In the Fall of 1997, I went to live in Biarritz, France to complete my externship for CIA at the Hotel Cafe de Paris under Chef Didier Oudill and Edgar Duhr. It was about that time that I started recording stories about my love for food and wine. And so, upon returning to CIA, I documented a life-changing and extraordinary dinner for the school paper. I just stumbled upon the manuscript, and thought I'd share one of the most extraordinary times in my life.
Extern Abroad~ part 3 of 3
It had been six weeks since I landed in France. I was a stagiare, or apprentice, in the garde manger portion of the kitchen in the Hotel Cafe de Paris. I found myself comfortable with the lifestyle in almost every way. I even enjoyed my routine of going to the laundromat once a week to do my wash. With a package of madeleines and a bottle of mineral water, I'd sit and catch up on the news, my journal and a mountain of mail. I managed to get a decent haircut, though the thought of not being able to explain what you want is pretty nerve racking, in any language. I emerged with a cool coif and in the next three days, all the cooks lined up to get the same coupe de cheveaux. I had also gotten into the routine of working 14-hour days. If you were employed by the Cafe de Paris, you were simply on the schedule- all the time. We were closed on Tuesdays, and for lunch on Wednesday, but every other day the hotel served lunch and dinner.
The kitchen was located in the basement of the hotel, as many are in France. Needless to say, there were no breath-taking views of the beach, as I had from my hotel room. Hence, I developed an appreciation for the open and sometimes annoying "fishbowl" syndrome you felt in the kitchens at The Culinary. I wanted to see people.
The kitchen was the most immaculate kitchen I'd ever been in or worked in. There were days in October when business was waning when we cleaned to keep busy. We cleaned so much that I began to think that was why they agreed to accept me as stagiare. There's nothing worse in the restaurant business than when business is slow- even worse than the heat. It mentally drains you. I daydreamed of walking through beautiful Biarritz and stopping for some oysters at the local oyster bar. So, when a delivery came up short of cepes, or we needed fresh fennel or Parmesan from the market, I was always the first to volunteer to make the trip. I climbed the steep stairs to the alleyway exit on le Place Bellevue, anticipating the brisk wind that whipped off the ocean and made you glad to be outdoors.
It certainly wasn't uncommon to see cuisiniers, or cooks, walking the streets or at the market in their uniforms. It was, however, very unusual for the French to see a cook with his named emblazoned in hunter green above his breast pocket. This was something that I became very self-conscious about. I frequently got stares from people I passed on the street or while purchasing produce for the restaurant. Once or twice a cook would ask why we had our names on our jackets. I'd pause, searching for an answer that would best represent not just The Culinary Institute of America, but American cooks in general. "I believe it's important to instill a sense professionalism from a very early stage in a cook's career. I also think it creates an important sense of pride in your work." But, these young, wily French cooks didn't buy any of those answers. They simply interpreted my embroidered jacket as flashy and arrogant. The obvious answer would have been that with 2000-plus students roaming the campus of CIA, it helps instructors remember the names of students, who seemingly pass in and out of their classes as frequently as the trains in the Metro. I was aware, however, from day one that Chef Oudill didn't even have his name on his coat; and so, wanting nothing more than to be accepted, I wore my full bistro apron that rose up and over my neck to hide my blatant and brash American individualism.
On days off, or afternoons between shifts, the staff of the Cafe de Paris seemed to be inseparable. This was both comforting and distressing. Some days I wanted to be left alone to explore the area and catch up on my journal, and other days, I simply needed these people to practice French, bum rides or just hang out. But, for all employees of the hotel and restaurant, there seemed to be one common denominator: we were family.
I couldn't have dreamed that I would become so close with these people in such a short time, but it happened. It was no different than an American restaurant. People outside the business think we're crazy (and some are) for the career we've chosen. We work like dogs and for hours that would make a banker go into convulsions, all for the simple pleasure of creating and doing a job well done.
One particular cook I grew fond of was Elton. Elton was 19, an orphan who weighed a meager 135 pounds. He was the Cafe's poissonnier, or fish cook. He loved American surf culture, hip hop, rap and was quite the prankster. But, he also had one of the highest work ethics of anyone I had ever worked with for someone so young. One day before Halloween, we had all worked on preparing a luncheon for 1000 pharmaceutical reps. We had been given an hour to take a break before our a la carte shift to freshen up for Saturday night dinner service. All except Elton. There was a trucker's strike in Paris (where our Coquille St. Jacques were shipped), and we had been without scallops for three or four days. Chef Oudill was pacing all week, and we simply would not go into a Saturday night service without them. They arrived that afternoon just after our banquet and needed to be shelled and cleaned for service: all fifteen dozen of them.
As the rest of us arrived back from our break sleepy-eyed and groggy, Elton was standing in a pile of scallops shells, just finishing having opened the last of them. Exhausted and sallow, he went right into dinner service, and we jammed that night! The hotel had two dining rooms. And ticket after ticket- from the bistro and the gastro (the formal dining room)- came clacking in, non-stop. Just as we got our last hit for dinner orders, Elton, drenched with perspiration and pale from not having eaten, stepped off the line with a blank stare in his eyes. He came into garde manger where I worked and he said in broken English, "Help me Robert, please." He held out his hands, and I looked down to see his fingers curled, frozen and stiff as a rake. There was so much activity in the kitchen, there literally was no one other than me who noticed or could help him. And so, I picked up his frail frame and carried him up the stairs and out to the alley to get him fresh air, hoping he wasn't in shock. At a closer look, I realized his hands had cramped up tight on him from working the luncheon, opening the scallops and then working right into dinner without a break. I began to wonder whether anyone cared that Elton was missing, since he disappeared without a word. It was then I that I saw chef Oudill pass by the open door with band-aids and bandages. "What good is that", I thought to myself, "to a guy with frozen hands?!" He looked at us mildly interested, but went on. It seems the bandages weren't for Elton: they were for Denis, our grillardin. At the same moment as Elton's crisis, Denis had cut his finger very badly, and consequently, his squirting blood took precedence over Elton's frozen fingers. "This is nuts", I thought. And, this was happening at the same time that the one chef with the world's most Michelin stars,Alain Ducasse, was dining with a party of 8 in the formal dining room. When it rains, it pours, n'est pas?
Later that evening, our crew all sat around the bistro after the chefs left, drinking Kronenbourg and eating leftover bread and cheese, slowly unwinding and recounting that tumultuous day. I reflected as I sat with the wounded Elton and Denis: these are the things that the customer never sees. This is the commitment so many cooks, French, American or anywhere, have because of their love for what they do. It's not something we can explain to other people, yet it's understood by all in the biz: we love it, unconditionally.
Preparing food for Chef Ducasse was exciting, but it wouldn't be the last time we'd cook for culinary royalty. It seemed we were the place where chefs went to eat when they weren't working. Chef Pierre Gagnaire arrived one evening to dine. And a young, up-and-coming chef from Spain who had just been named Chef of the Year by the name of Martin Berasategui stopped in one night to dine, as well.
I had brought my New York Times article with me that originally hooked me on going to Biarritz to use as a guide for places to eat and things to see. I had visited many of the ones that seemed enticing, but there remained one destination that held my curiosity: Les Platanes. Chef Arnaud Daguin was the chef I originally wanted to study with, and he remained somewhat of an enigma to me.
On the Monday before I left France, I was opening oysters for an order in the bistro when my sous chef, Yoann, said, "You make them nice, yes- they are for the chef." "Who is it now, " I said cynically, "Bocuse? Blanc??" I began to despise anyone who ordered oysters (a mounting irony) since my fingers were raw and hands sore from opening them over the months. "They are for Chef Daguin"."
"Chef Daguin; you know him?"
"You're kidding? Which Daguin? Andre or Arnaud??"
Yoann began to look at me with bewilderment. I had kept my story of wanting to work for Chef Daguin to myself. "Well, he is from Biarritz, so he must be Arnaud, I guess. Why, Robert??"
"I know him!, " I blurted out. "Well, we spoke on the phone. I was going to work for him...and...he's really here?"
"Yes, of course. Why don't you go up and say 'allo'?"
"Uh-no- I don't think so. I don't think that would be appropriate."
"But, why? Come on, Robert. I will take you up."
"Wait! I want to bring the oysters."
"Hey, Robert-", Yoann said smiling.
"Your apron- take it off."
And, so we climbed the stairs to the bistro, where Chef Daguin and his wife, Veronique, were having a leisurely dinner, sipping Jurancon Sec with Chef Oudill and his wife. Yoann politely announced that there was someone who knew him and wanted to say "hello".
"Chef, this is Robert Lhulier from America, and he is working here as stagiare."
"Hello, Chef, Madame Daguin. I don't know- if you remem-"
"Ah- why, yes. Of course we do. So you made it to Biarritz, huh?"
"Yes, you recommended Chef Oudill and so, here I am."
We spoke for another few moments about being in Biarritz and France, and I suddenly became paranoid standing in the dining room in uniform. I was attracting attention from other tables, who, by now, were listening in on our conversation, all the while staring at the name on my jacket. "I should get back to work," and my chef's glare implied it was a good idea.
When we went back down into the kitchen, I told Yoann the whole story of how I tried for months to get Les Platanes approved for my externship, all to no avail. That was when he suggested that I go for dinner at Les Platanes the following night. "I will! I know it's expensive, but I have to. I just can't leave without doing it."
The following day, I called up Monsieur Daguin and made a reservation for one person. "Very good; we'll see you tonight." The walk to Les Platanes is just about one mile outside the center of Biarritz, in a private residential area. It was an unlikely place for a restaurant, but, as I was to discover later, the perfect location for this particular restaurant.
It was November 18, the day before my thirty-first birthday, and the hydrangeas in Biarritz were still in full bloom. Les Platanes was so named for the line of plane trees that flank the street it's located on, and their leaves were just beginning to turn. I hadn't missed Fall after all, I thought.
When I walked into the restaurant, I was greeted by Veronique, Chef Daguin's tall, slender and lovely wife who was the sole retailer of her husband's cuisine. She would be my host and guide for the evening, and a gracious one, at that. The interior was funky and elegant, if that's possible. The walls were painted Matisse colors of red, orange and blue. A single large mural of Botero-like prostitutes was painted on the wall behind the five-seat bar, recalling the restaurant's erstwhile days. There was no music; just the sound of reverent silence and an occasional "clink" of silver or crystal. I was seated at a table that overlooked the restaurant of 40 seats by Madame Daguin, and she asked if I would like her to explain the menu in English. "Non- Francaise, s'il vous plais." Her calm and pleasant demeanor made me feel like a king, and she spoke slowly for me to realize precisely the kind of meal I was in for.
There was one other person who helped my host throughout the evening, and once or twice, I saw a very young, very serious cook emerge from the kitchen to run to the basement for things, and run back up again. This was likely the person who chosen over me to work in this tiny, special restaurant. Over the next three hours, course after course of mind-dizzying cuisine would emerge from a small hole in the wall that lead into the kitchen. I had opted to let the chef choose my meal, and since the menu changed every night, I figured he knew best. And, I was right.
I began with the signature drink of Les Platanes, a refreshing blend of dry white wine, a dash of peach brandy and a splash of Armagnac, with a twist. An amuse bouche of mushrooms and lardons of bacon was followed by the elusive Coquille St. Jacques with fresh hazelnut, another course of poached (yes, poached!) foie gras with broccoli, fillet of dorade, and a cheese course that included the local sheep's milk, brebis, and my favorite, pont l'vecque. I declined dessert, but it arrived anyway- mille feuille of crystallized banana with grapefruit-orange-apricot chutney. I drank a bottle of 1995 Sancerre with dinner, and just when I thought I might explode, friandises (little hand-made chocolates and candies) and coffee arrived at the table, followed by Chef Arnaud Daguin himself.
"May I sit down?"
I rose instantly, dropping my napkin-"Of course! Please!"
"Please, sit down."
By this point, I was the only one left in the restaurant. I had been lulled into a state of satisfaction that is hard to explain in words.
I thanked the chef for his incredible meal. "Robert- do you like Armagnac?"
Is he kidding me??
"Why, yes- I love it." Chef Daguin explained as he went to the bar that this particular Armagnac was made for his father, whom I had the pleasure of working with briefly at the Hotel duPont during the French bicentennial. "If I remember from our conversation, correctly- this Armagnac is older than you. Nineteen sixty four, to be exact." He sat a large, crystal glass as thin as paper in front of me and poured. The aroma was the culinary equivalent of sitting in a stately library with old, leather-bound books: it was rich with history and humbling.
Just when I thought the evening couldn't get any better, it did.
"Would you like a cigar? I have a Monte Cristo from Havana you might like with your Armagnac. I used to smoke them all the time, but I can't do it now since I am in the kitchen so much." And he proceeded to roll his own cigarette, as is common in France.
We toasted each other as he held me captive with the story of the Daguin family. His father, the celebrated chef Andre Daguin, and his father's father who had cooked in Gascony for years. World-famous for their succulent duck, he told me of his sister, Arianne, who moved to America in the 80s and founded D'Artagnan, the purveyor out of New Jersey that has become the gold standard for foie gras, game sausages, exotic, high-quality meats and the signature Daguin duck. And, his younger sister, Anne, who handles the baking and pastry end of the family business with her husband in Saint-Remy-de-Provence. But, I wanted to know about him.
"When did you know you wanted to cook?" I asked the chef.
"I always knew I didn't."
"I'm sorry- you didn't want to cook?"
"No. I was interested in the ballet. I suppose I didn't like the idea that as the only male child of the Daguin family, I was expected to carry on the tradition of cooking. So, I went to America, New York."
"Then what?" I was intrigued as he spoke in his deep, nasally tone and looked over his thin wire-rimmed glasses, as if bifocals.
"I went to circus school. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. But, I was happy to be there, doing my own thing. After awhile, my father talked me into being the chef at the hotel in Auch. We constantly fought, but it was then and there that I realized I was a Daguin, and Daguins cook. About that time, I met my wife, and I had a big decision to make: would we go to Paris, or even America to work, or would we stay in France. I had always visited and loved Biarritz, but I wasn't certain I could make a living doing the kind of cuisine I wanted to do.
"Finally, we bought this house, and turned it into a restaurant. There were times when it was very difficult to make ends meet, but we scraped by. And so- here we are."
We talked for a little while about me. What I wanted to do and the similarities in our difficult career decisions; can you separate your emotions in deciding where you want to live and do your art and where you think your restaurant will be successful? It is, in fact, the emotions that most of wrestle with in making the big choices in life.
In the late 70s, there was an art film out called My Dinner with Andre. It was about two friends who get together at a restaurant for dinner. And, over a two hour period, they discuss their lives, their hopes, fears, philosophies and what's important to them. I couldn't help ignore the irony of that life changing evening at Les Platanes with Andre's son.
I began to feel a certain sense of closure after our conversation. Not just for dinner, but my sojourn to France and Biarritz. It was only two days before I was to leave, and I had felt that even though I'd be leaving my friends behind and wished that I could stay longer, I'd leave feeling as though I had accomplished what I came for. Not just to fill the pages of a journal with recipes and pictures; but, to connect with people who felt as passionately about food and wine as I did. And, to live and fit in among the rest, as a real, French cook.
I walked lazily home that night and plucked a leaf from one of the plane trees outside the restaurant (I've still got it). The moon was three-quarters full and there was a sweet smell of honeysuckle in the air. "We are not so different, after all", I thought. "We just have to look a little harder to see it."