Sally Darr, Formidable Chef of ’80s-Era French Bistro, Dies at 100

Sally Darr, the exacting chef and owner of La Tulipe, a tiny 1980s-era French bistro in downtown Manhattan renowned for its exquisite yet homey French cooking — and often agonizing delays — both resulting from her infamous perfectionism, died on Nov. 7 at her home in the West Village. She was 100.

Her niece, Dorothy Darr, announced the death.

Nestled on the ground floor of a modest brick townhouse on West 13th Street, La Tulipe was a jewel-box of a place, with aubergine walls, a zinc topped bar, rustic French country furniture and barely room for some 15 tables. Ms. Darr served what is known as cooking “à la bonne femme” — classic but simple French dishes like roast chicken with 40 cloves of garlic, as well as her own innovations, like soft shell crab meunière and an extravagant terrine of what seemed 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 Ms. Darr’s zucchini fritters and her “immaculate” lemon tart. Desserts were Ms. Darr’s forte: She was a skilled pastry chef, and her apricot souffle, shaped like a minaret and served table-side with a dollop of whip cream flavored with kirsch, was a best seller.

Though she had spent more than a decade as a recipe tester for Gourmet magazine and Time-Life books, Ms. Darr had zero restaurant experience when she opened La Tulipe. Neither did her husband and business partner, John Darr, a Congregationalist minister and peace activist turned school principal. Yet Ms. Darr never doubted she would win those stars.

“I’m going to open the perfect little French restaurant and show them all how,” Gael Greene quoted her as saying in her review of La Tulipe for New York magazine in 1980.

Ms. Darr tasted every dish before it left the kitchen. If something wasn’t up to snuff, she’d toss it out. “Start over,” she’d say. Credit…Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times

And La Tulipe drew stars of another variety. Mary Tyler Moore would order the 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, despite living far uptown. Julia Child came whenever she was in town, having first fallen for the roast chicken. You might see the chicken magnate Frank Perdue, Gov. Hugh Carey of New York, Keith Richards or Robert De Niro.

Nonetheless, Ms. Darr, who tasted every dish that left the kitchen, made them all wait. Restaurant reviewers spent many column inches describing their frustration as they cooled their heels in between courses, or when a companion’s meal arrived but not theirs. It drove her kitchen colleagues crazy, even as they admired her dogged integrity.

“Take it all down, and start again,” she might tell her crew when the timing was off on a table’s orders, as she did one typical night, directing 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’s got to be perfect.”

Mr. Rossman added: “She was insufferable. Obstinate. Unrelentingly perfectionist. And she was brilliant. Of all the many chefs I’ve ever worked for and with, she influenced me the most. Her intention was of the highest order.”

The restaurant often ran out of menu items, another nit by the critics. One of Ms. Darr’s sayings was, “To the latecomer, the bones!”

“She was very talented and very opinionated,” said Jacques Pepin, the celebrated French chef and author whom she invited to cook as guest chef a few times, in a phone interview. “And she was breaking ground for a woman chef. At the time, there weren’t that many.”

Ms. Darr told Ms. Greene: “A friend says she’s going to make me a rubber stamp. It will say, ‘Mine is better.’”

Ms. Darr took the restaurant’s name from a dessert she once tasted in a small restaurant in Paris, a frozen cream in a pastry shell shaped like a tulip.Credit…via Dorothy Darr
Ms. Darr served what is known as cooking “à la bonne femme” — classic but simple French dishes like roast chicken with 40 cloves of garlic, as well as her own innovations, like soft shell crab meunière.Credit…via Dorothy Darr

She was born Sally Kaufman on Jan. 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 weekly newspaper The Villager when Mr. Darr died in 2007 at 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 Darrs hosted “peace dinners” for fellow activists in their apartment, and before embarking on a food career, Ms. Darr began cooking in earnest, working her way through every single recipe in “The Escoffier Cookbook” — there are nearly 3,000 — as she told Craig Claiborne of The Times in 1980.

Her first job was testing recipes 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 its test kitchen. There, she helped produce the cookbook “Gourmet’s France,” out in 1978, for which she spent four years traveling in France collecting and developing recipes.

Ms. Darr and her husband, John Darr, a Congregationalist minister and peace activist turned school principal, had zero restaurant experience when they opened La Tulipe. Yet Ms. Darr was confident it would be a success. Credit…Gene Maggio/The New York Times

When the book was finished, Ms. Darr declared she wanted to open a restaurant. “I knew then that I didn’t want to take orders from anyone else,” she told Mr. Claiborne. “Ever. I wanted to invest myself in myself.”

The Darrs bought a derelict 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. Darr was the business manager and the 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 decidedly over, a recession was in full swing, and Wall Street expense accounts had been slashed. Still, La Tulipe was never a moneymaker; Ms. Darr’s high standards were in opposition to high profit margins, and Mr. Darr was more of an educator than an economist.

They moved to an apartment on West 10th Street, where Ms. Darr continued to cook for friends. At her death, her niece Dorothy Darr reported, there were 10 pounds of butter in her fridge.

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