By Robert Isenberg

The Swordsman

The owner of Pot Au Feu has a distinguished history “sabering” champagne bottles

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If there was ever a true bon vivant, it’s Bob Burke. A gregarious raconteur, Burke owns the French bistro Pot Au Feu. He founded the Independence Trail through Providence and recorded an audio tour for history buffs. He’s even served as Grand Marshall for Gaspee Days in Cranston.

And when asked, Bob can pick up his cavalry saber and slice the top off a bottle of Moët et Chandon champagne, spewing bubbly toward the ceiling like a
carbonated fountain.

“It really is fun to be part of something that has been carried on for centuries,” says Bob. “I never anticipated this. I had no idea I would ever have people pay me to be flown around to gorgeous events – corporations, weddings – to have this moment. It’s really special.”

All this dates back to 1987, when Bob met a “sabreur” named Robert Gourdin. The Frenchman was renowned for his champagne cascades, and he had stopped into the Down Under restaurant in Warwick for an event. “He would go all around North America,” remembers Bob. “And whether it was the Golden Globes, or Grand Prixs, or openings of hotels, Robert was at all of these events. That night, he sabered a bottle of champagne. We were kindred spirits. We knew right away that we were going to be friends.”

The sabering tradition dates back to the Napoleonic era, when the Emperor’s personal guardsmen would use swords to open their daily ration of champagne. Today, the tradition is carried on by the Moët et Chandon Club des Sabreurs, based in Epernay, France. Only French nationals had ever been inducted, but Gourdin decided to invite some North Americans, about 15 in all. Julia Child was one. Bob Burke was another.

Once initiated – to the chagrin of many members – Bob was presented with a diploma and replica saber. He has performed thousands of saberings since then; indeed, the second floor of Pot Au Feu is painted black, to obscure the splash-marks on the walls. About two years ago, Bob committed the heretical act of sabering on French soil beneath the Eiffel Tower to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of a Rhode Island woman. Bob tells this story with his usual vivacity, recalling how he performed the ritual, then ushered celebrants into a limo before the police could arrive and fine them.

Bob also loves the strict tradition, which requires he open only Moët et Chandon champagne. Before each presentation, Bob tells its origin story, then asks his audience to shout, “Bonne chance, Robert!” (Good luck, Bob!) He loves the wild explosion, which can propel a cork skyward and soak a carpet in suds. While any amateur can learn the trick, Bob says that showmanship is key, and the bottle’s contents should be spewed liberally.

“Once you have had a bottle sabered for you, that is the bottle that stays with you for the rest of your life,” he says. “It’s worth sending all that champagne up into the air. When you create a memory, nothing is wasted.”

Pot au Feu