed to just following recipes,” Schmidt told the Globe in 1985. “One of her major points that made her outstanding was that she pushed all her students to develop their own identity, their own style in food, rather than redoing her ideas. That’s what really sets her apart from others.”

Madeleine Marguerite Pin was born just outside Paris in Courbevoie, France. An only child, she was the daughter of Charles Pin, who worked in an optical instruments shop and died of tuberculosis during World War II, and the former Simone Labarriere, who worked in a bicycle factory.

After working in her aunt’s restaurant, Ms. Kamman attended the Sorbonne and received a certificate while studying cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. While working as the reservations director in Swissair’s Paris office, she met Alan Kamman, a civil engineer.

They married in 1960 and moved to Philadelphia. At the end of the 1960s, the Kammans moved to Greater Boston, where she established her career as a chef, teacher, and writer.

“In my estimation, Boston was ground zero for where her fame really began to mean something,” said her son Neil of Vergennes, Vt.

In media interviews, Ms. Kamman spoke about routinely working more than 100 hours a week. “The woman was a genius. I don’t believe she ever slept a lot because she didn’t want to waste time,” said her other son, Alan of Lincoln, Vt.

Ms. Kamman often wrote longhand drafts of articles and books before anyone else was awake.

“Much of that authoring occurred somewhere between 3:30 and 6 o’clock in the morning,” Neil said. “I know this because when I was a little kid, I would wake up and find my way to her in her study.”

Though her work was a priority, “we always had a family dinner on Sunday,” Alan said. “That was the night she didn’t work, and she always spent it with us. And dinner was always good, I can tell you that.”

A private service is being planned for Ms. Kamman, whose husband died in 2014. In addition to her two sons, she leaves four grandchildren.

Ms. Kamman also hosted public television cooking shows, though her celebrity never matched that of Julia Child, with whom she had a rivalry that proved appetizing to reporters. “The French cuisine Julia was doing was not my French cuisine, and I am French,” Ms. Kamman said simply in a 1990 Los Angeles Times interview.

As a chef, and perhaps even more so running cooking schools, “the goal of your life will be transcending mediocrity. It is not an easy goal, for mediocrity is implacable and insidious and sits there at every little turn of life, beckoning and smiling,” Ms. Kamman said in the 1985 Globe interview. “Like motherhood, teaching is part of your immortality.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.