Supper Club Chez Martha, my venture in Paris, began small but eventually grew to accommodate about 25 to 30 people, many of whom were “regulars.” I did the dinners once a month, on Thursday nights just as I had done in Austin. Thursdays were perfect: not quite the weekend, so people were in town though not necessarily booked up, and close enough to the end of the week for people to relax.
Guests would begin to arrive at my apartment at 8:30 for aperitifs, which I served in the large, friendly dark-red carpeted living room, and they would continue to show up until 9:30 or 10, when I began to lure them from their cocktail conversations and ask them to find the places I had painstakingly arranged at my two long tables (by then I’d graduated to tables and chairs). The tables, one in the library, one in the dining room, were set with colorful Provençal tablecloths and napkins, porcelain plates, low flower arrangements and candles. A handwritten menu that also served as a place card was set on each plate.
I’d spend a week or two working on the menus and testing recipes for each dinner, walking around Paris with the menu on my mind, scouting markets, composing plates in my imagination. The seasons drove the menus — three courses (by then I was making desserts) served with wines that went well with both the first course — usually a composed salad or a soup — and the main dish. Often the menu had an ethnic theme; I was known for my Mexican food and always kicked off the season with a Mexican or Tex-Mex meal that included margaritas, always a big hit with the French. Many of the meals were Provençal in character, but sometimes I’d put an American twist on a French menu. For example, one of my favorite menus begins with a typical French salad topped with baked goat cheese, followed by a Provençal-style fish soup that I call “Chowder à la Provençale” and serve with Texas cornbread. The dessert is a pear crisp with pecans in the topping, an American dessert except for the eau de vie de poires that the pears were marinated in and the accompanying crème anglaise. I served fish, but never meat, which was a novelty for the French.
During the week of the dinner I’d devote three days to shopping for food, setting up the apartment and cooking, building up to a frenzy of activity on Thursday afternoons. I had an assistant in the kitchen on Wednesday afternoon and all day Thursday, and one or two additional people to help with the plating and serving during the dinner, when my role changed from chef to the equally important one of hostess. By 7 or 7:30, I was out of the kitchen and in a hot bath, letting go of the day’s tension; I’d get dressed up and move into hostess mode, ready for the first guest to arrive.
Once the doorbell began to ring at 8:30, it was showtime. For the next hour, I’d run track between the kitchen, front door and living room, constantly putting on and taking off my apron as if I were doing quick costume changes between scenes. Every ring of the bell was exciting. Who would it be? Each guest brought new energy into the room. I’d make introductions, fill glasses and listen to the buzz as people mingled. Some people knew each other, or had heard about the supper club from friends, or they were new acquaintances of mine that I wanted to have around my table. What they had in common was congeniality and a love of the city. “You spend your first year in Paris figuring out how to work it so you can spend the rest of your life here,” I once overheard a woman who had lived in Paris for over 30 years say to another guest.
When I could finally pull my guests away from the cocktail hour and get them to the tables I’d sit down with them at the head of one of the tables, and I always had fun even though I had to jump up between courses. I’d excuse myself and nip down the long corridor to the kitchen, make sure my helpers were on top of the plating (they always were), and see to last-minute details. Through the open window of the kitchen I listened to the crescendo of table talk and laughter coming from the rooms across the courtyard, the most reassuring sounds a hostess and a cook can hear.
‘Chowder’ à la Provençale
For the fish stock:
For the soup:
- Make the stock. Combine the fish trimmings or whole fish, the quartered onion, carrot, celery and bouquet garni with 2 quarts water in a large soup pot or pasta pot. Bring to a simmer, skim off all foam, reduce the heat and simmer 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile place the wine and ½ cup of water in another large pot with the mussels or clams. Bring to a boil, cover tightly and continue to boil 5 minutes, until the mussels or clams have opened up. Remove the shellfish and set aside, in a covered bowl in the refrigerator if not using soon. Pour the broth through a strainer lined with cheesecloth or a double thickness of paper towel set over a bowl. Add this to the fish broth and simmer another 15 to 30 minutes. Remove from the heat, and strain through a fine sieve or a strainer lined with cheesecloth, into a bowl. Discard the fish bones and vegetables. Taste and add salt as desired. Measure out 1½ quarts and set aside. Freeze any remaining stock.
- Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven and add the onion and leek. Cook, stirring, until tender and translucent, about 5 minutes, and add the fennel seeds and garlic. Cook, stirring, until the garlic is fragrant and just beginning to color, about 1 minute, and stir in the tomato paste. Cook, stirring, until it begins to smell fragrant and it colors slightly, and add the tomatoes with their liquid and salt to taste. Scrape the bottom of the pot well with a wooden spoon, and bring to a simmer. Cook over medium heat, stirring from time to time, for about 15 minutes, until the tomatoes have cooked down and smell fragrant. Add the thyme, pepper, fish stock, potatoes, and winter squash or zucchini. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring from time to time, for 30 minutes. The vegetables should be tender and fragrant. Cook a little longer if they are not. Add the cayenne, taste and adjust salt. Add the saffron and orange peel, and simmer another 10 to 15 minutes.
- Shortly before serving, add the fish to the soup and simmer 5 to 10 minutes, until just cooked through. Taste and adjust seasonings. Stir in the parsley and basil, and serve, garnishing each bowl with cooked mussels.
Photo: Martha Rose Shulman’s notes for a Chez Martha menu in 1985.
Credit: Martha Rose Shulman