Sally Darr, the fastidious chef and owner of La Tulipe, a small 1980s French bistro in midtown Manhattan known for her sophisticated but homey French cuisine — and often agonizing delays — as a result of her outrageous perfectionism, has died on Nov. 7 at his home in the West Village. She was 100.
Her niece, Dorothy Darr, reported the death.
Nestled on the ground floor of an unassuming brick townhouse on West 13th Street, La Tulipe was a jewel box with eggplant walls, a zinc-topped bar, rustic French country furniture and barely room for about 15 tables. Ms Darr serves what is known as cooking “à la bonne femme” – classic but simple French dishes such as roasted chicken with 40 cloves of garlic, as well as her own innovations such as soft-shell crab meunière and an extravagant terrine of what looked like hundreds of layers of smoked tongue and foie gras mousse.
From the moment it opened in May 1979, it was a success, earning three stars from Mimi Sheraton of The New York Times, who praised its “small but enticing menu,” the “sheer perfection” of the zucchini fritters at Mrs. Dar and her “flawless” lemon tart. Desserts were Ms. Darr’s forte: she was a skilled pastry chef, and her apricot soufflé, shaped like a minaret and served tableside with a dollop of whipped cream flavored with kirsch, was a bestseller.
Although she had spent more than a decade testing recipes for Gourmet magazine and books for Time-Life, Ms. Darr had zero restaurant experience when she opened La Tulipe. Neither did her husband and business partner, John Darr, a Congregational minister and peace activist turned school principal. Yet Ms. Darr never doubted that she would earn those stars.
“I’m going to open the perfect little French restaurant and show everybody how,” Gael Green quoted her as saying in her review of La Tulipe for New York magazine in 1980.
And La Tulipe attracted stars of a different sort. Mary Tyler Moore would order a tarte tatin and save half for her breakfast the next day. James Beard, who lived around the corner, was a regular (he loved that rich tongue terrine); so were Jackie Onassis and Woody Allen, even though they lived far from the city. Julia Child came whenever she was in town after first falling for the fried chicken. You might see chicken magnate Frank Perdue, Governor Hugh Carey of New York, Keith Richards or Robert De Niro.
However, Mrs. Darr, who tasted every dish that left the kitchen, kept them all waiting. Restaurant reviewers have spent many column inches describing their frustrations as they cool their heels between courses or when a companion’s food arrives but not theirs. This drove her kitchen colleagues crazy, even though they admired her dogged integrity.
“Take everything down and start over,” she might tell her team when time was up for table orders, as she did on a typical night, ordering them to toss every single dish, as one of her chefs, Arnold Rossman, recalled recently. “I don’t care how long they wait. But when they get it, it has to be perfect.
Mr Rossman added: “She was unbearable. Stubborn. Ruthless perfectionist. And she was brilliant. Of all the many chefs I’ve ever worked for, she influenced me the most. Her intention was of the highest order.
The restaurant often ran out of menu items, another nit from critics. One of Mrs. Darr’s sayings was, “To the latecomer, the bones!”
“She was very talented and very persistent,” Jacques Pepin, the celebrated French chef and author whom she invited to cook as a guest chef several times, said in a phone interview. “And she was making a hoe for a female cook. There weren’t that many at the time.”
Ms Darr told Ms Green: “A friend said she was going to rubber stamp me. It will say, “Mine is better.”
She was born Sally Kaufman on January 18, 1923 in Brooklyn to Yetta (Goldstein) Kaufman and Albert Kaufman. Albert was a tool and die maker. Sally grew up in Brooklyn. After graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, she worked as a textile designer. She met Mr. Darr in 1953 and they married that year.
“I wasn’t eager to meet a clergyman,” she told The Villager weekly when Mr Darr died in 2007 aged 88, “and I asked him if he believed in pie in the sky and all that. He said, “No, I believe in heaven on earth,” and that’s what he devoted his life to.
The Dars hosted “peace dinners” for fellow activists in their apartment, and before embarking on a culinary career, Ms. Dar began cooking seriously, working her way through every single recipe in Escoffier’s Cookbook – there are nearly 3,000 — as she told Craig Claiborne of The Times in 1980.
Her first job was recipe testing for the Food of the World series for Time-Life Books, working under Mr. Pepin. In 1970, she was hired by Gourmet magazine to work in the test kitchen. There she contributed to the cookbook Gourmet’s France, published in 1978, for which she spent four years traveling around France collecting and developing recipes.
When the book was finished, Mrs. Darr announced that she wanted to open a restaurant. “I knew then that I didn’t want to take orders from anyone else,” she told Mr. Claiborne. “Sometime. I wanted to invest in myself.”
The Darses bought an abandoned building on West 13th, near Sixth Avenue, and fixed it up. La Tulipe was on the ground floor and their living quarters were above. Mr. Dar was business manager and maitre d’, a courtly, professorial presence.
An early, brief marriage to Joseph Gross ended in divorce. Their son Joshua, whom Mr Darr adopted, died in 1985.
The Darrs closed the restaurant in 1991 and sold the building a few years later. The go-go 80s were definitely over, the recession was in full swing and spending on Wall Street was cut. However, La Tulipe was never profitable; Mrs. Darr’s high standards were in opposition to high profit margins, and Mr. Darr was more an educator than an economist.
They moved into an apartment on West 10th Street, where Ms. Darr continued to cook for friends. At her death, her niece Dorothy Darr reported that there were 10 kilograms of butter in her refrigerator.