I was deeply saddened by the news that Chef Jacques Heraudeau passed away, Sunday, 23rd February, 2014, losing a two year battle with cancer, at 71 years of age, before his time.
Those who knew Jacques would say he had a ‘good innings’, a self-made man, who with his wife Annie, raised a family of three and became successful restaurateurs building up a loyal clientele over 26 years at their South Melbourne institution and bastion of classic French cuisine, La Madrague.
Sadly, Jacques wife, Annie, passed away in December, 2012. Jacques lost his life-long soul mate and I can’t help thinking that he lost his soul as well and it was a broken heart that lead to his own health deteriorating.
I first met Jacques through Gerald George, the indefatigable restaurateur and raconteur at La Chaumiere in West Melbourne, in the days when BYO restaurants ruled, although George didn’t really believe much in licencing rules.
Around this time, I was morphing from a sommelier to the wine trade and had just started at the De Burgh-Day Wine Company, a specialist in European wine imports. Part of my routine incorporated a clandestine delivery of French country wines through the (kitchen) backdoor of La Chaumiere, to which I struck up a relationship with Jacques.
Extending my covert operations to La Madrague, Jacques was going through so much wine, he decided to get a full liquor licence, and I decided to start importing French wines myself to supply him directly. I owe much of my success as a wine merchant to Jacques and other fellow French restaurateurs such as Jean-Paul Prunetti at France-Soir, who unfailing and enthusiastically supported my esoteric wine imports from France.
Working with Jacques and Annie over the years, I helped them build an extensive wine list and cellar at La Madrague. We had a lot of fun in our journey of discovery and as much as Jacques was a patriotic Frenchman, he became quite besotted with Australian wines.
I will never forget the dinner we had at Jacques place one night, when he served up two red wines; a 1963 Mildara Coonawarra Cabernet (dubbed Peppermint Pattie) which he brought from King & Godfree’s in a mixed dozen of over-the-hill cooking wine for $2 a bottle, and the other a prized bottle of 1961 Chateau Leoville Las Case St Julien, Bordeaux that he was saving for a special occasion. He was flabbergasted that the 63’ Mildara was the superior wine, as brilliant as the Las Case was, it was a sacre bleu moment!
It was such discoveries that greatly influenced the evolution of the wine list at La Madrague and we began sourcing more aged wines from the secondary market and private cellars. As the list of ‘treasures’ grew, the clientele transitioned to bringing less of their own wine; some would bring a good bottle of red in the knowledge they could get well-chilled bottle of excellent Muscadet to go with their oysters as a starter. Others that had deep cellars, would bring their great bottles, and invariably end up buying a bottle or two off the list. As one of Melbourne’s serious palates recounted to me on his fond memories of La Madrague, “We finished the meal off with a bottle of 1989 Yquem, which was so fairly priced. Couldn’t resist it, even after a bottle of Vosne-Romanee”.
Jacques and Annie did not realise it at the time, but they were the agents of change, along with restaurateurs like Maria and Walter Bourke at Maria & Walters and Jean-Paul Prunetti at France-Soir, the BYO restaurants were taking wine more seriously than the licensed restaurants, who had no other motivation other than to make high margins.
As the wine market in Melbourne rapidly matured, the restaurant scene evolved even faster with a sea-change during the nineties with formal, fine dining making way for casual, contemporary eateries and a flood of modern-Asian cuisine and hip establishments. But La Madrague remained unwaveringly true to its traditional French ideals with the menu hardly changing for almost three decades and with the unpretentious ambience, highly personable and relaxed service and consistently high standard of food, kept an ever-loyal clientele coming back.
In a Melbourne Age Food Review, October 27, 1986, La Madrague is praised for “Consistently high standards over 8½ years have won La Madrague an excellent reputation and dedicated following despite the restaurants out of the way location in 171 Buckhurst Street, suburban South Melbourne.” and goes on to quote Jacques, “We basically try to be French and as genuine as possible”.
Genuine was certainly the underpinning style of Jacques cooking and the painstaking honesty and reliability in every dish, his bouillabaisse as good as any in Marseille, then there was the rich and hearty cassoulet that would stick to your ribs for days, Les escargots de Bourgogne that would do any Burgundian proud, textbook terrine de la maison, wonderfully chewy baguette, piping fresh oysters, perfectly crisp pommes frites, and the best entrecote au poivre vert on this planet; every dish, no matter how simple, meticulously prepared and with the very best ingredients.
I can still taste Jacques Flageolet beans et ail, the small green ones (which we nicknamed flatulence beans) that he cooked in so much garlic there was no hiding it from your wife if you’d snuck out for lunch at La Madrague, both in smell and gas. This bean dish was unparalleled, so much so, that in a masochistic moment, when I undertook to cook dinner for all the top French chefs and restaurateurs in Melbourne at my house, serving them up my (now legendary) wild rabbit casserole, I had Jacques bring the Flageolet beans et ail, as I could not think of a more perfect accompaniment. The dish was subsequently dubbed, ‘Lapin al la Kiwi flatulist’.
Jacques never strayed much from the kitchen, not taking his eye of every facet of his domain; the sort of antithesis of today’s globetrotting celebrity chef. He was more your chef’s chef, a consummate professional; humble, bordering on shy. But he had a wonderful sense of humour and was the perfect gentleman, moreover he knew how to be thoroughly self-effacing in front of the guests and that included many of Melbourne’s rich and famous who had become good friends of Jacques and Annie. More importantly he knew to hightail it back to the kitchen when he got the glare from Annie, who ruled the front of house. “Get back in the kitchen!” she would bark, “everyone is hungry you fool!!”
When I think of all the restaurants that came and went during the two decades that I was involved in the Melbourne wine and hospitality industry—all the dreamers, all the grandstanding and promises of culinary greatness—until they went broke and disappeared into oblivion; Jacques and Annie quietly went about their business and were so successful they managed to buy the building their restaurant was in, and the mechanic shop next door along with its strategic car park.
Jacques and Annie eventually retired in 2006 with little fanfare, although astutely timed as their generation of diners were dwindling and the restaurant business becoming hyper-competitive and more driven by entertainment factor. They did get to ‘smell the roses’, for a period, travelling extensively around the world, by boat, train, car; anything but a plane as Annie was terrified of flying. Alas, they deserved more.
And like their fellow restaurateurs who were pivotal in this period, Walter Bourke and Donlevy Fitzpatrick, who passed away prematurely, perhaps it was the gruelling hours, the constant demands of the dining public and the stress of this fickle business that took its toll.
The annals of the Australian dining scene and culinary evolution will probably never do Jacques justice, as a chef. Indeed the respected food author and journalist, Rita Erlich, does not even give La Madrague a mention in her otherwise broad and engaging book, “Melbourne by Menu – The Story of Melbourne’s Restaurant Revolution”, charting the bourgeoning restaurant scene in the eighties.
And yet Jacques added the vital roux to Melbourne’s rich history of restaurants; he epitomised the cultural melting pot that Australia had become through successive waves of emigration. He was the quintessential chef-owner and entrepreneur, and I reckon if you asked the most influential people, all around Australia, they would all have a story or wonderful memory to tell about La Madrague—that would fill a book.
On personal note, we spent Christmas 2010 with Jacques and Annie, who came over to our place for a long lunch and they were both in great form. The memory of Annie and all the girls in a group photo will always be the way I remember them, both; for their Joie de vivre.
Jacques had a mischievous grin on his face from the moment he arrived, revealing a bottle of 1994 Clarendon Hills Astralis Shiraz, the first release of this wine that I launched as the distributor back then and I had given him a bottle as a gift. It was another sacre bleu moment, as it was a slightly oxidised bottle—as the adage goes, “There are no great wines, only great bottles”. But we drank the whole bottle anyway, our dopamine receptors dismissing the wine fault and the bond of friendship overriding the palate.
As I write this, I can’t help think how inconsequential one becomes, once you are out of the limelight, or service to others; yesterday’s hero. Many of us will never be known outside of our family group but some, like Jacques and Annie, have touched so many people and have been a big an influence on countless lives; and it’s not just gastronomic fulfilment, it was a whole generation where they were part of the social fabric and shared in peoples good times, and bad times.
I will miss Jacques greatly, but he is ever-present in my mind and he will forever be my benchmark for classical French cooking.
I cannot be in Melbourne for his funeral, however I do have a local restaurant in Singapore that reminds me so much of Jacques and Annie, a husband and wife team, who run the most brilliant Parisian style brasserie, Brasserie Gavroche. It is almost uncanny how Chef Frederic Colin and his wife have the same characteristics as Jacques and Annie, and achieve such great classical French cuisine, so I will be there for a very long lunch next week in their memory.
I hope that the Australian food press finds more than a customary few column inches for Jacques, and that Melbourne chefs and restaurateurs can give him a good send off. The Funeral Service for Jacques will be held at The Wilson Chapel, Springvale Crematorium on FRIDAY Feb 28, 2014 at 10:15 am. In lieu of flowers, donations to Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.
And for all those people that dined at La Madrague over the decades, raise a glass to Jacques and Annie. You know his favourite wine region was always the Coteaux du Languedoc, and I made it my mission to import some for him—the very first French wine I ever imported to Australia, Domaine Pierre Clavel…and we took a bath in it. Vive la France!
Jacques is survived by his sons, Pascal, Alain and Thierry, and grandchildren Jacques and Cleo.