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
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
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,
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
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,