In France, ideologies and governments fall, and even sex can pall, but the palate reigns forever. The chefs’ towering toques blanches have inherited the deference once due coronets. So inevitably the celebration last month of the 80th birthday of the dowager queen of French cuisine, Marie-Louise Point, became, as billed, “The Greatest Gastronomic Fete Ever Known.”
On hand were nine of the greatest chefs of France, and the preeminent among them, Paul Bocuse, was the host. Each was there to prepare a specialty in homage to the widow of the fabled Fernand Point. Although he died in 1955, Point is today credited with stirring the revolution known as la nouvelle cuisine, and his restaurant in Vienne, called La Pyramide after the town’s Roman monument, is still the longest-surviving three-star establishment in France.
The setting was noble—Vizille, a 17th-century chateau near Grenoble—and likewise the extravaganza of military bands, hunting horns, hot air balloons and Mumm’s champagne à go-go. The 700-plus guests at the $75,000 celebration included ministers, ambassadors, mayors, Petula Clark and even the newly wed Caroline Junot, who politely requested the autograph of Bocuse. High point was the arrival, by raft, of Mme Point’s birthday cake. Baked to resemble the local pyramid, it was accompanied across a small lake by ballet students and a string orchestra. (The raft later sank when too many dignitaries climbed aboard to have photos taken.)
Such regal pomp would have amused Fernand Point, a gentle 300-pound-plus giant who favored sublime simplicity but had an obsession with the finest and freshest ingredients and the infinite pains of an artist. Indeed, it was simplicity that first won over Marie-Louise Paulin, a slip of a hairdresser in Vienne, who monthly accompanied her parents to La Pyramide to see what young Point was up to in his parents’ restaurant. Little did she know Fernand was shyly peeping out from behind the kitchen door, watching her reactions to each dish with tender anguish.
They married in 1930, and Fernand still cooked “Mado” her daily luncheon, while together they made La Pyramide an international gourmet mecca. The rules were strict. “La grande cuisine should not wait for the customer; it is the customer who should wait,” ruled Fernand. He detested smoking during meals. Spying a customer light a cigarette during hors d’oeuvres, he ordered coffee dispatched along with a bill. “I thought you had finished,” he would reply with sweet innocence when the guest protested. The bill was a figure on a slip of paper sans itemization. Few quibbled, including one couple who meekly paid a whopping sum and walked out, not knowing it was meant for the party of five at the next table. A self-assured diplomat once complained, and Point instantly tore up the bill and asked him never to return.
More of a problem for Marie-Louise were Fernand’s practical jokes. Bocuse was once instructed to hide under a table and, as Fernand bade his customers farewell, dab the guests’ heels with whitewash. But one April Fools’ Day, when a fire started in the restaurant coatroom, the Vienne fire department refused to come, certain Point was joking. Two rooms were destroyed, but Fernand hugely relished the irony. When he died at 58, a friend attributed it to suicide by champagne.
When a great restaurant loses its chef, the Guide Michelin strips its stars. But, unprecedentedly, Marie-Louise Point was allowed to keep theirs—and despite all the upheavals elsewhere in recent years, La Pyramide has not changed since Fernand’s heyday. She does note with a tinge of regret that “customers are in more of a hurry these days. But then again they are also more demanding. Since they are eating less, they want it to be perfect.”
Age has hardly slowed Marie-Louise. One of France’s dozen greatest wine connoisseurs, she can still read the carte without glasses at 80. “I don’t know where the time went,” she sighs. But of one thing she is sure: “Take me away from my restaurant, and you’ll bury me within three months.”