Restaurateur at La Tour d'Argent for more than half a century
Thursday 08 June 2006
Claude Terrail, restaurateur: born Paris 4 December 1917; married first Barbara Warner (one son; marriage dissolved), second Tarja Paria (one daughter); died Paris 1 June 2006.
Tall and elegant, Claude Terrail was gloriously matched to La Tour d'Argent, his family's celebrated Paris restaurant on the Quai de Tournelle, across the Seine from Notre Dame, in the 5th arrondissement. He took over from his father, André, in 1947, and maintained the élan, the traditions of haute cuisine - and the touch of snobbery - that kept the place special.
La Tour d'Argent has always been expensive (it's now well upwards of €200 per person) and eating there has long been an experience more of showbiz than gastronomy. When the American television cook Julia Child first visited the restaurant in the 1950s, she described it as "excellent in every way, except that it was so pricey that every guest was American". But, despite the loss in 1996 of one of the three Michelin stars it had finally acquired in 1951, and the loss only this year of its second star, Terrail managed to prevent its Disneyfication.
Perhaps that was because he knew Hollywood from the inside - his first wife, Barbara, was the daughter of the producer Jack Warner, and his friendships with Errol Flynn and Orson Welles were as well known as the rumours that associated the dashing Terrail with Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner (and were given further currency in his little 1997 book, Le Roman de la Tour d'Argent). Born in 1917, Terrail had wanted to be an actor himself.
But his father, who had himself bought La Tour d'Argent in 1912 from Frédéric Delair, persuaded him to give the family business a try. Claude Terrail's mother was the daughter of Claudius Burdet, the owner of the most famous late-19th-century restaurant in Paris, Café Anglais, whose chef, Adolphe Dugléré, created several classic dishes that bear his name and, on 7 June 1867, served the "Three Emperors Dinner" for three royals visiting Paris for the Universal Exposition, including Tsar Alexander II, his son the Tsarevich (later Tsar Alexander III), and King William I of Prussia, later the first emperor of Germany.
When the Café Anglais closed in 1913 and the building was demolished, the extravagant place settings for this dinner were preserved and are still displayed at La Tour d'Argent; and, more importantly, as Burdet's daughter's dowry, the contents of the cellar were transferred across the river from the Boulevard des Italiens to La Tour d'Argent - the beginnings of its truly impressive wine cellar, which now numbers 300,000 bottles, under the supervision of an English-born head sommelier, David Ridgeway.
There has been a building, probably an inn, on the site of La Tour d'Argent since at least the 16th century. Indeed, Terrail propagated the story that it was there that in 1582 Henri III inquired of some Italian diners why they were jabbing at their mouths with metal instruments and thus introduced the fork to France. In fact, the present building of champagne-coloured stone, with its luxurious wood-panelled, plush sixth-floor dining room, its two levels of tables spaced far apart, and its ornately decorated cellars, dates from the 19th century.
André Terrail brought many of Dugléré's recipes to the restaurant, but Burdet had already started the chief tradition, that of assigning a number to each of the Challans ducks prepared in the manner probably invented by La Tour d'Argent, keeping a record of the names of the customers who ordered them, and giving a numbered postcard receipt to the client. The ducklings from this area of the west of France are notoriously asphyxiated, so that all the blood is retained in the flesh. Or, as La Tour d'Argent website's luridly translated English puts it, "in spite of its youth - or rather because of its very youth (from six to ten weeks) - the poor bird was unfeelingly smothered then plucked by its assassins".
To prepare caneton au sang (which, probably to spare the sensitivities of the vast American clientele, is now listed as caneton pressé), the bird is roasted at a very high temperature for 20 minutes, so that it is still bloody, and brought to the dining-room where the maître d'hôtel, with precisely three incisions made with a razor-sharp blade, removes the legs for further cooking in the kitchen, puts the breast fillets into a chafing dish over a flame, and makes the sauce by extracting every last drop of liquid from the carcass and innards using a silver duck press, and adding a splash of Madeira and a squeeze of lemon.
The result is always brown and messy to look at, overcooked and heartburn-makingly rich. During the reign of the nouvelle cuisine the dish was anathema, and the duck press became the symbol of everything that was wrong with classic haute cuisine. Claude Terrail, however, never ceded the battle. A little more notice was taken of presentation, a few dishes using then-fashionable ingredients were added to the menu (such as tournedos de saumon Tarja, named for his Finnish fashion-model second wife), but his attitude to nouvelle cuisine - correct on the whole - was "This too shall pass".
Duck number 328 was served in 1890 to the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, number 40,312 to King Alphonse XIII in 1914, number 53,211 to the Emperor Hirohito in 1921, and Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman all have their names in the duck ledger. The Queen has certainly eaten at La Tour d'Argent, as did JFK - though I can't discover whether they had the duck. The millionth duck was sold in 2003, the year in which André, Claude Terrail's son by his first marriage, took over the business.
Terrail rarely missed a lunch or dinner service in his nearly six decades at La Tour d'Argent. He made his stately dinner round of the dining-room at precisely 9.15, on the grounds that by then most diners were settled, having at least had their apéritif if not their first course, and so were unlikely to ask him to have their table changed. I remember a Saturday lunch in the early 1980s, when Terrail asked us to forgive him for absenting himself before we had finished our lunch, but he had a polo match. Though he must have been nearing 65 at the time, it was almost possible to believe that our imposing host, with his erect carriage, was attending the match as a player, not a spectator.
His best party trick, however, was that he not only had a theatre-quality dimmer switch for his dining-room, but also had control of floodlights that allowed him to light up the cathedral and the bits of the Ile de la Cité. For my mother-in-law's 80th birthday, we took her there to dinner. Terrail gave us one of the best window tables, and lowered the house lights so gradually and discreetly that the other diners didn't even notice when a waiter glided over to our table with a chocolate confection in the centre of which was a single lit candle. At the next table, however, a celebrated and raucous American comedienne remarked to her dining companion, "My God! Look! They've lit up Notre Dame for me."
Terrail had a very good war. He saw service with General Philippe Leclerc's 2nd Tank Division, and was appointed Commandeur de la Légion d'honneur and Commandeur de l'Ordre National de Mérite, as well as winning the Croix de Guerre and other honours. Part of the romance of La Tour d'Argent stems from a story Terrail enjoyed recounting, of how, certain that the Germans would soon arrive in Paris, on the night of 14 June 1940 he asked for (but got only six hours') leave from his air-force unit in Lyons and flew to Paris. There he and some of the staff selected the greatest treasures from the cave, and bricked them up just as Hermann Goering's special representative arrived to requisition the 1868s - all of which, he was falsely informed, had been drunk.
Terrail always regretted that the Germans consumed 80 per cent of the remaining stock of the cellar. La Tour d'Argent had become a favourite watering-hole of the German top brass, but - he told the American writers Don and Petie Kladstrup - apart from the precious bottles he had concealed from them, and trying to "foist off our lesser bottles, our cheaper vintages, on the Germans, we didn't play any tricks". This was a policy dictated by prudence for the safety of their staff, for, though the Germans behaved like gentlemen while in the restaurant, he told the Kladstrups he knew that "outside on the street they were killers".
Claude Terrail was personally so stylish that he kept La Tour d'Argent from tipping over the edge into vulgarity. And he had genuine good taste: I remember him saying, apropos of his menu, "No one wants to eat two sauced dishes or two courses of the same colour" - gustatory truths many restaurateurs forget.
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