One last time, dinner and talk with Chef Fritz

Posted: May 06, 2007

This was going to be my finale dinner with Chef Fritz, my last at his Deux Chemineés, closing for good on June 9, though I'd surely see him again. (I'd be back to paw over the Dehilleran copper pots he's selling off, and pick one more time at his estimable brain: Fritz Blank wasn't dying, after all, just packing it in and moving far away, to Thailand.)

So, I am mildly taken aback by his dreary get-up - a flapping chef's jacket the length of a lab coat, and white kitchen sneakers: Should I have skipped the blazer? Worn my jeans?

It's his contrast with the formal venue: On the table, a candle flickers in a silvered holder; a narrow vase offers two pink rosebuds. There are the requisite fireplaces and prim sconces, the dark paneling and melancholy light, the old Furness mansion's past life as the Princeton Club (né 1914) still seeping from its bones. (There are even unused squash courts in the rear, a waiter notes when Blank table-hops, greeting pooh-bahs of the Philadelphia Singers, long the object of his affection and patronage.)

Blank, 65, lives here, three floors up, with a cat named Bo-Bo, 15,000 cookbooks - scholarly works and folk cookery, as well - that he has donated to the library at the University of Pennsylvania. And when he is not gallivanting abroad on sojourns to visit his partner Leonard Bucki in Thailand, he also studies here and cooks here, which may explain his stubborn casualness: Let the doggone waiters wear the tuxes.

We have spent hours together over the years - the chef instructing me on the reach of Creole cookery (he posits that Philadelphia's pepperpot soup shares early history with New Orleans' gumbo), on Pennsylvania Dutch pickling techniques (he hails from distinctly German stock, though his dining menu is resolutely haute French), and on the entwined culinary destinies of the coastal muskrat and terrapin (which he has explored for the Oxford Symposium on Food, and which I was lured into exploring with him at a pan-fried muskrat feed at some firehouse or gun club or other in the bayside marshlands of southern Jersey).

I mention a recent excursion to Pineville, near New Hope, to sample snapper soup. And Blank recounts his youthful goat-milking days near Washington's Crossing, at least until the goats invaded the gentleman farmer's living room and chewed off his wife's silk wallpaper: "The next day," he says, "the goats were gone."

Blank was milking in summers because he was studying dairy science. He is that rare hybrid - a careful scientist first, then later a chef. (For years his calling card read: chef de cuisine, gastronomist, et hoc genus omne, which is to say, "and all things related thereto.")

He is not - what chef is? - without ego or insecurity or moments of hurtful petulance. But his polymathic interests, culinary memory, and spirit of intellectual adventure are irresistible: One moment he deconstructs the duck-liver pate we're tasting. It's secret is the double-smoked bacon he orders from Groff's in Elizabethtown, Pa. The next, he holds forth on the distinctions between workaday caraway seed and charnuska, its black Russian cousin, typically used in flavoring Armenian string cheese.

He talks, mostly; I eat, mostly. The classics - Deux Chemineés' indulgent take on creamy, jumbo-lump crab soup doused with a shot of Scotch. A half order of the notable - oh, just plain perfect! - veal sweetbreads. And two other old-timers - the "Polish style," vinegar-raspberry sauced calf's liver (OK), and the signature - oh, just plain perfect! - rack of lamb with "truffle-filled Sauce Perigord."

It is a bittersweet evening, a grand old kitchen about to go dark. Chef Fritz is ambivalent. He speaks dreamily of his druthers; if he could afford it, he'd retire to Vienna and its food and music and culture. But then Thailand is warm and pleasant, he says wearily, and there are the elephants: "I love elephants, I really do."


Deux Chemineés

1221 Locust St.

215-790-0200

www.deuxchem.com


Contact columnist Rick Nichols

at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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