LE MANS, France - Early on a beautiful morning, American chef Jimmy Schmidt walks to the farmers' market below the Old Town of this medieval walled city.
The great Le Mans Cathedral looms on a cliff above the market, and as Schmidt moves among the rows of fresh produce, the smells are powerful - familiar strawberries, pungent cheeses, earthy radishes, sweet marigolds. Even the lettuce has its own sweet, fresh aroma.
Finally, he finds a stand that sells herbs and buys a case of sweet basil at five French francs a pot, which is less than a U.S. dollar.
"You buy so much, don't you have basil where you come from?" the happy salesman asks in French.
Schmidt laughs, too. He is the owner of Detroit's Rattlesnake Club, but on this mid-June trip he is chef proprietor for General Motors' hospitality effort at the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race. He is in charge of cooking for a huge international group that includes race-car drivers, crews, GM employees, media and guests. Everywhere he goes, he makes stall and store owners happy by the size of his orders.
"My directive is to satisfy various nationalities, to find things familiar as well as things that provide a good nutritional foundation," says Schmidt, who trained in French cuisine. "For the race team, my job is to balance the sustainability issue and endurance racing. The team wanted familiar food that would take the stress out."
Schmidt has plenty of advice on how to eat:
Never eat heavy carbohydrates at night. They'll make you sleepy, he says. Crunchy foods increase stress with a vibration in the inner ear, causing fatigue - not exactly what a race-car driver wants when he is attempting to stay alert over a 24-hour race.
"What you eat and how you eat it determine how much energy you have," Schmidt says. "It's amazing."
Schmidt applies his philosophy to a menu that ranges from mango and papaya salsa for grilled shrimp to summer gazpacho and corn bread.
From the market, it is on to the butcher shop of renowned proprietor Pierre Besnard. In the Sarthe region of France, Besnard is known for his sausages and he greets Schmidt like his best friend. And why not? Every morning for a week, Schmidt has ordered 600 sausages.
"He wasn't so happy to see us at first," says Schmidt. "But we developed our relationship over a meatloaf and once we made him understand we wanted 600 sausages every day and not six, his attitude changed."
Schmidt cooks some of the meat for breakfasts and others he grills later. He advises anyone grilling sausages to "precook, a little, in a pan with a touch of water. Otherwise," he says, "they will stick and tear on the grill."
Oh, it takes a lot of nerve to bring an American chef who owns a modern American restaurant in Detroit to France to cook.
"Shhhh," says General Motors publicist Dave Hedrick. "We're trying to keep that quiet."
Try they might, but succeed? Impossible.
The auto company brought Schmidt to Le Mans to provide "comfort food," familiar dishes with a French flair, that would also keep its teams at peak performance levels throughout the grueling 24-hour race.
Herb Fishel, head of GM motorsports, chose Schmidt because he was aware of his energized cooking approach and because he knew he was capable of working with large groups. In Grosse Pointe, Mich., Schmidt organizes the cooking for 800 children a day at the University Liggett School, a college preparatory school.
In Le Mans, with the help of Belgium chef and caterer Paul Puissant and a number of assistants, he fed more than 500 people three times a day - 11,000 meals in a week.
Both Schmidt and Puissant agree that their philosophies differ.
But, Schmidt says, the idea is not to have an American cooking American in France, but to reflect what is in France.
"But Paul, like many French chefs, wants to throw a half-pound block of butter in everything," says Schmidt, smiling.
Puissant hedges, only a little.
"I respect Jimmy's ideas," he says. "And I believe in a modern kitchen. But my philosophy is that eating should make people happy."
Schmidt is not opposed to that. But his goal is that meals should first be healthful. And he is most interested in a "sustainable food diet" - using the freshest, most nutritious ingredients to keep the energy level up longer.
Despite their differences, Schmidt and Puissant combined to create magnificently fresh meals about which no one complained. Everyday tables were filled with dishes of fresh vegetables, salads and succulent main courses - with sauces on the side. A typical meal featured both French and Southwestern cuisine. For example, one lunch buffet included a baby green salad, tortilla salad, haricot vert and white-mushroom salad, barbecued chicken, tarragon glazed salmon, grilled jumbo prawns with achiote and lime glaze with papaya salsa, fruit cobblers, fresh berries and double chocolate-raspberry brownies.
"As drivers, we want protein and carbohydrates," said GM driver Ron Fellows. "There's nothing new in that. But the nice thing is that we're all getting it in a blend of French and American cooking and the entire team is getting the same thing. No sense the driver being energized, if the guys changing the tires aren't. It's nice when the team philosophy revolves around the team and includes everything, right down to what we eat."
The display was a team effort, too. Schmidt sent basic components of menus to Puissant, who filled in the specifics with the foods that were available from around the French countryside - zucchini, eggplant, red, yellow and green peppers, white carrots and baby green beans and the first tomatoes of the season.
When thinking of French cooking, the first thing that comes to most minds is lavish meals with rich sauces.
Schmidt, who lived and studied French cooking in Avignon for a year, thinks of fresh foods. And the abundance of the French harvest enhances his "sustainable" menus.
"In the sustainable diet, the No. 1 ingredient is whatever is in season," says Schmidt, 44, who received his chef's diploma from Modern Gourmet Inc. under the direction of the demanding French chef Madeleine Kamman in Newton Centre, Mass.
"When a fruit or vegetable is in season, it is at its nutritional height. The French eat by the seasons. They pick it fresh, consume it quickly and have a lot of plant-based foods. They do have protein in fish and poultry and meat, but they use smaller portions - 3 to 4 ounces here, as opposed to 8 to 10 ounces or more in the United States.
"It's a difference in eating styles," Schmidt says.
But, with Schmidt's application, American or French cooking is a continuing source of energy, whether it is fed to professional racing teams in a 24-hour race or the family at home.
Makes 8 servings
6 cups peaches, halved, pit and stem removed, cut into slices
3 cups Bing cherries, stems and pits removed
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided use
1 tablespoon orange peel
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup mint leaves, picked whole, 6-8 reserved for garnish
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup buttermilk
4 scoops vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a medium bowl, combine peaches, cherries, 1 1/4 cups sugar, orange peel, vanilla and mint, tossing to combine. Transfer to a large baking dish. In a large bowl, combine flour, remaining 1/4 cup sugar, baking powder and salt.
Cut in the unsalted butter until well mixed. In a small bowl, combine beaten egg and buttermilk. Slowly add to the flour mixture by hand until mixed. Scoop the batter and drop on the peaches, making sure it does not touch the edges of the baking dish.
Transfer the cobbler to the lower rack of the oven and cook until the pastry is golden and the peaches have thickened some, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and place on a cake rack to cool. To serve: return cobbler to a preheated oven to warm. Divide and spoon the fruit topped with the pastry into rimmed soup plates. Scoop the ice cream and position beside the cobbler. Dust with confectioners' sugar. Garnish with mint sprigs.
- All recipes from Jimmy Schmidt, Rattlesnake Club
Grilled Barbecued Shrimp
Makes 4 servings
3/4 cup barbecue sauce
1/4 cup lime juice
1 small fresh ginger root, peeled and then finely grated (about 3 tablespoons)
hot sauce to your taste, such as Tabasco
1 1/2 pounds large shrimp (U-15's under 15 pieces per pound), shelled, except for the tail, and deveined
1 tablespoon olive oil (can substitute corn oil)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
slaw (your favorite recipe or the one below)
1/2 cup picked cilantro leaves (can substitute chives)
Preheat your grill over high heat. In a small bowl combine barbecue sauce, lime juice, 2 tablespoons of the grated ginger and hot sauce to your taste. Reserve. In a medium bowl combine the shrimp, olive oil and remaining ginger. Season with salt, black pepper and paprika. Place the shrimp on the grill and cook until well seared, about 3 minutes. Turn over and brush with the barbecue sauce. Finish cooking the shrimp, about 2 to 3 minutes, depending on size. Transfer to a plate and brush again with the barbecue sauce. Place the slaw mounded in the center of the serving plate. Position the shrimp around the slaw, slightly overlapping. Drizzle the remaining sauce around the plate. Sprinkle the cilantro over the shrimp and plate. Serve.
Haricot Vert and White-Mushroom Salad
Makes 4 servings
sea salt or regular granulated salt
1 pound haricot vert, stems trimmed, leaving the pointed growth tip intact
1/4 cup Dijon-style extra-strong mustard
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 shallots, chopped coarse (optional: can substitute a few of the sweet-onion trimmings from the julienne below)
1/4 cup fresh tarragon leaf (can substitute half dried tarragon and half fresh-snipped chives)
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup canola oil
1/4 cup light cream or half-and-half cream
freshly ground black pepper
apple juice, white wine or water, as necessary
1 small Vidalia or other sweet onion, peeled and cut into fine julienne
1 sweet red bell pepper, stem, seeds and white inner ribs removed, cut into fine julienne
1 pound of white (tan) field mushrooms, stems trimmed and cut into very thin slices
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt. Add the beans, cooking until al dente, firm to the bite, yet tender and tasting very sweet, not raw green. Transfer to a colander and drain. Cool immediately under cold running water. Transfer to a dish, cover loosely with plastic wrap and store under refrigeration while making the dressing.
Combine the mustard, lemon juice, shallots, a pinch of salt and half of the tarragon in the blender. Puree until smooth. Leave the blender running and slowly add the olive oil, then the canola oil. Then add the cream, just to combine. Adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper. Adjust the texture if too thick, by thinning with a little apple juice, white wine or water to a very thick saucelike texture. Transfer to a sealed container and refrigerate for up to 3 days, if not using immediately.
In a large bowl, combine the beans, onion, red pepper and mushrooms with dressing to coat. Artfully arrange the greens in the center of the plate. Position the bean salad in the center of the greens. Sprinkle the remaining fresh tarragon (or chives) over the salad. Serve immediately.
Roast Corn, Peppers and Jicama Slaw
Makes 4 servings
2 ears of fresh sweet corn, husk on, with silk removed
2 red bell peppers, cut into fine julienne
1 jicama root, peeled and cut into fine julienne (can substitute small head bok choy or green cabbage to yield about 2 cups)
1/2 cup lime juice
1 clove of garlic finely minced salt
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
freshly ground black pepper spicy red pepper flakes (optional)
1 bunch of scallions, green part only, cut very fine
Preheat the grill. Place the ears of corn on the grill, cooking until well browned. Turn the corn, cooking until roasted on all sides, about 10 minutes. Remove from the grill and allow to cool. Remove the husk and cut the corn kernels from the cob. Transfer to a medium-sized bowl. Add the peppers, jicama, lime juice and garlic. Season with salt, mixing to dissolve. Add the olive oil, black and red pepper flakes to taste and the scallions, mixing well to combine. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.
Makes 8 servings
10 medium vine-ripened tomatoes (make sure they are very ripe and juicy and have never been refrigerated)
salt to taste
freshly ground black pepper
1 medium Vidalia sweet onion, peeled and diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced fine
2 red bell peppers, seeded and diced
2 small zucchini, diced
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup lime juice (maybe a little more as necessary)
2 tablespoons of finely grated lime rind
Tabasco or hot sauce to your taste
1/4 cup scallion, diced white part only
1/4 cup blanched sweet corn, cut from the cob
1/2 cup fresh sweet basil, cut into fine julienne or chiffonade
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil (optional)
2 cups tomato juice
8 sprigs of fresh basil for garnish
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees. Cut the tomatoes in half on the equator. Place the cut side up on a sheet pan. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place on the lower rack of the oven and roast until shriveled and condensed, about 1 1/2 hours.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool. In a blender, combine the roasted tomatoes, the onion, garlic and half of the red pepper and zucchini. Puree until smooth. Add the Worcestershire, lime juice and rind. Season with salt and Tabasco to your taste. Add the remaining red pepper, zucchini, scallions, corn, basil and olive oil. Refrigerate overnight. The next day, season again with salt, Tabasco and lime juice as the vegetables absorb much of the flavor overnight.
Adjust consistency as necessary as soup will thicken under refrigeration with 2 cups tomato juice. Serve in a chilled bowl with an ice cube and a sprig of fresh basil floated on top.