Meeting Simka in Paris

The posting I wrote last week about my recent trip to Paris reminded me of one from many years ago when the International Association of Culinary Professionals had a regional meeting in that, my favorite city. There were so many stories from that trip including the surprise of running into my brother and sister-in-law who were staying at the very same hotel as I, and driving through France afterwards in a car of far too few chevaux with Shirley Corriher who has since documented some of the more hilarious episodes in her book CookWise. But the most unforgettable memory of the trip was meeting Simone Beck. This is the obituary that I wrote for the LA Times Syndicate in March, 1992 which tells the story:It is with great sadness that I have just learned of the recent death of Simone "Simca" Beck. Simca was one of the culinary greats who devoted her long life to the enjoyment, knowledge and teaching of food. It was she, together with Julia Child in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, who brought French culinary tradition to America, raising our culinary consciousness and changing forever the way in which we think about eating. I wish I could have had the chance to have known her better because she possessed three of my very favorite qualities: passion, devotion and irrepressible honesty. I only had the pleasure of meeting her once, but that occasion was memorable. It was at a meeting of the International Association of Cooking Professionals in Paris, several years ago. One of the events was a dinner at the venerable restaurant Taillevent. I heard that Simca would be a guest of honor at dinner and hoped for the chance to meet this culinary legend, not imagining more than a short introduction at best, considering the large number of people present at the meeting, some of whom, no doubt, already knew her and would be anxious to talk to her. I arrived early and decided to take a seat at the dinner table rather than stand in the anteroom chatting with friends over drinks. No one had yet entered the dining room but for some unaccountable reason I decided for once to sit alone and perhaps meet some new colleagues instead of gravitating as usual to the people I already knew. I remember thinking: "let's see who I will attract," when in walked Simca, all alone. She looked about the room and, to my amazement, instead of reserving a table for friends or acquaintances she came over and sat next to me. It was a gift from the Gods and a lesson in humility. There was I, congratulating myself on my fearless courage of sitting alone and there was Simca, more couragous still, coming over to sit next to a complete stranger! Soon other colleagues came pouring into the room and we were no longer alone. It was a delightful evening. The food was wonderful and the conversation still more delicious. Three statements of Simca's remain indeilible in my memory: She said that to remember the essence and taste of french food it was necessary to come back to France at least every other year. When we all agreed that one of the sauces was far too salty, it was Simca who called over the mâitre d', crooked her index finger at him and commanded him in no uncertain terms to tell the chef that the sauce was "trop salé." And finally, at the end of the evening she further warmed my heart by pronouncing that "most people in their life times will never speak French the way you do, not having been born in France," thus divining my greatest pride. In short, after one evening, I was awed by her and trusted her integrity absolutely. Our paths never crossed again, but when my Cake Bible was completed, I sent Simca an inscribed copy and she wrote me a treasured letter with the ultimate compliment: "not since our "bible" has one been written like this." The incredibly generous statement from her meant the world to me. I am grateful that Simca lived to complete and see published her wonderful memoires and recipes: Food and Friends. It has given me, as it will give the world, the chance to know her and her glorious food better. Note: When doing a spell check, the dictionary said that the word Simca was not in the dictionary and the suggested change was simmer! I think Simca would have enjoyed that!