Sunday, October 11, 2009

Chez Guillaume

After spending a few days in Paris with Jackie and her mom, we sent a sad and wistful Loni back to New York, and Jackie and I headed back to Aix-en-Provence on the TGV at 200 miles an hour. This time, however, our assigned seats were facing backwards. I watched the misbegotten suburbs of Paris float by into the future, then field after field of white cattle lying down in the rain. The whole trip spooled out backwards (luckily not upside down, I suppose) setting Paris back into its place of beautiful impossibility and bringing me back to the Country Roads where I now belong. Just after we crossed the Rhone from Languedoc into the Cote D'Azur, the clouds cleared from the sky and I was back to our eternally bright sunshiny day.

Once we were back in Diesel Liesel and on our way towards Aups, we called to check in on the crew back home. We were excited (but also a little anxious) to hear that Bill and the girls had been working most of the day to make us a special dinner, theme franglais.

When I walked in the door, there were incredible smells already there to greet me, even before I got enormous hugs and kisses from the girls. Abigail had high ponytails in her hair, and was already standing ready to pour us glasses of white wine from our favorite local vineyard. Grace was wearing a long yellow gingham apron and seemed impossibly grown up. While I had been gone, Grace had magically returned to her old wonderful self, and appeared to be thriving and happy once more. Bill attributed her recovery to the big turkey leg he found at the Aups market on Wednesday, but I would more likely credit the Amoxycillin prescribed on Tuesday afternoon.

For bacterial infections, there's penicillin. But for everything else that ails you, a combination of good food, good wine, and good conversation is the best medicine. I could not believe how much I had missed Bill and the girls, and was eager to see what they had cooked.

Long story short, it was quite the experience. Grace and Abigail had both applied to be waiters at Chez Guillaume, and were competing rather than cooperating in their desire to get things to the table to serve me and Jackie. They veered back and forth between totally adorable and just flat out fighting. At moments, they looked like a couple on Dancing With the Stars who thought they were supposed to beat one another rather than the other contestants.

Bill had put little radishes on the outside table, as well as pickles and little sausages. I didn't ask what animal they came from. It's never a good thing to think about these things too closely unless you're actually shopping and therefore deciding among donkey, wild boar, and regular old Wilbur-flavor.

While Bill pushed hard for Jackie to try some pastis for the full Provençal experience, she wisely stuck with the wine. Grace and Bill finished off the French onion soup, pushing slices of bread onto the top and covering the whole with comte to put in the oven. Abigail treated us to some stories, some more wine, and some backbends. She loves to show off her backbends. I'm glad that she did them, and equally glad that the staff at Guy Savoy refrained.

I helped Grace to set the big table in the crazy Moroccan dining room and we all ate our yummy gloopy soup. Our wait staff once again lept up to volunteer to clear the plates. I began to wonder if Bill had given the girls something stronger than penicillin to get them to behave this way, then realized that I was on the receiving end of actual gratitude. They were as happy to have me home as I was to walk in the door.

However, there were some significant missteps here and there in the second course. The mashed potatoes turned out to actually be boiled apples. When poor Bill started to carve the duck, it seemed somehow to wrestle him back, requiring him to take the dish back to the kitchen in order to eviscerate it with his bare (now greasy) hands. Through it all, Jackie maintained her composure, and stuck mainly to the bread and olive oil, always a safe choice at a potentially problematic restaurant. By the time the enormous apple pie arrived at the table (with one big slice already taken out of it) the previously attentive staff had all quit their posts and were either dancing around the table or slipping off to watch Sponge Bob before the proprietor noticed.

Impressed with his style, and curious about his methods, I later interviewed Chef Guillaume to learn more about this impressive meal. This time we were all in the kitchen cleaning up. Well, to be clear, I was just typing, while Bill and Jackie were cleaning up.

Launa: Bill, you created a great meal the other evening as Jackie and I were coming back from the TGV. How did you decide on the menu?

Bill: Oh, I don't want to be interviewed. Can't you just write this one?

Launa: But you mentioned something earlier about burnt toenails. They didn't make it into the meal, did they?

There was a long, thoughtful pause before regular old Bill once again became a renowned chef of the Cuisine Franglais.

Guilaume: Launa, you don't decide on a menu. A menu decides on you. I mulled it over for days and days, waiting for inspiration. Not kidding. And I kept thinking bout those cartoons where somebody is cooking, then the steam turns into a little fist, and smacks the chef in the nose, and I was just waiting for that to happen to me with the food.

At first I was going to make Duck A L'Orange, in a nod to my Franglais roots; I thought that a dish that American housewives could make couldn't be that hard. Then I looked into it, and saw that it was just going to be completely impossible. Plus I wasn't sure I would be able to get the ingredients.

And then I wasted a lot of time reading this Elizabeth David cookbook to get an authentic recipe for onion soup.

Launa: You mean the kind I told you how to make right before I left?

Guillaume: Your recipe is fine, but I didn't want to take any shortcuts or use bouillion or anything. So I turned to Mrs. David, who had strong opinions on the topic. She seemed to think nothing of spending five full days just making the broth to get to onion soup. This seemed like the kind of authentic meal I wanted to make.

If her recipe were written in stepwise fashion, it would start with: "Find a cow." Then it would move onto "render the cow." Then "cook the other parts in these other recipes . Then cook the cow's feet off and boil those for two days with seven different specific kinds of vegetables."

Launa: Is that how you ended up with the burnt toenail problem?

Guillaume: Almost. I went down to the butcher and asked for good bones for soup. The first time I went he told me I could have them, but I would have to return. The second time, when he told me he would be there, the store was fermé. The third time, he brought out an enormous bone that was out of a kind of dinoasuar. He put it under a saws-all and told me to boil up two chunks and promised me that it would make delicious soup if I just boiled it for awhile. I thought, this country rocks.

I did exactly what he said, then I followed Elizabeth David exactly. I cooked it for basically two days straight, while the kids kept complaining that it made the house stink. And when was about to put it in the onion soup, I had a moment when I finally admitted to myself, "there is a funny smell in the kitchen." I had spent a long time on those onions, and thought that maybe I should listen to that still small voice of fear and reality before ruining them.

I poured some into a spoon, took a good whiff, and finally admitted to myself that the kids had been right: the kitchen had been smelling bad for two days. And then it hit me, I knew that smell: it smelled like when you cut your toenails off and set them on fire.

Jackie, (incredulous): did you used to do that?

Guillaume: Well, not every day.

But then I tasted it, and first I thought I was going to throw up into the soup itself. Then I thought, maybe this is just an acquired taste, like andouilette or stockfish soup, or most cheese: things that taste good but have bad smells. Then I thought, don't bullshit yourself man, this is serious. Then I poured it down the drain. Immediately. I should have flushed it down the toilet, but I had to get it away from me as soon as possible.

Launa: Jackie, do you think Guy Savoy has ever had a moment like this?

Jackie: I'm sure Guy has had his toenail moments. But they might not smell like actual toenails. There is no way to reach levels of genius without failure.

Guillaume: In the life of every chef, there are always moments when you think, "What the f-ing hell was that?" But there can be no antithesis without hypothesis.

Launa: Didn't you get that backwards?

Guillaume: Whatever. This toenail soup was antithesis, for sure.

So I resorted to using bouillon from the store. I guess once again you were right.

But you asked me about where the menu came from. So I just decided, I'm going to go down to the market and buy whatever looks good. And I was going to get a duck, because I like duck. At least when other people make it. I wanted to make apple pie to indicate the Franglais nature of the meal. Also because it is the only dessert that I have ever made.

But first I want to tell you about how I found the duck. I asked all around the market for a duck, and everybody said, "That lady sells great duck. But you're going to have to ask her today and then come back in three weeks, when the duck has been fattened up."

Luckily, this turned out not to be true. She had a perfectly fat duck for me right away, and she was very happy to sell it to me. But it was not prepared at all. It had been plucked, but when she pulled it out of the bag, it still had its head on. She had removed the innards, which were sitting in a giant plastic tub on the counter. She pulled the duck out.

She told me exactly how to make it, which was exactly the opposite of what the recipe said. And I told her it was my first time cooking duck, and she laughed and said, "You're going to need a lot of good luck."

She chopped off the head, reached into a bowl full of innards with her bare hand, and filled the duck with duck heart and guts.

I was freaked out and said, "What are you doing?" And she said, "You will love these. These are delicious."

So you are also probably wondering how I got the amazing dried out, paté-like quality in the duck. I scrupulously followed two completely different recipes simultaneously to cook it. One said to do it on high heat for 15 minutes at the beginning, and one said to do it at the end, so I did both.

I completely ignored the old woman in the market. Her instructions probably would have resulted in a nice juicy piece of duck that you could get anywhere.

Launa: I thought it was delicious. I was surprised it proved so difficult to wrestle into submission. Speaking of submission, what can you tell me about your relationship with your staff? They seem to be a high-spirited group; much more so than Guy Savoy's. What is your ethic of service?

Guillaume: My ethic is that I tell you to do something and you do it. Their ethic is that I tell them to do something, then they whine about it and ask to do something more fun. There was also a big fight over who got to wear the apron. I tried to fire them several times, but they kept coming back.

Launa: Jackie, did you notice any big differences between the staff at Chez Guy and Chez Guillaume?

Jackie: There was a major height difference, to begin with. And athough it might have happened out of view, I don't believe that any staff at Guy Savoy quit mid meal and decided that they had something better to do. This staff also let you have your space. I had the impression that if I got up and left midmeal, my napkin would remain where I had left it.

Guillaume: Well, I'm sure that dinner at Guy Savoy was great and all. But how well would he cook if he had to feed his staff and put them to bed while cooking dinner? Anybody can cook; can you cook with Grace and Abigail whining at you?

Jackie: I was a little surprised to see that the apple pie already had a slice taken out of it. Did the staff revolt and take a piece?

Guillaume: Actually, that was the second pie, after the disaster pie. There is a little problem, in that Apple pie is an American dish. So only American measurements work. And then when I was making the crust, basically I screwed up on a metric conversion. And we ended up with a ball of flour eight inches wide. And very dry and crumbly.

By then the staff was shouting for more water. They wanted me to put the dough in the sink so it would get more sticky, and I tried to roll it out, it was a total disaster, and there were two tantrums, and they both got sent to their rooms. Actually there were three. And then a fourth when I came back, and realized what a mess we had made.

Jackie: I would like to see what happens when the staff at Guy Savoy has a tantrum.

Launa: Time outs, and then Guy keeps all the tips for the night. So Bill, how did you select the wines?

Bill: What did we drink that night?  (Long pause.  Then smile of recognition.)

Oh, I can tell you exactly how those wines were selected. There is a nice little vineyard just outside of Villecroze. And inside that nice little vineyard is a nice little tasting room. And inside the nice wood paneled tasting room, there is a very nice looking woman who serves you as much free wine as you want. With no expectation that you will ever leave the store. Or buy anything. So I selected the wine by the looks of the vintner.

Jackie: She clearly enjoys selling it to you as well.

A duck, sliced apples boiling on the stove, a radish dipped in butter and salt, a pie missing a slice. A wine from the next town over and a vintner with her eye on my husband. Two beautiful girls jumping around and singing to us and giving us their whole hearts and their best efforts. A setting sun in the west, and the people I love around the table. I loved every second of that meal, even more than the perfection of a three star restaurant. It didn't matter that the boiled pommes de terres were actually pommes, or that the gravy wouldn't thicken, or that the beans were cold. I loved every little bite, every glimpse of the girls, every hug they would slip in between courses and serving and clearing.

When you have dinner at Chez Guillaume, the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts.

1 comment:

  1. I laughed. I moaned. I screamed at the screen. I reread favorite parts. I was enthralled - as usual.

    I think I would have liked that meal far more than the one at Chez Guy as well.

    Fun, fun, fun.