Good-bye to Chef Chambrette

I can visualize him now, putting tomato peels and green leek tops into a simmering pot of stock for extra flavor.

Whenever I reflect on why I loved living in Paris, I think of Chef Fernand Chambrette. The beloved former head chef of Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne died last week.
The food that Master Chef Chambrette cooked was so delicious that I found it intoxicating. His pâté of fresh and smoked salmon was a revelation for lovers of lox and cream cheese. He turned scrambled eggs into a luscious, velvety filling for puff pastry cases. He baked ultra-rich brioche and made sensational caramel ice cream.
His soups were outstanding, and he was constantly coming up with new ones. “I once worked in a hotel, and we had to make a different soup every day,” he explained unpretentiously.
As students and stagiaires (teacher assistants), we loved our chef. Not that he wasn’t strict. If our onions weren’t chopped finely enough, he made us continue until they were perfect. Once he made me cry, ridiculing the uneven ladyfingers I piped for a charlotte. And yet we cherished those moments when we could work closely with him, and his teachings continued to guide us in our own kitchens. Who did not think of Chef Chambrette whenever he or she “sweated” an onion (cooked it gently in butter) or braised a fish with real fish stock or prepared fresh noodles or those wonderful buttery crepes he taught us to make? Everyone who attended the cooking classes for stagiaires remembered those inspiring “clean out the refrigerator” days when he came up with new creations from whatever leftovers he found.
Before becoming a teacher, Chef Chambrette was renowned for his fabulous fish dishes as the chef-restaurateur of a Michelin two-starred restaurant, La Boule d’Or in Paris. Indeed, fish was the food he enjoyed the most; he made his summer home at La Trinité-sur-Mer in Brittany, known as a fisherman’s favorite spot.
The chef instructed us in the preparation of elaborate dishes of haute cuisine, like mousseline-stuffed fish and duck galantine, but he also loved simple foods. One of his favorite meals was roast chicken accompanied by haricots verts (slim French green beans). It was the careful preparation that made the difference. He roasted the chicken at high heat until it was just done, with a quartered onion and carrot added to the pan to flavor the roasting juices; he turned the bird several times so that different parts of it were in contact with the hot pan. He removed the green beans from their pot of boiling water the moment they were perfectly cooked.
Every time I handle an ingredient, I can hear him reminding me of the best way to use it. Use vinaigrette to season your salad greens, never to drench them. Dried beans don’t need to be soaked, he said, contrary to the prevailing opinion, unless they are old; add a whole onion, a carrot, a bay leaf and a sprig of fresh thyme to the pot to give the beans extra flavor.
Chef Chambrette taught us to treat our ingredients with reverence and never to waste anything. I can visualize him now, putting tomato peels and green leek tops into a simmering pot of stock for extra flavor. “Good cooks are frugal cooks,” he always said.
I was fortunate to have been at the school nearly six years – long enough to get to know Chef Chambrette well, as a student and later as the school’s cookery editor. I consulted with him when I developed new courses, such as the one on nouvelle cuisine, and wrote his recipes for the school’s award-winning cookbooks.
“How do you invent new dishes?” I asked him. “Follow me around and you’ll learn,” he replied with a smile. And I did. He laughed that I kept writing everything down, eventually filling more than 40 notebooks. (This was when notebooks were made of paper.) “You are writing the Talmud of cuisine,” he joked.
When Yakir – my husband – and I were planning to leave Paris, the chef said to me, “So many of my ideas are now in your notes, but how will I remember them?” I said, “No problem, I will type them up for you.” When I did, he said, “That looks like a book,” and so was born the fish cookbook we coauthored, La Cuisine du Poisson (Flammarion, 1984).
This delicate dish, flecked with pink salmon and green leeks and parsley, is inspired by Chef Chambrette’s salmon fillets with leeks, made with butter, creme fraiche, white wine and salmon stock.
450 gr. salmon fillet, skin and any tiny bones removed

6 Tbsp. butter

4 medium leeks, split, rinsed thoroughly (850 gr.
   to 900 gr.), white and light green parts only

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1⁄3 cup dry white wine

6 to 8 Tbsp. creme fraiche or whipping cream

1⁄2 cup fish stock (see Note following recipe below)

1 Tbsp. chopped fresh thyme leaves or 1 tsp. dried

250 gr. fresh or dried fettuccine or other noodles

3 Tbsp. chopped parsley
Cut salmon in about 1-cm. dice. Cut leeks in thin slices.
Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a large skillet. Add leeks, salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, 7 minutes or until tender but not brown. Add wine, 6 tablespoons cream and fish stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, add fish and sprinkle lightly with salt, pepper and thyme. Cook uncovered, stirring often, just until color of fish pieces becomes lighter, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat.
Cut remaining 3 tablespoons butter in pieces and put in a large heated bowl.
Cook pasta uncovered in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat, stirring occasionally, about 2 minutes for fresh or about 4 minutes for dried noodles or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain well, transfer to bowl and toss with butter.
Reheat sauce. Add 2 tablespoons cream if desired. Pour over pasta and toss. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve sprinkled with parsley.
Makes 4 servings.
This is an adaptation of a colorful, healthful soup from La Cuisine du Poisson named for a French Riviera town. During the season of fresh shell beans, Chef Chambrette liked to add 50 grams of shelled white beans to the soup; cook them for 10 minutes before adding the fish.
500 gr. sea bass, halibut, tilapia or cod

250 gr. slim green beans

2 zucchini, cut in thin sticks

2 leeks, split and cleaned thoroughly, white and light,  green parts only

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, halved and sliced thin

1 garlic clove, chopped

6 cups fish stock (see Note below)

salt and freshly ground pepper

4 tomatoes, peeled, diced small

10 basil leaves, chopped or cut in slivers
Cut the fish in large dice. Cut green beans in pieces of the same length as the zucchini sticks. Cut leeks in very thin strips.
Heat oil in a wide saucepan. Add onion, leeks and garlic and cook over medium-low heat for several minutes until softened but not brown. Add fish stock, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Add diced fish and green beans, return to a simmer, and cook over low heat for 5 minutes. Add the zucchini and cook for 5 minutes or until fish is just cooked through and vegetables are just tender. Add tomato dice and heat through. Add basil. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot.
Makes 6 servings.
Note: Quick Fish Stock: Rinse 450 gr. fish bones. Put in largesaucepan. Add 6 cups water, 1 bay leaf and 1 fresh thyme sprig andbring to a boil; skim off foam. Simmer uncovered over low heat,skimming occasionally, 15 minutes. Strain into a bowl. If making itahead, refrigerate it as soon as it cools.
Faye Levy is the author of The LaVarenne Tour Book (1980), the first cookbook of the Parisian cookingschool, of the Fresh from France cookbook series and, in Hebrew, of theBest of French Recipes cookbook series.