Musician Cooks Like a Composer To Achieve Harmony with Foods

Philadelphia Bulletin, April 28, 1949

by Harry Harris

MOZART AND MAYONNAISE, BEETHOVEN AND BOUILLABAISSE – they all represent capital “A” Art to Marcel Tabuteau, of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The orchestra’s first oboist for 34 years, one of the world’s finest performers on that difficult wind instrument, the hearty, good-natured musician is equally at home behind a score and a stove.

He doesn’t think that at all surprising; he believes that good cooking and the artistic temperament go hand in hand.

“After all,” he says, “Art is not restricted to the concert hall or the painting gallery. Art in any field represents an attempt to achieve perfection. And isn’t that exactly what a good cook constantly tries to do?”

Tabuteau has been interested in concocting tasty morsels for as long as he can remember – ever since he was a child in Compiègne, France.

“I look forward to cooking as a source of pleasure and recreation,” he says smilingly. “It provides a change from the constant tension and excitement of making music. Wonderful modulation.”

“There are similarities. You must achieve harmony with foods, as with musical notes.”

“However, I prefer to cook like a composer, instead of a conductor. I don’t like to follow a score. I like to improvise as I go along.”

“Yes,” agrees the oboist’s charming wife, Louise Andre Tabuteau. “When he is cooking, he is a child of fancy.”

As a result, there isn’t a printed recipe to be found in their small but cozy apartment at the Drake, though there’s plenty of just about everything else: flowers, books, paintings – appropriately enough, one of a sumptuous dinner dominates the entire living room – music scores, knick-knacks and a lone photograph of several penguins.

“That’s my nickname,” Tabuteau explains, puffing at one of the bamboo oboe reeds he uses as cigarette holders. “They called me ‘Penguin’ because I was so impressed by Anatole France’s ‘Penguin Island.’ “

Tabuteau puffs on an oboe reed cigarette holder

Madame Tabuteau does some of the cooking – “I have graduated to broiled lamb chops and vegetables,” she reports – but her husband is “the big boss” in the kitchen. “It’s a small kitchen,” she says, “with only room for one. And he’s the one.”

The oboist does most of the shopping, and supervises the final, distinctive touches for dinner – the only meal they usually eat at home.

 Caricature of Tabuteau by Alfred Bendiner

“I am very moody when I cook,” says Tabuteau with a hearty guffaw.” I cook according to the way I feel at the moment. A little of this, a little of that, and almost always a soupçon of garlic. I never proceed by the rules.”

Some happy accidents have resulted from this method, the balding, grayhaired musician says.

For instance, he discovered that roast chicken could be made to taste – in Madame Tabuteau’s phrase – “like the finest venison” if two or three shallots were placed inside the chicken, with salt and pepper, and the chicken was subsequently served with two or three slices of bacon on top.

“And don’t forget the leg of lamb a la Stravinsky,” said Madame Tabuteau.

It seems that several years ago, when Stravinsky was visiting Philadelphia, the oboist invited the Russian composer to have dinner with him after a concert.

“But preparing a roast leg of lamb, Stravinsky’s favorite, is a rather slow process,” Tabuteau recalled, “and I knew he would be extremely hungry – too hungry to wait an hour or longer. So in desperation I put the lamb into the oven to cook for 40 minutes before the concert, then let it remain in the unheated oven for two hours, throughout the concert. When we returned, I turned on the heat for another 20 minutes or so. The roast was delicious. All the spices had penetrated deep into the meat. Since then, we always prepare leg of lamb in just that way.”

“And the celebrated bouillabaisse,” Madame Tabuteau prompted.

“That must wait a few weeks,” said the musician. He and his wife will be leaving soon, as they do at the end of each Philadelphia Orchestra season, for their home on the Riviera. “There I concentrate on outdoor cooking, and that is how bouillabaisse should be prepared – in the open, over a quick fire.”

Tabuteau is looking forward to his return to France for another culinary reasons, too. “American food looks wonderful,” he says, “but somehow many foods taste better on the other side.”

The musician uses seasonings lavishly. Saffron, for instance, he considers an essential ingredient of chicken curry. And he whips up his own heavily-spiced dressing for the salmon he catches during yearly fishing excursions to Nova Scotia and subsequently cans for use throughout the year. Shallots, tarragon in vinegar, mashed raw mushrooms, parsley and herbs are among its numerous ingredients.

Tabuteau is king in the kitchen during the actual preparation of meals. But who cleans up afterwards?

The musician grins. “Ah,” he says, “the washing. It makes me suffer.”

Madame Tabuteau nods her golden braids. “Yes, he suffers,” she says, watching me from an armchair.”