Obituary: Greg Usher

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Gregory Clydesdale Usher, chef: born Montclair, New Jersey 1951; died Paris 4 February 1994.

GREG USHER was the director of the Ritz-Escoffier Ecole de Gastronomie Francaise, in Paris, and a notable character on the Franco-American gastronomic scene. Some people in the British food world might be a little surprised, even alarmed, to discover there is such a thing, but it has been a factor to be reckoned with by the owners of three-star restaurants and 'unique' food shops all over France for more than 20 years.

The American foodie invasion was spearheaded by Anne Willan's La Varenne cookery school. Though Willan herself is a Yorkshirewoman, her students have always included more Americans than Britons. By the time I first visited La Varenne in 1980, Usher had become its director. He was a hard taskmaster, a little distant from the hands-on business of making puff pastry, which I simply failed to learn to do, but efficient-looking and friendly. He had no difficulty at all in dealing with a critical journalist and a man older than himself, which I was, because he had developed the diplomatic skills that went with a job where some of the clients were extremely rich American ladies who were what we should now call 'empty posters', and learning to cook a bit late on in life, and the others were young, serious, and intending to make a career in food.

We continued our acquaintance after the course, and I came to rely on Usher to keep me abreast of Paris food fashions. He spoke French that sounded chicly Parisian, and always knew the newest 'good address'. Sometimes he would take me to the latest foodie hot-spot and point out the celebrities, usually politicians, at neighbouring tables. He was usually the host, and a very good one, too, thoughtful and careful that everyone at the table ordered something different. Meals were, above all, learning experiences, and forks went flying to other people's plates across the table. Often the other guests were drawn from the large number of American foodies in Paris. (One of their number, Patricia Wells, became the restaurant critic of L'Express, others ran gastronomic tours and table-booking agencies, and quite a few were involved in one way or another with La Varenne. It has now moved its centre of operations from Paris to Burgundy.) Usher's longtime companion Patrice Bachelard is an art historian, which blessedly meant that not all the table talk was of the table itself.

Usher grew up in Portland, Oregon, went to high school there, and spent a couple of years at the University of Oregon before going to Paris in 1970 to read art history at the Sorbonne. His art history career gave way to a passion for food, and he talked a chef or two into letting him apprentice himself to them; he must have worked with some good ones, as he emerged from his apprentice days well connected even before he moved on to La Varenne. For a time he was connected with the Paris Cordon Bleu school.

In 1987 he was asked to create a cookery school for the newly revamped Ritz Hotel, and the Ritz-Escoffier School was born. (It would astonish the well-heeled ladies who were Usher's principal clientele at the Ritz to learn that the last time those two eminent names were closely linked was in the 1890s, when the pair were sacked by the directors of the Savoy for the usual reasons, theft and corruption.)

Usher made a success of the Ritz, and in 1989 he was awarded the Chevalier du Merite Agricole by the French government. Indeed, he had done French cuisine a good turn; not only by inducing rich Americans to spend lots of dollars learning about it, but by showing Parisian chefs and restaurateurs, especially, that there were plenty of Americans who knew their onions; and that standards had to be maintained for them, too, even in the Eighties when there were so many Americans occupying tables in Paris restaurants that several top ones operated a quota system.