Claude Terrail

Restaurateur at La Tour d'Argent for more than half a century


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.

Paul Levy

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Tangerine Dream Edgar Froese
people
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
News
Friends for life … some professionals think loneliness is more worrying than obesity
scienceSocial contact is good for our sense of wellbeing - but it's a myth that loneliness kills, say researchers
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us