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 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 that 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 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 that 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 Morroco 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 he arranged for me to do a stage at the Hotel under Bocuse d’Or winner Jacky Freon. 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 you could high pressure spray clean.
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 an 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 Connelys Corner in the 5th chatting up females from all over Europe.
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 some obscure country. 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. 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 to positively to me. I took on the TGV to Macon and took the little 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). 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 meme 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 stagierre 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 agressively 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 no 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 tranported 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 Detaing (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 Detaing 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 in your face 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