Madeleine Kamman, 87, Who Gave Americans a Taste of France, Dies

Madeleine Kamman giving a cooking class at L’academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Md., in 1984. “She had an incredible capacity to inspire people,” one former student said.

Madeleine Kamman was not yet a renowned French chef and teacher in the spring of 1968 when she read a newspaper recipe for snails provençale on toast.

The recipe, in The New York Times, was by Craig Claiborne, the newspaper’s food editor. She wrote him a letter criticizing it — and impressed him with a different snail recipe and memories of cooking in France.

Mr. Claiborne visited her at her home, near Philadelphia, where copper saucepans made by her grandfather lined a wall of her kitchen.

“From the oven,” Mr. Claiborne wrote in an article two months later, “she retrieved a hot, homemade ficelle — a small, narrow loaf of bread — and spooned warm Hollandaise sauce that she’d fluffed up a moment before over the small dish. With a chilled bottle of dry white wine, both bread and snails were pure bliss.”

It was a public coming-out of sorts for Ms. Kamman, who until then had been teaching cooking at home and in adult education classes.

Mr. Claiborne’s recognition led her to write “The Making of a Cook” (1971), and, after moving to Massachusetts, she opened a cooking school and restaurant in Newton Centre, near Boston. In time she left to teach in France, opened another school and restaurant in Glen, N.H., then moved west to teach chefs at the Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena, Calif., in the Napa Valley.

She wrote “When French Women Cook” in 1976 and several other books. From 1984 to 1991 she had her own PBS series.

By the time she died, Ms. Kamman had established a reputation as a strong-willed teacher of traditional French cuisine for modern tastes and an influential chef whose cooking was deeply informed by her knowledge of food chemistry, botany, history and geography.

“She had an incredible capacity to inspire people — she was very honest with us — but the gifts she gave us were incredible,” Joanne Weir, a former student and cooking teacher who is an owner of Copita, a Mexican restaurant in Sausalito, Calif., said in a telephone interview.

Ms. Kamman’s son Neil said that she had been living with the effects of Alzheimer’s disease for about a decade before she died on Monday in Middlebury, Vt., at 87.

A masterly saucier, Ms. Kamman favored complex flavors and combinations. She would merge smoked pheasant, for example, with Vermont Cheddar, apples, raisins and walnuts in a sherry dressing. She would garnish a light cream of carrot soup with garlic, parsley and Pernod.

“I know I have my own way of doing things, and sometimes things get a little crazy,” she told The Times in 1981. “But the results are there.”

Success in a male-dominated profession led her to embrace feminism and help female chefs thrive.

She felt that her ambition to be viewed as an artist was thwarted in the patriarchal world of chefs.

“If I had been a man with a great hat on my head,” she told The Boston Globe in 1980, “I could have passed myself as a ‘great chef so-and-so’ and nobody would have batted an eye. But the mere fact that as a woman I requested the privilege of being an artist, well, sister, let me tell you, that was quite interesting. How dare I, huh?”

When the celebrated French chef Paul Bocuse — who had praised her restaurant in Newton Centre, Chez la Mere Madeleine — said in 1975 that a woman’s place was in bed, not a professional kitchen, she protested by turning a picture of him upside down for her diners to see.

Madeleine Marguerite Pin was born on Nov. 22, 1930, in Courbevoie, France, a few miles northwest of Paris. Her father, Charles, worked in a shop that created optical instruments, and her mother, Simone (Labarrière) Pin, worked in a bicycle factory. The women in her family cooked well, in particular a great-aunt, who owned a Michelin-starred restaurant in Touraine, in the Loire Valley, where young Madeleine worked in the summers.


Madeleine Pin attended the Sorbonne and studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. But when she met her American future husband, Alan Kamman, a civil engineer, she had not started a cooking career. Rather, she was a reservations manager in Paris for Swissair.

She and Mr. Kamman married in 1960 and moved to the Philadelphia area, which proved to be a difficult adjustment.

“I went into transcultural shock, not being able to speak my native tongue, eat my food, see my architecture, listen to my music,” she told The Times in 1968. “I was so lonely, I started to cook in my kitchen. Then I realized I really knew how to cook.”

Ms. Kamman approached her work seriously — her techniques were painstaking, her recipes meticulously written — and with a confidence so great that it could sound like arrogance. One day in 1980, as she was close to uprooting herself from Newton Centre for a short sojourn teaching cooking in Annecy, France, she reflected on her skills.

“My food is as good as any three-star restaurant in France, and you can quote me,” she told The Boston Globe.

She could intimidate students, nearly all of them professional chefs, with her short temper and intolerance for mediocrity.

Jimmy Schmidt, another student and former chef at Chez la Mere Madeleine, said Ms. Kamman had pushed her students to defend their work.

“If you said, ‘This is the best asparagus I can get, and this is how it should taste,’ that was unacceptable to her,” he said by telephone. “You had to strive harder to make better choices.”

Mary Risley, a cooking teacher who witnessed Ms. Kamman’s formidable personality while taking her class on sauces in France, said that her difficult style had to be separated from her teaching prowess.

“She had one of the best senses of taste of anybody I’ve ever known,” Ms. Risley said in an interview. “She taught us very French ways of doing things, of using chicken bones and parsley, and she was thrifty in the really French way.”

While teaching her class, Ms. Risley said, Ms. Kamman would recite a mantra for making a reduction sauce: “Degrease, deglaze, reduce — and finish with butter or cream.”

In addition to her son Neil, Ms. Kamman is survived by another son, Alan, and four grandchildren. Her husband died in 2014.

Ms. Kamman was not the most famous chef in the Boston area; that distinction belonged to Julia Child, who turned French cooking into great and idiosyncratic television entertainment. They were not friends and did not embrace culinary camaraderie.

Ms. Kamman thought herself the more authentic French chef and was prickly in her estimation of the American-born Ms. Child.

“I am French,” she said when interviewed by The Times in 1982. “Why would they want an American French chef?”

It was not much of a feud, though. Ms. Child did not return much fire and eventually Ms. Kamman mellowed toward her rival.

“Julia made things look effortless and forgiving if a chicken fell on the floor, and Madeleine was more a taskmaster who was much more serious and did not have a public lightness,” Gary Danko, another former student of Ms. Kamman’s and a chef who owns Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco, said in a telephone interview. “But I would have to say that Madeleine was a better cook.”

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