Remembering the Restaurant That Shaped How We Dined
La Côte Basque and Jean-Jacques Rachou
Our first in an occasional series on restaurants we miss, the author Peter Maguire writes on La Côte Basque. He is the director of Fainting Robin Foundation and the author of the 2021 New York Times bestseller, Breathe: A Life in Flow; Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold History of the Marijuana Trade; Facing Death in Cambodia; and Law and War: American History and International Law. He has taught the law and theory of war at Columbia University, Bard College, and the University of North Carolina Wilmington. You can find the longer version of this article, “Rōshi Chef: Jacques Rachou and the La Côte Basque Zendō” at Sour Milk on Substack.
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By Peter Maguire
The first time I saw Jean-Jacques Rachou in his kitchen at La Côte Basque at 60 W. 55th St., dressed in immaculate chef’s whites and a toque blanche, he reminded me more of a martial arts master than a chef. Carefully observing an athletic young grillardin who was laboring over a hot range, he said nothing. When his apprentice plated his steak, Jean-Jacques studied the meat, spun the plate, and signaled his approval with a nod. Like my jujitsu teacher, the legendary Rickson Gracie, Jean-Jacques is a stern but fair master who leads by example.
Born an orphan in Toulouse, France, in 1935, Rachou was taken in by a local woman. As a child, he worked long hours at a nearby farm and delivered vegetables to restaurants and hotels. In 1946, a local restaurateur offered eleven-year-old Jean-Jacques a job in his kitchen and transformed the boy’s hardscrabble life forever. “It was deliverance,” Rachou said. “It was freedom.”
For the next four years, Jean-Jacques worked as an apprentice at Le Grand Hôtel Régina and learned classical French cooking according to the rules of Auguste Escoffier’s hundred-year-old brigade de cuisine system. Escoffier divided a kitchen into ranked positions: executive chef; chef de cuisine; sous chefs; chefs de partie; commis chefs (junior chefs); and stations (grill, roast, pastry, butcher, fish).
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Rachou left France in the 1950s to cook in the La Mamounia Hotel in Marrakesh, Morocco, then went to Lisbon to open the Hotel Ritz. Next, he went to Bermuda and finally arrived in New York in 1962 to work at Gene Cavallero’s legendary Colony restaurant on Madison Avenue. When he finally opened his first restaurant, Le Lavandou, on East 61st St. in 1975, he quickly developed a . following. “If a Jewish mother could be French, she would be Jean-Jacques Rachou,” wrote food critic Gael Greene. “He seems to have a fix on how to please a hungry New Yorker.”
In 1979, Rachou spent all his accumulated savings to buy Henri Soulé’s La Côte Basque. One of the first to introduce classic French dining to New York at the fabled Le Pavillion, Soulé moved closer to his Bayonne roots when he opened La Côte Basque in the late ‘50s. Truman Capote, one of New York cafe society’s favorite celebrities, satirized the restaurant and its patrons in Esquire Magazine in 1965. He was never forgiven.
Rachou’s attention to detail was unmatched. He spent thousands each week on beautiful cut flowers, used only the finest linen, and his dining room staff was the best in New York City. “The ingredients that we used were the finest that your hands could touch,” recalled Neil Murphy of the Park Avenue Cafe, now in Hawaii at Merriman’s When Jean-Jacques reopened a completely renovated La Côte Basque, it was an instant success. “In typical Rachou style, La Côte Basque offers,” wrote The New York Times, “big portions or bigger portions. The restaurant's oversize plates are typically garnished with levees of wild rice, ramparts of carrot puree, towering timbales, and puff-pastry sculptures.”
What most people do not know is what a huge impact Jean-Jacques Rachou and his restaurant had on the future of American gastronomy. “No one has been more responsible in training the first generation of great American chefs and restaurateurs than Jack Rachou,” said Mike Colameco, host and producer of Mike Colameco’s Real Food on PBS. Rachou was one of the first French chefs willing to hire and train Americans.
“Back in that day, the Frenchmen didn’t think we could work,” recalled chef Gregory Godon. “When Jack realized that we didn’t mind working, we opened the flood gate for the rest of the crew.” For Charlie Palmer, now head of his own small empire of restaurants, it was his big break after graduating from culinary school. “For us young American guys coming to New York working in basically the French mafia for lack of a better term,” said Palmer, “he stood up for American cooks in the beginning.” “You learn the correct way to work,” observed chef Stephan Kopf, formerly of Tavern on the Green, “How to work together, how to be organized, how to produce, just from A to Z.”
“Jack” Rachou taught a group of young American chefs fresh out of culinary school how to work as an organized team, control costs, and run a world-class restaurant. They started making puff pastry, boning quail, crushing bones for stock, and cleaning the kitchen. Michael Handal had just graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, when he started at the soufflé station. “We were making a minimum of 200 soufflés each night, fresh to order — easily 250 on the weekends — as well as tuiles, petits fours, marzipan, etc.”
After Handal was promoted to garde manger, where butchering was among the responsibilities, he would get “full, primal cuts of animals — not just vacuum-sealed veal loin, but a huge cut, covered in layers of fat and simply wrapped with cheesecloth.”
When Jean-Jacques called out the orders to the kitchen in his heavily accented English, he sounded like an auctioneer. “He would order like a maniac, and you would have to get it out and organized yourself — it was a matter of survival,” said Rick Moonen. “We worked together on the line, it was total synchronization and he loved us! Just as it was getting out of control, and [we] couldn’t keep up any longer, Jean-Jacques would give you one of his little half-smiles, just a slight one, and wink.”
“They get the classic cuisine and the principles, and they were very, very, very, very willing to learn,” said Rachou. “They were good to me. I was strong with them.” Sometimes, like my martial arts teacher, Rickson Gracie (who once nearly choked me unconscious for struggling while escaping his headlock) Rachou taught his charges the hard way if they failed to meet his expectations. “Busy lunch — 300, 350 covers. All of a sudden you hear this scream and here comes the Chef down the stairs with a tray,” remembered Charlie Palmer, “with four chickens lined up on the tray. ‘You assholes!’”
“And he throws them!” added Neil Murphy. “I learned a new dish, it was called ‘duck.’” Just as I never struggled to get out of another headlock again, Murphy never served another undercooked chicken. “After that, you learn. You make sure you … check! You got to touch, you got to look, you got to smell, you got to really work with the food,” continued Murphy. “I never served a medium-rare chicken after that. I never embarrassed him like that either. That’s how you learn.”
Today the La Côte Basque alumni include Daniel Boulud, Waldy Malouf, Todd English, Charlie Palmer, Stephan Kopf, Rick Moonen, Charles Tutino, Ali Barker, Neil Murphy, and many others. “The morning shift you had Rick Moonan, Charles Palmer. At night it was Henry Mir, Todd English, myself,” recalled Bruce Egdahl, now executive chef at Round Hill Country Club in Greenwich, CT. “It was a pretty good crew. We were a busy restaurant and Monsieur Rachou is the papa.”
Despite the amazing food and impeccable service, by the late 1990s, La Côte Basque was at a crossroads, and Rachou knew it. Not only were many of his longtime patrons dying, so was the formal French dining experience. “I think you'll see less and less of grand dining on this level. Before, parents used to take children to good restaurants so they could learn,” Rachou told The New York Times, “Where do they take them today? People don't want to dress up today.” Although he was trying to attract younger patrons, their moderation baffled him. “They split appetizers?” he said to me with a Gallic shrug.
I first went to La Côte Basque in the late 1990s with Didier Rachou, Jean-Jacques’s music-composer son, his wife Lucy, and my fiancee Annabelle Lee. The restaurant was packed with a well-dressed, older crowd, and they took notice when Didier was treated like Henry Hill at the Copacabana in Goodfellas. There were no empty tables, but as we approached the dining room, a squad of servers emerged from the back with a table, chairs, linen, and silverware and set the table with the speed and precision of a Marine Color Guard.
Over the next three hours, I enjoyed the best meal I had ever eaten in New York City. Unlike many restaurants in the 1990s, the food, not the scene, was the main attraction. The maître d'hôtel, captain, and servers were unobtrusive and the service was seamless. Not one of these middle-aged European men aspired to be actors, and it showed as they effortlessly boned fish, carved roast chickens, decanted wine, and anticipated their guests’ every whim. Toward the end of our dinner, Jean-Jacques emerged from the kitchen. With his trademark pencil mustache, custom-tailored blazer, and shirt, he cut a very dashing figure. After he kissed the women’s hands, he shook mine. He could tell that my compliments about his food were sincere and encouraged me to bring my business associates to his restaurant. Very selectively, I did.
While I would like to think it was my bad present-tense French and scintillating wit that forged my friendship with Jean-Jacques Rachou, it was really my enormous appetite. The only people I invited to join me at La Côte Basque were those without food fetishes who were prepared to eat and drink their fill.
I was coming to the end of a long run as a bachelor. For decades, my energy went into my scholarship, martial arts training, and aquatics (swimming and surfing). Most of the time, I ate and drank very moderately. However, if I were going to break training, I would put on a jacket and tie and head to La Côte Basque. I and my guest usually started at the bar. I always ordered a vodka tonic. Like any good bar, the glass had only ice, a lime slice, and a generous pour of vodka in it. A small bottle of tonic water accompanied the glass so I could mix my drink according to taste. Once our table was ready, the tuxedoed maître d’ would lead us into the dining room and seat us. A server would follow us with our drinks if we had not finished them.
Next, we would order. Just before the meal arrived, a cold bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé or some other excellent white wine would arrive at the table. “This is from Chef,” our server would say with a smile. My first course was salmon, smoked on the premises, with perfect toast points, minced red onions, capers, and lemon. If they offered oysters, I had a dozen because I knew that they were the best in the city. Resting on a bed of crushed ice, the muscle was always cut neatly from the shell. Never once was I served one with a hacked mantle, heart, or stomach. The mignonette sauce was little more than red wine vinegar, ground black pepper, and chopped shallots, and it was always perfect.
After we finished our starters and the plates were cleared, our server would walk over to our table with an excellent Latour — also a gift from the kitchen. If it was on the menu, my main course was always venison grand veneur. The roasted lean meat was served medium-rare with a rich, dark sauce made from pheasant stock, red wine, and cream. If there was no venison, then it was Dover sole, sautéed simply and deboned tableside. Dessert was always a chocolate soufflé, ordered in advance, and served hot. When the server brought it to the table, he dented the top and put a dollop of homemade whipped cream in the crease. Although the next day usually began in the sauna at Columbia University with a stack of newspapers trying to sweat out the night’s excesses, it was always worth it.
Over long, luxurious dinners in the banquette against the wall beneath Bernard Lamotte’s mural of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, I discussed terrorism cases with criminal defense attorney Andy Patel, lambasted the human rights industry with writer David Rieff, compared notes on the Khmer Rouge with war crimes investigator Craig Etcheson, talked about whatever book I was writing with my editor Peter Dimock, and lamented the death of newspapers with my Newsday editor Spencer Rumsey.
The most memorable meal I had there was with my father, the late Rob Maguire. During the late 1940s, my dad lived in Israel while his father, the chief pilot for Operation Ali Baba and Operation Magic Carpet, flew refugees into Israel. After my grandfather remarried in 1948, he shipped my dad off to a boarding school in Paris. My dad rarely attended. Instead, Rob studied in the jazz clubs of St. Germain, Pigalle’s maisons closes, and even sampled the good life in Nice with a classmate who was a French nobleman. As my father and I were finishing our chocolate soufflés, Jean-Jacques came out from the kitchen and poured each of us a glass of rare Calvados. As the two men talked, they were transported back to the postwar France of their youth.
Shortly thereafter, it all suddenly ended. I got married, moved away, and started a family. Sadly, La Côte Basque closed for good in 2004, and, several years later, Jean-Jacques retired. Thank you, Jean-Jacques, for so generously introducing me, my friends, and my family to Escoffier’s “tasteful simplicity.” I will always remember this long, lost time, before Wi-Fi and selfies invaded the dining room and there was a consensus — from Marie-Antoine Carême to Rachou that Escoffier put best when he said, “every meal was a ceremony and a celebration.”