RAYMOND THUILIER was the last of the generation of great French chefs who remade French cuisine in this century. They included Edouard Nignon, Alexandre Dumaine, Andre Pic and, above all, Thuilier's friend Fernand Point, the father of the nouvelle cuisine. Thuilier and Point were born in the same year, 1897. Both chefs received the Legion d'Honneur in the early 1950s, when Point gave a dinner where, Thuilier told the American journalist Joseph Wechsberg, he 'served us a whole pheasant, with head and feathers, but the body was made of pate de faisan.'
At that time, said Wechsberg, Thuilier 'was a jovial, mustachioed Frenchman who looked as if he'd just heard some good news about himself'. In fact, it was not until 1954, a year or two later, that Thuilier got the best news of all, that he had won his third Michelin star, for what became one of the most celebrated restaurants in the world, the Oustau de Baumaniere at Les Baux-de-Provence.
Thuilier was born in Chambery, in the Savoie, where his grandparents were innkeepers. His father, who died when Raymond was three, had been a conductor on the railway, and his widow was compensated by being given the buffet de la gare at Privas, in the Ardeche, where the young Raymond watched her cook. In the First World War, Thuilier served as a sapper, but he had the good luck to be demobbed in Provence, where, in one version of the story, the light attracted him so much that he decided to stay. He was a reasonably talented painter; but he also loved and wrote poetry, and he told Wechsberg that 'it was Mistral's poetry that made me come here'.
Though his passions were artistic and culinary, Thuilier did not despise the world of commerce, and he became an insurance salesman. By 1941 he had sold enough insurance policies to think of opening a restaurant, and he bought a ruined farmhouse in the dead village of Les Baux, where the mineral bauxite, used in aluminium, was first found in 1822. In the 13th century, the population of Les Baux had been 3,600; in 1941 only 56 people remained in the hilltop village, built into the moonscape rocks above the bizarrely dramatic Val d'Enfer. With his partner, Mme Moscoloni (and her husband Leon), who came from Lyon, Thuilier restored the farmhouse during the years of occupation, when both labour and materials were in short supply, finally opening in 1946. There were Renaissance tiles on the floor, and the chairs in the vaulted dining-room were covered with Gobelin tapestry. Within two years he had his first Michelin star.
Many people will remember the handsome, dark-haired Mme Moscoloni because she was always 'front of house' at Baumaniere, and because her half share in the business was a source of complication and gossip. The business is now run by Jean-Andre Charial, Thuilier's grandson by his adopted daughter Jeanne; he bought out Mme Moscoloni's interest when she died three years ago.
The grandson, born in 1945, was not brought up to be a cook. Indeed he read economics at the Haute Ecole de Commerce, France's elite business school. In the late 1970s Charial decided to join his grandfather in the kitchen, and was not always given an easy time by the old man. The problem of inheritance loomed large, as there was not only Mme Moscolni, but Charial's two brothers, one a doctor, the other a chemist.
When Charial formally took over the restaurant in 1990, Michelin removed the third star, as they always do when there is a change in management - though as Charial had actually done the cooking for 10 years, you might have thought they would make an exception. Still, the restaurant serves more than 40,000 meals a year; and Baumaniere with its 13 suites and 11 rooms, and the Cabro d'Or down the road with its own dining-room and 22 rooms, are a sizeable holding. In addition, Charial had cloned some aspects of Baumaniere in London, at the Auberge de Provence restaurant in the St James's Court Hotel, where he has been consultant chef for some years.
The Balzacian complexity of the inheritance and Thuilier's relationship with his grandson did not escape comment. However, though it is not generally known, two years ago the problem was resolved when Thuilier finally revealed that Charial's mother Jeanne, whose own mother had died when she was six, was in fact Thuilier's natural daughter.
Raymond Thuilier was the saviour of Les Baux. He restored the town to life, made it a tourist attraction, and was, naturally enough, its mayor. He did it against great odds - indeed, when he decided to undertake this mammoth task, he was cautioned that it was not prudent by his friend, then Commissaire de Tourisme, Georges Pompidou. Thuilier was fascinated by politics; he believed in la gloire of France, and he followed his belief in a strong central government in the running of his own kitchen. He also knew the publicity value of visits by politicians and heads of state to Baumaniere.
As a cook, Raymond Thuilier was firmly of the school of Point: a completely clean kitchen and fine, fresh ingredients every day, from identifiable and dependable sources. Apart from these basic tenets, he had no truck with the nouvelle cuisine of the 1970s and 1980s. A dinner he gave to the Queen in 1972, for example, consisted of a sea bass en croute with a prawn sauce and a simple but noble baron of lamb from Sisteron. I was touched, when looking at the menu, to see that Thuilier and his grandson Jean-Andre, on our last visit to Baumaniere in 1986, gave Jane Grigson and me a dish from the Queen's dinner of petits pois frais du jardin from his own garden - a separate course, simply prepared, and, I now realise, a great honour.
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