T.V. Cooking, a la francaise

By Lydia Denworth | August 22, 1993 | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Topics: Profiles

She is not exactly a gourmet, but Maite Ordonez provides just what the French want in a television chef.

There is a place in France where old-fashioned eating is still the order of the day. A place where margarine is scorned and salt embraced, where food is hearty and heaping. A place where the voluptuous cooking has been described by a French newspaper as “a gastronomic Rubens.”

And best of all, it’s a place that’s not fattening. Because it’s not a restaurant; it’s a television show: The Cuisine of the Musketeers.

The show’s philosophy is aptly summed up by its chef, the large and voluble Maite (pronounced  My-a-tay) Ordonez.

“If we don’t eat well, we’re in bad humor, my poor thing,” she says. “We’re grumpy all day long. So here we have spirit, even if we gain weight.”

The French probably aren’t cooking and eating like Maite, but they are certainly watching her do it. The Musketeers, which began 10 years ago as a modest public television broadcast, shown only in the Bordeaux region of Gascony, went national two years ago. It’s now on France 3—one of France’s public television networks—four mornings a week and has a steadily climbing market share.

A cookbook, produced in 1991, has sold 50,000 copies. But the proof is in the prime time—two episodes of bloopers from The Cuisine of the Musketeers were made into prime-time specials. Ordonez and her co-presenter, Micheline Banzet, are rapidly becoming stars.

A show full of complicated, hypercaloric recipes is not an obvious recipe for success these days. The secret lies in the viewers’ vicarious enjoyment of good food.

“They’re happy to see it even if they don’t do it themselves,” says Ordonez.

Another plus is the 55-year-old Ordonez herself. She is natural, talkative and generous (with ingredients). She also has an abundance of what the French call franc-parler, which translates into something between frankness and straight talk and is unusual in France.

These qualities have attracted more than just the women at home whom Banzet and Ordonez had expected as fans. At cookbook signings, a variety of people line up to talk with them.

Banzet was astounded once to meet a 20-year-old male student from France’s most prestigious engineering school. “All my friends watch your show,” he said. And they have fans in other countries as well, because the show is beamed by satellite to much of the rest of Europe. Among their more than 1,400 letters a month, there was once one from Hungary addressed to the “Cousin of the Musketeers.”

The aim of the show is to take viewers back to their roots, gastronomically speaking. The name, The Cuisine of the Musketeers (as in The Three . . .), was chosen to evoke both a time and a place. It’s the food of an earlier age and of Gascony in the southwest of France, the land of D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers.

In the early years, the show was even filmed in the chateau of the real D’Artagnan (it’s now filmed in a studio in Bordeaux). “It’s traditional cooking like we used to do,” says Ordonez. “It’s not always pretty on the plate but the recipes are good to eat.”

It was Banzet who thought up the concept. A former violinist and a producer for the Bordeaux bureau of France 3, she came across Alexander Dumas’ Grand Dictionnaire de la Cuisine and inspiration struck.  Why not a show that borrowed its title from Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and at the same time celebrated the kind of cuisine that Dumas loved?

Banzet enlisted director Patrice Bellot, a specialist in sports shows with a sideline in cooking. A gourmet cook himself, Bellot has won awards for his cooking shows.

All that remained was to find the cook. Both Banzet and Bellot wanted someone natural, someone less intimidating than the usual French chef.

“I didn’t want someone who cut onions so fast—whoosh, whoosh, whoosh—you didn’t know what they’d done when they’re finished,” Bellot says. “They never leave you feeling you can do it yourself. I wanted someone who cuts onions like you or I would.”

That’s what Bellot got in Ordonez. At the time, 1983, she was working for the French railroad. Her job was to blow a trumpet to warn track workers when a train was coming. In between blowing the trumpet, she cooked stew for the workers in an immense cast-iron pot on a fire of railroad ties.

On weekends, she cooked even more for parties after her local rugby team’s games. It was at one of those feasts that Bellot discovered her. He was in Gascony to film a history of French rugby. The meal was wonderful, the cook more so.

“She’s the one I have to have,” Bellot remembers saying.

Ordonez couldn’t have been more surprised. She was born, raised and married in Rion-des-Landes, a small town in the pinewoods south of Bordeaux. She left school at 13 to work in a factory. Her only culinary education was watching her mother and grandmother cook.

That, however, was training enough. Although Bellot now provides many of the recipes, the show’s cooking style is all Ordonez—instructive and calorie-laden. Everything is improvised, with Ordonez doing the chopping and simmering and the more refined Banzet doing the reminding. Without Banzet, Ordonez sometimes forgets to explain what she’s doing.

Contemplating two chicken breasts, Banzet says: “Tell me, Maite, how are we going to cook them?”

“In the frying pan,” answers Ordonez and she tosses them in a skillet.

“I supposed you are using duck fat?” asks Banzet.

“Yes, always the same.”

“And have you forgotten the salt?”

“I have,” says Ordonez, who then adds a generous pinch of salt to the pan.

The repartee continues until, between them, the two women have produced a dish. Ordonez delivers a jolly “Voila!” to her television audience. “Don’t tell me that’s heavy to do,” she says.

Since this is old-fashioned cooking, the emphasis is on natural ingredients. The show begins with the two standing over a display of luscious vegetables and a round loaf of bread as wide as two dinner plates. Next to that are the day’s featured animals, always whole, sometimes still living.

Ordonez and Banzet pet pigeons and cuddle calves routinely. And Ordonez, who grew up on a farm, doesn’t quail at killing a quail.

Banzet: “What are we going to do with these cute, little beasts?”

Ordonez: “Eh bien, we’re going to kill them.”

This isn’t just for shock value; there’s a gastronomic principle behind it, Ordonez says: “People really are so used to finding everything under cellophane that they no longer imagine that you have to kill an animal before you eat it.”

To remind us, she and her partner hit eels over the head, skin rabbits and gut wild boars, all of which has ruffled the feathers of animal-rights activists. Television viewers don’t have to go to such extremes, but if they could debone a chicken or filet a fish, Ordonez insists, they’d enjoy their food more and save money.

Her style is frustrating for some less practiced cooks. “Proportions can’t be measured,” Ordonez says. “Cooking, it’s done by the eye and by the touch.”

Those in search of detailed instruction get only her famous line: “Do what you have to do.”

For 10 years, Banzet has tried without success to get precise proportions and exact cooking times from Ordonez.

Banzet: “How much salt, in fact, do we put in, Maite?”

Ordonez: “We put a lot, Micheline, we judge it by eye. Go ahead, don’t regret it.”

And when Ordonez does give quantities, she doesn’t seem to abide by them. A dash of Armagnac is more than half a bottle when she’s finished.

The Armagnac is just one example of a typically Gascon ingredient. Many of the recipes feature ducks, pigeons or game. And the cooking fat of choice is duck fat, which Ordonez insists on because, she says, it’s natural and is better for you than all the oils out there on the market.

Of all the recipes, her personal favorite is duck breast stuffed with foie gras and cepe mushrooms.

The restaurant she has run for the last five years in her hometown has a menu full of such dishes. Although Rion is a one-stoplight town far from anything else of note, Ordonez’s Relais des Landes draws crowds every weekend.

She estimates that 80% of the clientele come because of the show. The restaurant, however, has proved to be too much work, and Ordonez says she is ready for a break. She’s selling it in the fall and will concentrate on catering only. And, of course, on The Cuisine of the Musketeers.

“The luck I’ve had in my life is like a miracle,” says Ordonez. “Lourdes has got nothing on Rion-des-Landes.”