Elegance and simplicity are the why and the wherefore of Chef Joe Hyde, sportsman, savant of fish and game and author of the new cookbook Love, Time & Butter. At Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard, where fishing for striped bass can be a pretentious production calling for belted waders, plug bags and floating flashlights, Hyde once appeared on the beach carrying a rod and wearing a dark blue suit, brightly polished black shoes and a derby hat. As the other anglers watched in silence, Hyde waded into the surf up to his armpits, caught two 20-pound stripers, tipped his bowler to onlookers and departed dripping wet.
On the Vineyard, in New York City, Kansas City, Hobe Sound and Santa Barbara, all locales where he has cooked or taught cooking, Chef Joe Hyde is, in the words of Novelist Robert Crichton, "sort of semilegendary." Should a client's dinner party flag, Hyde, looking like a white-hatted Brendan Behan, has been known to bound from the kitchen to supply the missing ingredient, his own good cheer. At one dull gathering in New Jersey, he enlivened the proceedings by Indian wrestling with the guests. Some years ago at a garden party for Patrice Lumumba's delegation to the U.N., he showed the befuddled Congolese how to eat corn on the cob. Having done so, he threw the finished ear behind him with a flourish. A week later, at least so the story goes, the Congolese attended a formal dinner in the state dining room at the U.N. Corn on the cob was served, and the Congolese startled everyone by tossing the cobs over their shoulders. But Hyde has his shy moments, too. When Elizabeth Taylor sought him out to congratulate him on a dinner, he hid under the kitchen table, where he pretended to fuss with pots and pans. "I didn't want to get involved," he says.
Gastronomically, Joe Hyde belongs to the classic French school, with the emphasis, as an admiring food critic of The New Yorker once put it, on "preserving the essential greatness of the ingredients, rather than exalting them to complicated and unrecognizable heights." Hyde preaches the gospel of simplicity in food with such fervor that he sometimes refers to himself as "the backlash to the Galloping Gourmet and other TV chefs. While the bird is drying out more and more, they just confuse and snow the audience. Teaching cooking should be about detailed simple processes."
Hyde does about 60 dinner parties a year, and one of his simple spreads—enhanced with a touch of game fish here, a game bird or so there—can cost the host up to $20 a guest. Hyde and his family live in Sneden's Landing, N.Y., but they also have a house on the beach at the Vineyard, which Hyde visits often for seafood. "I love nothing better," he says, "than to have a client ask, 'Is this fish fresh?' And I say, 'Yes, sir, I caught it myself last night on Martha's Vineyard. Would you like some more?' " Among Hyde's favorite seafoods are minnows, known as spearing, dipped in beer and then in a mixture of bread crumbs and flour and fried in deep fat; bay scallops, either smoked or sautéed meuni√®re (the floured scallops are in the hot pan only one minute; if they stay longer they toughen); boiled periwinkles served cold with a vinaigrette dip of chopped onions, salt, pepper, oil and vinegar; fresh mussels and poached fish, preferably a striped bass or salmon of from five to 12 pounds. "The way to cook fish is to poach it whole," Hyde says, explaining that this is the best method to keep it juicy. "People have simply gotten used to fish being dry, because it is so often served that way."
Dryness is only one of the horrors that Hyde sees in American cooking of fish and game. He is aghast at the idea of storing venison or rabbit in a freezer. Instead he marinates them in crocks filled with red wine. Similarly, he feels game birds should be well hung. Adhering to French custom, he hangs a woodcock until it has one or two maggots in it. "Not 50 or 100," he says. "Just one or two." He also contends that all birds, except turkeys with exceptionally large breasts, should be roasted breast down and not up. "The hottest part of the oven is the top," Hyde explains, "and the back should stick up in the hot air because it has little meat on it." As fond as he is of game, Hyde regrets that he cannot get it often enough. Recently he roasted some starlings for a friend. "They weren't bad," he says, "but I suspect blue jays are better."
Hyde, who is now 43, was born surrounded by the Beautiful People. His maternal grandmother, Mary Tonetti, a sculptress, started the artistic colony at Sneden's Landing on the Hudson River. Hyde's neighbors have included Orson Welles, John Steinbeck, Katharine Cornell, Jerome Robbins, Mike Wallace, Aaron Copland, Noel Coward, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and Burgess Meredith. As a youngster, Hyde taught Olivier how to sail; his boat was named Fiddle-dee-dee, a favorite expression of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind.
Hyde's father, Robert McKee Hyde, was a well-to-do eccentric. He occupied his time writing ("His Winds of Gobi is a perfectly beautiful book about China," says Hyde. "He had never been there"), practicing nudism, collecting spiders and hunting mushrooms, an avocation inherited by his son. Upon graduating from Trinity College in Hartford in 1950, Hyde decided on a conventional enough career, the hotel business, because he enjoyed meeting people. He went to work at the Hotel Raleigh in Washington, D.C., and there he was started in the kitchen. He perceived immediately, he says, that cooking was to be his destiny. He spent three weeks with the roast cook, two weeks in the pastry shop, three weeks in cold meat and a week in the storeroom, where his first task was to clean all the cans on the shelves. He had no sooner absorbed the location of the canned goods than he was drafted into the Army. There, amazingly, he wound up serving as a cook for a heavy-mortar company in Korea. Hyde took along a Betty Crocker cookbook. "When the menu said steak, I always made stew," he recalls. "I made a casserole with the hamburger meat. I browned the meat, poured off the fat, added garlic, bay leaf, onion and tomato puree and simmered the sauce for two hours. Then I put layers of cooked elbow macaroni, sauce and sliced American cheese into the deep pans until they were full. The whole affair was baked for an hour; one pan went out to each platoon. The boys liked it. They called it 'Holy Mattress.' "
On his return to civilian life, Hyde worked as a room clerk at the Statler Hotel in New York for six months before going to France. There, through UNESCO, he got a job as an apprentice in Chez Nandron, a two-star restaurant in Lyons, considered by some to be the culinary capital of France. His first day was almost a disaster. The usual apprentice is a 13-year-old. Here was Hyde, the only American apprentice in the country, 25 years old, burly and almost six feet tall. When he appeared in the kitchen dressed in white, the dozen cooks stopped working to stare in amazement. With an atrocious accent, Hyde introduced himself. "Bond jour!" he exclaimed. "Je m'appelle Joe!" Several of the cooks almost swooned. "I was the grossest thing that had ever happened to French cooking," Hyde says. "They had never seen anyone like me before. And the name Joe. They flipped out over it. It sounds like a peasant's name. Even today French chefs who have known me for years recoil at the mention of it. They always call me Joe-ceph!"
Given this appalling debut, Hyde was assigned the lowest job in the scullery, plucking larks beneath a splashing drain-board. Eventually, because of his age, the first cooks allowed Hyde to eat with them, and he acquired a taste for fried tripe, pig heads and coq au vin made with just the peeled chicken gizzards.
Hyde next became an assistant poissonier, or fish cook, at the Pyramide in Vienne. At the time it was regarded by many as the best restaurant in the world. While there, Hyde, a follower of the turf, won $1,000 in the tiercé, a form of French off-track betting. According to one local custom, a winner is supposed to spend it all on one spree. Hyde invited nearly two dozen friends, including the man who had sold him the ticket, to dine at the famed Pont de Collonges. "It was a fantastic, endless meal," he recalls. "I ate two pheasants. We had a meringue and ice cream dessert that was four feet tall. Each tier was covered with spun sugar and illuminated with a little light inside. We drank the finest of champagne—it didn't have anything written on it except dust."
After two years in France, Hyde returned to the U.S. to become chef at the Jupiter Island Golf Club in Hobe Sound, Fla. One of his triumphs there was a chicken poached inside a pig's bladder, which he prepared for Sir Osbert Sitwell and Marshall Field. Hyde had brought a supply of pig bladders back from France. When he tried to import some more on a later trip, U.S. Customs seized them, and ever since he has had to make do with ones gotten from local slaughterhouses. Once while he was cooking at Chalet Frascati in Santa Monica, Calif., he procured some bladders, cleaned them, blew them up through a stick of macaroni and set them out to dry on a clothesline. One of them got away and sailed over the fence like an expiring balloon. Hyde's wife, Gail, ran next door, shouting to the neighbors, "Excuse me, but one of my husband's bladders just landed in your yard."
Hyde spent a summer as head chef at the Misquamicut Club in Watch Hill, R.I., but then quit to work once again as an assistant because "I felt I had to learn a great deal more." Cole Porter wrote a letter of introduction to Le Pavilion in Manhattan, but Hyde says, "It was the wrong way to come in. I should have entered through the cellar." He was shunted off to the Waldorf in 1956 as assistant sauce cook and afterward spent a year at the Brussels. A little while later had decided to teach cooking at UCLA. When his mother's home in Sneden's Landing fell vacant, he returned East to teach in the family mansion known as The Old Library because it had served as one in the 19th century. Built in 1685, the house was also celebrated as a meeting place of George Washington and Lafayette. Although Washington had never slept there, he had eaten there. Hyde's classes were held in the enormous kitchen with its original fireplace.
In a roundup of cooking schools, The New York Times went beyond the city line to include Hyde's because his classes had "too much merit." Similarly another Manhattan food expert wrote, "It is not my custom to concern myself with matters beyond the limits of my own borough, but I have an excuse in this case—that I would go a lot farther afield than Rockland County to find a teacher with Mr. Hyde's combined gifts for cooking and teaching."
In 1966 Hyde gave up his classes to cater full time and shifted his kitchen from The Old Library to a sort of miniature palace nearby built by his uncle, Eric Gugler, an architect and designer of the executive offices in the West Wing of the White House. There amid historic frescoes, triumphant arches and heroic busts, Hyde turns out smoked bluefish, stuffed eggs, poached salmon, orange mousse and other dishes that can be prepared prior to a dinner party. Hyde is thus well prepared when he arrives at a client's house with his staff of six, headed by Selma Andersen, a brisk Swedish woman who superintends the table setting while the chef himself prepares the canapés, heats the oven for the saddles of lamb, sautés endives air-expressed from Belgium and chops shallots. Hyde never goes anywhere without shallots. Just in case he might find them unavailable, he keeps a supply in the glove compartment of his truck. "And I always have kosher salt with me," he says. "I just love the feel of it."
Hyde has cooked and catered in all sorts of places. At a manufacturing plant, he asked to use a forklift truck to serve the appetizers. When the Broadway musical Camelot opened, he did the party for lyricist Alan Jay Lerner. He has catered parties for the Josh Logans, including one in honor of Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones. Jones was so pleased that he shook the hand of one of Hyde's assistants under the impression that he was Hyde. "Another first for Chef Joe Hyde," says Hyde, who sometimes refers to himself in the third person when things go awry.
Occasionally Hyde falls out with a client. Robert Montgomery objected to the bill, and Carter Burden, the social New York City Councilman, wrote Hyde several letters complaining he could not find the persimmon ice cream that was to be left behind.
Every so often Hyde does a dinner for the New York Mycological Society. The mushroom enthusiasts often show up with unusual fungi, and they joyously sing their anthem:
"Deep, deep in the murky shadows,
There where the slime mold creeps,
With joy the stout mycologist
His pallid harvest reaps."
A year and a half ago Hyde and Everett Poole, who runs a fish market in Menemsha, on the Vineyard, began turning out a line of frozen fish and shellfish dishes, prepared by "Famous Chef Joe Hyde." They sell soups, chowders, bouillabaisse, Menemsha thermidor (lobster and fish) and stuffed clams direct to customers or through fancy food stores in cities in the East, Midwest and West. (While Hyde objects to many frozen foods, he believes these dishes, prepared his way, i.e., with juices to conserve fresh taste, are worthy of a first-class chef.) One Vineyard resident went to three dinner parties in a week, and all the hostesses passed off Hyde's dishes as their own. They should know better, the Vineyard being true Hyde territory. It is there that Hyde does some truly debatable things. For example, he will take one of his antique bass boats and head south five miles for the deserted island called No Mans Land. When Hyde gets to No Mans, he either trolls off the beach or goes ashore for a stroll. There is only one difficulty. No Mans Land is used as a bombing and target range by the armed forces. Hyde rather likes trolling offshore, especially when the planes are strafing. With the fastidious taste of a haiku poet, he is fond of describing the puffs of smoke that are emitted from the wings of an attacking plane.
But for all this joie de vivre, he has moments of depression. On occasion he wonders if he does not repeat himself too much with menus. A couple of years ago he got so depressed by this thought that he consulted a psychiatrist. The doctor was elated because Hyde had such an unusual cause for depression. "People are eating your art!" the psychiatrist exclaimed. To which Hyde adds, "That was still another first for Chef Joe Hyde."
A MASTER'S BRACE
3 or 4 wild ducks for 6 persons (four ducks offer a second helping)
2 medium-sized onions cut in eighths
1 onion chopped fine
1 stalk celery roughly cut
1 carrot roughly cut
2 cloves garlic halved but impeded
1 tbs. peppercorns
8 juniper berries
1 cup white wine
1 quart water, salted to taste
1 stick butter
1 bunch watercress
Pluck clucks. Cut necks flush with bodies of birds. Split and clean gizzards. Fry gizzards and necks with livers in one-half stick of butter over medium high heat in a large cast-iron skillet. When brown, add cut-up onions, celery and carrot, garlic, peppercorns and juniper berries. When all are tinged with brown, remove to saucepan, add white wine and water and let simmer for two hours. Strain off resulting juice and boil down to one-half cup liquid. Refrigerate. (You can do all this the day before the dinner.)
On day of dinner preheat oven to 500°. Salt and pepper ducks; smear with one-half stick of soft butter. Place in oven breast down on top shelf and roast for 25 minutes. This will cause some smoke. Don't worry. Remove ducks, sprinkle with chopped onion, and perhaps a handful of pine needles or several branches of rosemary. Return to 350° oven for 10 minutes.
Remove ducks. Make an incision between second joint and breast and rip off the legs. Make another cut at top of wishbone and on both sides of the backbones and strip breasts from carcasses. Place breasts skin down on platter and put to one side.
Place legs in a duck press or orange juice squeezer. If neither is available, simply squeeze the blood from meat with hands, and set aside.
Place the carcasses in a roasting pan. Pour one-half cup of the cooled juices over them. Put in oven and let simmer. Remove from heat and pass the juice through a sieve. Simmer again.
Place dinner plates and platter of breasts in the oven at 100° for three minutes. (Plates should be warm when served, not hot.) Garnish breasts with watercress. Just before serving, remove juices from heat, whisk in blood and pour over duck breasts.
VENISON STEAK AU POIVRE
6 1½-inch-thick venison steaks cut from haunch
3 tbs. peppercorns
‚Öî stick butter
1½ tbs. finely chopped shallots
Put peppercorns on chopping block or cutting board. Using heel of heavy pot or round stone, crack corns. Do not grind. Distribute peppercorns on both sides of steaks and press in with palm of your hand. Heat 12-inch cast-iron skillet and put in 1 tbs. butter. Let butter brown and begin to smoke over high heat. Put in steaks. Brown three minutes to a side. Remove steaks, wipe out pan and put in remaining butter over medium high heat. When butter is brown, add shallots and remove from fire. Stir briskly and pour shallot-butter sauce over steaks. Serves six.
If steaks are frozen, do not thaw completely before cooking; too much juice will run. One of the important principles of game cooking is preservation of all juices. Do not presalt steaks. Salt draws juice from the meat. Let your guests salt their own venison at table.