Of all the French words or phrases that have been universally adopted, one is first among equals, writes Christopher Strong.
It is the phrase that so perfectly describes social sins, that it has joined such mondiale stalwarts as sex, taxi and radar.
The phrase, of course, is faux pas.
We’ve all made them dear reader. Have we not? In my gourmet ramblings, I’ve committed many. Here are just two:
I am the guest of a father and son chef team who run a medium sized hotel restaurant in the Provencal Alps. After a welcoming verre with dad and junior, I settle into my ground floor palace for a short siesta.
As the Sun lowers the wattage and dinner looms, I torture myself with some Tai Chi exercises on the lawn.
The hearty bonjour of papa chef pierces my zen-not concentration. He waves in passing; adding with a wagging finger: “Fait attention du Soliel!”
The dining room glows with a genuine familial ambience. Two waiters fuss over me during the preliminaries. Then junior chef himself appears to take my order. The tourists from Des Moines at the next table freeze in mid-forkful. I chose the lamb.
Snatching my menu with an Imperial grin junior chef does a half bow from the waist and scurries stove-ward.
The Idaho escapees have now abandoned eating for furtive whispers. I sniff my wine regally. Impressed by the first round of the dual chefs’ efforts, expectation (and saliva) are rising as the lamb arrives.
Three velvet medallions partially submerged in a pool of aromatic essence. Rosemary. Thyme. Unknown herbal wonders. First bite. The doors of gourmet heaven opened. Second bite. I saw Escoffier himself. Surfing the room, I groked we were all happy campers. Even the Des Moines. Now eagerly destroying their dessert.
Then, a feeling came over me, to which I know, dear reader, you will relate. A feeling that rarely emerges. But when it does, is unmistakeable in both intensity and intent. A feeling that is truly undeniable. It is the feeling that informs you, that at this perfect moment, in this perfect place, in front of all these strangers, that you, are going to bring up your cookies!
You – Bicycle Gourmet – former exotic stranger from the far away lands are about to – HURL! The waiter sussed my discomfort. (My colour, perhaps?) I rose slowly, casually, with my best always-turn-this-colour-when-I-eat-lamb smile. And strode confidently toward the exit stairs. The feeling persisted. But I was in control.
A jaunty wave as I passed reception and reached the stairs. Suddenly, I was not in control. Bolting down the stairs, I reached the bottom in two giant leaps. Just as the door opened and my lamb exited. Decorating the shoes of a well coiffed matron just entering.
Fortunately, head down, I was unrecognisable as I stumbled forth into the starry, starry night. Any respectable Asian, would, of course, have fallen on his sword then and there.
But, alas, I, white trash with no blade, was destined for a more extreme punishment. Lying awake all night, wondering how I was going to face my hosts in the morning. The night’s agony produced no solution. Naturally, I passed on breakfast. Brain immobile. Body Fragile. I hid in my room until just before noon.
Then, after successfully slithering unnoticed to the middle of the lawn – they got me. It was papa chef. He beamed a big smile. Then, again wagging his fatherly finger intoned: “Fait attention du Soliel, eh?”
Hal-a-freakin-loo-yeah. Saved by French culinary hubris. Bien sur it would never occur to a French chef that his cooking could be responsible, so, it must have been too much sun!
Lamb and I now have a distant relationship. I pass them in their fields, at a distance.
In every field of human endeavour there are stars. And Superstars. Those who have left excellence in the dust, and jetted on to exceptional. Chef X was a superstar. Idolized by foodies, critics and chef wannabes.
Respected by colleagues, an innovator who never lost his edge, who produced cookbooks, videos, seminars, multiple international restaurants. Chef X was truly the culinary Big Man on Campus.
And I was the salivating freshman stepping up to his plate. In my, dare we call it a career (I think not) of gourmeting, I’ve found that the phrase ‘power behind the throne’ is particularly applicable to chefs’ wives.
Like their counterparts in other personal and professional unions, the chef’s wife runs the business, while us men, dumb thuds that we are, simply do what we can.
Mrs. X. fit the profile. Beauty Queen looks in her twenties, matured into immaculately turned out businesswoman of her mid-forties. Next to Mrs. X, a slight, unsmiling, white-aproned man, in his early thirties.
Was he the illustrious one? Mrs. X was mercifully brief as we discussed the filming program. The man in white did his Sphinx imitation. I waited for the introduction that never came.
Finally, stepping up to the plate, I asked the, to me, obvious question: “When would it be possible for me to meet chef X?”
The man in white surfed the carpet, a graceful, but solemn smile from Mrs X.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible. You see Chef X is dead.”
Well, who knew? Just about everybody in the World it would seem, except the dufus who is typing this.
Other articles by Christopher:
Cycling around the treasures of France
Baby steps towards a French baptism
Taking a tour of Chateau la Verrerie
The Pope of biodynamic wine
US-born video film maker Christopher Strong produced the Bicycle Gourmet's Treasures of France tour, which fulfilled his dream of cycling around the country visiting interesting places and meeting entertaining characters.
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