The Quiet Force Behind France’s Cultural Diplomacy

by Katherine E. Tallmadge
The Washington Diplomat

I

Earlier this year, Francis Layrle was asked to prepare a nice, cozy dinner for fifty. This was not some random assortment of Washingtonians. Rather it was a collection of the city’s heaviest hitters, including Alan Greenspan, Katharine Graham, Jim Hoagland, Larry Summers, and Michel Camdesus. All had been enticed to the French ambassador’s residence for a private dinner.

Mindful of the notion that the best way to the hearts and minds of the world’s most powerful is through their stomachs, the French embassy goes all out to provide unforgettable meals.  Great food and fine wine are the aphrodisiacs the French apply to nourish diplomatic relationships. They soften the mood and lull guests into a state of food-induced receptivity, a wonderful way to make a diplomatic point or to advance a commercial endeavor. And at this seductive culinary ritual, no one can touch the French.

The quiet, unnoticed man at the center of France’s cultural diplomacy most evenings is Francis Layrle, arguably the most important diplomat at the French embassy. He’s certainly been here the longest. While ambassadors have come and gone, Layrle, the 47-year-old Chef de Cuisine, has created a four-star empire unmatched by any restaurant in Washington, and perhaps the United States.

But Layrle does not take reservations. Dinners are tightly restricted to those exclusive and prestigious few: invitation only. He’s so good and so few have had the opportunity to experience his creative talents, he is virtually unknown in Washington, unless you’re high on Washington’s A-list, a world power broker, international artiste, or movie star.

From Layrle’s command post at the French Ambassador’s residence in Washington’s tony Kalorama neighborhood, he is the master of one of the most glamorous dining rooms in Washington. He has been pleasing some of the planet’s most demanding palettes and ample egos for 25 years. Guests at his table have included American secretaries of state from Kissinger to Albright, French presidents from D’Estaing to Chirac, and such luminaries as Catherine Deneuve and Yves Montand. Last year, President Jacque Chirac awarded him the Chevalier de L’Ordre National du Merite, for distinguished service to his country — a high distinction usually reserved for businessmen and public servants — and almost unheard of for a chef. This is an illustration of the premium the French place on Layrle’s contribution to its diplomatic mission and success in the United States.

In his chef whites and jeans, Layrle’s simple and relaxed attitude belies his star status. On this night, he and his two assistants are concluding preparations for the embassy’s elegant black tie dinner for 50. The kitchen is surprisingly subdued given that such a grand affair is looming. This reflects Layrle’s quiet confidence, and vast experience.  Just another day at the office.

Tonight’s menu reflects Layrle’s Gascony roots and French sensibilities: Consomme Henri IV with black truffle quenelles and golden chanterelle mushrooms, foie gras with winter fruit garnish and port wine reduction, muscovy duck breasts with mandarines and blood oranges, and chocolate fondant with vanilla spice ice cream over caramelized pistachio nuts.

The day-long cooking ritual and the mouth-watering results illustrate Layrle’s uncompromising perfectionism, organization, and creativity. The preparations began when most of the guests were still eating breakfast, with Layrle and his sous chef, Vincent Riviere, and assistant Marie Mondueri, nonchalantly dividing and sharing tasks. A seasoned team, Layrle and his assistants make everything look easy. But it’s taken years to achieve this level of skill and execution. The morning cooking began with Layrle refining the hen consumme, Riviere sauteeing and roasting duck bones for the duck’s mandarines sauce, and Mondueri preparing the creme anglaise, which would eventually become the evening’s ice cream.

Every kitchen has a distinct personality, which usually emanates from the executive chef. Layrle maintains an open and respectful atmosphere. Jokes and banter are exchanged with occasional swells of soft laughter. There’s some family talk about who’s just had babies, who’s out of a job. Layrle takes the occasional cigarette break in his tiny, cramped institutional office, noting his daughter’s distaste for the habit. Visits and phone calls from advice-seeking chefs and family members are handled with ease. Madame Bujon de L’Estang, the ambassador’s wife, pokes her head downstairs a couple of times to confer with Layrle.

But these minor distraction don’t interrupt the pace. By early evening, virtually everything has been prepared but there will be a last minute rush of final touches when the guests arrive at 8:00 p.m. With a little time to spare before show time, Layrle goes upstairs to check the wines from the embassy’s extensive wine cellar. A Chateau Suduiraut 1989 with the Foie Gras (valued at $50/bottle), Chateau La Conseillante 1988 with the duck ($75/bottle), and Champagne Louis Goederer with dessert. Perfect.

Finally, the concierge announces the first guests have arrived.  Layrle and his team commence the final intense preparations. For a perfect meal such as this, much must be saved for the last minute.

Upstairs, as the guests are greeted warmly by Ambassador Francois Bujon de L’Estang and his wife and served Champagn Rose. Downstairs, Layrle directs his team quietly but intensely: Riviere sautees large shrimps in olive oil with a touch of rosemary until they are perfectly cooked and remain tender. Mondueri fetches the silver platters on which greens are spread before Layrle arranges the shrimp with toothpicks on top. The trays are immediately whisked upstairs by efficient waiters in black tie. More trays are assembled, some with duck proccuitto. They disappear as quickly as they’re assembled.

Each course proceeds in this fashion. The consomme, foie gras, caneton aux mandarines, and the fondant au chocolat, are quickly heated, plated, and whisked upstairs at a frenetic, yet organized pace, with hardly a word spoken.

This high level of entertaining is crucial for the French embassy and Layrle was the quiet and unassuming star of the evening. While Greenspan, Graham, and Summers may not have been aware of who was responsible for their astonishing meal, their hosts certainly were.

“He’s in the top category of French chefs around the world,” says Ambassador Bujon de L’Estang, whose references to Layrle are laced with superlatives.

“The ambassador likes to think he’s the most important person in the embassy, but I know the most important person is the chef,” says Bujon de L’Estang, a self-described gourmand.

The ambassador’s wife underscores the importance of Layrle’s contribution.

“When Francis is in charge, I never have to worry. Everything will be perfect,” says Mrs. Bujon de L’Estang, who helps Layrle design the menus.

“People are expecting to have a very good meal and to experience French style,” says Mrs. Bujon de L’Estang.  “Everybody expects more from France,” she explains.

II

French diplomats from across the ages have recognized the importance of entertaining with fine food and wine, celebrating this as an integral, even critical, component of diplomacy:

An ambassador’s “table should be served neatly, plentifully, and with taste,” said Francois de Callieres, a celebrated 18th century French diplomat.

“He should give frequent entertainments and parties to the chief personages of the Court and even to the Prince himself. A good table is the best and easiest way of keeping himself well informed. The natural effect of good eating and drinking is the inauguration of friendships and the creation of familiarity, and when people are a trifle warmed by wine they often disclose secrets of importance,” said Callieres, author of De la maniere de negocier avec les Souverains.

The French embassy in Washington has taken Callieres’ sage advice to heart. No other embassy in town is more effective at using culture and food to seduce visitors, introduce views and products, sell lifestyles and opinions, and quietly push policies to the powerful and influential.

The embassy conducts its cultural diplomacy on two fronts. First, there is the public outreach which is advanced by a blizzard of public events at the Maison Francais, a large theater and ballroom showcasing French art, music, and culture. The embassy also publishes a glitzy magazine, called “France,” which showcases the French lifestyle.

Most critically, the embassy is engaged in intense private diplomacy which centers around a number of dinners and receptions at the residence. Here, VIP guests are ushered into the astonishing Tudor mansion, served a four – star meal for the ages, lubricated with rare and unusual French wines, and seduced by the full panoply of French culture and tradition.

No embassy is better at this one – two punch of public and private diplomacy. And while the public events are truly impressive, it is the private diplomacy that is especially effective at laying the foundation for cordial relations and serious deal-making with Washington’s power elite  And it is in the realm of this private diplomacy that France’s remarkable chef, Francis Layrle, looms large.

“The most important weapon the French ambassador has is his chef,” says Jacqueline Grapin, president of the European Institute, a European American think tank based in Washington. ”He entertains the most important people in Washington and their weaknesses are obviously fine French cuisine.”

Grapin adds that having a good lunch or dinner and a fine wine is the beginning of mutual understanding. Entertaining is a way for the ambassador to showcase French culture and for the guests to feel closer to France, thus narrowing the cultural gap that separates Americans and the French.

“I am always impressed that people that go to the embassy feel much closer to France and French culture,” says Grapin.

The ambassador acknowledges that the embassy has become very accomplished in its entertaining, but fears this sometimes obscures the more prosaic diplomatic work it does. But he is in no hurry to alter the embassy’s strong entertainment traditions. He says France is particularly well known for food, quality of living, and elegance, so the entertaining they do must reflect this.

“Entertaining is only part of what we do but we attach a lot of importance to it,” says Bujon de L’Estang. ”We are perfectionists. Either we do things very well or we don’t do them at all,” he says.

Everyone who attended last year’s Washington Opera Ball will acknowledge that the French can turn entertainment into a rare art form. It was hailed as one of the most unforgettable opera balls ever. Designed by Christian Lacroix, it was a stunningly elegant display of art, style, and haute couture.

But most of the entertaining at the embassy is less spectacular, more intimate, and more finely calibrated to appeal to the power elite.

“France occupies a certain role in the world and it’s important that social life practiced by the embassy live up to that role,” says Jim Hoagland, Washington Post associate editor and syndicated columnist.

Hoagland cites Layrle as a key ingredient to France’s successful entertaining.

“Francis has established himself as a major figure not only in Washington’s culinary world, but in that all important sense of style we’ve come to expect at the French embassy. As an executive chef, he certainly does more than cook. Francis helps Ambassador Bujon make the residence a real home that a guest enjoys visiting,” says Hoagland.

III

Sitting in his tiny basement office in the French Ambassador’s residence on an early spring day, Layrle is friendly, engaging, and refreshingly unaffected. Serene, even subdued, Layrle is very modest and needs significant prompting before he will recount his many years at the top of French haute cuisine.

A well-built 5’10″, Laryrle has an olive Mediteranean complexion, dark eyes, and thick salt and pepper hair. His casual bearing reflects his pastoral roots. He was raised on his family’s farm in Gascony, in southwest France, in a large extended family. He enjoyed cooking with his grandmother, but never intended to become a professional chef. At age 16 he entered the Pyrenees Culinary School in Southwest France to get into management and become an entrepreneur like his father, but he soon gravitated toward cooking.

“I got along well with the chefs and discovered a love for every aspect of cooking,” says Layrle.

After he graduated, he went to work in the country’s different regions. A key objective of French cooking is to highlight each region’s distinctive products, their unique produce, wines, and cheeses. Layrle embraces this tradition enthusiastically.

“Every region has its own identity,” says Layrle, “It was the best way to discover my country and its heritage.”

Layrle worked in two- and three – star restaurants in Alsace and Provence for a year. He then returned to Gascony where he worked with Maurice Conscuella, who trained at the world-famous restaurant, La Pyramide, owned by Fernand Point, the father of French nouvelle cuisine. There, Layrle says, he learned more than cooking.

“Sensibility for a chef is more essential than technique. All five senses: sound, touch, smell, sight, and finally the palette, will inform you better on the evolution of a dish instead of the strict observation of the culinary rules,” says Layrle, in heavily accented French in his most esoteric French chef – style.

When Layrle was summoned to do his year of French military service, the general of the army in Toulouse hand-picked the 20-year-old to be his chef. They got along famously.

“It was a fabulous time for me,” says Layrle, “I had the chance to work with someone with a very open mind. We were such a great team that the general became eager to invite people to his table,” says Layrle.

As his military service was coming to a close, the general told Layrle about a job at the French embassy in Washington. The general bought Layrle a train ticket to Paris where he traveled to meet the ambassador. Just hours after the meeting, he was cooking the ambassador’s family a luncheon of cheese souffle, veal saute a l’ancienne, and profiteroles with chocolate. They must have appreciated the meal because three weeks later he was in Washington working at the embassy. He has been here ever since.

Layrle relishes the freedom to be creative, try new products, and never repeat a dish. The ambassadors he has served under have been wise enough to give him that freedom and have only asked that he prepare meals that reflect the best of France’s culinary traditions.

Layrle draws his inspiration from the masters of 17th, 18th, and 19th century French cuisine: Bonnefons, La Varenne, and Menon. ”They were geniuses. They had fantastic imagination,” says Layrle.

Layrle scours the United States and Europe for the best suppliers of everything.

“There is excellent product here in the United States, but it’s hard to find,” says Layrle, adding he is more than willing to look far afield to find the very best.

He buys fresh wild game from Scotland, foie gras from France, “real” Dover Sole from Dover, fresh produce, eggs and poultry from the Amish. Of course, being French, everything he buys must be organic, free range, hormone- and pesticide – free. His suppliers consider him demanding, but are willing to go the extra mile for him because he is unfailingly cordial and enjoys experimenting with their new products. He was one of the first French chefs to try Ostrich. But he doesn’t tolerate anything but the best. He recently fired his supplier of haricots verts when a shipment came too dry.

“I can function as long as I have fantastic product. Then I have more imagination and an appetite to do things,” says Layrle. He believes in a cooking style which respects each individual ingredient so it stands out and maintains its own flavor.

“The respect of the true taste of things guides you to make simple dishes,” says Layrle. ”Some chefs use too many ingredients. I like simple things. If there’s one too many elements it can upset the balance. Then you no longer respect the product,” says Layrle.

His obsession with good products has earned him many devotees among chefs in the area, who have benefited from his exhaustive research and experimentation. When Jean-Louis Palladin and Daniel Boulud — celebrated four-star chefs today — first came to Washington 20 years ago, it was Layrle they turned to to help them get started.

“It was fantastic to have Francis help us,” says Palladin, formerly of Jean-Louis at the Watergate.

“After that we became very good friends and one, two, three times a week, I was at the French embassy to take coffee with him and to see what he was doing,” says Palladin.

The highly-awarded Boulud also praises Layrle.

“Francis was the man who could explain everything about how to get started as a chef in Washington,” says Boulud, who was recently in Washington signing his new book, “Daniel Boulud’s Cafe Boulud Cookbook.”

Layrle reflects on the success of his friends Jean-Louis and Daniel, and muses about striking out on his own. He has had many offers to leave the embassy and start his own restaurant, even an offer to be head chef at the Reagan White House, but something always holds him back.

“It’s a lot of sacrifice to run a restaurant. You have to give up your family life,” says Layrle wistfully. ”I want a normal life.”

Layrle lives with his wife, Catherine, and 14 year old daughter, Magali, in Glen Echo Maryland. Magali enjoys the time with her dad, especially cooking together.

“We like having him around,” says Magali. ”If he was in a restaurant we wouldn’t have the family life we have now,” says Magali.

Nonetheless, his friends think he should strike out on his own and enjoy the professional and financial opportunities that would come from having his own restaurant.

“While it’s very good for the ambassador, in a way it’s sad Francis is at the embassy. He could own a restaurant and be the number one chef in Washington,” says Palladin.

But Palladin, who owns the restaurants Palladin, in New York City, and Napa Restaurant in Las Vegas, sympathizes with his friend’s choice as well.

“Francis wants to live his life the way he wants to live his life. He’s laid back. He’s been able to avoid the tough time of owning a restaurant and for him, it’s fantastic. He’s cooking the best food in the world for the lucky ambassador,” says Palladin.

Layrle also leaves this possibility open, but is not anxious to join the rough and tumble world of the overworked celebrity chef, where losing some control over his dishes is inevitable and his ideals of perfection would be eroded by the press of business. Layrle is not interested in that kind of compromise.

IV

It is a Wednesday morning in February and one of France’s legendary artists, Marcel Marceau, is in town for a rare engagement at the Kennedy Center. The French embassy has seized on his visit to do a little cultural diplomacy. Not surprisingly, a small private luncheon at the residence has been arranged for Marceau. This is the perfect excuse to invite a select group over and impress them with French art de vivre.

Layrle has been called upon to prepare a very special meal and has decided to serve Asian – French fusion cuisine. The first course, he explains, is designed to produce a “burst of flavor.” He is making a lobster and sea urchin consomme with an infusion of lemongrass and garlic. It will be poured over sauteed greens, grilled scallops and steamed lobster.

The main course is sauteed artichoke hearts, mushrooms, and sweetbreads with partridge breast, foie gras and truffle juice.

The fresh wild partridge arrived from Scotland yesterday and Layrle has spent hours patiently picking out bead-sized gun pellets from the 20 tiny carcasses.  He admits his work is greatly increased by using wild game, “but it’s much more interesting to work with,” he explains.

“I don’t want domesticated. The wild ones have so much more flavor. They’re tender and young — and guaranteed organic,” says Layrle.

He moves on to the fresh black truffles which will be used in a light sauce over the partridge and foie gras. He closes his eyes and takes a whiff.

“It’s going to be exquisite. The truffles are powerful,” he says.

The dessert today will be apple, apricot and pear beignets with granny smith apple sorbet: a delightful balance of tart and sweet, crunchy and creamy, hot and cold. Long lengths of peeled apple skin are deep fried, sprinkled with powdered sugar and used as a whimsical garnish atop each dollop of freshly made sorbet.

The wines selected are Les Clous 1996 from Aubert de Villaine with the consomme, Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru 1993 with the partridge.

The meal is a spectacular success, an intoxicating blend of subtle flavors and textures. The guest of honor, Marceau, calls for Layrle and offers his warmest compliments.

“What I like is to please. I don’t want to impress,” says Layrle as he plans his next masterpiece.

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