by Len Lear
“The chef, all billowy in white, navigated his dining room like a ship under sail, greeting the few customers. When he arrived at our table, he docked himself in the extra chair and let out a great sigh. ‘One snowflake falls, everyone stays home. No customers. No delivery trucks.’
“Months after my article on Philadelphia had appeared in Travel Holiday, the city was recovering from a winter cold snap that had put the region into a kind of cryogenic suspension. When the cold abated, my wife and I resolved to raise our spirits by venturing out to Deux Cheminées, a restaurant well regarded in our region but one we had never tried.
“It was just the ticket: remarkable food and wine in the not-too-formal surroundings of the former Princeton Club. The waiters wore their tuxedos without pomposity, and fires blazed cheerfully in several fireplaces. We did not want our meal to end, but when it did, we were consoled by the unexpected arrival of the chef.
“Visiting tables is a custom the Troisgros family introduced in the 1950s at their restaurant near Lyon. Visiting tables to grumble, as Chef Fritz Blank seemed in the mood to do that evening, might be peculiar to Philadelphia, a place where grousing is endemic.
“‘You’re in a cruel line of work, Chef,’ I said, wanting to commiserate. Blank leaned forward. His ruddy skin and the short English toque he wore low on his brow gave him a fierce aspect, but his blue eyes were merry.
‘“Don’t get me started,’ he said, forgetting that he had been ranting about this and that for several minutes. ‘Do you know the saying about Philadelphia’s four rivers?’
“We did not.
“‘Well, there’s the Delaware, right?’
“‘And the Schuylkill?’
“‘And the Wissahickon?’
“The Wissahickon was really a creek, not a river, but we didn’t quibble.
“‘And the fourth. . . .’ Blank raised a corner of his apron and pretended to wipe a tear from his cheek. ‘The fourth river,’ he said with quavering voice, ‘is the tears of the chefs!’”
This is just one of many wonderful anecdotes found in the recently published book, “Chef Fritz and His City: My Education in the Master’s Kitchen,” by Samuel Young, 75, who lived with his wife, Risa, on Benezet Street in Chestnut Hill and later on Sprague Street in Mt. Airy from 1987 to 2005. (Risa grew up on Chestnut Hill Avenue.) No less an author than John Berendt , whose 1994 non-fiction opus, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” was on the New York Times’ best-seller list for 216 weeks, wrote this in a review of Young’s new book:
“Sam Young’s marvelously readable ‘Chef Fritz and His City’ has all the ingredients of a foodie classic: a finely drawn portrait of an innovative, somewhat quirky chef; a knowledgeable overview of the gastronomic environment; an engagingly involved narrator; and scenes of food and its preparation so real they induce hunger pangs. Five stars!”
A native of West Chester, Young has been a writer, editor, publisher, photographer and photography editor, principally for magazines. His work has appeared in Holiday, Travel Holiday, Town & Country and Connoisseur, among other publications, on subjects ranging from food and travel to art, architecture, music and the paranormal. The latter interest resulted in “Psychic Children,” a seminal book in the field, first published in 1977.
A Harvard graduate, Young currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he resides with his wife of 18 years, artist and designer Risa Benson. He remains an avid cook, thanks in large measure to the tutelage of Chef Fritz. In recent years, he and Benson have taken up the Argentine tango, a pursuit Young finds nearly as complex, inexhaustible and rewarding as the world of gastronomy. Young might even write a book on the subject.
Having interviewed chef Fritz, who is now 74, a few times myself and dined with my wife at Deux Cheminées, 1221 Locust St., a few times (a vegetarian restaurant, Vedge, is there now), I can readily see why he would make an enticing subject for a book. A virtual quote machine, the voluble Fritz liked to tell stories almost as much as he liked to prepare haute cuisine.
And he might have had the largest privately owned library of cookbooks in the country, more than 10,000. In 2007 Fritz, a South Jersey native who began his career as a microbiologist, closed Deux Cheminées after 28 years there, donated his enormous culinary library to Penn and retired to a farm in coastal Thailand.
In the course of writing the book, Young was in Fritz’ kitchen once or several times a week, attending his cooking classes or being a fly on the wall when he hosted interesting visitors or was preparing for special occasions. He also made food forays with Fritz to Lancaster County and the Kutztown Festival, to Oxford, UK, and Oxford, Mississippi.
Young took notes over a span of about 10 years, and the writing took three years. “Fritz was a walking library of information about every aspect of food I could imagine,” Sam said last week, “and some aspects I had never imagined.”
What are the most important/interesting things Young learned from Fritz about cooking and the restaurant business? “Fritz put great store in how food should taste. He had little concern about the appearance of a dish, scorning elaborate presentations. He would say that the restaurant business today is more about show than taste, and I tend to agree with him, though of course there are still chefs around with great integrity.”
“Chef Fritz and His City” is published in paperback, 228 pages, by Terra Nova Books (www.terranovabooks.com). It is available at Amazon.com ($14.95, #978-1-938288-37-1) or at Barnes & Noble ($14.95, #ISBN 978-1-938288-37-1). Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org