The white-haired lady arrived at one of France’s three-star restaurants in her 1961 Renault and was escorted quickly to the best table. Waiters hovered; the chef emerged to tip his toque. But halfway through the meal Simone Beck frowned and began pushing her food around the plate. She sniffed indignantly. The chef was summoned. Reverberations were heard in the kitchens of Europe: Madame was displeased with a sauce.
The news can hurt where it counts—in France’s culinary Bible, the Michelin guide. Although she has no official capacity, perfectionist Simone (or “Simca”) has been known to urge Michelin editors to reconsider a restaurant’s ranking when it disappoints her. Her critiques aren’t often ignored because Simca, 75, is the doyenne of her country’s culinary elite.
In the U.S. she is best known for her collaboration with Julia Child on two volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Beck’s first solo effort, Simca’s Cuisine, in 1972 became a classic. Now she has written another, New Menus from Simca’s Cuisine (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $12.95). She advocates such Gallic outrages as desserts laced with Kentucky bourbon and maple syrup. Macadamia nuts may turn up in blue cheese balls. “She is an individualist,” a colleague notes.
Beck combines French insistence on high-quality ingredients with American practicality in such menus as “A Sunday Night Supper for Six to Empty the Icebox.” She claims a good meal can be prepared in an hour (unless it is for 50) and has no apology for relying on her Cuisinart. “I wonder how I ever cooked without it,” she says.
Beck was not to a hot stove born. Her father was the wealthy mayor of Tocqueville-en-Caux in Normandy and her mother an heiress to the Bénédictine liqueur fortune. Simone was forbidden to venture into the chateau kitchen, but her English nanny and an indulgent cook allowed her to make toffee. Though World War I was raging at the time of Simone’s first Communion and there was a shortage of servants, the family hired a caterer to prepare an all-white meal. Afterward her parents had to help with the dishes.
When Simone’s first marriage failed in the mid-’30s, she enrolled in a one-month course at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. Before long the head chef was giving his enthusiastic student twice-a-week private lessons in her home. These lasted three years. When Simca’s second husband, perfume executive Jean Victor Fischbacher, was a POW during World War II, she sent him weekly gourmet packages that he shared with the 24 officers in his prison barracks.
In 1951 Beck and friends Julia Child and Louisette Bertholle began a cooking school in Paris. Ten years ago Beck moved her operation to Grasse, in the South of France. Her courses ($940 for five days) are limited to six students. While the class lunches on its handiwork, Beck prefers a fried egg and a salad at her nearby farmhouse. “You get to a point where you are saturated by cooking,” she explains.
Beck never escapes the kitchen for long, even on vacation. She recently helped a friend in the U.S. save a stew that contained too much tomato by adding Nescafé to neutralize the acidity, a chemistry lesson she learned from her husband. “Americans are the hope for the future of good cooking,” she says. American master chef James Beard returns the compliment. “Simone Beck,” he says, “is the most consistently innovative cook I know.”