WILKES-BARRE —“Who told you I froze the food?” Chef Gwen Le Pape asked indignantly. “That is a lie! I packed it in dry ice!”
Standing behind the bar in Le Manhattan Bistro, the downtown Wilkes-Barre restaurant he owns, Le Pape seemed mollified when a reporter explained there must have been a miscommunication in a news tip about the local chef’s connection to recently deceased celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain.
The two became colleagues in the early 2000s, when Bourdain’s book, “Kitchen Confidential” became a bestseller and the author was in great demand for cooking demonstrations around the world.
As Bourdain traveled from Japan to California to various other spots around the globe, he depended on Le Pape, the chef who had taken over his old job at Brasserie Les Halles on Park Avenue in New York City, to supply the food.
“Tony could be in Tokyo and say he wanted a cassoulet with sausages, beans, a duck leg, pork belly, bacon and whatever else he wanted to use,” Le Pape said. “I would package each ingredient separately and pack it in dry ice.”
Along with the ingredients, Le Pape would send a partially prepared dish and a completed dish that Bourdain could use in, for example, a two-minute cooking segment on “Good Morning America.”
Although that arrangement lasted only from 2002 to 2006, Le Pape said, the two remained friends.
“When I lost my leg (in a 2013 motorcycle accident), there was a benefit for me,” Le Pape said. “He wrote out the biggest check.”
Le Pape opened Le Manhattan Bistro in Wilkes-Barre in November 2014, realizing a dream he had even before he was an 11-year-old who made lemon tarts and chocolate mousse, back when he was a 7-year-old cleaning mussels.
“Of course I always wanted my own place,” he said.
On the wall behind the bar — and on his phone — he keeps a photograph that shows him relaxing with Bourdain after working at the 2003 South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami. “We made beef bourguignon for 10,000 people,” he recalled.
“We cooked in the kitchen of Loew’s Hotel, many times bigger than this,” he said, glancing around his restaurant.
Another photo on the local chef’s phone shows Bourdain pulling a cork from a wine bottle with his teeth, with Le Pape in the background. That photo appeared in one of Bourdain’s cookbooks, one in which the exacting Le Pape was chagrined to see a misprint in the recipe for the dessert cherry clafouti. “It said 450 degrees and it’s supposed to be 325,” he said. “You bake it at 450 degrees and you’ll end up with charcoal.”
When he learned of Bourdain’s June 8 death in Kaysersburg, France, which was ruled a suicide, Le Pape said, “I was shocked. I knew he had his demons (but) I never expected that.”
He remembers his friend not only through photographs, but by recalling a certain feisty attitude Bourdain had.
“When I was growing up in France, I learned that the guest was king, the guest was always right. Tony’s attitude was, if they say your food (is disgusting) tell them to (do something we usually don’t spell out in family newspapers).”
Admitting some of that attitude rubbed off on him, Le Pape said, “If you tell me something is not to your liking, we can discuss it. But if you say the food (is disgusting), I have no tolerance. I don’t care if you think I am arrogant. I’ll say, ‘See that green (exit) sign? Follow it and never come back.’”
“I know what I am doing,” Le Pape said confidently. “I know my craft.”
Le Pape keeps busy practicing his culinary craft at Le Manhattan Bistro as he oversees the preparation of such dishes as carrot and ginger soup, seared scallops with wild mushroom risotto, pan-seared sole with lobster medallions and strawberry rhubarb crumble.
The restaurant is open for dinner 4:30 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and from 4:30 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. It also is open for brunch on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
On Monday evenings, the restaurant hosts dinner-and-a-movie specials that include a three-course dinner plus a French film for $20. Doors open at 4:30 p.m., Le Pape said, and the film starts at 6:30 p.m.
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMT.