Thursday, July 31, 2008

Magical Wednesdays

An old checker cab as part of a photo shoot in the meatpacking district. 7:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Hot day in New York, Humid. Grey, overcast and sticky. I went down to lunch at the very cool Michael’s.

Michael’s was its Wednesday jammed.
Joe Armstrong with producer Joan Gelman and Robert Zimmerman; Shubert’s Gerry Schoenfeld with Clive Gillinson (Sir Clive to you and me), the executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, formerly managing director (and cellist) of the London Symphony Orchestra. Next door was Herb Siegel with his pal Frank Gifford, and next to them were Dr. Gerry Imber, Andy Berger and Jerry della Femina. These guys meet every week and have for years and years, always at Michael’s, sometimes two, three, sometimes six or eight. All old friends. And next to them: Kathy Lee Gifford and her colleague Hoda Kotb. Also literary agent Ed Victor and Tim Hunt; next to me: Jolie Hunt lunching with an old pal. Next week Jolie and Joe Armstrong cross the Atlantic to visit Terry Allen Kramer and Nick Simunek at their villa in St. Tropez; quelle tragique, non? Next to them, producer Jon Hart and friends. In the bay: Giants owner Woody Johnson holding forth. Around the room Bonnie Timmerman and Richard Belzer; Esquire’s David Granger with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. At another, Wynton Marsalis with Michael Fricklag; Showtime’s Matt Blank; Nick Verbitsky and Jim Higgins; Jesse Kornbluth and Barbara O’Dair; Harry Benson and David Friend; Richard Johnson as his son Jack; Peter Price; Ed Blier and Peter Wolf; my guest: Gillian Miniter.

The illusionist, JB Benn
Meanwhile, beyond the hub-bub I noticed a guy over at the Siegel-Gifford table flashing and shuffling some playing cards (with the classic red back). Not long after Steve Millington, the restaurant GM, came over and told us this guy with the cards was an “illusionist” and that I should really meet him because “he’s amazing.” A few minutes later, Steve brought the guy over to our table, with his deck of cards handy. His name is JB Benn.

I’ve seen illusionists before. They all amaze me and I’m one of those who’s so astonished that I can’t evaluate or assess their expertise, unless they do something really unbelievable. He did one of the standard moves where he asked me to think of a card. I did: the Queen of Hearts. The next thing: he pulled it out of the deck. Then he asked me to write out my name on one side of the card, and the date on the other. I did.

Then he did a couple of “illusions” with Gillian. Then, finishing up, he remembered something in his wallet he meant to show me. Out comes the wallet, one of those large breast pocket folding ones. From it he extracted a white envelope, sealed tightly. He handed it to me and told me to open it, telling me there was something of mine in it. By now you’ve probably guessed what it was, but I had no idea: it was the Queen of Hearts card on which I’d written my name and the date.

Now, the guy never left my sight during our brief illusioning. Later, Loreal Sherman, Michael’s reception director told me JB Benn had removed her watch from her wrist (a leather strap type) without her even knowing it was gone until he later turned over a cup before her eyes under which was placed the watch. Amazing.

“Seeing is disbelieving,” is Mr. Benn’s motto. You can learn more by visiting his web site: www.jbbenn.com

Vaux-le-Vicomte may be the most famous chateau in France besides Versailles.
Indeed, it is believed to have inspired the Versailles that exists today versus the Versailles that Louis XIV first began to expand from a hunting lodge to a King’s palace.

The history of the beginnings of Vaux-le-Vicomte is fairly well known but I will review it because it is so 17th romantic to this reader French history. Vaux was the creation of Nicolas Fouquet, the chief financial officer of the very young King Louis XIV who came to the throne at age five.

Countess de Vogue.
In the mid-1650s, the very wealthy Fouquet commissioned the architect Louis Le Vau, the painter-decorator Charles Le Brun, and the landscape gardener Andre Le Notre to build him a chateau, a formal gardens and grounds.

Between 1656 and 1661, they created this magnificent palace. It was, in the words of the present owner Count Patrice de Vogue, "a masterpiece of classical art, the apogee of grandeur and refinement ...."

In August of that year, Fouquet gave himself a kind of house-warming, a fete in honor of the young king (he was 25). Louis was impressed; so impressed that when his new trusted adviser Colbert planted the seeds of a embezzling Fouquet in the King’s mind, he decided to arrest Fouquet and throw him in jail. This happened less than a month after the grande fete du Roi.

Colbert had much to gain, and in fact, he did. After Fouquet was jailed, tried and sentence to life in prison, Colbert took over Fouquet’s responsibilities and kept them for most of the rest of his life until his death a quarter century later. At first Louis wanted Fouquet to be executed. His trials last for three years and he was sentenced to banishment. Louis added prison for life to that. So (now) poor Fouquet – who had financed his palatial chateau with family money – never saw his magnificent creation again. Meanwhile Louis went back to Versailles with the furniture he liked from Vaux and also with its creative minds – Le Notre, Le Brun and Le Vau – to make a magnificent palace of the hunting lodge. Which they did, as we know.
Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte.
The chateau was lost to the Fouquet family soon thereafter. His wife sold it to the Marechal de Vilars of the military dynasty. This was followed by six generations of the Praslin branch of the family of the Duc de Choiseul. Then in 1875 the estate, now dilapidated and in great disrepair, was sold to Afred Sommier, a sugar industrialist. M. Sommier restored the property and it has been occupied ever since by three generations of his heirs.

After the loss of its creator and original owner, the chateau has been looked after by owners who have found a way to protect it from all the dangers and disasters of the past five centuries so that it stands as sturdily as when first built.

The book. The Countess de Vogue, Christina tells us at the beginning of this beautiful coffee table book, was born in Stockholm, the daughter of an Italian diplomat. She was brought up by a Finnish nanny called Syster who stayed with the family until her death at 91. Syster was a great cook.

Click cover to order Decadent Desserts.
An off-the-cuff cook of the most refined degree, her creations’ aromas and subsequent tastings always tantalized. Syster's desserts and especially her cakes, especially the “sacrosanct chocolate cake," has been served at all the birthdays of the countess’ siblings and her own children.

Surrounded by great culinary talent, the countess was for a long time an archivist and appreciator of those around her. She was a reluctant chef. After she married her husband in 1967, they hired an Austrian chef named Berthe. The countess learned the basics from Berthe, so much so that as time wore on she began to experiment on her own from cookbooks she’d accumulated or acquired from relatives.

In the year following their marriage – 1968 – they opened the chateau to the public where the countess organized a restaurant on the estate. This venture has grown in size along with the crowds (now in the six figures annually) who visit the Chateau. The countess no longer has anything to do with the restaurant. Her cookbook archiving continues as does her occasional culinary arts.

When you read this book, you want two things: to visit Vaux-le-Vicomte, and to eat its delicate desserts. The former being an impossibility for many of us, the latter is very much with the realm of access.

CLICK here to subscribe to our mailing list.