November 21, 1977 12:00 PM

Gael Greene, who wrote this story, is restaurant critic of New York magazine and author of Bite: A New York Restaurant Strategy and a best-selling novel, Blue Skies, No Candy.

They came from Vicksburg, Miss, and Kankakee, Ill., wearing dungarees and jewels. They were sybarites and gourmands, the idling rich, professional cooking teachers, food writers and gastronomic groupies. An architect from San Francisco carried his own chef’s knife in a leather hip holster. A doctor’s wife (she also builds racing boats) wore a surgeon’s white scrub suit and a 12.5-carat emerald. Their destination was the Robert Mondavi Winery in California’s Napa Valley, where last month they paid up to $990 ($198 a day) to study with the legendary French chef Jean Troisgros. He is half of the Troisgros brothers whose celebrated three-star restaurant in Roanne, France is an obligatory detour for epicures. Troisgros, 50, arrived with bathing suit, tennis racket, a $200 can of truffles, 10 quarts of essence of veal bones (reduced to a demiglace by his son, a journeyman in the New York kitchen of Régine’s) and four English phrases: “Thank you,” “Hello,” “I love you,” “More butter.”

I was along as interpreter, critic and gossip, princess, girl Friday and comic foil. But midway through class the first night, slicing cucumbers into crisp matchsticks, Troisgros was already communicating easily with the vivid magic of his own artistry.

Of the 16 students, some gulped and ate their first kidney ever. Dazzled by the elegance of the table—waiters in black tie, white orchids at dinner, cabbage in clay pots at lunch, a parade of crystal by candlelight—Bob Emmich of Mississippi talked of leaving real estate and insurance to open an inn. “You have to watch everything Jean does,” he said. “You have to be here to see him spear a garlic clove with a fork and use it to stir the spinach.”

Opportunities for excess were unending. Mornings began with vineyard tours and wine tastings; then lunch blurred into a boozy afternoon haze. When half the class got lost on a mountain road en route to the Mayacamas Vineyards, Troisgros disappeared into the brush and plucked some wild plums lest someone starve between breakfast croissant and lunch. Cognoscenti sipped, cleared their palates and sipped again in classic form. “You want me to spit out this $25 Pinot Chardon-nay,” protested Camille Glenn, 69-year-old food columnist of the Louisville Times. Later she apologized for arriving late to class. “I guess I drank instead of tasting.”

At 5 o’clock the class reassembled in the Mondavi kitchen to cook dinner under the master’s guidance. Troisgros was a surgeon dissecting the baron of lamb, a pâtissier taming a mantle of puff pastry into flaky submission, an alchemist elevating humble Swiss chard to buttery sainthood and a puzzled man trying to skin an American fish of questionable ancestry. “If God had meant a fish to be skinned, he would have given it a zipper,” observed Gloria Russakov, restaurant reviewer for the Oregon Times. “This is a zipless fluke,” another student volunteered. There were sighs and squeals as everyone dipped a finger into Jean’s pastry cream filling. “In the provinces we call that an orgasm of the tongue,” Russakov said, adding, “All it takes to be a restaurant critic in Portland is being able to tell which frozen cheesecake is Sara Lee.”

The notion of enticing the world’s greatest chefs to the Napa Valley is the consuming fantasy of a young cooking teacher, Michael James, 27. He and partner William Cross, 31, two years ago conceived the idea of classes in a setting of wanton luxury. They recruited friends and actors to play 18th-century servants, borrowed a fortune in crystal and porcelain to grace the table, transported students from winery to winery in limousines—and went broke. Then they persuaded winemaker Robert Mondavi to endow their dream. “We don’t advertise,” Mondavi reasoned. “And I like the idea of linking the wines of California with the cuisine of France.”

By week’s end the class had gone through 25 pounds of butter and everyone’s dungarees were noticeably tighter. There were farewell toasts. The first to leave wept. Someone took two bites out of an orchid. Troisgros, moved by the chorus of affection, raised his glass to his students. “Go home and cook,” he said. “But if you copy what I did, you won’t have learned anything. To cook is to improvise.”

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