Happy as a Clam
Victorino Matus, at lunch with Jacques Pépin
Sep 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 02 • By VICTORINO MATUS
The Clam Castle, a tiny outpost along Boston Post Road on the way to Hammonasset Beach in Connecticut, serves up a menu I find irresistible: fried whole clams, clam fritters, clam strip rolls, fried shrimp, fried sea scallops, and fried cod. It reminds me of the seafood restaurant in The Simpsons, The Frying Dutchman.
But probably the most popular item on the menu is the lobster roll, which you can order cold with mayonnaise or hot with butter. Either way, it costs $13.99, a reasonable price considering the clumps of lobster meat piled high atop the hot dog bun.
As it turns out, one of the biggest fans of the Clam Castle’s lobster roll is a man who himself helped make the roll what it is today. Jacques Pépin, the legendary French chef, bestselling author, and longtime host of his own PBS cooking show, worked on the roll for Howard Johnson in the 1960s. He also happens to live nearby—so why not ask him to lunch?
From my in-laws’ house in nearby Essex, I drove a four-mile stretch of interstate and picked up the chef at his home—his kitchen wall is covered with skillets and pots, a much larger version of the famed wall of Julia Child’s kitchen now at the Smithsonian. Following a brief tour of the grounds, including the studio kitchen out back and a court for pétanque (the French equivalent of bocce), I drove the chef and his dog Paco over to the clam shack. Though he had eaten there three days earlier, he didn’t seem to mind.
We headed to a picnic table where, over steaming hot lobster rolls, sides of coleslaw, and sodas, I asked the chef a wide range of questions, such as how he modified the lobster roll during his time at Howard Johnson.
“What we developed was that roll, which was a hot dog roll, the Philadelphia roll. We decided to use it for the lobster,” Pépin explained. “Then we browned them on each side with butter.” In addition, “We put butter instead of margarine in the production” (a crucial switch at a time when margarine was still seen as a healthy alternative).
Pépin actually chose to work at the restaurant chain over the Kennedy White House. “I didn’t want to go to the White House,” he said. “I had done it with [Charles de Gaulle] in France. The cook was behind a door, and no one ever went there. I served people like Eisenhower, Nehru, Tito, Macmillan. . . . And if anyone came to the kitchen, it was because something was wrong.”
Pépin also talked about his departed friends Julia Child and New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne, Child’s distaste for Julie & Julia author Julie Powell, some of his favorite chefs (Thomas Keller and Michel Richard), and even the locavore movement, with its emphasis on locally sourced products. “People get religious about it.” he said. “They get berserk. . . . I’ve been to restaurants where they come, they bring you the carrot, they say, ‘That carrot was born on the seventh of March, its name is Gilda.’ I say, ‘Give me a goddamn carrot!’ ”
Newly arrived in America in 1959, Pépin landed at Le Pavillon, then New York’s most famous French restaurant. When executive chef Pierre Franey walked out after arguing with the imperious owner Henri Soulé, Pépin ordered the rest of the kitchen to storm out in solidarity. This first attempt at a strike ended badly: “I was there a few months. I didn’t really speak English. That’s when I see those two Italian gentlemen—big guys—coming.” Soulé’s union-busters threw Pépin against a locker. “I didn’t understand what they said exactly, but I understood the gist of it—that I better shut my mouth,” he said with a laugh.
Pépin spoke of the aspiring young chefs who ask him constantly how to land a television show or a book deal. “Who do you think I should call?” the students ask. “Here’s the secret number,” he replies jokingly. “They say you have to have a gimmick to get [a show],” he went on. “They ask me, ‘What was your gimmick when you started?’ I say, ‘Well, I decided to take a French accent.’ ”
The chef tells his students to work in-depth. “They want to do something fantastique, something showy or unusual, the weirdest combination of whatever, and you say, ‘What the heck did you make?’ ” Instead, he instructs the class, “Today we’ll do a hot dog, a hamburger, and a BLT,” explaining, “You can always do something better. . . . If you have a hot dog, you can always find a better hot dog, then a better roll, then a better mustard, a better way of grilling it.” It’s pretty much how he came to perfect the lobster roll.
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