History and Background of
Maison Robert, by Martha Ann Robert

"Every day is a challenge, and I go to my restaurant with enthusiasm and the energy to improve some thing." Ella Brennen of New Orleans fame once said. I feel the same way about Maison Robert, the French restaurant that my husband, Lucien Robert, a professional French chef, and I own and operate in the former city hall in the heart of downtown Boston. Maison Robert combines in presentation that which is classically French, yet adapting to changing American, multicultural tastes. It is a distinctively French restaurant in a distinctively American setting.

I met Lucien Robert, a young French chef working in Madison Wisconsin, when I was a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Wisconsin. We were married in Paris in the summer of 1957 and then moved to Boston, where we began working to fulfill Lucien’s dream to open his own restaurant.

Lucien grew up near Vire, in Normandy. Not moving far away from the food base of his background, he trained as a professional chef in Paris at Prunier’s. In December 1957, we opened our first restaurant at 260 Berkeley Street / 50 Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay. For this first venture, he chose the name Maître Jacques, which is the symbol of the Norman peasant.

At noon, Newbury Street merchants and shoppers could choose the daily special for 99¢, which included soup, salad and coffee. For 25¢ extra, a few would opt for a dessert pastry. The evening clientele tended to be professional people. On weekends, students and faculty from the area, many of whom had lived abroad, found their way to us. Among the notables were the Aga Kahn, then a Harvard student, and MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener. The young Michael Dukakis invited his wife-to-be, Kitty, there on their first date. One time, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and his family arrived to have lunch, this restaurant being a favorite of his son’s while a Harvard student.

Not being able to obtain a wine license was a serious drawback to the first location, and in 1965, we purchased a closed and bankrupt restaurant in Charles River Park. Here at this new location, named Maître Jacques on the Charles, a more formal restaurant was possible. A liquor license provided Lucien with the opportunity to develop one of Boston’s fine wine cellars. In 1979, the restaurant won the award of the Best Wine List from the Ordre Mondial des Gourmets Dégustateurs. At that time, a case of 1959 Lafite Rothschild cost $80. Imagine buying that today!

Old City Hall
In 1969 and 1970, plans were underway for the renovation of Boston’s Old City Hall, which included a space for a prospective restaurant. We were especially taken with the grandeur of the first floor space, the former office of the city treasurer. At last, Lucien could enjoy the pleasure of planning his own restaurant: kitchens, wine cellars, and private and public dining areas. The chef’s dream had come true.

French cooks, waiters and captains joined the staff in anticipation of opening the upstairs restaurant in 1972. It was a particular pleasure for Lucien to bring on board as chef his nephew, Jacky Robert, who had trained in Normandy and at Prunier’s and Maxim’s in Paris. He was soon joined by a fellow Norman, Pierre Jamet, and by a young American chef, Lydia Shire.

The completed restaurant, called Maison Robert, now had two distinct levels of dining (common to hotels, but an innovation in a free-standing restaurant). A summer outdoor terrace café added yet a third dimension. The statue of Benjamin Franklin in the courtyard of the Old City Hall provided a decorative theme that tied together the upper and lower levels: the upper formal area was named Bonhomme Richard, the French translation for Franklin’s pen name, while the lower level was simply called Ben’s Café.

Care Taking and Taking Care
From the beginning of our marriage, I have assisted in the planning, opening, and management of the three restaurants, along with being the mother of five children. Andrée and Raoul were born shortly after we opened the first Maître Jacques, and our triplets arrived in 1967, before we opened the Maison Robert. With the children’s development and education my primary focus, the amount of time and energy I have been able to give to the restaurants has varied. I have been fortunate over the years to be able to respond to the needs of our family and our business with more flexibility and comfort than is possible for most professional women.

While public relations has always been my specific responsibility, I have in fact managed to be involved in about every aspect of the restaurant business except for cooking on the line and tending to the bar. My role is that of a care-taker over the practical sides of the restaurant: the decor, menus, flowers, and housekeeping; and that of taking care, overseeing, the spirit with which guests are received and served so that their expectations are fulfilled. When this is achieved, I am satisfied, and if some guests are disappointed, I, too, feel a genuine loss.

My own attempts to meet the continuing demands have led me down many paths. Wine and food trips to France have enhanced my knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the artistry of the restaurateur. Spending family vacations in France has taught me about French food through shopping at the markets and cooking, French style, in our home. I keep learning about cuisine in the various regions of France, and about the diversity, freshness and extraordinary quality of their produce. From visits to their sources, I have gained a great deal of insight into the growing, production, and distribution of food and the care that goes into providing the finest for French tables. Here in New England, long before the advent of the convenient specialty food suppliers and the changes in consumer tastes, I drove many miles searching for local growers and suppliers of all kings of fresh foods. Also, many years back, I devoted part of our family garden to the growing of culinary herbs. In season, I still bring fresh herbs daily to the chefs at the restaurant, along with edible flowers from the garden, a task that gives me great pleasure.

Lucien and I had a long apprenticeship for the kind of family business that the Maison Robert has become. We are delighted that our daughter, Andrée has now joined our staff. Following her graduation from Barnard, she lived in California for five years, where she learned to cook from her cousin, Jacky Robert. With her dedication to good-tasting food, she has now become our sous chef and has the responsibility for the evening menu in Ben’s Café. Our college-age triplet sons have also worked in many areas of the restaurant operation; it’s too early to tell what their long-term interests might be.

New Ways of Cooking
In January 1988, a surprise gathering of friends helped us celebrate Lucien’s 30 years as a restaurateur in Boston. Over these 30 years, I have observed how restaurant food reflects the changing situation in society. Following the deprivation of World War II, the return of rich food on European restaurant menus was very understandable. Meanwhile, in the United States, American homemakers and restaurant chefs were being subverted into convenience foods. Raised consciousness and concern for healthful living (and more sedentary occupations) has caused people in greater numbers to reconsider their choices about eating, including those who are vegetarians, or who seek organically grown foods. New immigration, as well, has affected our tastes. Since the Vietnam War, immigrants from all over the world have established restaurants in the U.S., introducing new tastes, ingredients, and cuisines to large numbers of people. Added to this, the increase in world travel has made many people more receptive to these new options.

From France itself have also come new ways of preparing food with the "nouvelle cuisine" and its cousin, "cuisine minceur." Both of these have addressed the need to eat well, but with discretion regarding quantity, calories, and nutrition. The oriental influence on these movements is obvious through the meticulous care with which the chef now prepares each plate in the kitchen, thus modifying the serving skills of the professional waiter.

New ways of cooking vegetables are a clear result of raised consciousness. Neither overcooked nor undercooked vegetables are now desirable, so restaurants have to find new methods. We use a steamer, which quickly cooks any vegetable in its own juice, capturing its natural flavors. Similarly, other new technologies have addressed new cooking needs in restaurant kitchens (i.e. food processors, convection ovens, and ovens offering the possibility of steam injection). New ways of cooking mean that rich sauces are being replaced by lighter sauces and by those that are vegetable based. Our menu offering of poached fresh Norwegian salmon with leek purée is one such example.

Other changes are evident in the expanded vocabulary of cooking today. First is the fact that the range of ingredients and their combinations can no longer be so rigidly defined. Second, with the strong ethnic influences, cooking has been much more complex; consider the example of our French nephew, trained in classical French cooking and now influenced by the cuisine of his Korean wife in a California setting. And third, there is the trend toward more uniformity, the cooking of international "in" foods. With these changes, my husband wonders in regional and national specialties can maintain their uniqueness and be respected for the care and integrity with which they are prepared. He wonders, further, if young chefs today who bring intelligence and curiosity to their cooking have the desire or the discipline to endure the repetition necessary for the perfection demanded of cooking as we have known it. There are other questions as well: Will there be an audience sufficiently large and educated to care? Can it be offered at prices people can afford to pay? To visualize the implications of international "in" foods, consider the demise of the truly wonderful croissant.

My being a restaurateur may seem a long way from training to be a professional historian, yet living, thinking, and working cross-culturally with change and continuity, and with a lot of separate parts and their integration, is, I find, what the restaurant business is all about."

Martha Ann Robert,
Co-owner, Maison Robert
(Originally printed in the Radcliffe Quarterly, December, 1988)

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