Summary Bio: I have been in love with cooking since age 7 when I prepared my first French dish, steak au poivre, while living in Morocco. I graduated from l’Academie de Cuisine’s 2 year professional program in Bethesda Maryland in 1988.
My formative professional work was at the Occidental Grill and McPhearson’s Grill in Washington D.C. In pursuit of my childhood dream I then interned in France with two of the world’s top restaurateurs, Georges Blanc and Michel Guerard. Deeply inspired by these French chefs, I returned to a cooking position at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown.
Lured by the natural beauty of Colorado, I moved to Crested Butte to work as Sous Chef at le Bosquet, a small fine dining French restaurant. My next challenge came when I accepted a position in Boulder as a culinary instructor for Culinary School of the Rockies. I co-developed a world class 6 month professional program which included a one month externship in Provence. Thanks to my fluency in French, I set up an intimate network of French chefs, artisan producers, sommeliers and vintners.
I created a mandatory internship in a French restaurant as part of the month-long externship, and moved the School to a fabulous cooking facility in a 12th century chateau, overlooking the Côtes du Rhône vineyards. As Director of Professional Programs I helped the culinary school achieve accreditation, which provided national credibility to the School’s professional programs.
In search of another challenge, I took a job as Director of Curriculum at Cook Street School of Fine Cooking in Denver for 2 years.
I am presently the general manager and Executive Chef for the Kitchen Table, Espressole Caffe and now also the Academic Director of Colorado Culinary Academy which are all located in the same building in Greenwood Village, Denver.
My cooking style is simple yet elegant with an emphasis on using local, sustainable ingredients of the highest quality and allowing those products to shine.
I always thought I was an accomplished cook until I learned how little I knew once I started this program. Every day was an adventure and every day I came to school filled with questions and a desire to become the best cook possible. Pascal and François Dionot, two brothers from Reims in Champagne headed the school and taught classic French techniques. I still remember many of their lessons to this day and I am still in contact.
Occidental Grill: My first cooking job Unfortunately, the dream state of being in an educational environment where you are the customer and where every moment is concentrated on your personal development abruptly vanished once I worked my first shift at the restaurant I chose for my internship. François Dionot, brought me into his office and said: “the Occidental Grill is looking for a line cook, “the chef iz one of zee hardest chefs in D.C., but you will learn a lot.” Francois always had a story about the brutal realities of working with chefs or Maitre Ds during his ascension through the ranks of the kitchen Brigade. One which sticks out is when he was working the Front of the house as an apprentice in a fancy hotel and the Maitre D. would measure out a half inch of his kitchen fork and stab him in the ass every time he made a mistake.”
I interviewed with Chef Jeff Buben at the Occidental and I can’t remember what he said but it was something like “we’ll take a chance on you and see how it goes. Come in tomorrow night.” Beginning pay circa 1987 at his establishment was $6.50/hr. I believe that Minimum wage at the time was $5/hr.
I came in for the first shift a bit early and was shown to the locker area. The locker room was unisex. After I was accompanied to the station I was to work that evening. On the way a person on the line for the Occidental restaurant (higher end fare on the floor above the grill) said to me “if you want to last more than a week in this kitchen you will put all food away in the smallest possible container.” This set the tone for the rest of the internship.
I was placed on the sauté station. The person who was briefly assigned to my orientation was a graduate of l’Academie. She agreed to stay an hour past her shift to give me an overview of the station. The total surface area under my domain was around 3 square feet and the total square footage of the satellite kitchen responsible for feeding roughly a 150 people a night was 12 square feet. The grill chef was sick that night and it turned out I was going to be working side by side with Chef Buben. I had never worked as a line chef before that evening. I had worked as a dishwasher in 2 kitchens (one of them the popular Virginia restaurant Chez François) so I had a good idea of the pace of a restaurant. Nothing could have prepared me for the baptism by fire I endured on that shift. Pans were stacked on burners with the flame on full blast making each one around 500 degrees, the fryer was kept at 375°, the oven was permanently on at 500° and then the tickets started to come in. An expediter called out the tickets and we were expected to remember all the orders. A new language was spoken one that was not spoken at school. “fire that now, pick up, how many salmon all day, 86 the lamb,” along with every expletive imaginable that forms the core of line speak. Somehow I managed to survive that night and I remember looking at my watch every two minutes begging for the shift to be over. Finally the last ticket came in and we all cleaned our stations. Chef Jeff Buben turned to me as he left and said “you did better than I thought you would, see you tomorrow.” I had survived that extremely awkward night and as I surveyed the injuries tolled on my body while drinking a beer at the Old Ebbit Grill around the corner I realized once again that I didn’t know anything about cooking on the line and that any cockiness I built up during culinary school vanished as quickly as an order of the restaurant’s famous shaved onions rings that I put up countless times on the pass that night.
I lasted nine months there. I really don’t think I enjoyed too many of the shifts I worked, but boy did I learn a lot about mise en place. You always treaded lightly around chef Buben and when the volume of his anger started to rise you avoided all eye contact. He would come down and expedite at the grill often and the first to taste his anger were the wait staff and then once they had thoroughly worked him up the focus would start to go around the line cooks. No one laughed because they knew they could be next. Then suddenly service was over and Jeff would order a round of Dark Horses (that’s what he called the dark beer they served) for the kitchen staff and his eyes would twinkle. Nobody that worked the kitchen had a name. He would call everyone either Chooch, chaloots or poppy. “Hey poppy get me some shallots” “chooch turn down that flame” etc.
There were a few people that I will always remember from that time. Pedro Guzman, was from the Dominican Republic and would always dance during lulls in service. Each night after service he would go to salsa competitions. He was great to all of us in the kitchen and Jeff had a soft spot for him. Pedro would always tell me. “Don’t worry Andy, I won’t let you go in the shit.” The shit is what we referred to as the weeds or running out of mise en place with a board full of tickets or being so behind in orders that you you lose sight of the work and start to break down. Everyone had their own way to work through the “shit,” some would just start to fire every thing that they could regardless of whether it would get used or not. Put up 5 sautéed spinach as opposed to the two that were needed and so on. Jeff Buben would always tell us “you can’t get out of the shit until you get into it” I never understood that until much later. You have to experience what it is like to be in the shit and then figure out how to get out of it and once you do that successfully then you have tools for the next time it happens.
Then there was sous chef Trent. Everybody hated this guy. He would ride you every chance he got. He would just look for a weakness in your technique and continuously give you a hard time about it. I can remember the one night when he took me to the edge. I really enjoyed fanning out the sausage dish at the restaurant and I was the best at it. He really didn’t care how it looked. He just wanted it in the window. “ok Picasso” he would say “give me that sausage now! while we’re young” This had been happening for months and finally I turned to him and said “kiss my fucking ass.” He said “what did you say” and so I repeated it. He sent me off the line and wrote me up. After that he had a new found respect for me. We would go out drinking together and he introduced me to his wife who spoke French.
Soon after I had started working there, Trent had some kind of surgery on his shoulder. When he returned he spent most of his time expediting in the grill. One night we were deep in the shit and he was getting more and more frustrated. Finally he came behind the line and took his arm out of the sling and started to plate everything. The plates looked terrible but this was his big statement. I can plate faster than you even with my arm in a sling.
I was becoming hard and turning into a true line cook. Burns didn’t bother me anymore, cuts neither and I would push my pain threshold to the limit by intentionally grabbing the hottest plates. I learned to ignore any of the prodding the co-workers gave. Shit, now I gave it back too. The kitchen is like the army: break you down then build you up.
Every time I think back to that time I always think about the Stanley Kubrick movie “Full Metal Jacket” There was something very war like about that kitchen and I got used to it. Fortunately it would prepare me for some of the tougher positions to come.
Mr. K’s: After nine months at the Occidental Grill, I was done. I wanted management. I wanted to boss someone else around. My good friend Brian Patterson, who was working at the West End Cafe got a job working at an off shoot of Mr. K’s in Tyson Corner Virginia. He had become good friends with chef Jamie, who became the head chef to the restaurant. They were looking for someone to run their take out and small soup and sandwich joint. The place was in an office building and was one of the most interesting places I have worked in. The concept which was doomed to failure featured two lines. One Chinese run by a group of imported Hong Kong cooks serving high end chinese food and the other an American/French cuisine line run by another l’Academie de Cuisine graduate.
My little take out/ office building cafe was a nightmare. I was trying to put out great quiches and great soups, but mostly people wanted Chinese take out and coffee. The ethnic diversity was bizarre and Mr K. seemed more like Hong Kong mafia Don running some kind of front business.
Staff meals were very interesting as the Chinese chefs (who spoke no English) and the American cooks would take turns making it. Some days what they cooked was far more interesting than most cared to eat.
I learned how Chinese chefs prep and cook for the wok line. Every thing is sliced frozen on the slicer and then cut into bite size pieces. Sauces are prepped then put into six pans. Every thing is placed on a wheeled cart and each chef take his cart to the wok line. The wok line consists of four wok burners (which put out considerable more BTU then anything on a conventional western stove) which are concave and can fit a large sized wok. The wok burners are low and are encased in a sink with a drain. Every time the chef gets an order he ladles a couple of ingredients into the wok and sautés them for around a minute and plates the dish. With his ladle he then pulls over a water faucet which turns on when he pulls it to himself and deglazes the pan. He then pours the contents out of the pan and returns the wok back to the burner and cooks another order. No need to have a dishwasher clean your pans out every minute. All the ingredients are cut small and will cook in relatively the same amount of time.
I did not last very long at this place as first it was not the kind of food I wanted to cook and it was a salaried position. I was originally psyched about being on salary, until I started to count the hours I was working and figured I was getting paid less than the dishwasher.
Mc Phearson’s Grill: The Occidental opened up a sister restaurant in D.C. called McPhearsons Grill on McPhearsons Square. Right down the street from 14th street, which means that early in the morning you had to be careful of what you might run into. Condoms, syringes, hookers etc. This restaurant was a little more relaxed in the kitchen. I started working the morning shift because it was busiest during the Washington power lunch and dead at night. I started to develop more as a cook. I had the bug. I would think about food non-stop. Come up with ideas and try to execute them at work. I convinced my boss, John Lynchner (former sous chef to the Occidental) to run my two toned poached scallop idea. It lasted about two orders before he 86ed it due to the complicated execution.
It was the first open kitchen I ever worked in. Due to the needs of the clientele the line had to stay cool which was nice to work in, but you really had to watch what would come out of your mouth. For a cook that is almost impossible. The wait staff was mostly male and mostly gay. They would love to chat about their sexual exploits. There was one waiter who had a deformity and his right arm was a stub. He was a very good waiter but his sexual stories would push the boundaries of acceptable. There was this tron who looked like a model and that the chef was sleeping with. There was another hot Latvian waitress that would come in and out of my fantasies and who I would hook up with on my return from my time in France. The chef had an impossible time trying to find night time chefs to work the dead night shifts. The daytime chefs were a motley crew and after our shifts were over we would head over to the nearest bar on K street which was a conventional bar on the main floor and strip club in the basement. They always had happy hour food and strong drinks and if you knocked a few back you would work up the courage to visit the downstairs attractions.
I had aspirations and a childhood dream to go to France and work for the best. So, I wrote to every 3 star Michelin restaurant in France and all the one and two star restaurants in places that I wanted to work in. 30 some letters typewritten in French (you all remember the typewriter and white out).
After a few months. I got mostly rejections letters and then 2 acceptances. Georges Blanc and then a one star in Dijon. I was going to France to work for the best. I had a chat with Jean Louis Palladin who would come to our school once a month to teach our CCT program and he felt that Georges Blanc was one of the best in France. I was estactic and I couldn’t wait. So, I went to France 3 months early to see if I could walk in off the street and find something through my parents friends in Paris.
Cooking in France 1989: I arrived in Paris for my year long journey, completely & utterly over packed. Ski boots ( I got to use them once) excess of every electronic gadget possible, converters etc. My friends parents picked me up from Roissy and took me to their home near Melun (Brie territory). I stayed with them for awhile until they realized that I certainly wouldn’t make a move to Paris without prodding so they sent me packing for the big city. I stayed briefly with some of my other parent’s friends in the Paris. They made the first restaurant connection for me. Le Divellec a 2 star in the place d’Invalides.
Le Divellec is an all seafood restaurant run by a Breton and an ornery one too. The restaurant is at ground level, but the kitchen is one floor down and a very different world than where the customers ate. I arrived at work at the service entrance and went down to the basement to start the shift. I was assigned to another commis whose whole day was devoted to deboning fish and cleaning scallops that the chef picked out each night at 1 am at Rungis the largest wholesale market in the world. I helped him as best as I could. I became quickly aware of which fin fish could cause me harm. They went through a lot of John Dory or St. Pierre which has razor like hooks around the circumference of its thin body. Then I started to clean sea scallops in their shells. They were so fresh that once I removed the abductor muscle they would still throb in my hands. I was dying to throw one in a hot pan and pop it in my mouth. After cleaning two huge burlap bags of these scallops my nails were bleeding from the sand that gets under your fingernails.
In order to get produce you had to go up a flight of stairs (still below street level) down another one and then down a hall where suddenly you reached a dirt floor and a tunnel. You had to cross this little section on hands and knees before you could stand up again and find the small room that held all the vegetables. You would get the cases of vegetables and bring them back to the entrance of the tunnel, push them through and make your way to the other side. The walk-in had whole ducks hanging unwrapped from a hook above the expensive fish. I believe that was the only meat dish they served.
I mostly cleaned fish the whole time I was there and I worked alongside the other commis who said very little and who the other chefs treated like shit. One day the line chefs were being particularly nasty to him and later in the day he turned to me and said in perfect english “the French are just a bunch of assholes.” I had only ever heard him speak French until that moment. I found out he was South African and that his father who was a Maitre Cuisinier of France (more on this bogus brotherhood later) owned a French restaurant in Capetown and had sent him to work in Paris.
I did not stay at this stage long as they didn’t want any trouble with immigration and soon I was back pounding the pavement.
My parents had good friends that had an apartment on Boulevard de Grenelle and they offered to put me up for a few days. They were a very comical family and it was a sensory overload to enter into their world. The mother’s name was Claude and her son was Eric (a high powered lawyer that worked in the same building where all the royalty were guillotined during the revolution) and the father was Jacques ( I believe he was a GI doctor). The other player in this comedy was the mother’s lover (also Jacques), who is this ebullient bon vivant and the primary reason that I was staying with this family in the first place. See my father had met the two of them somewhere in Morocco and they so enjoyed my father’s company that a strong friendship ensued. Her husband hated to travel and so she would take trips with Jacques (the lover) and her son would come along as a decoy.
She also had a strong love affair with her little tikkel dog (these are the little furry sausage dogs). She would take him everywhere in her handbag and would always check with any restaurant we might go out to see if they would object to us bringing the dog. The tikkel is the reason I landed my next stage.
She liked to go with Toffee the tikkel to have champagne in the bar at Hotel Lutetia. The bartender and her immediately became friends as they both shared a love for tikkels. I believe that Toffee even impregnated his tikkel (not hard to believe considering how voraciously he would dry hump my leg on occasion), which further cemented the friendship.
Hotel Lutetia: Well the Bartender arranged for me to do a stage at the Hotel under Bocuse d’Or winner Jacky Fréon. I was psyched, this was a huge hotel kitchen with a huge garde manger kitchen, a huge hot line section with two large flat top pianos, a huge pastry section and a bakery with proofing ovens. Also they were in the midst of renovating the whole kitchen while I was there. That was when I was first exposed to no-slip floors and floor drains that allowed you to high pressure spray and squeegy the floor spotless everyday.
The restaurant at the Hotel was called Le Paris and was mostly dead. We would have days where we did two covers. I helped whoever needed help and would leave after the lunch shift. I got to see some cool stuff and learned from the young chefs that I worked with. We also spent a lot of time on tom foolery. The chef Jacky would spend most of his time on the phone, looking up and down the kitchen to make sure all were working. Every once in while he would come out of his office and scream at someone for ten minutes. He was all of 5 ft. and might have reached 5’5″ with his toque, but boy could he chew someone out.
My nights were spent at the Violon Dingues and Connely’s Corner in the 5th chatting up females from all over Europe. Paris nightlife is very chaud and amazingly international.
My living arrangements were slim. It was very hard to find a flat to stay in Paris for a couple of months. I used to have to go down to this place and look at the listings and act on them right away. They were usually gone before I called. Claude rescued me after a while and I stayed with this widow who worked in a Pharmacy whose son was off on his army service in La Reunion. The apartment had an almost direct view of the Eiffel tower and I often had the place to myself. The worst part of it was that she had a dog that was on his deathbed, stank and would lay these death farts. I loved the neighborhood and was getting really good at navigating the city.
I eventually found my own place in the 20th from a couple that was going to Ireland for a month. It was an ok place and best of all I had no roomates. It was across the street from a Church, which rang its bells at very odd hours of the day. There was no set schedule as far as I could tell. I would fantasize about how they would decide when to ring the bells. I imagined a group of church workers playing cards and then one would say “do you think we should ring em.” The neighborhood was mostly populated with Arabs or Maghrebin, which made it impossible to use a pay phone as none of them could afford phone service and would line up at the pay phones to call out. I would sometimes take the metro out of the area to make a call. I learned to live on very little. I also learned how to be a better traveler. One rule which I still follow today: is to always have a good pen and a pocket notebook handy.
I spent a lot of my free time with a family friend Norbert. He arranged for us to go skiing at les Deux Alps in the Savoie. Soon my time in Paris came to a close and I was off to Georges Blanc in Vonnas. This was one of the only stages that had actually responded positively to my letters. I took the TGV to Macon and took the little cattle train to Vonnas. I arrived at the tiny station and no one was there to greet me. So I called. They sent someone to greet me (my nemesis on this stage: Bruno Oger). He took me to the auberge des travailleurs (workmen’s dormitory) and I got my room. I went later to the restaurant to eat dinner with the staff. They were all very curious how an American could speak such good French (sans accent et même l’argaux).
They told me that I would start my kitchen rotation dans la Pâtisserie and to show up the next day at 7am.
The adventure began the following day. The first three weeks in pastry were intense and let me know what I was in for when I got to the hot side.
The pastry kitchen was run by Pastry Chef André. He initially took to me and even my nemesis Bruno (the two were friends and compatriots in their hatred of the Chef de Cuisine Patrick) seemed to be curious about this unusual cook from the US who could speak French. I went out to pizza with them on a night off and met André’s girlfriend a brit and a former stagiaire who had managed to decline Georges Blanc’s advances with impunity. They were nice to me on those first couple of nights but quickly my naiveté and lack of clear allegiance to their conspiratorial ways determined the side I would eventually take.
André was a big Pastis boozer and was known to go on benders that would find him sleeping under a bridge. They would have to send out a commis to bring him back to work. He was vicious to his underlings and since he was mostly hungover in some capacity he could aggressively strike out. Never offering words of encouragement. Everyone was a “bon a rien” a good for nothing. If one of his commis messed something up he would hit him upside the head and say something like you will never amount to anything. The other members of the pastry staff were nice and could be helpful. Generally this was a not a kitchen to cozy up to anyone and it was all business from the minute you arrived to the minute you left. After the shift it was a different story. As part of my morning shift I had to put together the fruit bowls for the breakfast bar. This involved making suprêmes out of cases of oranges and grapefruits, coring and perfectly stacking strawberries, trimming and perfectly slicing pineapple and so on. Then we would form and bake brioche and croissants. Once breakfast prep was out of the way we started in earnest on the pastry chariot, mignardises and mise en place for the two plated desserts.
I really enjoyed this part of my stage as it permitted me to enter the world of pastry in which I had little experience. Pastry kitchens are tough in that they are the first in and usually the last to leave. The constant presence of sugar is overwhelming and I quickly went from satiated to disgusted. The details were great and there was so much to learn in that short time. One big lesson I learned was not to pour all the cream at once into a pot of boiling caramel. The sheer terror I felt as I watched a tsunami of caramel cream come over the sides of the pot has left a permanent scar on my memory and a story to share with all of my students. “You sometimes learn so much more from the dishes you messed up than the ones you aced” I’ll tell my students.
Living in the auberge des travailleurs was also a challenge as was having to take the train to Bourg en Bresse on our only day off to wash our clothes and more importantly our uniforms. As this was the only option for most of the staff, it actually became a big gathering at the café closest to the laundrymat. Nobody can put down alcohol, coffee and cigarettes faster than a chef. We are mission driven demon sensualists with little sense of moderation.
Since the small town of Vonnas was only a population est. 3000 at the time, we also spent quite some time at the only other restaurant that wasn’t owned by Georges Blanc: “la Cheminée.” There I quickly befriended Jacqueline and Patrick the owners. This meant that a group of restaurant friends had a place to hang out after work to wind down. They were good hosts and we were insatiable customers. As the season got into full swing they took over the management of the snack bar by the pool and soccer field and that became our after work till 3am hangout. I must have heard Hotel California a thousand times more than I wanted that summer and every time I hear it again now I am instantly transported to the summer of 89.
Vonnas was hysterical and right out of a book. There was a group of three old retired men who spent each day on café crawl getting hammered. We would see them getting started in the morning while we had our first espresso and later see them at the competitors for our lunch espresso and finally in the evening for our pre-service espresso. They would be good and lit. In the middle of the town there was one of those public urinals were you could see everyone (and they could see you) walking past as you took a leak. There is nothing like saying hello to someone on the street when you are emptying your bladder.
My next rotation was the fish station. We broke down tons of fish and we removed meat from Breton blue lobsters that were coated in oil and briefly roasted in the oven until the meat could be safely be removed from the shell. Alain Détain (one of the most senior chefs of the restaurant) would take them out of the oven and would dump them over our counter and we would have to take them apart as quickly as possible. Every kitchen staff was only allowed two side towels per day. After the lunch shift every one carefully hid their well preserved side towels to insure they could make it through the night shift. We would have to remove the meat from 300 + lobsters per week and our side towels would quickly get soaked and the only way to have workable side towels for the evening shift was to hang ours to dry during the coupure or break. We had no fear that anyone would try to snag our lobster laden towels.
It was in this rotation that I got to know Alain Détain and Jaoud well. Alain as I explained was the most senior chef of the restaurant. He was quite comfortable with the place. He could have easily been Chef de Cuisine there, but I could tell he did not aspire to the position. He was happy to be “the man” without being the fall guy anytime something went wrong. I would always find him outside having a cigarette before the shift and occasionally George Blanc would come up to him and say something like make sure you don’t throw your butts around. He would agree and then as soon as George left he would toss his butt. I love that behind your back rebellion the French sometimes have. He was so in control of his world behind the line. He knew exactly how much time he had for every task and when he could leave the line for a cigarette or any other non-essential need. Being on top of his game also allowed him tons of time to fuck with people desperately trying to finish their tasks. His favorite target Jaoud. Jaoud was a small black man from the Comores Islands just north of Madagascar. Jaoud was the gofer and overall whipping post of the kitchen. Great guy and all of the lower level employee empathized with his plight. Alain would spend a good part of his day tormenting Jaoud. He would scream out “ou est mon nègre?” and Jaoud would come running. “Go get me this” he would say and when he came back he would say something like “you were too slow” and would slap him on the back of the head. Jaoud would say something like “that’s it I quit” and Alain would reply “go ahead there are another hundred just like you waiting to take your place”. How he managed to keep smiling throughout the day was beyond me. Underneath it all, you could tell they both needed each other. Alain was a good guy after all and he would often relax with the staff after work. He was also a good teacher.
My next rotation was Viande or the meat station. Marc the chef on viande, knew his stuff and also hapenned to be a nice guy. He had plenty on his plate as well. Very good teacher but most of all not emotional. I knew he was not on Bruno’s side, but no one could openly tell. He just kept his head down and busted out top notch work. He used to roast whole Bresse chickens and squabs. He was responsible for the stuffed boneless chicken wings known as rouelle that went with the poached Bresse chicken dish. He was a joy to watch work and every one enjoyed working on his station.
My next assignment was garde manger under Gilles. Gilles was mister cool and had his own little following. He lived above a barn right behind the kitchen entrance to la Cheminée. At some point in my stage we became friends and later he joined our little after work circle of drinking buddies. He was always direct and to the point with his criticism. He came from Besançon in the Jura and had spent some time in Paris. He was cool, he had a car, his own place and open disdain for everyone. He liked me as a friend and I even travelled with him to see his family and another time to Paris. He admired that I wrote and that I taped what I was doing every day. I have yet to transpose those tapes and I would probably be scared to do it. He didn’t think I was committed enough to the profession. Maybe that I was not 3 Star Michelin material. He was also a good teacher. He was in charge of making the foie gras terrine and then using any scraps to make a foie gras mousseline which was used in the daily amuse bouche hard boiled egg cup. He had the immensely complicated pigeon dish which included a little salad of perfectly picked salad greens (I mean leaf by leaf and we would even take apart the white curly cues of heart of frisée), a triangular slice of foie gras terrine, a quenelle of ground up pigeon leg meat bound together with highly reduced pigeon glaze (if you have ever deboned squab and had to scrape off the leg meat you will understand how laborious this task is) and an émincée of the roasted pigeon breast which is cut off the carcass à la minute sliced thinly and made to look like a large dragonfly. The meat very carefully nappéed with reduced pigeon stock. We had a wedding party of a hundred one night that had this dish and I was amazed that we got it out in time and perfectly.
Georges Blanc’s plate presentations often included some kind of bug of bird made out of food. We had a duck magret carpaccio with a quenelle of a purée of hard cooked eggs mixed with a basil tapenade which became the bugs body, thin slices of radish which became the wings and chive antennae.
Georges Blanc’s brat child used to come into the kitchen accompanied by the family’s yellow lab to bum food and generally flaunt his privilege. The other son was training at some 3 star restaurant, carefully being groomed to take over the restaurant. The rumor which was substantiated by several of the Georges Blanc cooks was that he couldn’t cook his way out of a paper bag. Both son’s are now in control of the kitchen and soon will inherit the empire which began with la Mère Blanc . If you go to the restaurant website, you can read all about its humble origins when she used to cook for everyone that came to Vonnas for the weekly Bresse chicken market.
Some chefs from the USA would come and visit and since I had absolute fluency of both languages I was often whisked away by the Chef de Cuisine Patrick to act as translator. I became friends with Louis and Thierry Chevenet, a father and son team goat cheese farmers. Louis was amazing (I imagine he is dead now as he suffered some issue a few years back). The last time I saw him he was as I remembered him, a larger than life character filled with a love of life and devotion to his goats. His farm was in a little town in the hills behind Macon in a town called Hurigny. We’d come to the farm and he would greet us and take us on a tour. Then we would go into a small room in an ancient barn and we would sample all the different cheeses he made. That’s when he would lay down his life philosophy while pouring white Maconnais which was also from his property. Poetic and inspirational would be light words to describe his view on farming and cheese making. A true national treasure.
I also got to translate when we toured a Bresse chicken processing plant. A plant hardly describes the small slaughterhouse that processed maybe a couple hundred birds a day. It was fascinating to see how they killed, feathered and prepped the birds for sale. The birds would be in cages and one person would take a bird out of the cage, turn him upside down and put him in a type of funnel on a carousel. They would load the carousel with about six birds and then one by one they open up their beaks and take very small super sharp clippers and cut theirs throats from the inside. They would allow them to bleed out, then another person would take the birds and dip them in some type of solution, then shave off their feather on some type of high pitched machine. It was fascinating to watch this part as the man would be holding the neck with one hand and the other on the legs. He would then run the bird back and forth over the machine. He wore headphones of course but I just thought how much that job would suck on a day to day basis. Once the birds were feathered they would go into a seperate cold room where a group of women would be sitting on small stools and removing any last traces of feathers and follicles. Then someone had the fortunate job of removing the anal cavity and putting on the final seal guaranteing the provenance of the bird and would place them in their walk-in ready for sale. The fact that the birds still had their guts intact actually allowed a longer shelf life for the birds as their innards would be protected from contact with air. Imagine if we had to gut birds with their heads and feet still on in the U.S.
The animosity between Bruno and the Chef de Cuisine Patrick was starting to come to a head. The kitchen was almost equally divided in their allegiance to one or the other. There was tons of passive agressive behavior between the two and plenty of opportunity for open tests of respect during service. Service was something else and a place I only got to see from the sidelines while picking through tons of greens or herbs or whatever cursed minutely painstakingly detailed task that tested my commitment to this craft. One night though Patrick called my name and told me to come down to the plating area and I plated everyday from that time on. The service pit was one of the hottest places I have ever worked in. The piano was hot from one end to the other and was one huge flatop and every one worked around it. Food was prepared at one end and then passed down the line for final intricate plating. Each dish had at least six steps involved in it and required six people solely devoted to plating.
Across from me on the piano was Matsuda from Japan and he was one of the most amazing cooks I had ever seen. He plated everything with chopsticks and was incredibly fast. He had come from Japan to do a 3 year unpaid stage at Georges Blanc and he knew he would return to Japan to the hotel that sponsored his trip with a high paying job and respect. He had left his family in Japan as well. The Japanese work ethic and sense of personal sacrifice dwarfs ours. The Japanese stagiaire contingency was always the first to arrive and the last to leave. They would return to their rooms at the workman’s dorm, congregate in one room and drink and smoke until they went to bed. Matsuda and I became friends on the line and I even managed to get him to come hang out with us after hours at our little hang out at the pool Snack with the owners of la Cheminée. He could turn potatoes at a speed I have never seen matched since. His focus was complete and his technique beyond reproach. In many ways I believe he could run circles around his French (tor)mentors, but in true Japanese style he obediently sublimated his ego and allowed them to control him. He kept his focus and took as much from his mentors as he could. I, on the other hand was irreverant and not the ideal stagiare. I, of course, cow tailed to my French mentors but I would not hesitate to make fun or complain about the painstaking tasks they would assign me. This would make Matsuda laugh and you could tell he was living vicariously through me. The big difference is that I knew their language and could express myself, which is also a disadvantage as I could equally understand anything they wanted to tell me. The other non-fluent stagiaires lived in relative blissful ignorance on how their mentors really felt about them.
One night the crater blew. It was at the end of service and just before clean up. I am not sure what exactly was the straw that broke the camel’s back but the next thing I knew Patrick and Bruno were in the middle of a fist fight. Just like any fistfight I have ever witnessed, the two parties fans jumped behind their front man and urged him on. The palpable anger each team felt for the antagonist in the fight was intense. I thought to myself that’s it Bruno will be canned for insubordination and I was happy to have him finally leave. Both parties were summoned to the George’s office, while the rest of us cleaned.
Cleaning takes on a whole new meaning in a 3 star kitchen. You don’t just wipe down your station and let the night crew come along to detail later, but instead twice a day the whole kitchen staff (sans Sous Chefs or Chef de Cuisine) would scrub that kitchen down from ceiling to floor. At the end of each cleaning a Surgeon would be happy to perform in the space. No one left until the place was completely clean. There was a sense of teamwork I have yet to see at that level in the U.S. The final action was also the first action when you began in the morning which was to shake everyone’s hand. Sometimes when everyone had finished all their tasks and were ready to go on their shortened break the chefs would make us stay and peel a few cases of potatoes so that the young lady responsible for the famous Crêpes Vonassiennes could make her purée when she got back from break. Imagine what it might look like to have thirty cooks around a triple sink all peeling potatoes. You have never seen potatoes peeled so fast.
Bruno was allowed to remain and there was no more hostility from either party from that day forward. You could tell however that in a small way Bruno (who Georges took a shine to) had won a small victory. However, everyone knew from their open support during the fight who their allegiances now belonged to.
Many took their walloping in that kitchen. Occasionally the chefs at the end of the shift would dump out the trash in front of the gathered staff and start to fling pieces that were clearly wasted during prep at the people responsible. Nothing quite motivates you not to waste than one of those sessions. The commis were open target for any abuse. One friend, a young man named Gilles, was called to the mat about a discrepancy in his daily fish inventory. Every day all the fish inventory was weighed first thing in the morning and at the end of the night. The chefs had managed to find a few ounces discrepancy in the weight the caviar. They grilled him for about 30 minutes as if he had stolen the product. He was in tears by the end and they were not sure what they were going to do with him. The following day after consulting with Georges they found out that he had had some late night guests and had put together a late night snack with caviar. Georges did not write any note explaining this and the chefs jumped to their own conclusions.
Gilles invited me to stay with his family in Albertville shortly after that incident. He came from a great Savoyard family. His father made all his own charcuterie and his pork rillettes were to die for. They were an awesome family. Super nice and honest as anyone you could imagine, hardly the type to run a caviar caper. A few weeks after we returned he quit. He just didn’t think he wanted to continue working in such an oppressive environment.
14 Juillet 1989 French Bicentennial: