When Lincoln Kirstein asked George Balanchine to move to the U.S. to start a ballet company, the young choreographer famously responded, “But first a school.” It was a savvy move for Balanchine. The School of American Ballet, after its founding in 1934, began to supply Balanchine with a steady crop of dancers trained in his method. Balanchine sometimes looked elsewhere for male talent, but the majority of his star ballerinas — from Maria Tallchief to Darci Kistler — were graduates of the school. The most famous exception to the rule was Violette Verdy, a French dancer whose recipes my friends and I sampled on September 1, at the fourth gathering of the Ballet Cook Book Dinner Series.
Verdy (born Nelly Guillerm in 1933) had trained at the Paris Opera as a child but at her mother’s insistence declined an offer to join the Paris Opera Ballet, which would have prevented the young dancer from securing a broad education. Verdy performed instead with companies such as Les Ballets des Champs-Elysées and Les Ballets de Paris before moving across the Atlantic to dance with American Ballet Theatre. When Balanchine telephoned her in 1958 with an invitation to join New York City Ballet, Verdy was taken completely by surprise: “He had a company of greyhounds and borzois, and I was a little French poodle,” she would later say. Balanchine, nonetheless, found a place for his poodle, choreographing a number of enduring roles — in Tschaikovsky Pas De Deux, Liebeslieder Walzer Emeralds, and La Source among others — that showed her impeccable technique, Old World charm, and unusually acute musicality.
We were drawn to Verdy because of her unique career, but her recipes were also enticing for reasons that had nothing to do with dancing. It’s clear, for starters, that food has figured prominently in her life. To call her quotations in the cookbook about her favorite dishes effusive would be a gross understatement, and she often speaks in food analogies. (In the 2009 documentary Violette Verdy: The Artist Teacher, for example, she compares Balanchine choreography to a perfect gourmet meal.) Furthermore, Antonio Carmena, our talented chef, and Susan LaRosa, our generous hostess, both studied at the French Culinary Institute and were eager to tackle more familiar fare. (Previous dinners had consisted of Russian, Southern, and Italian food.)
The evening’s menu was ambitious, featuring a total of six dishes, and preparation began early, at 3 p.m. (We had planned to include a seventh recipe, a garlic soup known as tourain blanchi, but we decided against it because of time constraints and the sweltering heat.) We were joined by regulars Jeff Gageby, Michael Pereira, Art Priromprintr, and Oliver Swan-Jackson, as well as two new guests of distinction: Alastair Macaulay, chief New York Times dance critic and a close friend, and Nancy Reynolds, research director of the George Balanchine Foundation. (Nancy, a new friend, had told me before the dinner by e-mail that Tanaquil Le Clercq, the author of The Ballet Cook Book, had been her first ballet teacher.)
Dinner began on a high note with a quiche lorraine, the recipe for which was passed on to Verdy from her mother. The ingredients — eggs, heavy cream, bacon, and Gruyère — were standard, but the instructions yielded a pie with a perfect taste and creamy texture. Instead of preparing one nine-inch quiche, as Verdy’s recipe dictates, the brilliant Antonio brought small pie tins and baked a small quiche for each guest. While we enjoyed the quiche as our first course, Nancy, who danced in the corps at New York City Ballet before leaving to pursue a career in publishing, told us of Verdy’s larger-than-life stage presence. Alastair spoke about Verdy’s life and surprised most of us by revealing that she had been married to the British writer and filmmaker Colin Clark, whose book My Week with Marilyn was made into a Hollywood movie last year.
The quiche was one of the meal’s triumphs. The entre, a confit de poulet, didn’t fare so well. The original recipe called for roasting the chickens in butter, but we found that they didn’t brown, as promised, and looked rather unappealing. Veering from the original recipe, Michael stepped in and sautéed the chickens to carmelize the skin for flavor and color.
The food group most lacking at these dinners, shockingly, has been vegetables, so veteran guests were beyond grateful for Verdy’s carottes au citron, a salad of grated carrots served on leaves of Bibb lettuce. What made the dish unusual was that it called for ground lemon, with the rind and seeds included. It was a refreshing foil to the dream endives Tante Jeanne, a casserole of boiled endives, bacon, ham, heavy cream, and Gruyère that was rooted in traditional French cuisine and that Susan and I both loved. In the cookbook, Verdy claims that she typically ate four or five of these rich treats in one sitting, but one each was more than enough for us.
After a cheese course, we sampled two desserts, pâte à chou and “Apples Verdy,” which turned into an applesauce instead of the promised carmelized apples but was tasty nonetheless. What Antonio served our guests was the day’s second batch of pâte à chou; the first crop had failed to rise, perhaps because of the humidity in the air. (We all enjoyed eating that mistake, with some strawberry jam.) During the dessert course, Alastair generously treated us to a bottle of Veuve Clicquot that had been given to him by the former Royal Ballet dancer Valerie Taylor, when Alastair was speaking at a memorial for Clive Barnes, Taylor’s late husband and one of Alastair’s predecessors at The Times. We raised our glasses to Barnes and Alan Kriegsman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post dance critic who had passed away the night before.
My only regret was that Verdy — a notoriously witty and articulate conversationalist — wasn’t at the table to enlighten us about these dishes and her career, but she was there in spirit. In July I sent an e-mail to Verdy at Indiana University, where she is on the faculty, to inform her of our dinner plans. Verdy’s assistant Robin promptly replied that Verdy was away in Portugal but had been made aware of our project and felt flattered we had chosen her. Verdy also passed along a message:
Thank you for thinking of me, and I would like to wish bon appétit to all your guests—enjoy!
And we did. The last of us left Susan’s home after 1 a.m.
Watch a video of the dinner preparation condensed to under four minutes:
Download the recipes: