Obituary: Pierre Franey

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The Independent Online
Pierre Franey died shortly after giving a cookery demonstration aboard the QE2. He was a household name - at least in those parts of America reached by the New York Times, because of his association with Craig Claiborne, for many years the paper's flamboyant but fundamentally shy food editor.

Franey and Claiborne's most notorious caper - the one that brought Franey to national prominence - was in 1975, when Claiborne idly but successfully bid $300, in a Channel 13 fundraising auction, for a lot offered by American Express: dinner for two, anywhere in the world that accepted their charge card without any cost limit.

In a gesture that betrayed his many years as a restaurant critic, Claiborne chose Chez Denis in Paris, a place not listed (with good reason, it turned out) in the Guide Michelin.

Franey and Claiborne ate 25 dishes, not all of them delicious, or even good. (The lobster, Claiborne later told a French reporter, was "chewingommeux".) The bill was US $4,000, most of it accounted for by the ten wines including Latour 1918, Petrus 1961 and Yquem 1928. The most expensive meal for two ever eaten made headlines all over the world, among them the Vatican newspaper, which condemned the pair for gluttony and ostentation.

Franey had had the gastronomic good luck to be born in Burgundy, and wrote in his 1994 autobiography A Chef's Tale of his idyllic childhood searching for snails and being fed the cheeses made in the neighbouring villages. By the time he was five years old, his family were calling him "Pierre le Gourmand".

In 1934 he went to Paris, working first as a plongeur in a bistro on the Place de la Republique. Before a year had passed he had found a place in the kitchen of Drouant, still the site of the annual Prix Goncourt dinner.

Franey, whose father was the Socialist mayor of the village of St Vinnemer, remembered the late 1930s in Paris as a time of terrible brawls with right- wing thugs. So he accepted with alacrity the offer of a job with the team being assembled to cook at the French pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair.

That evolved into Le Pavilion, which under the ownership of Henri Soule, was America's first world-class French restaurant - with Pierre Franey as its head chef. Here Craig Claiborne met him in 1959, in the course of writing a feature about Le Pavilion.

The following year Franey quarrelled with Soule over money, and quit, never to speak to him again. For a while he went slumming as a vice president of Howard Johnson, the national chain of restaurants and motels then best known for its fried clams and many flavours of ice-cream.

Claiborne wrote:

I have never known any chef with such an extraordinary ability to improvise and rectify when working in the kitchen . . . a veritable Merlin when it comes to changing failed sauces into triumphs, in knowing precisely how to make a culinary catastrophe into a thing of genius.

Franey must have been a good cook, because during the Second World War, when in the US Army, he was asked, but refused, to become General MacArthur's personal cook.

Claiborne resigned from the New York Times in the 1970s, and got Franey to collaborate with him on a gastronomic newsletter. After its failure, Claiborne agreed to return to the paper in 1976, but only if it would also give a staff job to Franey, who became co-author of his "60-Minute Gourmet" column as well as "equipment editor". The two travelled to restaurants all over the world and cooked together most weekends in the professionally- equipped kitchen of Claiborne's cliff-top house at East Hampton, where Claiborne jotted down excruciatingly precise notes that allowed him to reproduce the recipes in the Sunday New York Times magazine.

Franey was mild-mannered. Claiborne says he lost his temper only once, when a wholesale butcher sent four completely unprepared calves' heads for testing the recipe for tete de veau that was to appear in their jointly authored veal cookbook. After trying in vain to singe the heads, an exasperated Franey told his young son Jacques to throw them over the cliff into the bay for the gulls to deal with. They washed up on the beach, were found by the locals, and caused an early animal rights scandal.

Arthur Gelb, managing editor of the New York Times in Franey's day said, "Before Franey, haute cuisine was confined to the palates of the privileged. In partnership with Craig Claiborne, he popularised it, leading the way in making it understood and relished by the general public." This is to take a very broad, slightly American-centred view of haute cuisine. Veal Cookery (1978) contains recipes for "Ed Giobbi's stuffed veal breast with Marsala" as well as "Kansas City chili" and "San Antonio Picadillo", with no fewer thah three tinned ingredients. Moreover, when Claiborne's doctor put him on a low-sodium diet, Franey and "60-Minute Gour-met" decreed that the whole world could henceforward do without salt, thus renouncing the most basic ingredient in the diet of mankind.

Pierre Franey, chef: born St Vinnemer, Burgundy 13 January 1921; married 1948 Betty Chardenet (one son and two daughters); died Southampton 15 October 1996.