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Sunday, January 7, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hinterberger's Table

Rover's Thierry -- It's Likely This Madison Valley Chef Is Better Known In New York City

WATCHING THIERRY Rautureau jumping through high-level culinary hoops prior to his departure for a big-deal invitational dinner at the James Beard House in New York recently, one couldn't help recalling the character in the Mark Twain tale about to be tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail.

"If it weren't for the honor of the thing," Twain's miscreant mused, "I'd just as soon walk."

It is indeed an honor to be invited to the Beard Foundation to put on a sumptuous spread for 90 East Coast foodies (and a steadily declining number of East Coast food press). But it is also a financial and occupational burden.

Honors are piling up steadily, and with increasing frequency for Rautureau. His televised appearances on national cooking shows - like this year's French Fest - are mounting. He is possibly as well known in San Francisco and Boston PBS television studios as he is in Seattle.

He smiled, poured and schmoozed through an hour of pre-dinner Champagne at Rover's restaurant, 2808 E. Madison St. Performing for two dozen friends and a test audience, he produced a picture perfect six-course dress rehearsal of food as art.

Hors d'oeuvres led the way: Hudson Valley Foie Gras Mousse with Thyme Brioche and Peach Chutney, Smoked Salmon and Goat Caille on Rosemary Sourdough Bread (a bit dry and tough), a silky terrine of Wild Washington Mushrooms with an herbed balsamic vinegar infusion, and Marinated Yellow Finn Potatoes with Osetra Caviar. All moistened with a glass or two of Oregon Argyle Brut 1989 sparkling wine.

Trays whirled through the dining rooms to a low chorus of appreciative murmurs.

After 90 minutes of this, the appetizer was served: Sauteed Sea Scallops, puree of figs, more Foie Gras in a Lobster-Truffle glace. Another Oregon wine, Adelsheim Chardonnay, 1993, accompanied.

Some French chefs are tyrants. Rautureau is a dynamo and a pussycat; possibly a genius, but nevertheless a pussy cat. He is likable, congenial and endlessly giving. There isn't a Seattle charity that hasn't picked his brains, his talents, his larder and occasionally his pockets.

The Beard dinner would cost him thousands - but it might get him nominated (again) as the Northwest Chef of the Year. And when you are a "rising star chef" you pay your dues, however steep.

Rover's is a deftly remodeled frame house in Madison Valley and hosts Seattle cuisine at its haute-est. The menu changes daily - and almost nobody bothers to note it. Most of Rover's dinner guests just greet the chef in the dining room, tell him to do his stuff, and for $59 a head, over the course of a couple of elegant hours, he does.

He prefers it that way. Why waste time ordering off the menu (as only 15 percent of Rover's clientele does)?

"You don't go to your doctor and tell him what to do," Rautureau smiled. "You show up and get what he thinks is the best he can do for you."

The courses at the preview dinner kept coming: miniature Alaskan Salmon Tournedos arranged over a Beet Couscous, topped with Olympia Oysters, Mediterranean Mussels and a Calf Feet Ginger Sauce. And another pouring of the chardonnay.

Rautureau, 37, was born in Hilaire de Loulay in the Muscadet region of France. His parents were farmers. He retains an easy, earthy manner. "When I came home from school, there was a list of things to do. I went into the garden and picked tomatoes. Got vegetables ready for the pot-au-feu. I was raised in the middle of cows, chickens and vegetables."

He started cooking at the age of 10. At 14, when he graduated from high school, he became a kitchen apprentice. "I had a cousin who was an apprentice chef. He told me I would always have a roof over my head, always a plate of food. And he was right. But the first five years were like slavery."

He learned his craft in Normandy, Chamonix and Orleans. After a year of mandatory military service, he saw an ad in a newspaper in Nantes, looking for young French cooks to work in the U.S. He applied; he was accepted; he went.

"I told my family it would only be for six months. That was 17 years ago."

He wound up in Chicago, working three years at La Fontaine. Then he moved to Los Angeles for five years at the L.A. Regency Club; later as sous chef to the Seventh Street Bistro (also in L.A.) for three more years.

He started thinking about opening his own place, possibly in Southern California. On a whim he traveled to Seattle in 1987 to visit a friend and colleague, Cyril Frechier (who now runs the front of the house for him) and dropped in to Rover's, then run by chef Kevin McKenzie.

"Well, this place is for sale," McKenzie said, and Rautureau bought it - lock, stock, name and all.

"I figured it was one third the price of what I would have had to pay in L.A. or Santa Monica. I said: `Even if I fail, at least I'm not gonna lose my shorts.' "

He didn't, although at times it must have felt as if he were giving them away.

Invitations to the James Beard House are not quite "invitations."

"They are more like a summons," a visiting New York food writer confided to me recently. "You WILL show up. And fly in your crew. And your supplies. And find a kitchen in New York because the Beard House facilities are inadequate. If you're lucky you get your suppliers to donate some of the stuff. The Beard House offers you back so many dollars per head (usually about $30), which doesn't cover costs and most of the time the invited chef says: `Oh, no no. Donate it to the foundation."'

Part of the cost of growing a business - and a national reputation.

In the new dining room at Rover's, glasses were filled with a luscious Gordon Brothers 1991 "Tradition Meritage" red wine, a fine pairing with the main course: Northwest Venison Medallions with Spaghetti Squash (a trifle soft), a tart Red Onion Marmalade and a Duck-Prosciutto-Huckleberry Sauce.

Rautureau came out to a burst of applause and ducked back into the kitchen to help prepare the cheese course, an assortment of Quillisascut cheeses with Wild Greens and an Apple-Rosemary Vinaigrette.

Rautureau is a bit of a categorical enigma. He is undeniably French and a chef. But he is also not exactly a French chef - intentionally so. He kept the name of Keven McKenzie's restaurant - Rover's - not only because he thought it might deliver a commercial advantage, but because he didn't want to be stamped strictly as a purveyor of French cuisine.

His menus are eclectic - and likely to be chosen that day. He calls what he does, humbly: "Good Food. I suppose you could call it Northwest Contemporary with a French Accent," he laughed, aware of the sense of contrivance that implied.

He yearns to run a neighborhood restaurant, filled with ordinary people. Instead he survives on the $59 five-course offerings that attract, heavily, visiting tourists and foodies.

That may not strike him as ideal, but it's a step up from his first months at Rover's. "Ten years ago, many nights we were sitting around, playing cards in the back."

Dessert arrived: a Preserved Bing Cherry Clafouti with a seductive Bittersweet Chocolate Tart sauced with a Wenatchee Apricot Coulis. Gorgeous.

If that wouldn't wow them in New York, nothing would.

It was all a long way from hearty country fare in Muscadet. He smiled.

"People. Food. Planes."

(Copyright 1996, John Hinterberger. All rights reserved.)

John Hinterberger's restaurant and food columns appear in The Seattle Times in Sunday's Pacific Magazine and Thursday's Tempo. Benjamin Benschneider is a Times photographer.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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