Meet the Marmitons
Meet the men of Les Marmitons Sandy Springs, a fellowship club of about 45 members who gather once a month September through May to cook a four-course meal based on the menus of some of the Atlanta area's most notable restaurants. And the best part is, the chef is on hand to coach and critique the labors of the evening. (Full disclosure: I've been a member of Les Marmitons since 2010.)
"I love the camaraderie with our members at the monthly cooking events," says Jim Sullivan, a retired engineer and immediate past president of the chapter. "Les Marmitons' motto is 'From Friendship to Gastronomy.' We joke that we are a friendship club with a cooking problem."
Marmiton is French for "kitchen boy" or "chef's helper," and the organization describes itself as a gastronomic and social club of gentlemen who share a common interest in fine food, wine and the culinary arts. All it takes is a love of cooking to join — no real skills are required. The first Les Marmitons chapter formed in Montreal in 1977, and it will soon open its 18th chapter in North America.
Nestled next to the runway of DeKalb Peachtree Airport, the 57th Fighter Group Restaurant is closed on Mondays and opens its kitchen and dining room to the would-be chefs on event nights.
Bologna, who has extensive international cooking experience, has prepared a Tuscan menu. It will open with ribollita soup, followed by pappardelle with Tuscan ragu — and you can be sure the pasta and the ragu will be made from scratch. The entree is Tuscan-style pork roast cooked with rosemary, sage and wine, and served with wedges of potatoes. Dessert is cantucci, a kind of Italian cookie.
Clad in toques and monogrammed chef jackets, the men split up into their assigned teams and fill the kitchen with good-natured revelry along with a sense of mission.
At one table, Bologna shows Sullivan and his teammates how to lace up rosemary, sage and garlic into two lengthy pork loins, which head for the oven to become the night's entree. Members cover another table with semolina flour as the first step in making the pasta to be served with the Tuscan ragu.
Timing is critical. Cooking commences at 5:30 p.m., and the men need to leave by 10 p.m., after the kitchen is cleaned and ready for the 57th to open for business the next day. Fortunately, the club's budget includes paying for help with the cleaning so the men can focus on the cooking and, of course, the dining.
"There really is a schedule for cooking and entertaining folks, and you need to be mindful of that as well as the time it takes to cook and plate the food," says Dave McIntosh, CEO of JDC Consulting Solutions, presiding over his second event as president.
Bringing people together
Events on this scale require precise planning. To cook with such guest chefs as Asha Gomez of Spice to Table, Rafih Benjelloun of Imperial Fez and Drew Van Leuvan of Seven Lamps, the club draws on the organizational skills of its members, including CEOs, engineers, doctors, lawyers and bankers.
Lining up the chefs is the job of Jean Pierre "JP" Jobin, an ebullient executive who hails from Canada and has helped found Les Marmitons chapters all over North America. He possesses a deep network of chefs and relentlessly seeks out guests.
"I often take clients out to lunch," Jobin says. "If the food is great, I ask to speak to the chef. I then introduce the concept of Les Marmitons cooking events and invite the chef to be a guest chef for one of the Atlanta Marmitons Chapters."
One might think finding top chefs to cook with an amateur group pro gratis would be a tall order, but Les Marmitons enjoys respect from chefs around the globe.
"Each guest chef seems to genuinely enjoy being with us at our cooking events," Sullivan says. "And most express an interest to return for another."
A committee of coordinators meets with the chef about a month ahead of the event to determine the menu and other specifics. Chef Bologna was easier than most: A veteran Les Marmitons guest chef who also teaches cooking classes, Bologna just hit "print" and provided the recipes for tonight's event.
Other chefs can be more challenging. "Often times the chef provides a recipe from memory and it is not complete," says Tom Rotroff, a retired SunTrust banker, who finds all the ingredients with his shopping partner Richard Finn. Sometimes the instructions are not cookbook ready, and Rotroff says there's an art to divining the ingredients' correct proportions.
Ahead of the event, the attending members are assigned teams for each course, and the captains are expected to meet Rotroff and Finn early to assemble their respective mis en place at their proper stations.
The teams present each course in succession on completion. With the club president and the chef at the head table, the serving team plates its dish and serves it to fellow members assembled in the dining room. Afterward, the president calls on the team captain to explain how the dish came together — and perhaps mention any missteps along the way.
Then the chef will critique. Tonight, Bologna is articulate and expansive. "Don't be afraid to experiment," he says. "It's all about learning." Finding the Tuscan style pork roast a bit salty, Bologna explains the difference between regular salt and milder kosher salt.
For meals so elaborate, only the best wine will do. Howard Berkowitz, a retired orthopedic surgeon, chooses and shops for a wine tailored to every course, including dessert.
"I like to choose wines that resonate with the food," Berkowitz says. "This often entails pairings that follow the nationality of the dishes. I also like to choose wines that are less commonly selected to challenge our members' palates — like a sherry with soup."
As every home chef knows, not every meal goes exactly as planned, and the members can share tales of near-misses and dramatic rescues.
"One of our chef's dessert recipes included a sauce that turned out extremely thin and runny," Sullivan says. "After a failed attempt to thicken the sauce, and with plating time becoming a factor, we decided to freeze it with the ice cream machine."
It worked. "The results were terrific and saved the dessert from becoming a complete flop," he says.
In many ways, Les Marmitons serves as a learning experience that pays dividends at members' home tables for years to come. Many members keep event recipes for quick reference to impress houseguests.
McIntosh sums up the club's appeal. "I get a kick out of splattering grease with the other members," he says. "It's fun cooking and plating the awesome dishes, which we're actually able to cook. I've made some great friends."
There are local chapters of Les Marmitons in Woodstock, Canton and Sandy Springs. For more information, go to lesmarmitons.org.