I had come to the conclusion that no one else was going to write about the life of Friedemann Paul Erhardt (a.k.a culinary icon CHEF TELL) and that I better do something. After all, he was my brother-in-law. But I was not sure that it was a worthy endeavor — family and friends were in opposite camps about the man: some loved him, others hated him. I just wanted to research the facts and decide for myself.
In December of 2011, my sister Bunny Erhardt, widowed since Chef had passed away in 2007, acceded to my request for access to her friends and acquaintances. She gave me permission to write the first Chef Tell biography.
Embarked on my quest to discover whether this man was worthy of my time or not, I developed a three-part outline loosely fitted to the early, middle and later years of his lifetime. As the work progressed, data gathered on my desk and on sheets of papers surrounding my desk fitted into the corresponding sections of that outline. Eventually, a timeline list of major events in Tell’s life took shape, which became the backbone to my body of work.
As people’s names popped up I jotted these down, notching a mark each time the same name appeared. The list directed me to individuals who would become subjects of interviews that I hoped would provide personal anecdotes, as well as qualify some of the data, which were adding up to conflicting accounts.
Fact and fiction overlapped more than a few times. These instances were not the proverbial “truth is stranger than fiction” variety; either the subject of my book had lied to the press, or journalists had researched their magazine and newsprint articles poorly or not at all. Sifting actual fact from a widespread panoply of published falsehoods circulated among articles, media interviews, and the chef himself, was the hardest part of the task!
My Virgin Interview
My first in-person interview was in Philadelphia in the administrative office of Chef Georges Perrier, a contemporary of Chef Tell and one of the Top Five, premier French chefs in America. Perrier had agreed to 15 minutes only — not much time to request more than a simple, “Tell me, chef, what was important about Chef Tell?” If any more time passed, I would wing it by following my instincts.
I had never conducted a live interview with anyone before. Working in international marketing sales (to support my writing aspirations) I had met and sold products and services to many top business executives in the financial and healthcare industries for the last 18 years, but this would be my first live interview as an “Author.”
The questions I asked were never a part of my notes, and Perrier was a wonderful interview. He waxed on about his friendship with Tell as I wrote highlights on my pad of paper. My small recorder captured the actual phrases and nuanced details for later playback. I prodded infrequently and only to let Perrier loose.
In the end, the clock had flown by for more than an hour. We hugged, perhaps with a hint of tears in our eyes, because Perrier had not known that Janet Louise Nicoletti, Tell’s fiancee when the two chefs first met, had overdosed and died years earlier. Perrier’s summation of the woman said it all succinctly,
“Mon dieu, I did not know this. I knew this woman; she was simply tall, bright and beautiful.”
Later, downstairs, having shelled out a twenty-dollar bill to retrieve my rented car from the union-run, Philly parking garage, I made a mental note to bring enough change to feed the street parking meters at future interview meetings. That evening I rewarded myself with an authentic Philly cheesesteak sandwich, for making it through what I thought would be the worst of my gauntlet of interviews for this book.
Now I was proud that I had struck out on this course. Perrier, a man at the top of his profession — the same one as Chef Tell’s — had confided in me two significant morsels:
“Chef Tell was a giant of a man. I miss him. I loved him,” and “You know, maybe I’ll have you write my biography, because I like you. But, of course, it would be a very naughty book!”
(Perrier’s remark, which made us both laugh, further broke the ice between us and opened a more intimate repartee from that point forward, gave me reason to reply,
“Georges, perhaps you should wait until you read my book on Tell; you may not think I can write a book well.”)
Each subsequent interview, each fork in the road, each turn, and hill and valley of the path I was on led to new information about whether I would love or hate the man who was Chef Tell as the work moved inexorably toward its own completion.