After sleeping two hours, pulling on jeans and turtleneck, grabbing his cigarettes and bolting for a taxi, Gilbert Le Coze has arrived at the Fulton Fish Market before the fish. He sits on a crate and waits, content that none will buy before him. He tells of the morning, several weeks earlier, when he finished at the market and hurried home to call his father in France. He had news so wonderful that when his sister Maguy read it, she threw the newspaper high in the air: Le Bernardin, Gilbert and Maguy’s new restaurant in Manhattan, had been named one of the best in the city by the New York Times. “I tell my father I have four stars. He says, ‘Have you been to the fish market this morning?’ ”
Gilbert has smelled the periwinkles and rejected them, mourned the absence of sea urchins, nearly embraced the halibut. He is fond of many things but adores few. He will smile at customers and beam at women, but only a fish can make him rejoice.
A fish merchant grabs his arm, reminds him to watch World Cup soccer at 2 p.m. Gilbert says he must be at the restaurant for lunch. The man suggests a match no Frenchman can refuse, France vs. Russia at 6 p.m. Gilbert refuses. Six p.m. is dinner.
“Tape it,” the man says.
“I can’t,” Gilbert replies. “I only sleep four hours. If I watch a video, I have no sleep at all.”
He looks as terrible as he can look, which isn’t bad. The sun, just rising, casts shadows across his fatigue lines. He is nearly through. He has told the Japanese tuna merchant that he makes sushi so he will get the finest tuna. The Japanese tuna merchant knows this Frenchman isn’t a sushi man, but he gives him the best tuna anyway so the Frenchman will not be unhappy. A loudspeaker announces a sale to Burn-uh-deen, and Gilbert grins at the fish-market French. The men from Blue Ribbon Fish Co. plead with him to go home to bed. “Go, go, go,” they say.
He does not go.
He has not yet seen his pompano, and he will not leave until he is absolutely certain it is good. “I will take a look,” he says, stubbornly. David Samuels, the president of Blue Ribbon, sighs. “He’s obsessed,” he says.
It is not just him. It’s his sister, too. Gilbert, 40, and Maguy, 41, are so alike it is as though the same person were in two places at one time. “We are exactly the same thing,” she agrees.
Together they have created restaurants acclaimed on two continents, the two-star (Michelin) Le Bernardin near the Paris Arc de Triomphe and the four-star (Times) Le Bernardin on New York’s 51st Street. The restaurants, like Gilbert and Maguy, are almost exactly the same, though the newer Le Bernardin in New York is more elegant and already more crowded, requiring a staff of three just to answer the telephones. Gilbert oversees the New York restaurant, working 20 hours a day, while Maguy is usually in Paris, working only 18 hours a day. “You have to forgive me, too much work gives wrinkles,” she says.
Another two hours of sleep, then Gilbert is at the restaurant, a wine glass of café au lait in one hand, a package of Dunhills in the other, beginning his inspection, a perfectionist in search of displeasure. He finds dust in a corner of the bathroom on the trim along the floor. He intercepts an errant fleck of basil on an appetizer. “They know if there is a little mistake, I am there every time, every time, every time,” he says.
He has changed from slacks and LaCoste shirt to his pure white chef’s outfit and is welcoming his luncheon clientele, mostly the business crowd on expense accounts. A customer compliments Gilbert on the broiled lobster he had the night before. Gilbert compliments the man on the bow tie he wore while eating the lobster. The man is flattered. Gilbert is pleased with himself; the country boy has learned. “Not so bad, eh?” he laughs.
He and Maguy grew up in Port-Navalo, a town in Brittany, the grandchildren of a fisherman whose portrait hangs in the bar of both restaurants. Their father, Gabriel, 74, now retired to gardening and bicycling, owned a little hotel-restaurant where his children were ordered to work when they wanted to play at the beach. “Gilbert and I, we are never doing anything against each other,” Maguy says. “Always we do things together, against our father.”
Gilbert left home when he was 19, after arguing with his father, and arrived in Paris with no assets except the cooking skills he learned at the inn. “My father is my cooking school,” he says. “I never learned in another place.” Maguy followed him two months later. He sold newspapers, tended bar, pasted up billboards. She worked as a cashier and receptionist. They saved, borrowed from friends and five years later opened a storefront restaurant they named Le Bernardin after a lullaby, Les Moines de St. Bernardin, that their father sang to them when they were very small and he was a little drunk. “He was a little tough, but really nice in his heart,” Gilbert says.
With Maguy in the dining room and Gilbert in the kitchen, the tiny Le Bernardin earned a cherished star from Michelin. After moving to a larger space in 1981, they received their second star. Le Bernardin in Manhattan opened last January, and three months later an aroused Times critic pronounced it “extraordinary,” awarded it the maximum four stars, glorified the “pristine” tuna carpaccio, the “pearly” black bass, the “invigorating” fish tartare, the “vivid” fricassee of shellfish, immortalized the barely cooked salmon and the lightly curried sea scallops and finally fell exhausted on his typewriter, concluding, “…the list of superlatives goes on.”
One does not patronize Le Bernardin to eat—dare we say it?—meat. The kitchen will prepare the occasional rack of lamb upon request, but Gilbert mocks such orders. His cheeks puff, his eyes roll.
“It is a big privilege to eat fish,” he says, waving his arms. “Only the fish is something wild.”
Not the cow, eh?
“What is the life of the cow?” he asks, a philosophical question Sartre never pondered. He makes a dumb bovine face and answers: “The cows stand there, year after year, eating the grass.”
Richard Hollocou, the slim, impeccable, imperturbable maître d’ of the restaurant, checks his watch and announces in a cultured French accent: “Ten minutes to blast-off.” The clientele tonight will include Jack Lemmon and Oscar de la Renta, but the staff is most conscious of Maguy, who has flown in from Paris to oversee the dining room for a week. Dressed in white, festooned with rings, bangles, chains and pearls, her black hair cut Louise Brooks style, her mouth a slash of red, she is a severe presence until she smiles, which is, thank goodness, often. Her movements are very fast and very French, suggesting a fashion model training for the Olympic Games. “She is a hummingbird. She is everywhere,” a waiter remarks.
Neither she nor Gilbert is married, has been married or probably ever will be married. They are handsome and they are eligible, but they are God’s gift to seafood. “Work is the only thing we like doing in life,” Maguy says. “We are never interested in children, being married, having a family.” They have apartments in the same building in Paris, they share the same apartment in New York, and they are closer to each other than to anyone else. Maguy says, “I know all his qualities, all his defects. I don’t know about somebody else. I can manage my brother. I’m not sure about somebody else.”
The right man could come along. A man might promise to take her away from those 18-hour days.
“The one who says this, he will not see me the day after,” she says.
Or perhaps Gilbert will meet a woman he loves as much as his restaurant.
“Never,” he replies.
But if you were married….
“No time,” he says.
A woman leaving the restaurant proclaims, “Gilbert has done for fish what the Statue of Liberty has done for New York.” In fact, he has done something for which all oppressed Americans should be grateful: He has printed his menu in English. “Some people ask me why the menu is not in French,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Sorry, we are in New York.’ ” A man exits dejectedly, muttering, “I’d eat here every day if I could afford it.” The prices are fixed, $55 for dinner, $35 for lunch, an occasional supplement for costly items like warmed oysters with sliced black truffles from Cahors. Along with the food comes a dining room as serene as a soft-breaking wave, lighting so flattering even a Frenchwoman couldn’t complain and service that seems of an era gone by.
Gilbert sits at the bar with his dinner, his eyes on the dining room. He is having Louisiana shrimp in parsley-shallot butter followed by a thick cut of salmon served rare with mint. An hour later he will not remember what he has eaten.
Tonight he is thankful. No customer has complained that the fish must be cooked another 10 minutes so it tastes like the fish sticks he loved as a child. In France, Gilbert says, people dine out to enjoy the interpretations of the chef; only in America do people tell the chef how to cook. “When the customers tell me it has to be cooked more, I say, ‘No, no, no, no, cook it 15 seconds more and it will be dry and no good. People say, ‘This man is not nice, we are paying, we want what we like,’ and I say, ‘No, not if you give me one thousand dollars.’ ”
The restaurant is full. The customers are pleased. Nothing has gone wrong.
“Not yet,” he says.