DINNER OVER AT MADAME BURGER'S
For years the people from Parliament Hill have been crossing the river to Madame Burger’s where queens, princes, diplomats and dancers dine off snails, steak and heart of palm tree
MADAME MARIE BURGER, proprietor of a restaurant in Hill, Quebec, which bears her husband’s name but is known as Madame Burger’s, has served pâté de foie gras to Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, onion soup to fandancer Sally Rand, caviar to a Russian spy, chicken à la king to Barbara Ann Scott and filet mignon, rare, to Prime Minister St. Laurent.
She presides over a cuisine which world-traveled gourmets like photographer Yousuf Karsh claim equals the best in Europe. More important to the politicians and diplomats who dominate the clientele, Mme. Burger and her employees never tattle about what they see or hear in the café.
Mme. Burger’s restaurant, the Café Henry Burger, is in a yellow brick 12-room house 10 minutes ride from Ottawa’s Parliament Buildings. There is no neon sign, but instead a brass plaque, like a doctor’s shingle, bears the name. Inside it is still like a private home, centre hall plan, with four small dining rooms in what used to be the upstairs bedrooms and three larger dining rooms downstairs.
The atmosphere is worldly; often a different language is being spoken at each table in the room. Bottles of champagne or wine stand on the tables and a waiter, dressed in tails with a big white apron around his middle, pushes the hors d’oeuvres cart from table to table.
At Café Henry Burger there is no attempt at entertainment, unless you can count the spectacle of the head waiter preparing crêpes suzettes in a flaming chafing dish. The décor varies in each room, the furniture ranging from Imperial Loyalist maple and carved oak to modem sectional sofas. Some rooms have red-checked tableclothes, pine paneled walls and framed habitant needlework; others have heavy oak chairs, damask cloths and fine Italian and French plates on the pastel walls.
There is no more likely place to meet, at one time, the French diplomatic staff, or the GovernorGeneral’s aides-de-camp, or multimillionaire Garfield Weston dining with his wife and nine children, banquet-style, or Sir Alexander Clutterbuck, British High Commissioner to Canada, or Leonard Brockington, former chairman of the CBC and now president of Odeon Theatres (Canada) Ltd.
Solange Karsh, wife of photographer Yousuf, says the fact that the country’s notables can feel safe from gossip is what makes Burger's so popular. “In Ottawa privacy is vital and men in public are almost afraid to go out to eat,” Mrs. Karsh says. “But at Burger's no one points them out; no matter what the waiter overhears it won’t go farther. That’s priceless and Mme. Burger knows it.”
Mme. Burger keeps guest books, however, which reveal the bemused state of some of her customers. More than one prominent Canadian, whose figure in newspaper pictures is always one of overwhelming dignity, has inscribed above his signature such deathless prose as “Roses are red and violets are blue. I love Henry Burger’s and you too.”
A former mayor of Winnipeg cryptically recorded “In memory of the day—let’s keep the old flag flying.” A public accountant from Bay City, Mich., wrote happily, “I like the hull of Hull.” George McCullagh, Toronto newspaper publisher, wrote in 1936: “George McCullagh, Toronto Stock
Exchange, Without Prejudice” and severely underlined the final two words. Ten years ago Barbara Ann Scott wrote: “To Madame Henri, with many thanks. I like your dog Fido.”
Oliva Dionne, Grace Moore, Alfred Hitchcock, Franchot Tone, Maureen O’Sullivan, Gene Raymond, Jan Peerce and Klondike Mike have all signed, many with swooning expressions of their appreciation for the onion soup, the sweetbreads, the steak or Mme. Burger’s charm.
This latter is a commodity of which everyone ii Ottawa and Hull is fully aware. Cab drivers, taking fares to the restaurant, often rave about her tact and shrewdness, discuss her husband as if they had seen him yesterday. Henry died 14 years ago. A remarkable woman, tall and commanding, with dark hair and expressive dark eyes, Mme. Burger presides from noon until 10 o’clock at the desk at the end of the entrance hall. She wears little jewelry and her clothes are of the finest materials, simple and chic.
She greets everyone in French, switches easily to English without the slightest clashing of gears if the customer looks dazed. Her welcome is so friendly that strangers find themselves thanking her when they leave as effusively as if she had been their hostess at a private party.
She is a model diplomat. Her expression has precisely the same shading of respect and affection when she discusses Louis St. Laurent, leader of the Liberal Party, and George Drew, leader of the Progressive Conservatives. The Drews and their two children frequently have Sunday dinner at Burger’s. “The children are t>eautiiully l>ehaved,” Mme. Burger says.
So careful is Mme. Burger to speak as though each of her guests possessed equal charm and wit that Hhe still cannot bring herself to tattle on the social habits of the Russians who adored her restaurant during the war. Among them often was the spectacularly handsome Col. Nicholas Zabotin, who headed Russian espionage in Canada. She never asked them to sign her guest book, though, and says of them now, “They were good eaters but 1 »etter drinkers.”
Each morning, except Sunday, Mme. Burger gets a shopping list from her chef, small, oliveskinned Rodolphe Doseger, a Swiss. She sets off about 9.30, spends l»etween $50 and $200 and bringB her purchases home in the rear of her nine-year-old grey Dodge. Like most housekee[s;rs Doseger hates to see vegetables crowd his refigerator if he isn’t going to use them right away. His boss is under strict orders not to buy anything not on the list without consulting him.
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On a typical shopping trip she starts with the meat wholesalers, Swift’s or Canada Packers in Ottawa, where she picks a white smock off a nail and saunters through the sawdust in the cold room examining the meat hanging from hooks. She enquires how long the meat has hung, fingers the grain and buys only the best.
Then she joins the labyrinth of traffic that snails around Ottawa’s open market where she buys fruits, vegetables and poultry, adding an element of suspense to the proceedings by habitually signaling a turn with only the very tips of her fingers out of the window. Sometimes it’s a half hour before she finds a space near the market square in the shadow of the Chateau Laurier, occasionally settling for one marked “No Parking.”
Holding her list she joins the crowd and is pushed from stall to stall. She never bargains; if the price isn’t right she passes on, expressionless. “If I bargain then when they see me coming they put up the price a few cents and let me argue them down. I would gain nothing and waste much time.” After pricing chickens four times she buys eight for $15.45. By the same method she buys a bushel of cucumbers for 75 cents, a dozen bunches of radishes for 25 cents.
A Barrymore With Apron
She also buys custom-made vegetables — celery roots — which she trained a Quebec farmer to grow. This vegetable, a delicacy in Europe but almost unknown on this continent, is obtained by ruthless pruning of celery plants so the root becomes the size of a medium potato. Sliced, browned in butter and then baked amid onion rings and other seasonings, the vegetable was introduced last spring at Burger’s and is enjoying great success. Raw, it goes well in salads.
Mme. Burger orders all her purchases to be carried to her car and gives detailed instructions about her parking place. When she returns the loin of beef in the trunk has been wedded to a basket of silver-skin onions, a sack of potatoes and a crate of peaches. 'The back seat is a hom of plenty with lettuce, tomatoes, string beans, eggplant, garlic buds, plucked chickens, celery roots, radishes and cucumbers. Beside her in the front seat she takes raspberries and com. Total expenditure: $56.35.
Henry Burger, a German-Swiss who came to Canada in 1914, has become a legend in Ottawa and Hull and his reputation is lovingly cultivated by his
widow. According to people who knew him Henry was a courtly, handsome man with a flair for the dramatic. Gourmets claim that not only were his crêpes suzettes unparalleled for taste but his performance at the chafing dish was pure Barrymore. He had a remarkable memory and could identify people 20 years after the brief acquaintanceship of bowing them to a table and accepting the order. His widow sometimes fumbles a name, but never forgets a face.
Henry had been chef at several European hotels before going to New York where, among other elegant establishments, he was chef at the old Waldorf-Astoria. In 1914 he was hired by the Chateau Laurier as chef and later as maître d'hôtel and here he served politicians, statemen, and occasionally such royalty as the Prince of Wales.
Six years later he returned to Switzerland and married French-Swiss Marie Monnin, who, some say, was under the impression that Henry owned at least a chain of hotels in Canada. If this was true, the misunderstanding could have been the fault of Henry’s personality: he had an air of royalty that few monarchs could match.
In 1922 Henry left the Chateau Laurier and opened Chez Henri in Hull. Though almost all his patronage would come from Ottawa Henry preferred the one notable advantage Hull could give him—a liquor license. The atmosphere was very French, very Bohemian, and the food was excellent.
Henry’s success in this new venture was perhaps not due so much to the food as to his skill at keeping out undesirable factions. Hull’s culture at that period was illuminated by a good, strong red light and Ottawa blades frequently visited the town only after dark and without wives. Burger wanted to encourage families to come to dinner. He used the familiar “All our tables are reserved” and when this failed would prohibit known harlots or their agents from smoking or walking from table to table. An impassioned reporter from the Hull Beacon wrote of Burger’s in an editorial, announcing he had witnessed neither noise, drunkenness, fighting nor obscene talk. “It’s like an English pub,” he wrote. “People don’t get drunk there.”
In 1929, at the crest of Burger’s success, some financiers from Toronto persuaded him to expand and open a hotel called Chez Henri, a glistening chrome and pastel palace which he was to manage. Henry was delighted, but his customers were stunned, lie had no time to greet them, the atmosphere was that of a large, impersonal hotel dining room and efficiency was the keynote. After the crash of ’29 his customers ate at homewhen they could eat—and Chez Henri’s business all but disappeared.
Henry got out, financially broken, and Mme. Burger says her husband was never the same after. They were five months getting a new liquor
license and they opened again under the name of Café Henry Burger. Patrons were a long time discovering the new place, which had no funds for advertising, and it was surprising they found it at all since it was located over a hardware store. Reluctant to admit that the hotel’s namesake was operating in competition the management of Chez Henri for years pretended Henry Burger was still there, had only stepped out for lunch or a bit of fishing.
The new café was almost deserted through the lean mid-’30s. Waiters, among them Enrico Cerutti the present headwaiter, almost outnumbered the customers and many times a couple ate alone in a room full of empty tables. “We’re so glad you came now when it is quiet,” Henry would say smoothly. “We just had such a mob in here!”
Things improved but in 1936 Henry died suddenly and the city’s epicures mourned. Mme. Burger carried on— some people had been saying that she did all the work anyway.
The widow had some early setbacks. In 1942 a chimney caught fire and smoke and water ruined her rugs and newly decorated walls. In 1943, a year to the day from the first fire, the hardware store burned and with it the café. Mme. Burger, who had a small apartment at the back of the café, lost the souvenirs of a lifetime, fine paintings, caricatures signed by famous friends, china plates she had collected from all over Europe, all her pictures of her husband.
Sauce—a Divine Gift
During the eight months it took her to find new quarters, buy the equipment and buüd a new kitchen, bathrooms, refrigerated room for the meat, wine cellar and a two-roomed apartment for herself on the second floor of the house, Mme. Burger kept her chef and several waiters on salary. It was at the time during the war when supplies for even a bride’s kitchen were scarce. She used all her tact, persistence and influence to get her café ready, even using bits and pieces cast off from other restaurants. But a few months after she opened again her restaurant served 8,000 people in one month.
Very few of these were the species known as gourmets—people whose sense of taste is so developed that they find wine chilled five degrees too much or too little almost unpalatable or can name the dozen ingredients of a tricky sauce simply by smelling it. Not more than 10 Canadians, according to Mme. Burger, are real gourmets but she is too discreet to name any of them.
Most of the discriminating palates catered to by Café Henry Burger belong to Europeans, English, Dutch, French, some Italians. One French diplomat made a practice of taking his aperitif into the kitchen where he and the cook ecstatically discussed what the diplomat would eat that night, what he had eaten before, what he hoped one day to taste.
Their talk, centred on sauce. In fine cooking it is sauces that really count. A great French chef once said
that while a man can learn to be a meat cook or a pastry cook, a sauce cook was an act of God. Chef Doseger keeps on hand about a gallon of what are known as basic sauces: tomato, espagnol (a brown sauce) and béchamel (a white sauce). Also available, with a film of melted butter to prevent a skin from forming, are chicken velouté, a white sauce to which chicken stock has been added, and fish velouté, the same sauce to which fish bouillon has been added. These white sauces are not to be confused with the aforementioned béchamel, but instead are the same white sauces used as the base for béarnaise and hollandaise sauces. An intricate business.
While Mme. Burger is knowledgeable about fine cooking, she never interferes with Doseger. “I never say anything, he knows best,” she remarks. She eats all her meals in her own place, chicken en casserole being one of her favorites.
The menu at Madame Burger’s, written almost entirely in French, is filled with such international delicacies as les escargots à la Bourguignonne (snails), at $1; Russian caviar osétrova, $2.50; lobster Thermidor, $3.50 for two; crêpes suzettes, $2 for two; coeur de palmier (hearts of palm tree, a vegetable), 75 cents; and pêches flambées (peaches, cooked in sugar and burned with cointreau and brandy, a dessert), at $1.
The restaurant’s reputation was made with its steaks and the filet mignon ($2 week days, $2.50 Sundays), broiled over charcoal and cooked every day in a different style, is the most popular choice of the patrons. Some days Doseger cooks 100 steaks.
Customers who can’t dredge up the English equivalent of gigolette d’agneau de printemps from their high-school French are put at ease by head waiter Cerutti, who murmurs politely “What would you like—chicken poule, meat viande or fish poisson?” Cerutti, who is known to many visitors as “Voilà” because of his style of serving—a flourish of the hand, a slight bow and a triumphant voilà — is a big shy man whom many regulars credit with being the heart of the establishment.
Mme. Burger only shakes her head sadly at the thought of her customers who eat their meals without wine or a liqueur, but Cerutti and Doseger are more voluble. “How can they enjoy their food without wine? It’s barbaric!”
To tempt trade at the bar at Café Henry Burger, where business fell off sharply when Ottawa opened bars of its own under new Ontario liquor legislation. Mme. Burger keeps many rare wines in her cellar. In addition she has maintained her practice of serving Manhattans and Martinis undiluted by ice: they are stored overnight in the refrigerator.
Chef Doseger is not only appalled by the Canadian habit of the water glass at table, but also totally confused when he sees a woman in a mink coat eat a hamburger or a man step out of a Cadillac to buy a hot dog. “They buy the best clothes, the best homes, the best cars,” he murmurs, stunned. “But do they eat the best? No!”