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Wed, May 07, 2003 - Page 12 News List

French chef finds catering diplomatic conference in Baghdad a piece of cake


Yves Reynaud, with French colors on his collar, was sent on a vital mission to Baghdad aboard a US Air Force military aircraft -- delivering not bombs but cream puffs.

History is often in the details, such as the dramatic culinary assault by Reynaud's ad hoc aid group, which he might well call Patissiers Sans Frontieres. Pastrymakers Without Borders.

Last week, 350 Iraqis and Americans met for a two-day conclave on how to lead Iraq out of chaos. The city is in such disarray that no one could find food to feed them properly.

"They asked if we could help, and I told them we could," said Reynaud, pastry chef at Kuwait's Crowne Plaza Hotel.

"I wasn't that afraid. I've been baking in war zones for much of my life," he said.

Reynaud took over the whole operation, not only the Black Forest cake and gooey meringues but also the steak au poivre and Daoud Pasha lamb stew.

Almost everything was prepared in Kuwait and sent in refrigerated trucks, with an armed escort, on a 36-hour ride to Baghdad. Then Reynaud and his 24 helpers boarded a transport plane.

Counting breakfast, lunch, dinner and coffee break, the flying crew produced 1,400 servings.

"A few elders worried there might be pork, and some people balked at unfamiliar things, but mostly I think it was a hit," he said.

In any case, diners used to Baghdad fare gave him rousing applause.

Tall, slim and graying at 48, Reynaud is the very picture of a perfect French patissier. He wears a tall white toque, small France flags on his white tunic collars and de rigueur black clogs.

He learned his art in Provence. Then, feeling wanderlust, he took his show on the road. He worked five years until 1983 in Benin on the troubled West African coast.

After a year in France, Reynaud got restless again. He finished the 1980s in Dubai and then went to the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991 to the renovated Metropole, Moscow's first five-star hotel.

"We were having an aperitif on the terrace when the tanks rumbled by," he said. "That livened up the day."

Moments later, Boris Yeltsin scrambled atop one of those tanks to declare Russia free.

Reynaud moved on to the Zagreb Intercontinental, and Croatia exploded in warfare around him. After two years, he shifted to Jakarta.

For six years, he and his Scottish wife ran a pastry shop and bakery in Fort Williams, Scotland. But the cold drizzle and dead calm were too much to handle.

In 2000, the couple packed up their two sons, then aged 6 and 9, and came to the Kuwait Crowne Plaza. Despite 16-hour days and catering parties for 1,000 people, he relaxed and took his boys to the beach.

About his only hardship in the thriving but alcohol-free emirate was suffering through fine dinners with nothing more than bootleg homemade wine. Then another war landed in his lap.

"When I was asked to do this trip, I told my family only that I would be in Iraq," Reynaud said. "But my older son is at that age. When he found out it was actually Baghdad, he said, 'Cool.'"

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