The Taste

Good chefs never reveal their secrets

His sauce had people swooning before they even tasted it.

Diners crammed by the dozen under the restaurant’s domes, and watched hundreds of bevelled glass, gilt-edged reflections of themselves chewing with their eyes half-closed, inhaling, trying to possess this sauce and its strange combination of flavours.

The critic Henri le Boeuf had pinned down seven ‘notes’ as he called them: ox tongue, rosemary, mollusc, claret, fig, gunmetal and caramel. ‘The rest’ he wrote in his weekly column, ‘is a mystery of man and nature.’

Outside they queued in droves, harrying the maître d’. Peasants would sometimes press their noses to the steamed up glass and be hurried on by a kick from a waiter who had himself been kicked to hurry them on.

Inside, they drizzled it over everything. Suckling pig, Chantilly ice, grouse with pistachios. They scraped their plates and licked their spoons.

In the kitchen, the chef in his tall white hat left the pot on the boil and went through a tiny door thought to lead to the cellar. Instead it led up a cold staircase to an attic, buffeted by the Seine’s breeze through a crack in the window pane. There she lay, captive, trussed like a starfish with kidskin at each of her four corners, a satin pillow under her hips he had placed there for comfort. She was, after all, his most valuable asset. She barely opened her eyes as he wet the tip of his finger. A pewter cup to hand, he pressed the spot, savouring the noise she made, and he began to harvest.