Craig Claiborne: Knight in Shining Flatware

Eric Kuhn - January/February 1988

It's impossible to follow any sort of recipe when measuring Craig Claiborne's contribution to cuisine. From bringing regional cooking out of the backwater to making what was once exotic ethnic fare something we take for granted, he has led the American palate from its Dark Ages into the candlelight of four-star dining.

Claiborne has been our knight insisting on shining flatware and warmed dinner plates for over three decades. From the time he became restaurant critic and food editor at the newspaper of record, the New York Times, until he resigned in May, his pen has ushered in nearly all of New York's stellar restaurants, from La Caravelle and the Four Seasons to Shun Lee Dynasty and Lutèce.

Uncompromisingly exuberant and with the devotion of a truffle hog, Claiborne has presided over the evolution in the way we eat. And, if anything, we may no longer be voracious enough. To his thinking, "Food is something that people should get together and prepare for their enjoyment. Now it's too much about calories and nutrition. It's no fun."

Reflecting on his remarkable career, Claiborne is certain that he would do it all again. He might not repeat his attempt, in 1959, to show off a new kind of corkscrew at the Durbern restaurant in Bordeaux, when the wine gushed out the bottle's neck and over the ermine-draped girlfriend of esteemed wine merchant Alexis Lichine. But, at the same time, he is glad to have it all behind him.

"I had virgin territory to work with when I started," the 68-year-old gastronome recalls. Stepping from behind a veil of modesty familiar to his friends, Claiborne adds, "I was the first restaurant critic with a sound educational background in food preparation. There was rarely a dish I tasted in a restaurant that I was not able to go home and duplicate.

"But with restaurants proliferating the way they have over the last five years, thank God I'm not a critic anymore. It's so mind-boggling I couldn't endure it."

This is not the first time the most well-known name in the business has admitted to wearying of the task. He gave up restaurant criticism for the times in 1972 to start a short-lived food newsletter, the Craig Claiborne Journal, with his colleague Pierre Franey, whom he had known since 1959, when Franey was a chef at Henri Soulé's celebrated Le Pavillon.

In 1974, after the newsletter folded (lacking enough subscribers to keep it afloat), the Times called, and he returned with the stipulation that he not write about restaurants but concentrate on food and chefs. The deal included an advance to bail Claiborne and Franey out from the newsletter's debt. It was the beginning of the two men's collaboration for the Times, one that included cooking up features for its Sunday magazine.

Claiborne is nevertheless reticent about forecasting food fads. He shakes his head in wonder about the chocolate fondue fad of yore, and adds, "I never could have predicted the five-year interest in Cajun and Creole cuisine." To his Southern palate, the spicy cuisine's translation in the recent craze has been weak. ("A lot of chefs are terrified of burning their roux," he says. "A lot of it is too watery.")

Claiborne remains equally puzzled about ethnic foods that appear not to have caught on in this country. "I'm surprised that Vietnamese food has not become more popular," he says, conceding that Brazilian cuisine, especially his favorite feijoada, may be a bit heavy and eccentric for the American palate.

With his return to the Times, Claiborne's status grew to one of authority. He became the spirit of cuisine for the Times and its readers. Over the years he has bitten more than a few of the hands that fed him. But trying to find one that would slap him back is a bit like the challenge he faced searching for fresh basil 30 years ago.

"I have felt the sting and the feather of Mr. Claiborne, but it was always constructive," says restaurant consultant Joe Baum, of New York City's Aurora and the recently-renovated Rainbow Room.

"He certainly has given knowledge to me and our customers that has raised the level of taste in this profession."

There are those in the field, from cookbook authors to chefs, who might still be unknown if it were not for his encouragement and influence. Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan, chef/author Jacques Pépin, and Maida Heatter, whose dessert cookbooks have become bibles, were all relatively unknown when Claiborne sensed that their gifts should be shared.

The influence that brought Claiborne to where he is today began with his Indianola, Miss., childhood. He remembers his mother, Mary, as a natural cook with an "ability to divine the ingredients in dishes." Young Claiborne's playground was the kitchen in a boardinghouse his parents once ran. There, the black cooks introduced him to the rich variety of Southern cooking.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, Claiborne enrolled for a year at the École Hôtelière de la Societé Suisse des Hôteliers in Lausanne, Switzerland. Studying the elements of food preparation and table service on the Escoffier circuit has instilled in him the formal, classic standards he has adamantly maintained ever since.

Gael Greene, the novelist and restaurant critic for New York Magazine, recalls dining with Claiborne when she was writing a profile on him for Look magazine in 1958, just a year after he joined the Times. "He took me to a small Spanish restaurant to show me how he worked, and he demanded a warm plate," she says.

Their next meal was at Quo Vadis. Claiborne ordered kidneys and sent them back because he considered the portion too large. "I was appalled," Greene admits. "I had never heard of such a concept. He had that passion at a time when people were still eating pork chops, well-done."

When Clay Felker, New York magazine's founding editor, called her long afterward and asked Greene to join the magazine, she told him, "We have to do it the way the Times does it; at least three meals at each restaurant, and we have to pay for them." Felker agreed.

That Claiborne even got the job at the Times was ground-breaking in itself: When he succeeded Jane Nickerson, it was unheard of for a newspaperman to write about food. When Claiborne began walking his beat, writing brief notices of restaurants in the Directory-to-Dining column, there was no such thing as arugula, goat cheese, or fresh pasta available in markets or restaurants. He was the first to write about the now-indispensable Cuisinart when it had just landed on these shores from France as the Magimix.

"I didn't think anyone would buy it," he says in his genteel drawl.

Claiborne's influence had a way of getting swift results. After using his column to bemoan the lack of fresh pepper in restaurants, suddenly waiters were wielding large pepper mills. And when he wrote that "the only virtue to iceberg lettuce is that you can drop a head of it and it will bounce, "Boston lettuce appeared on menus all over town.

Some of the creative touches in restaurants that have opened during his reign have, in the gastronome's estimate, gone too far. For example, he abhors the crayons-and-paper-tablecloth fad certain restaurants have prolonged. "That's for the children, of course," he says. "I don't go to restaurants that cater to children."

Despite such experimentation, Claiborne sees an improvement in quality and service to match the resilient affluence in cities where tracking down new fare has become sport. "I finally found a restaurant that has a service plate on the table throughout the meal," he marveled at a recent find in New York City. The formality is one he has favored since his days in Lausanne.

"There's a quality about him that people don't usually talk about, which is patience," says Baum, who has become Claiborne's friend over the years. "He's able to recognize the innate value in things over time and express his opinion very clearly."

And there has been a subtlety to his crusade. When it was clear to him that egg rolls, for example, had become a less-than gustatory challenge, he prodded his readers to make the daring discovery of spring rolls. Now try to find a Chinese menu without them.

Claiborne can recollect a time when it was impossible to find a decent Chinese restaurant in midtown Manhattan, that is until Tsung Ting Wang opened Shun Lee Dynasty in 1965. There Claiborne discovered chicken soong, chicken wrapped in lettuce, now one of his favorites, and the cold sesame noodles that have since become so popular in take-out shops from coast to coast. He gave Shun Lee Dynasty three stars, called it "a wholly new concept in Chinese dining" for its elegance and departure from the standard, wor shu opp approach in Chinatown, and won the respect of New York City's Chinese population.

"I have simply reported what I thought was good food," he says. His obligation to readers over the years has included the caveat that the recipes he runs must only call for ingredients that are readily available. Not that this policy restricted Lyons master chef Paul Bocuse from once showing up in his kitchen with $200 worth of black truffles for a foie gras.

In Easthampton, Long Island, where he has lived for the past 25 years, the cuisine-savvy can spot Claiborne driving his BMW (the color of a blood orange) with "NYP-CC" press plates. Since his affectionate and bawdy send-off from the Times—held at the Four Seasons, where Andre Soltner of Lutèce and Barry Wine of the Quilted Giraffe, among others, prepared dishes including black bass with coriander and basil—Claiborne has been at home going over the next courses in his life's menu.

The house that centers around an enormous test kitchen is for sale. He plans to edit down and move to a smaller place in Easthampton, now that he no longer needs such massive installations as the built-in Indian tandoor oven (used once or twice only) or the one designed to turn out perfect Chinese roast pork. The sale will bring to a close an era of grand-scale entertaining, a time when guest lists comprised a veritable Who's Who of guess who came to dinner. Warner LeRoy, proprietor of Tavern on the Green, once took plum pudding to one of Claiborne's rarefied New Year's Eve parties; other guests have included Danny Kaye, Adolph Green and Betty Comden, Betty Friedan, Art Buchwald, Stephen Sondheim, Joseph Heller, and Charles Addams, the New Yorker cartoonist who hand-painted a ghoulish shark-fin–soup apron for a Claiborne birthday.

Claiborne's fondness for revelry, bourbon stingers, and martinis has made him a casualty of too much fun more than once. Gael Greene recalls an evening when her host played his favorite show tunes after dining on soufflé. They sang and danced until Claiborne tooka dangerous tumble down the stairs. He recovered, she says, with the aplomb of a perfect host.

Although the kitchen laboratory has welcomed experiments from everyone from nouvelle-cuisine superstar Jean Troisgros to the relatively unknown Virginia Lee, who so captivated Claiborne that they collaborated on The Chinese Cookbook in 1972, it has also sheltered some monsters. Calves heads from an unsuccessful tête de veau vinaigrette in 1977, tossed by Franey into the bay as a treat for the seagulls, mysteriously washed up on the shore to the horrified panic of neighbors, until someone thought to call Claiborne and ask him what was cooking.

Travel is a prominent fixture in Claiborne's plans these days, with a trip to Russia just behind him and one to China coming up in the spring. The meals and experiences he digests will undoubtedly fuel his next writings.

An article on his favorite foods will appear in GQ this winter, and he's finishing a new book on dining etiquette for William Morrow and Company. (Beginning with his new York Times Cookbook in 1961, his books have sold millions of copies.) Tentatively subtitled A Victorian's Guide to Dining in the Twentieth Century, it draws on his training in Switzerland and attacks peeves he has sharpened in a life of closely-observed, memorable meals. An exclusive preview appears here.

"I haven't had a chance to sit down and think," he said recently of his less-than-idle schedule. His words were punctuated by more phone calls, one from a California radio station requesting an interview. He excused himself as though he couldn't understand why they were calling him, of all people, just a food writer the White House once employed to plan lunch and dinner menus for a Western nations economic summit meeting, an event that, typically, was not without incident: the dishes were prepared by top American chefs and, transporting them from the truck, over-cautious secret service men accidentally dropped Maida Heatter's Key lime pies, but there were just enough to go around in the end.

"He still thinks he's in Mississippi or some damn place," says Ralph Daniels, the Miami Beach restaurateur married to Heatter. "He's always amazed at what he's achieved."