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Gaston Lenotre, "God of Desserts," Dies at 88

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I always wanted to be a French pastry chef, long before I went to pastry school at age 50. As a teenager, I taught myself to bake with the aid of a single orange book by a French pastry chef who seemed obscure to me at the time. Little did I know until many years later, that I was just one of generations in France, Japan, the United States -- indeed around the globe -- who fell madly in love with pastry through the inspiration of the book's author, Gaston Lenotre. The "God of Desserts," as Washington chef Michel Richard referred to Gaston Lenotre, died yesterday at the age of 88.

The contribution of Lenotre to the style, flavor, and production of modern pastry can hardly be overestimated, even if he is not quite the household name in the United States that he is in France. Creator of now-commonplace products such as multi-layer cakes with mousse and macarons, Lenotre is widely considered to be the greatest pastry chef of the twentieth century. An artist as well as an astute businessman, Lenotre revolutionized French pastry in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and along with three-star luminaries Paul Bocuse, Michel Guerard, and the Troisgros brothers, helped found the "nouvelle cuisine."

Few aspiring French pastry chefs in the 1970s would turn down an opportunity to work in the Lenotre pastry empire, which now includes shops in Paris, Japan, Korea, and the Middle East. If their parents could afford it, young French patissiers from family pastry shops across the country would be sent to Lenotre's school outside Paris for professional "perfectionnement," California pastry chef and cookbook author Alice Medrich recalls.

Americans in the know followed close behind. Lenotre was New York restauranteur David Bouley's first link to French cuisine, teaching him for a solid week how to whip egg whites so they would not break. A good baguette, Lenotre told Bouley, who went on to work with many of the legendary French chefs of the 70s and 80s, is "caramel on the outside and meringue on the inside."

Medrich who did two "stages" at the fabled Lenotre School outside Paris said she could "see the hand of Lenotre" in small pastry shops throughout France. Lenotre had a rigor, "a way to work, a way to think, and a way to handle ingredients," Medrich said. The lessons she learned there were like "time release capsules" providing her with solutions to problems she didn't realize existed until much later in her professional life, she said.

Countless culinary professionals in France, especially, trace there style and technique to Lenotre -- or Monsieur Lenotre as he was always known because, endearing as he was, he inspired so much awe that no one, rich or poor, weak or mighty, would ever want to call him anything else, Sebastien Canonne, co-founder of Chicago's French Pastry School said. Lenotre's shop and his school are legendary for producing a higher concentration of so-called "Meilleurs Ouvriers de France" (Best Artisans in France) than practically any place else in the country.

Two of the five 2007 laureates in the tri-annual "MOF" competition, which is akin to winning a Pulitzer Prize or a Kennedy Center Award, had worked for Lenotre. And of the Lenotre School's current staff of 12 chef-instructors, 8 have the privilege of donning the special "bleu, blanc, rouge" collar of the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France.

But talk to any of these accomplished patissiers -- and I have talked to dozens in the last year and a half for a film and book on the "MOF" -- and you will see that what Gaston Lenotre did reached well beyond reformulating recipes, renewing respect for the best ingredients, raising training standards for the profession, or expanding the appetite for fine pastry beyond France. Even as he built an international global pastry empire that was worth hundreds of millions of dollars when it was sold in the 1980s to the Accor Group, Lenotre breathed fire into generations of young pastry chefs up to the present.

Michel Richard, who currently owns the much-praised Citronelle Restaurant in Washington, said he was ready to abandon the profession before meeting Lenotre, whom he encountered almost by chance in the late 1960s after admiring a cake that a friend had purchased from Lenotre's flagship shop in Paris' upscale 16th Arrondissement. Inspired by the then-unheard of possibility that a pastry chef could emerge from the kitchen and travel the world, Richard jumped at the opportunity to work at Lenotre.

Over a decade later, Lenotre plucked Canonne, one of the five pastry "MOF"s working in the U.S., from a promising career in cooking and convinced him to join the maiden class of pastry apprentices at Lenotre's Plaisir facility. "He could look in my eyes and understand how much I wanted to learn pastry," said Canonne, who had bunked down with friends and family in Paris just for the opportunity to work for several months at Lenotre's Pre Catalan restaurant, now three stars.

Most of all he showed the profession the value of generosity. Sometimes this generosity led his colleagues to question his business judgment. When Lenotre first opened his school in the early 1970s, many in the field questioned the wisdom of sharing recipes and techniques that might fall into the hands of competitors. Even with lowly stagiares, Lenotre made sure everyone saw they were number one when he was talking with them, Canonne said. "He had the ability to build armies and do right," he said.

By the time I entered the profession, almost exactly three decades after purchasing Lenotre's first recipe book, I had built quite a collection of pastry books so his hold on my imagination had loosened a bit. But in an ironic twist of fate, Monsieur Lenotre re-entered my life the very minute I set foot in the French Pastry School and met Canonne. And in a turn of events worthy of Willy Wonka, I found myself in Monsieur Lenotre's living room shortly after I graduated from the school.

Pushing 90 and ailing, Lenotre had agreed to talk to me and a team of filmmakers for film I am doing on the MOF competition. The interview would be brief, we promised his solicitous wife in advance. But after taking us to dinner in a local bistro, Monsieur Lenotre insisted that our team stay for the evening at his Loire Valley "manoir" and eat his famous "Kugelhopf Lenotre" before beating a path back to Paris.

I had not been in the kitchen for several months when I returned to the US after shooting the film. And although I always return with a stack of new recipes books, the first place I went this time was to the well-worn orange book to make the Kugelhopf that Monsieur Lenotre had served that Sunday. It, like Monsieur Lenotre, was stunningly current.