In 1949, Camille Bermann took over a Greek restaurant called the Peacock Grill and changed the name to Maxim’s. The menu was in French, the caviar came from the 21 Club in New York, and the richest and most influential people in Houston were loyal customers.
Known as “Frenchy” to Houston oilmen, thanks to his thick European accent, Bermann wasn’t really French—he was actually born in Luxembourg—although he had waited tables in Paris before coming to the US in 1939, when he was hired to work at the New York World’s Fair.
The story of how Maxim’s came to rule Houston actually starts on the Flushing Fairgrounds. It was there that the French government recreated a Parisian fine-dining restaurant, Le Restaurant du Pavillon de France, which would spark a new movement in the US. “The team of men who would work at this restaurant had been put together in France like specialists for a heist,” Patric Kuh writes in his book The Last Days of Haute Cuisine.
The fish cook, Pierre Franey, would become one of America’s best-known chefs. The head of day-to-day operations, a maitre d’hotel named Henri Soulé, would found legendary New York restaurant Le Pavillon in 1941, after the World’s Fair ended, hiring much of the crew, including Franey and Bermann, to work there. The food at Le Pavillon was straight out of revered French chef Auguste Escoffier’s haute cuisine bible, and the service was modeled on the exclusive Paris restaurants that catered to European royalty and aristocracy. “The right people” were pampered, and “four-flushers” turned away.
Le Pavillon quickly became the most prestigious restaurant in the country, inspiring a new school of snobby operations, including Ernie’s in San Francisco, the Pump Room in Chicago, the Ritz Carlton Dining Room in Boston, Prince Romanoff’s in LA, and Maxim’s in Houston. “Crammed with antiques, top heavy with staff, flying their red velvet like ancestral flags,” writes Kuh, “these restaurants aimed—clearly with varying degrees of authenticity—to recapture the European past.”
Maxim’s might never have succeeded in a blue-collar town like Houston. But as it happened, a French couple who came here to escape World War II, John and Dominique de Menil—you might have heard of them—befriended Bermann and brought all of their friends and customers of their oilfield services company, Schlumberger, to Maxim’s for caviar and champagne.
Dining in mid-century America’s haute cuisine restaurants was a test of sophistication and social status. Men were required to wear a coat and tie. Maxim’s menu was written in a language relatively few Houstonians understood. Seating was by social station: the maître d’ might put you with the high society swells, or in the section known as “Siberia.”
While such rituals survive in Houston at such places as Tony’s, they are only part of Maxim’s legacy—the food itself is a more interesting precursor to Houston cuisine today. “My Dad was member of the Les Amis d’Escoffier Society, but he never hired a French chef,” says Camille’s son, Ronnie Bermann. There were two French-speaking black women from western Louisiana working in the kitchen when Bermann senior took over the Peacock Grill, and they became his head chefs. The other cooks were Mexican.
“There was always Creole gumbo, and the sauces all had a little touch of chili powder,” says the younger Bermann. The famous taramasalata fish roe spread that appeared on every table at Maxim’s was a leftover from the Greek owners. The signature seafood dish was New Orleans-style “Red Snapper Excelsior” topped with artichokes and mushrooms. “The food at Maxim’s,” he adds, “was never really French.”
The whatever-works philosophy behind Maxim’s Creole-French-Louisiana-Southern-Greek-Mexican food should be familiar to Houstonians. Camille Bermann put on a good French maitre’d act, but his veteran Houston cooks knew how to please the locals.
One of Maxim’s most famous lunch items was jokingly listed on the menu as “Oil Field Trash.” Camille Bermann called it breaded tenderloin with gravy—but his customers called it chicken-fried steak. As Ronnie Bermann recalls, “Dad once said that ‘French food made him famous, but chicken-fried steak made him rich.’”
Maxim’s Red Snapper Excelsior
- 4 pieces of Gulf red snapper fillet, about 6 oz each
- 1 cup flour, seasoned with salt, pepper, and a pinch of cayenne
- 4 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 cup fresh artichoke hearts, chopped
- 2 cups sliced mushrooms
- Juice of 3 lemons
- ½ cup parsley, minced
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
- Dash of chili powder
- 4 lemon slices and 4 parsley sprigs for garnish
Dredge the fillets in seasoned flour until well-coated. Heat two tablespoons butter and two tablespoons oil in a skillet over medium heat. Reduce heat to medium-low, then place the floured filets into the hot butter and oil and fry on each side for five minutes or until cooked through. (The cooking time varies with the thickness; 10 minutes per inch of thickness is the rule.) Remove the fish from the skillet and hold them in a warm oven or a heated pan.
Heat the additional two tablespoons butter in the skillet until melted, then add the artichokes and mushrooms. Sautee for a minute or two to get the mushrooms coated with oil. Cover and allow to cook for a few minutes, until the mushrooms give up their liquid. Add the lemon juice and minced parsley to the skillet, stirring together and cooking for a few minutes or until the mushrooms are cooked through.
Pour sauce over the fish, season with salt, pepper, and chili powder, and garnish with lemon slices and parsley sprigs.