Food Arts presents the January/February 1997 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Andrée Abramoff, the chef/owner/whirling dervish of New York City's Café Crocodile who steered the ship of aromatic Mediterranean culinary culture from its multinational ports of call and into American waters years before that region became the rage in U.S. restaurants.
“She introduced the Mediterranean as a unit, as being something beyond France, Spain, and Italy,” says food writer/author Mimi Sheraton. “She brought to it a vision of North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. And she does it in a homemade way rather than something that is slickly professional, which is part of its charm. hers is a traditional cuisine, a cuisine de femme.
Abramoff’s food reflects a natural distillation of influences tapped from her family’s ethnic tree. Born to a French father and a Turkish/Greek mother whose family also had roots in Spain and Albania, she was raised in Cairo’s Euro-sophisticated Sephardic Jewish community. “I’m Mediterranean all the way,” Abramoff says. She met her Russian Jewish husband, Charlie, in his hometown of Alexandria, and married him in Paris, where they had moved after all French and English national were expelled from Egypt during the 1956 Suez Crisis. She worked in Paris as an editor for medical and scientific journals and then reluctantly moved to New York City, where Charlie desired to continue his chemical engineering studies. “I said that once he graduated, we’d go back to France, but once he did graduate, I didn’t want to,” she recalls. The course of contemporary cuisine in America is thankful for that decision.
It’s hard to imagine a time when such menu staples as couscous, lamb shanks, bulghur wheat, pita bread, chickpeas, and harissa—indeed, the whole concept of pan-Mediterranean cuisine—were a vast unknown. But such was the case before Abramoff stirred together savory memories of Egypt, of France, of her Sephardic upbringing, and of the broad, polyglot Mediterranean society that clung to prewar Cairo and Alexandria, and, at the urging of friends, opened Andrée’s Mediterranean Catering in 1973, and, two years later, Andrée’s Mediterranean Cooking Class (where a young Danny Meyer once studied). The school became so successful that the Abramoffs had to move to a town house several blocks uptown on East 4th Street, where, at the suggestion of her students, she opened a restaurant in her house called Andrée’s Mediterranean Cuisine in April 1978.
“When we opened and I told people it was a Mediterranean restaurant, they would ask, ‘What is Mediterranean?’” she recalls. “They would say, ‘Oh, you mean Italian,’ because in those days Mediterranean only meant Italian.”
“Mediterranean cuisine, as established as it is now, was nothing then. Pan-Mediterranean, the common flavors and ingredients of the whole area—fresh vegetables, olive oil, grains, and exotic spices—was what I did.”
Charlie, after working his day job as a chemical engineer, stood as host in the 30-seat, BYOB, sub-street-level dining room, and teenage daughters Monique and Jacqueling worked as the waitstaff (“My mom wants you to taste this,” was the instruction one review noted receiving from one of the girls).
The blissful quietude of the family restaurant was shattered in 1979 by “Andrée’s fairy godmother” in the person of then-New York Times reporter Patricia Wells, whose front-page Living Section feature on the restaurant and Abramoff’s mixed Mediterranean cooking started a stampede of customers that impelled the immediate acquisition of extra tables, chairs, linens, china and sliver Success bred fame. Abramoff, whom the French critic Christian Millau once called “La Mère Méditerranée,” was placed in the company of André Soltner, Seppi Renggli, Lidia Bastianich, Larry Forgione, and Jean-Jacques Rachou, among others, for the 1984-85 PBS television show New York’s Master Chefs. The lamb shank she made for the show propelled the wave of cheap cuts of meats on menus that has yet to crest.
A progressive professional upgrading of the restaurant, including wine and liquor licenses and redecoration, led to its reincarnation as Café Crocodile in 1988. Wells gave Abramoff another boost when she rated Café Crocodile as one of the top three casual restaurants in the United States in a 1993 article for the International Herald Tribune. Abramoff’s food now is more Provençal, less pan-Mediterranean, but still exhibits an active hand; she makes all the specials, most of the desserts, and works the line. “Most of the tricky stuff,” she exclaims, “is still me.”