Last week, French restaurateur Andre Surmain died at his home in the south of France at the age of 97. He is best known for running Lutèce, New York’s gastronomic temple that lasted from 1961 to 2004.
"Like a soufflé," writes Sam Roberts in the New York Times, "Lutèce’s reputation rose slowly by word of mouth as its menu steadily improved, until it was known in culinary quarters as America’s greatest restaurant. It became a fixture for bons vivants at dinner and a hub for the ladies who lunch." But it was Surmain’s chef and eventual business partner Andre Soltner who became the bigger star, remaining at Lutèce until it closed down, whereas Surmain had moved on in 1973.
But there was more to Surmain than Lutèce. Along with James Beard and Julia Child, he helped promote a then-obscure kitchen tool known as the food processor, an invention of MIT engineer Carl Sontheimer—his little brand was called Cuisinart. Surmain opened other restaurants in the United States and France. He even got into catering for the airline industry.
But there is also the matter of Surmain’s past—his real name was Andre Sussman. He was a French Jew.
In The Last Days of Haute Cuisine, author Patric Kuh searches for Surmain, wanting to know why he changed his name and suspecting it was for practical purposes—the way other ethnic minorities changed their names in Hollywood or in business. "Anglicizing one’s Jewish name was practically an American tradition," writes Kuh, "but Francocizing it took it one step farther. Had Surmain felt in 1961 that he had to have a French name to own a French restaurant?"
When confronted by the author about the name switch, Surmain laughed, calling it "that old canard." He explained, "Yes, I’m a Jew, but I changed my name long before I went into the restaurant business, during the war, when I was in the OSS. In case I was captured."
"Educated in France, at the Lycée Janson de Sailly in Paris and the French artillery school in Fontainbleau," writes Roberts in the Times, Surmain "served in the French army until 1940, the year France fell to Hitler, and immigrated to the United States. Drafted into the American military, he served with the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, and was shipped back to Europe."
Six weeks before the invasion of Normandy, in 1944, he was parachuted into Occupied France and wounded in the knee by a German bullet. Before the jump he had changed his surname to Surmain, fearing that the name Sussman might give him away as Jewish if he were caught by the Nazis.
I can’t think of many more people who can claim to be such a success in the food world and veterans of the OSS. As far as I can tell, it’s just Surmain and Julia Child.