Pimpin' for Upstate

I have long held that Buffalo, New York -- where I spent a few formative years of my cooking career -- is a city unjustly labeled as a one-hit food town. Chicken wings, chicken wings, chicken wings, right? Nothing but deep-fried bird parts and snow.

But this is wrong. Well, maybe not the snow part, but certainly the food part. Yes, Buffalo is home of the chicken wing. Yes, the lowly chicken wing is the food that made Buffalo famous. But really, there has always been a lot more going on in that town than it gets credit for. On many occasions I've held Buffalo up as a good training ground for chefs—a decent city with low rents and low prices with a well-educated population (including the students of several colleges and universities) willing to try anything at least once. A chef can experiment in Buffalo without suffering the kind of risk he would in, say, Manhattan. A guy (like me) can learn without the stakes being quite so high as they are in L.A.

Anyway, I've always been a booster for Buffalo.

I remember my time there very fondly and I remember eating very, very well. But because I am an argumentative sort of fellow who does not gladly suffer the sort of fools who would disparage a place simply for its culinary entanglement with the lowly chicken wing, I am constantly on the lookout for little bits and pieces of Buffalo food lore that will back up my contention that the Nickel City has played a vital role in the development of American cuisine.

And now I have found the best story of them all. Without any waffling, I can safely say that it was in Buffalo, New York, that the entire American gastro-revolution began, that if it weren't for Buffalo, we'd still be eating nothing but peanut butter sandwiches, Spam-loaf and horrifying molded gelatins with little pieces of ham and marshmallow suspended within.

Let me explain...I've recently been reading The United States of Arugula by David Kamp—an excellent book that anyone with any interest at all in the modern history of American cuisine must pick up immediately. In it, Kamp details the full arc of our growth as a gourmet nation -- beginning with the founding of New York City's first serious restaurants in the early twentieth century and ending, more or less, with the founding of the Food Network in the mid-'90s. In between, he covers the rise to prominence of James Beard (brilliant, manipulative and enormous), Julia Child (a kitchen saint) and Craig Claiborne (a drunken misanthropist and, in his day, probably the most powerful food writer in the world) as chroniclers of American tastes; the birth of "California Cuisine" as a revolt against the French influence on the East Coast; the blossoming of sushi and Asian fusion and Southwestern cuisine; the ascent of the "celebrity chef" and the cults of personality that drove them to stardom -- and on and on.

But what's important here is a simple, throw-away story from the beginning of the book -- one that takes place way back in the day and links the 1939 World's Fair, the repealing of the Volstead Act, the Nazi occupation of Paris, and Buffalo, New York all together into the moment that American cuisine was born. How is this possible? Simple. See, in 1939, the United States was just beginning to recover from the deleterious effects that the Volstead Act (better known as Prohibition, enacted in 1919, repealed in 1933) had had on the nascent fine dining restaurant scene -- which, in those years, was limited primarily to the big industrial cities of the Northeast. This was also the year that the World's Fair came to NYC (Queens, actually), and as a part of the festivities, France set up the French Pavilion and, within it, the Restaurant Francais -- essentially denuding some of the country's best restaurants of second-rank kitchen staff (sous chefs and such) in order to staff up just one foreign outpost that, in the course of its two-year run, served over 100,000 visitors.

"For the Manhattan swells old enough to remember the good old days before Prohibition, the Restaurant Francais at the French Pavilion was a gustatory reawakening," Kamp writes. "For those traveling to the World's Fair from other parts of the United States, the restaurant was an outright revelation, its capons in tarragon aspic and noisettes of lamb with stuffed artichokes unlike anything the folks were eatin' back home in Wichita. Even with prices that were high for 1939- -- $1.60 for coq au vin de Bordeaux, $5.50 for a bottle of 1929 Cheval Blanc -- [Restaurant Francais] was doing overflow business, making room for customers on benches meant for [the] exhausted staff when all the regular tables were full."

Okay, so now, enter the Nazis. In June 1940, Hitler and his armies took Paris and the French promptly surrendered, leaving everything in the hands of the Vichy puppet-government. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your outlook at the time, I guess), the World's Fair had not yet come to an end, and all those French cooks and chefs (including Henri Soule, Pierre Franey and Jean Drouant, to name just a few) were still laboring away in Queens for the rapidly diminishing crowds of Fair-goers. And when the Fair finally came to an end in 1941, they were screwed. They couldn't go home (didn't really want to go home, I'd guess), but neither were they legally allowed to stay.

That is until the U.S. government decided that, owing to the situation in France, all French refugees would be allowed to get permanent American work visas and stay in the States provided they had jobs lined up here and were willing to ritually re-enter the United States.

Which is exactly what all the Restaurant Francais staff did in the middle of 1941, traveling across the border into Ontario, Canada, and re-entering the United States by walking across the Peace Bridge into, where else? Buffalo, New York.

Oh, and as for the jobs they had lined up? Yeah, they all had jobs. In October 1941, Henri Soule (taking over for Jean Drouant) opened La Pavilion on East 55th in New York City -- a restaurant that essentially gave birth to every important fine dining restaurant (and fine dining chef) that opened in New York over the following years.

"Directly or indirectly," Kamp writes, "Soule's palace begat the 'Le' and 'La' restaurants that reestablished New York as a major gastronomic city in the mid-twentieth century: La Caravelle, Le Perigord, La Cote Basque, La Grenouille, Le Cygne and Le Mistral, to name but a few." And it was those places against which all future food rebellions in the United States were fought, within which many of the great chefs of the last generation were trained. Thus does the wheel go 'round and 'round.

So there you have it: Nazis, Prohibition, the World's Fair and Buffalo, New York, as the birthplace of modern American cuisine. Weird, huh? But like the man said, truth really is stranger than fiction. -- Jason Sheehan

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun