David L. Ross - July/August 1993
Food Arts presents the July/August 1993 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Oregon-born Gregory Usher for his remarkable propagation of the tenets of classical French cuisine on Parisian home ground.
Since the school's opening in April 1988, this American in Paris has been the director of the Ecole de Gastronomic Française Ritz-Escoffier at the Hotel Ritz on Place Vendôme. He's also a founding member and current chairman of the French chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food (AIWF).
As an art major in his junior year of college, Usher first tasted French cuisine on a sojourn in Paris. It was then, he recalls, "I became interested in being à table—at table—in Paris." He returned for good in 1970. But only after surviving culinary trials-by-fire—from scrubbing pots at La Barrière Poquelin to cooking under Michael Guérard's direction at Régine's—did Usher discover his real métier: teaching in and eventually running world-class cooking schools.
Usher earned his instructional stripes teaching French cooking techniques for Anne Willan at La Varenne, her bilingual school then located in Paris, an association that lasted from 1976 through 1983. In 1980, at Willan's behest, he turned in his teaching toque and whisk and became La Varenne's first director.
Then, after a brief stint of food-related consulting work in France and abroad, in 1985 he was approached to direct Le Cordon Bleu French cooking program in Paris. Usher's attention to detail, together with his solid teaching and administrative credentials, had brought him to the attention of the new proprietor of the Hotel Ritz, Mohammed Al Fayed, an Egyptian businessman who also owns the mammoth Harrods department store in London renowned for its luxuriant food halls. Usher says Al Fayed gave him carte blanche in designing and building the $10 million state-of-the-art cooking and instructional facilities at the hotel, which originally opened in 1898. He also supervised the writing of Le Cordon Bleu at Home (Hearst Publications, NY, 1991).
At 42, Usher has formed precise ideas on what works (and what doesn't) when it comes to teaching classic French cooking techniques—both to aspiring professionals and enthusiastic amateurs. For example, he firmly maintains that the Ritz-Escoffier's practical cooking classes should remain small—no more than ten students—as larger numbers dilute the close rapport necessary for the program's hands-on cooking and pastry classes. Pastry classes are incorporated into the school's six- and ten-week diploma programs. "All serious cooks today should have a knowledge of pastry making," Usher proclaims. The Ritz-Escoffier program also offers simultaneous translation for the many foreign students from around the world.
"Throughout the courses," he says, "we do updated versions of Escoffier's dishes like crème du Barry, a thickened cauliflower soup, or bavaroise rubane, a layered Bavarian cream." While respectful of Escoffier's history-making culinary contributions, Usher stresses that the school is hardly a museum of out-of-date recipes and cooking techniques. "We don't do any Escoffier dishes that you don't find in France today."
Between his busy schedule at Ritz-Escoffier and AIWF-Paris, Usher likes to spend weekends in the Loire Valley cooking, sipping, tasting and putting into practice what he knows and loves best: French cuisine.