Elegance and simplicity are the why and the wherefore of Chef Joe Hyde, sportsman, savant of fish and game and author of the new cookbook Love, Time & Butter. At Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard, where fishing for striped bass can be a pretentious production calling for belted waders, plug bags and floating flashlights, Hyde once appeared on the beach carrying a rod and wearing a dark blue suit, brightly polished black shoes and a derby hat. As the other anglers watched in silence, Hyde waded into the surf up to his armpits, caught two 20-pound stripers, tipped his bowler to onlookers and departed dripping wet.
On the Vineyard, in New York City, Kansas City, Hobe Sound and Santa Barbara, all locales where he has cooked or taught cooking, Chef Joe Hyde is, in the words of Novelist Robert Crichton, "sort of semilegendary." Should a client's dinner party flag, Hyde, looking like a white-hatted Brendan Behan, has been known to bound from the kitchen to supply the missing ingredient, his own good cheer. At one dull gathering in New Jersey, he enlivened the proceedings by Indian wrestling with the guests. Some years ago at a garden party for Patrice Lumumba's delegation to the U.N., he showed the befuddled Congolese how to eat corn on the cob. Having done so, he threw the finished ear behind him with a flourish. A week later, at least so the story goes, the Congolese attended a formal dinner in the state dining room at the U.N. Corn on the cob was served, and the Congolese startled everyone by tossing the cobs over their shoulders. But Hyde has his shy moments, too. When Elizabeth Taylor sought him out to congratulate him on a dinner, he hid under the kitchen table, where he pretended to fuss with pots and pans. "I didn't want to get involved," he says.
Gastronomically, Joe Hyde belongs to the classic French school, with the emphasis, as an admiring food critic of The New Yorker once put it, on "preserving the essential greatness of the ingredients, rather than exalting them to complicated and unrecognizable heights." Hyde preaches the gospel of simplicity in food with such fervor that he sometimes refers to himself as "the backlash to the Galloping Gourmet and other TV chefs. While the bird is drying out more and more, they just confuse and snow the audience. Teaching cooking should be about detailed simple processes."
Hyde does about 60 dinner parties a year, and one of his simple spreads—enhanced with a touch of game fish here, a game bird or so there—can cost the host up to $20 a guest. Hyde and his family live in Sneden's Landing, N.Y., but they also have a house on the beach at the Vineyard, which Hyde visits often for seafood. "I love nothing better," he says, "than to have a client ask, 'Is this fish fresh?' And I say, 'Yes, sir, I caught it myself last night on Martha's Vineyard. Would you like some more?' " Among Hyde's favorite seafoods are minnows, known as spearing, dipped in beer and then in a mixture of bread crumbs and flour and fried in deep fat; bay scallops, either smoked or saut�ed meuni�re (the floured scallops are in the hot pan only one minute; if they stay longer they toughen); boiled periwinkles served cold with a vinaigrette dip of chopped onions, salt, pepper, oil and vinegar; fresh mussels and poached fish, preferably a striped bass or salmon of from five to 12 pounds. "The way to cook fish is to poach it whole," Hyde says, explaining that this is the best method to keep it juicy. "People have simply gotten used to fish being dry, because it is so often served that way."
Dryness is only one of the horrors that Hyde sees in American cooking of fish and game. He is aghast at the idea of storing venison or rabbit in a freezer. Instead he marinates them in crocks filled with red wine. Similarly, he feels game birds should be well hung. Adhering to French custom, he hangs a woodcock until it has one or two maggots in it. "Not 50 or 100," he says. "Just one or two." He also contends that all birds, except turkeys with exceptionally large breasts, should be roasted breast down and not up. "The hottest part of the oven is the top," Hyde explains, "and the back should stick up in the hot air because it has little meat on it." As fond as he is of game, Hyde regrets that he cannot get it often enough. Recently he roasted some starlings for a friend. "They weren't bad," he says, "but I suspect blue jays are better."
Hyde, who is now 43, was born surrounded by the Beautiful People. His maternal grandmother, Mary Tonetti, a sculptress, started the artistic colony at Sneden's Landing on the Hudson River. Hyde's neighbors have included Orson Welles, John Steinbeck, Katharine Cornell, Jerome Robbins, Mike Wallace, Aaron Copland, Noel Coward, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and Burgess Meredith. As a youngster, Hyde taught Olivier how to sail; his boat was named Fiddle-dee-dee, a favorite expression of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind.
Hyde's father, Robert McKee Hyde, was a well-to-do eccentric. He occupied his time writing ("His Winds of Gobi is a perfectly beautiful book about China," says Hyde. "He had never been there"), practicing nudism, collecting spiders and hunting mushrooms, an avocation inherited by his son. Upon graduating from Trinity College in Hartford in 1950, Hyde decided on a conventional enough career, the hotel business, because he enjoyed meeting people. He went to work at the Hotel Raleigh in Washington, D.C., and there he was started in the kitchen. He perceived immediately, he says, that cooking was to be his destiny. He spent three weeks with the roast cook, two weeks in the pastry shop, three weeks in cold meat and a week in the storeroom, where his first task was to clean all the cans on the shelves. He had no sooner absorbed the location of the canned goods than he was drafted into the Army. There, amazingly, he wound up serving as a cook for a heavy-mortar company in Korea. Hyde took along a Betty Crocker cookbook. "When the menu said steak, I always made stew," he recalls. "I made a casserole with the hamburger meat. I browned the meat, poured off the fat, added garlic, bay leaf, onion and tomato puree and simmered the sauce for two hours. Then I put layers of cooked elbow macaroni, sauce and sliced American cheese into the deep pans until they were full. The whole affair was baked for an hour; one pan went out to each platoon. The boys liked it. They called it 'Holy Mattress.' "
On his return to civilian life, Hyde worked as a room clerk at the Statler Hotel in New York for six months before going to France. There, through UNESCO, he got a job as an apprentice in Chez Nandron, a two-star restaurant in Lyons, considered by some to be the culinary capital of France. His first day was almost a disaster. The usual apprentice is a 13-year-old. Here was Hyde, the only American apprentice in the country, 25 years old, burly and almost six feet tall. When he appeared in the kitchen dressed in white, the dozen cooks stopped working to stare in amazement. With an atrocious accent, Hyde introduced himself. "Bond jour!" he exclaimed. "Je m'appelle Joe!" Several of the cooks almost swooned. "I was the grossest thing that had ever happened to French cooking," Hyde says. "They had never seen anyone like me before. And the name Joe. They flipped out over it. It sounds like a peasant's name. Even today French chefs who have known me for years recoil at the mention of it. They always call me Joe-ceph!"
Given this appalling debut, Hyde was assigned the lowest job in the scullery, plucking larks beneath a splashing drain-board. Eventually, because of his age, the first cooks allowed Hyde to eat with them, and he acquired a taste for fried tripe, pig heads and coq au vin made with just the peeled chicken gizzards.
Hyde next became an assistant poissonier, or fish cook, at the Pyramide in Vienne. At the time it was regarded by many as the best restaurant in the world. While there, Hyde, a follower of the turf, won $1,000 in the tierc�, a form of French off-track betting. According to one local custom, a winner is supposed to spend it all on one spree. Hyde invited nearly two dozen friends, including the man who had sold him the ticket, to dine at the famed Pont de Collonges. "It was a fantastic, endless meal," he recalls. "I ate two pheasants. We had a meringue and ice cream dessert that was four feet tall. Each tier was covered with spun sugar and illuminated with a little light inside. We drank the finest of champagne—it didn't have anything written on it except dust."