"Don't do that!"

The command is sharp, unexpected, wholly out of character with the glittering crystal-and-starched-linen opulence of Manhattan's La Côte Basque restaurant and the man who speaks it. Is this the same genteel, avuncular, delta-bred bon vivant who only moments before was telling droll, delicately naughty stories about the late Henri Soulé and his former mistress (now La Côte Basque's proprietress), Mme. Henriette Spalter. But yes, even so gracious a dinner companion as Craig Claiborne, the best-known writer about food in the U.S., truly haul écrivain of haute cuisine, cannot let a culinary sin of such magnitude go un-reprimanded: "Don't ever, ever salt and pepper anything without tasting it first!"

Silently, swiftly, a waiter removes the exquisite remains of the poached striped bass, the sommelier refills the wine glass. As Claiborne awaits the sweetbreads, he tells another tale of the late patron of La Côte Basque and the now vanished Le Pavilion.

"After Soulé and I had become fast friends, he gave me a Cartier watch. My managing editor on the New York Times told me I had to give it back. Well, I was terrified to come in after returning it. When I finally did, Henri threw his arms around me and said, 'Ami, when I die you're going to have this watch.' Sure enough, when he died he left it to me." A smile. "But then, he also left a watch to J. Edgar Hoover."

Now 54, Claiborne spent 14 years dining out as the New York Times' food critic, and he has eaten God's plenty of restaurant food. He left the Times in 1971 to start the Craig Claiborne Journal with his longtime friend, Pierre Franey, former chef at Le Pavilion and now a vice-president with Howard Johnson's. It was a charming newsletter full of recipes and alimentary philosophy, and it failed after two years. "I shouldn't have done it," Claiborne ruefully admits. "I'm not what the French call a businessman." He doesn't have to be. Himself an artist of delicious food and deft prose, Claiborne has long been acknowledged as one of the world's preeminent culinary critics. (On American newspapers he is among a handful of male food writers.) His seven cookbooks, including the massive New York Times Cookbook, have been translated into 17 languages and bring him an annual six figures in royalties. (It is publishing legend that the Times inadvertently allowed the cookbook's copyright to be solely vested in Claiborne, thus enriching him.)

Twelve months ago Claiborne returned to the newspaper as food news editor, but he no longer writes the daily bread reviews. His new job demands little more than that he tour the restaurants of the world and then write of them and their food at leisure in his home in East Hampton, Long Island. He recently visited the Far East principally to try a Vietnamese dish he had sampled once in Paris. The dish, cha gao, a confection of chopped pork and seafood wrapped in pastry and deep-fried, became the subject of a Claiborne article. His pieces are syndicated to 400 newspapers in the U.S. and foreign countries.

But Claiborne is most at home in his own $13,000 kitchen. "I enjoy cooking for myself," says the bachelor gourmet. "I set a place for myself, I light candles. People say, 'What Kind of fool are you?' But I like being alone. I revel in being alone." He does not apparently enjoy solitude very often. Such appreciative and hungry guests as the David Brinkleys, Lillian Gish, Art Buchwald, Betty Friedan, author Willie Morris, playwright Peter Stone and columnist Tom Wicker and his wife turn up at Craig's elegant table. That table will sing, but not groan. "I like to taste food," says Craig. "Eating too much spoils the whole idea. I also think you can get fatter eating bad food than good."

Claiborne is the sort of wry, self-effacing man who can use such phrases as "gratifying the inner person" without sounding—or feeling—foolish. He is honest and unpretentious enough about his work to appreciate a savory bowl of chili or a succulent dish of sauerkraut every bit as much as aubergines farcis au jambon or saumon poché mousseline.

The Claiborne childhood might have been invented by Tennessee Williams. "My father owned a plantation near Sunflower, Miss.," recalls Claiborne. "But he lost it, and my mother had to open a boardinghouse in Indianola. That accounts for some of my tastes; I grew up on chitlins, collard greens, corn bread. My mother was one of those suffocating Southern belles, very possessive of her children. She wanted me to be a doctor, but the first time I smelled formaldehyde I got sick." In the boardinghouse kitchen the boy first became fascinated by the preparation of food. He started in premed at Mississippi A&M (now called State College), but was so miserable he transferred to the University of Missouri journalism school and graduated in 1942. Claiborne joined the Navy and was ordered to naval intelligence in Washington. As a codebreaker, he typed his way through the African and Italian invasions, then returned to the U.S. to be commissioned a 90-day wonder at Notre Dame. Shipped to the Pacific, Ensign Claiborne eventually was made skipper of a sub-chaser.

After his naval service, Claiborne launched his career in food journalism by signing on as public relations man in Chicago for Don McNeill's Breakfast Club on radio ("Good morning, Breakfast Clubbers. Well howdy do-ya"). The job scarcely suited Craig's Trimalchian visions, so he ran off to Paris where he "learned to speak execrable French and drink cognac and white wine." Returning to Chicago, he went into public relations again, promoting men's and children's wear for Sargent Shriver at father-in-law Joseph Kennedy's Merchandise Mart. "God! I was so bored," Claiborne recalls. "I surreptitiously volunteered for the Korean war. I was made billeting officer on Kwajalein and gave myself the sweetest conceivable billet, full of rattan furniture from the Philippines. But the food was unspeakable. I thought, 'There's more to life than this.' I decided that I liked to write and I liked to cook, so after the war I applied to the Swiss Hotelkeepers' Association school in Lausanne."

Claiborne flourished, finishing eighth in a class of 60 in cooking and sixth in service. ("I'm a bit rusty," he says, "but I could still outdo almost every waiter in New York.") Back in the U.S., however, he found himself on the PR trail once more, this time with Fluffo shortening. His chance to break out came when he heard that Times food editor Jane Nickerson was leaving her post. "No man had ever had that job," he says, "but I went to Turner Cat-ledge, then managing editor, and started rolling my vowels heavily when we discovered we had both gone to Mississippi A&M and lived in Polecat Alley, a rundown dorm. I said, 'Mr. Cat-ledge, there's some opposition to my being hired.' He replied, "Son, I do the hiring and firing around here.' "

Claiborne's discerning palate, cooking skills and stylish pen immediately captured a following. While James Beard and Julia Child were well-known cook-personalities, Claiborne became a cook-writer-personality, and that gave him an extra rolling pin to wield. More than one New York restaurateur has fired off a hate letter to the Times after an acerbic review branded him with only one or two of the four stars Claiborne could award. (Only four restaurants in the U.S., including Le Pavilion, have ever won all four.) One prominent New York matron begged to be included in one of his random columns on hosts and hostesses because it was "the status symbol in New York." (She did not make it.) Craig befriended the great chefs of the world: Jean Vergnes of the old Colony, former White House chef René Verdon, La Caravelle's Roger Fessaguet, Jacques Pépin, onetime chef to Charles de Gaulle, Côte Basque's Pierre Laverne and Pierre Franey. "They trusted me to do well by their recipes," he says. "There's really no such thing as chefs' secrets. That's a lot of bull. But the average housewife doesn't understand that."

It was a fast crowd that Claiborne ran with, one that ate and drank with gusto. Like many a genteel Southerner, Craig has a fondness for the grain and the grape. One time, slightly in his cups, he made the mistake of telling feminist Betty Friedan a joke that reflected poorly on woman's capacity for both alcohol and subsequent sexual selectivity. "Betty wouldn't speak to me for six weeks," he remembers. Last fall he took the cure for a week in Italy and announced, unregenerately, "I didn't feel one bit better when I left than I did the day I arrived."

It is a bright, young, winter afternoon, as crisp and sparkling as a glass of Dom Pérignon. In his house overlooking Gardiners Bay, Claiborne is baking bread ("I never ate the stuff until I started making it") and preparing coquilles Saint-Jacques for lunch. He pours a light champagne for himself and a guest as he shows off his house. Faulty equipment will never cause a Claiborne souffle to decline and fall. "There are few professional kitchens like this," he boasts justifiably. "It is almost identical to Paul Bocuse's kitchen in Lyons," referring to the chef-propriétaire of a celebrated French restaurant. Designed by Ben Baldwin, Claiborne's version includes: a double Vulcan professional range, a Chinese wok range (with Virginia Lee he produced a Chinese cookbook that made that cuisine fashionable in the U.S.), vertical and horizontal grills, a salamander for glazing, and every imaginable fine French pot, poacher, slicer, blender and a murderous assortment of cutlery. In one corner is a desk with typewriter and shelves with cookbooks. "My whole life revolves around this area," he says. Glittering with stainless steel above a tile floor, the kitchen is surgically clean but littered with recipes and letters to the editor (from a lady in Wilson, N.C.: "Dear Mr. Claiborne, Down here in the 'provinces'...We need your extra touch for sophistication and added pleasure").

Claiborne is ham enough to be pleased by such letters, and cosmopolite enough to be embarrassed. "People are so uptight about what they serve and pour," he says, offering a modest white wine from his own cellar—kept precisely at 56°. "The term 'gourmet cooking' makes me laugh. I can make a banquet out of a pickle." Yet his own favorite meal is mousse de sole tout Paris, followed by boned stuffed squab with braised endive. And he would most like to eat it in Paris's great restaurant Taillevent.

The coquilles this afternoon is no pickle; the man and his kitchen are a victorious combination. As the wine dwindles and the last of the autumn ducks begin to lift from Gardiners Bay, Claiborne ruminates: "My food column is a historical record of how people in America and around the world ate in the mid-20th century. It's also a hobby column. People ask, 'How can you keep writing about truffles and heavy cream?' Well, a lot of macaroni and hamburger go into that column too." He sips reflectively. "I'm a hedonist, and I love giving pleasure to others. You see I really do have this thing about food."