On Friday evening a few years back, the Club de la Tête de Veau– an archaic institution devoted to the consumption of the tongue, cheek, brain and snout of a young cow – gathered its members around a long table in a second floor room at La Grande Cascade, a Belle Epoque restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne. The club’s annual feast had been pushed forward a few days from its usual date to accommodate the Bocuse d’Or – France’s culinary Academy Awards – which were taking place that weekend in Lyon.
Club President Pierre Rival stood at the foot of the table in a striped red velvet three-piece suit. “Citoyens! Citoyennes! Citoyens! Citoyennes!” he announced with an authority more court jester than king. Rival – a restaurant critic and regular contributor to business daily Les Echos, among other publications – eyed the two-dozen friends seated before him. “The Republic,” he bellowed with oratorical gusto, “is always in danger – enemies everywhere – from the left, the right, the center.” A pause. Then a flurry of laughter. “Well,” he continued, “we are here to defend it, and to defend it we are going to perform rites from the birth of the Republic. That is, the ingestion of the tête de veau.”
Since he founded the club in 2001, its self-proclaimed president-for-life has been organizing the annual tête de veau banquet, every January 21st if he can (Louis XVI was executed on January 21st, 1793), to pay tongue-in-cheek homage to the dawn of the French Republic. Beside him at that particular dinner sat his beefy, softly-spoken sidekick, club vice president and Le Monde restaurant critic Jean-Claude Ribaut. Among the left-leaning cross-section of Parisian foodies joining the two critics that night were fellow journalists, a book publisher, a lawyer, a psychotherapist, a plastic surgeon, two community organisers, a telecom executive, a deputy mayor of Paris, and the food and beverage director for a major restaurant chain.
“Oh, we’ve said bad things, it happens from time to time,” Rival said. “We said bad things about Nobu for instance… didn’t we?” Laughter. “It was Hiroshima,” agreed Ribaut. “The restaurant was destroyed.”
“I know you are asking,” continued Rival, “what does tête de veauhave to do with the republic? Well, let me remind you…”
Europe’s original Calves’ Head Club – Rival’s spiritual forebears – was first convened across the Channel in 17th century England to pay sneering tribute to fallen tyrant Charles I, decapitated on January 30, 1649. The group – Oliver Cromwell was said to have been a member – gathered every year on that date for alcohol-fueled revelry and a menu that generally included pike (a bully among fish) along with a calf’s head, more blatantly representing the fallen tyrant. Like-minded French Républicains adopted similar rituals after King Charles’ continental cousin Louis lost his head more than a century later.
“In the republic of our dreams,” boomed Rival, as his audience dug into an amuse-bouche of tuna tartare with soy consommé, “there are no heads, only citizens. If we eat, as we are going to, this tête de veau, it’s because we must consume this thing that wants to impose itself on us, which we are forced to do year after year, because it grows back the head.” Pause. Laughter. “It’s terrible, there’s always a new one.”
Rival’s tête de veau dinners – the first held at Alain Ducasse’s Parisian bistro Aux Lyonnais – change venue annually. One year the group was hosted by Michelin-starred Stella Maris, whose Japanese chef specializes in very old-fashioned French cuisine. They later dined at the same innards-centric bistro where French Communist Party leader Georges Marchais ate his retirement dinner.
Ribaut and Rival chose La Grande Cascade for this particular meal after dining at the restaurant shortly after its chef, Frédéric Robert, had taken over the kitchen. Robert was once the deputy to Alain Senderens, the controversial chef who, back in 2005, returned the three Michelin stars he’d held at his restaurant Lucas-Carton for more than two decades.
For the tête de veau feast, Robert dug deep into his recipe bank, unearthing classic preparations. His incandescent pike and egg-white quenelles were gratinéed under the grill then presented with creamy Nantua sauce, crawfish, and black trumpet mushrooms. “What is the pike?” Rival pondered aloud to the group. “It is the tyrant of the river. Yes, citoyens et citoyennes, the pike consumes a monstrous amount of carp. And from that fact we get these marvelous quenelles.”
Over dinner Ribaut and Rival offered some insight into their profession as practiced in France. “If we don’t like a place, we don’t speak about it, its not blood sport,” said Rival, who, like most of his colleagues, books tables under his own name and has many chef friends. “We’re humanitarians,” continued Ribaut. “We’re there to make recommendations.” They attacked their quenelles as if they hadn’t eaten in days. “Oh, we’ve said bad things, it happens from time to time,” Rival said. “We said bad things about Nobu for instance… didn’t we?” Laughter. “It was Hiroshima,” agreed Ribaut. “The restaurant was destroyed.” (Nobu’s Paris branch closed a few years back).
Suddenly there was a swell of applause. A waiter had emerged from the kitchen with a whole steaming calf’s head on a silver tray. It lay on a bed of parsley, ears clipped, tongue protruding from between its teeth. Once the critics had posed with the head for the digital camera brigade, it returned to the kitchen to be parceled into individual portions.
Tête de veau is often presented, like headcheese, as a ground, pressed, or rolled terrine. Robert’s whole head recipe – tête de veau en tortue – dates to the Middle Ages and involved a court-bouillon simmerwith vegetables and bits of sweetbread and brain. The accompanying fresh herb sauce tortue combined basil, tarragon, marjoram and lemon thyme with coriander, butter, and cornichons. Onto each plate Robert portioned a snippet of snout, a few slices of brain and big hunks of cheek under gelatinous layers of cartilage and fat. On and around the meat were miniature croutons, pearl onions, tournéed potatoes, artichoke hearts, carrots, capers, scallions, and slivered green olives.
“Of all the tête de veauwe’ve eaten I think we can say this is the best,” gushed Rival. “The veal,” seconded an appreciative guest, “was not killed for nothing.”
With plates cleared, the revolutionary singing began. Rival’s a capella baritone gave way to the soprano stylings of Paris Deputy Mayor Daniele Auffray, who performed “Les Temps des Cerises”, a ballad beloved of the Paris Commune. Then came the baba au rhum and fat Cuban cigars. The chef in his whites emerged from the kitchen. “Frédéric Robert is one of the great chefs, not just Parisian but French,” said Rival. “He enchanted us for ten years at Lucas Carton – discreetly you could say. The initiated knew where the good dishes came from… Thank you, Frédéric.”
Jay Cheshes is a Manhattan-based crime, food and travel writer who contributes weekly to Time Out New York. Follow him on Twitter at @jchesh