This is me (in black turtleneck) at L’Ambroisie after what was probably the most spectacular meal of my life. It is also one of the most glorious restaurants in all of Paris. It took some coaxing but we finally got our waiters to smile after repeatedly asking "Où sont vos dents (where are your teeth)?" ;-) I was unable to continue the tradition of me in black turtleneck with famous handsome chef as this year I have no good pictures of me with famous handsome chef (and if you think I'm posting a bad picture of me with famous handsome chef you're crazier than I am) so at least the black turtleneck part of the tradition continues...
“…It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
It came without packages, boxes or bags.
And he puzzled 3 hours 'til his puzzler was sore,
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before.
Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store,
Maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more…”
– Theodore Seuss Guisel (aka Dr. Seuss)
“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”
– Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), Physiologie du Gout
"Strength is the capacity to break a chocolate bar into four pieces with your bare hands and then eat just one of the pieces."
– Judith Viorst, courtesy of pastryscoop.com
“If you were lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast”
– Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
"Fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity."
– The Bayou, Baton Rouge, LA
Greeting Everyone! Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année de ma petit fenêtre á Paris! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from my little window in glorious Paris!
Fortunately, on a recent quick trip to New York, I braved the suffocating crowds at Century 21 for a full length insulated rain coat because it is f-r-e-e-z-i-n-g here in Paris. I look like the Michelin Man in black but I don't care - I'm warm! Well, my goodness, WHERE do I begin?!?! Hmmm…so much to share, so little space, and so often I find myself doing you a disservice as I am unable to unearth rich, profound words that convey the true essence, the "je ne sais quoi" (I don't know what), of an experience that one can have only when one is thousands of miles away from home in one of the most magnificent cities in the world.
Pourquoi Paris? Why Paris?
Many of you have asked me, "Why Paris? Why France? Why do you love it so much? Why do you want to live there? What is it about that city?!?!" Well...I fell in love...with Paris that is. From the first moment I arrived, I knew that a mere three months would not suffice in this captivating city that has since grabbed onto my heart and refused to let go. How does one translate an overwhelming emotion into words? Is there an official interpretation for heart-speak? How do you convey the sensation that makes you want to throw your hat up in the air, spread your arms out and twirl around in the middle of the street á la Mary Tyler Moore?
I have tried countless times to articulate my feelings around this, to convey the thrill that runs down my spine when, as I am walking down a cobblestone street, I turn a corner and there in front of me in all its splendid glory is the Eiffel Tower, or the Arc de Triomphe, or the Louvre, or Les Invalides, or Sacre Coeur, or the Pantheon, or, or, or… It takes my breath away, even after 8 months and countless visits, it still takes my breath away, puts a smile on my face and makes my heart soar. And every time, just as I did my first day in Paris when I turned the corner from Les Invalides and walked along the Seine and saw the tip of the Eiffel Tower peeking over the buildings, I say to myself "I can't believe I'm here! I can't believe I am living in Paris! I just can't believe it!"
A moveable feast
"If you were lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man,
then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you,
for Paris is a moveable feast"
- Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
I know I still haven't answered your questions and I'm sure anything I write will be less than satisfactory as celebrated authors have written thousands of novels trying to answer just this question and failed miserably. One which best captures the glory of Paris of his era is Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. In 1952, Charles Ritz (founder of the grande dame of Paris, The Ritz Hotel) made a sensational discovery. In the hotel cellar lay an unmarked trunk containing dozens of Hemingway's manuscript notes. After frequenting the bar for years, Hemingway later made the hotel his home. This unknown treasure trove was the foundation for A Moveable Feast, published in 1964. You can remove the phrase "as a young man" from his quote above as this applies to any one, any age as far as I'm concerned.
Me talk pretty one day
If you want a laugh out loud commentary of current day life in Paris, read David Sedaris' caustically funny Me Talk Pretty One Day. His descriptions are dead on. I read his book while riding the subway and I am sure more than a few people seriously considering pulling the little red emergency handle to call the gendarmes (police) as I was laughing out loud with tears streaming down my face. The French rarely show emotion, and most assuredly not on the subway where a pissed-off annoyed look is the standard demeanor, so to actually make a happy noise is certainly cause for alarm.
"Blogs", short for web logs, have become the latest online rage so I too jumped on the Blog Bandwagon. As you know I've been quite remiss in keeping my Musings from France current. Maintaining my website was cumbersome at best so I am in the process of moving all my Musings over to my new, cool, oh-so-hip blog also called Cucina Testa Rossa and I hereby solemnly swear to keep my blog current. Please take a moment to check it out and feel free to reply on the site. Check it out: https://cucinatestarossa.blogs.com/.
A show about nothing
So here I am nearing the middle of my second page and I've told you nothing. Perhaps that alone encapsulates life in Paris. One can spend hours wandering aimlessly about the streets, touching buildings began in the 1st century AD, doing absolutely nothing yet feeling so completely filled. Or spend hours sipping a tiny espresso at a sidewalk café watching the coiffed and coutured of Paris parade down the boulevard. Even the young girls are little fashionistas. One sight that never fails to put a smile on my face is in the evenings when I spot, and they're not hard to find, a businessman on his way home with a briefcase in one hand and a baguette in the other. Only in Paris…
SF: Farallon & Pane e Vino
So back to my initial question a few paragraphs up….WHERE do I begin? What an incredible year! I am so fortunate to have had yet again another amazing year to share with you. It wasn't easy by any stretch of the imagination - the challenges feel even more forceful and unconquerable but the rewards ultimately more rewarding. I'm sure you've all heard the saying "careful what you wish for…". Well I'm living proof of that little ditty!
The first 3 months of 2004, I worked at Farallon Restaurant on Union Square in their banquet division. The kitchen there is amazing, as are the walkins and the dry storage. Supplies, dishes, prep equipment like I have never seen before. I learned a tremendous amount professionally but even more so personally as life experiences often have a way of holding up a big mirror and saying "Go ahead, take a good hard look!"
I also had the pleasure of working for Chef Bruno Quercini at Pane e Vino Trattoria, the best Italian restaurant in San Francisco. His fusilli with eggplant and smoked mozzarella can move a man to tears. His Acqua Pazzo (sea bass in "crazy water") and thin-crust pizzas both cooked in the wood burning oven imported from Milan instantly transport you to the Tuscan countryside.
Happy Cooking with Jacques Pépin
In April, I worked in the back kitchen on Jacques Pépin's new PBS cooking show, Fast Food My Way, which is now airing nationwide on PBS stations . We taped the entire season in less than 3 weeks at the KQED studios in San Francisco. You won't see me but you'll see my food. In the companion book in the back section ~ page 224, last paragraph! :-) ~ under Author's Acknowledgements, Jacques graciously wrote: "...This show requires the utmost support and cooperation of my friends in the back kitchen, and I want to thank Laura, our competent and conscientious chef, for her excellent work..."
AAAAAAAAAAAA!!!! I just about died! I was browsing through the book in a bookstore and started screaming when I saw this as I had no idea he'd written it!!! I was so excited and so very proud because I worked so hard on this so please forgive my blatant self-promotion…but it was one of the coolest things I've ever done and I was REALLY, REALLY excited! :-)
Cannes Film Festival
I then packed my knife bag and chef clogs, no not those ugly orange ones that Mario Batali wears, but my cute black ones and headed to the south of France to cook at the Cannes Film Festival. That was an amazing experience. The cooking part was ok, once again dealing with young jerks in a kitchen, but walking the Red Carpet (Tapis Rouge as they say here) for the premier on opening night - that is something I will never forget…my 15 seconds of fame as I walked up the carpet, for once on the inside of the barricades, waving to the screaming fans. Of course they weren't waving at me but for a few brief moments I pretended they were :-) Denial ain't just a river in Egypt ;-) ha!
Gutting fish on the Brittany coast
I then traveled north to Bretagne to cook in a lobster boat, Ma Petite Folie, the sister restaurant to La Fleur de Sel, both run by Chef Yann and his beautiful wife Caroline Plassard. I spent the better part of 2 months scaling, gutting, cleaning, filleting & cooking fish. I had fish scales in my hair and my hands looked like a cat used them as scratching posts but I loved it! Really! And the chefs were so nice! And they were French! Yes, nice French chefs! I know, amazing!
The Big 4-0!
In early August, I turned 40 (yes FORTY! AAAAAAK!) and spent my birthday swimming in Lake Geneva. It was a very mellow birthday, no bells or whistles or fanfare. Next year I want to pop champagne under the Eiffel Tower, 41 bottles to be exact hopefully with 40 friends to help me drink it all. Any volunteers? If so, meet me on August 8, 2005 under the Eiffel Tower at midnight. Just after my birthday I moved to Paris and into a beautiful apartment in the 5th arrondisement with 2 roommates, John & Pierre. My friend Diane put me in touch with them when my initial living situation fell through upon my arrival in Paris.
I almost moved back to the states but everything worked out better than I could have ever imagined. My first week in Paris, I cooked dinner for Hollywood legend Olivia de Havilland thanks again to Diane and her friends, Matt & Ned. What an evening! She told wonderful stories of Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan and the lore of Hollywood. Only in Paris…! This would never happen to me in the Bay Area. Probably because Olivia doesn't live in the Bay Area, but you know what I mean...
The I Love Lucy chocolate conveyor belt
In September I had an internship at Pierre Hermé Patisserie in Paris. Chef Hermé is known as the Picasso of Pastry. His pastries are legendary across the globe and in Japan he is near God status. I was awed at his "haute couture patisserie": the combinations, the colors, the flavors, the textures, the wonder and whimsy. One day I worked the chocolate conveyor belt á la I Love Lucy. The chocolate chef Olivier kept yelling at me: slower, faster, too much chocolate, AAAAAAK! The room was freezing, my neck was aching, and there was nothing I could do but keep shaking powdered chocolate on those damn chocolates as they rolled out of the chocolate coating machine.
The Four Seasons George V
I then crossed the Seine where I had the incredible good fortune to land an internship at the Four Seasons George V, recently rated by Zagat as the #1 hotel in the world with its 3-Michelin star restaurant, Le Cinq led by legendary chef Philippe Legendre. It was all thanks to a friend who works there. She marched me down to the kitchens, introduced me to the chef and asked him if I could have an internship there! Pas mal, or not bad, as they say here. I thought I had died and gone to copper pot heaven as there were floor to ceiling shiny copper pots! I rotated through the stations including cold poissoniere (cold fish - the room was a bone-chilling 10ºC!), hot poissoniere (hot fish station on the line), garde manger (cold foods), and everyone's favorite, patisserie led by the handsome and shy Chef Fabrice Lecleir who with his blond hair and blue eyes resembles an Olympic Nordic skier more than a French pastry chef. oh darn ;-)
The chefs there were wonderful to me, very kind and complementary, and not making me feel like an absolute incompetent moron whenever I made a mistake. I had to keep pinching myself as it was too good to be true.
A culinary indulgence to make even Bacchas blush
My friends Lucy, Steve & Diana from New Hampshire came to visit for the weekend and treated me to a gastronomic extravaganza unlike any other. It was indescribably decadent, a culinary indulgence that should be declared illegal. I'm sure in a few of those red states it is ;-) They started the weekend with Friday lunch at Le Grand Vefour with the gorgeous Chef Guy Martin. Friday night my college roommate Ann and her husband Mike were in town so we all dined together at Guy Savoy's Atelier Maitre Albert with a roaring fire and enormous rotisseries.
Saturday afternoon we feasted at L'Ambroisie located in a townhouse in the beautiful 17th-century Place des Vosges, one of the most delightful squares in Paris. There is no web site however on the Gayot travel site (www.gayot.com), they expressed it best: "When Jacques Chirac invited Bill and Hillary Clinton here, he was inviting them to the ultimate in classic French cuisine. With its inlaid stone and parquet floors, book-lined shelves and sumptuous Aubusson tapestries adorning honey-hued walls, L'Ambroisie has the feel of a beautiful private home...".
Lunch lasted 5 hours and was unquestionably the best meal of my life. One dish is burned in my memory forever. A small bowl with a bed of finely pureed spinach topped with 2 perfect (and I mean perfect!) soft boiled eggs, then a wave of sabayon sauce, all topped with a heaping mound of shaved white truffles. It made me swoon. I wanted to bathe in it! I wanted to rub it all over my body. The aroma of the truffles was intoxicating, then when you cut into the egg, the warm yellow oozed out onto the truffles and mixed with the sabayon and the puree! Incroyable! I had to take a moment to hold up the bowl in homage to the sheer brilliance and utter bliss of this dish!
Not that we were hungry or anything but…Saturday evening we dined at master chef Jacques Cagna's self-named restaurant. Once again, spectacular with an unforgettable chocolate pistachio lava cake that oozed green. For our Sunday lunch, not that we were hungry or anything but…we decided to be Parisian and shopped from the farmers market in Place Monge across the street from my home. We bought fresh oysters in the shell, ripe smelly cheeses and steaming baguettes, fresh fruits and vegetables, and a bottle of champagne and feasted chez moi. That evening, the coup de gras, dinner at the 3-Michelin star Four Seasons Georges V. Not that we were hungry or anything but... naturellement we opted for the 10 course tasting dinner and each dish was better than the last. My favorite was my chocolate-almond encrusted venison with a chocolate-pepper sauce. Incroyable! Since I had just finished working in their pastry kitchen, they pastry chef sent out dessert after dessert after dessert. They then gave us (well not me) a tour of their kitchens. We closed the restaurant at 1am, 5 hours after arriving!
The coolest thing since sliced bread
One of my favorite parts of cooking school was our time in the bread kitchen. There is something so tactile, immediate and rewarding about making bread. All your senses are activated alerting you that you are about to consume something so simple yet so profound. Alice Waters visited the French Culinary Institute last fall and I was fortunate enough to get a few minutes of her time. My one question to her was simply: "What am I going to do with my life?" She said, "What do you want to do?" "I want to go to France!" "Well then go to France!" So I did… but first I asked her to recommend restaurants where I should work. I shared with her my love of bread baking and she recommended contacting the world-renowned Poilâne Bakery here on the Left Bank. So I did…
I received the most gracious rejection letter ever, which I will frame should I ever have an office, saying they were unable to accommodate interns but invited me for a tour. A month ago I spent a glorious morning with Geneviève Brière in their 17th century bread kitchen, formerly a convent, on rue Cherche-Midi mesmerized by the baker and his methodical yet maternal handling of the dough. I can picture him now gently pressing his hand on top of the dough, like mother on her baby's tummy, just before he slid the perfectly shaped dough cut with his signature "P" into the wood-burning oven. It is one of four original wood-burning ovens in all of Paris. I emerged 2 hours later coated in a thin layer of flour from head to toe.
A room of the small shop is covered floor to ceiling with paintings of bread. Mr. Poilâne was a friend to the artists, many of whom lived in the neighborhood. When they couldn't afford bread, they would exchange a painting for a loaf or two of bread. The Poilâne art collection now includes stunning works by Chagall, Picasso, Monet, Dali, etc.
While I was there, a book delivery arrived. Mr. Poilâne's daughter, Apollonia who is just 20 or 21 and is now running the enterprise since the tragic death of her parents 2 years ago, had just published a book of Mr. Poilâne's writings on his quest to change the name of one of the seven deadly sins. It is a fascinating story that adds yet another layer of wonder to this man. As it goes, one of the seven deadly sins, gluttony, in French was translated as "gourmandise" (sp?) and this very much upset Mr. Poilâne. He discussed this with philosophers, doctors, scientists, chefs, priests, etc. and he wrote a very long letter to the Pope asking and explaining why the word should be changed from "gourmandise" to the true French word for gluttony which I believe translates to "glutton" pronounced glue-TON. So this book is his letter to the Pope along with all his writings and discussions on this subject. I wish I had better command of the language so that I could read it and truly appreciate his endeavor. I will have to wait for the translated version to come out.
Cruising the canals of France
I also spent 2 glorious weekends on my friends Don & Emma's newly renovated barge. They spent the spring and summer cruising through the canals of France. Their floating home has been featured in The (London) Sunday Times and House & Garden (UK). I met up with them first in Chateaux-Thierry (Champagne country on the Marne River) and then in Auxerre, next to Chablis, on the Yonne River. I promise to tell you all about it, complete with pictures, in my cool new blog because I could take another 6 pages just describing one weekend.
A chicken conundrum
Through a friend here in Paris, I was put in touch with a French family looking for a chef to cook for dinner parties and other special events. They invited me to their home in London the following weekend to cook for them. I was absolutely exhausted (probably more from stress than anything) but it was fun and everything turned out well. A few disasters but I played it off and they ended up loving the food. Kind of funny as some of it even surprised me!
I cooked Friday dinner, Saturday lunch & dinner, all for 6 people, and on Sunday morning I was scheduled to make a quiche and a salad for only 2 people. That morning they asked if I could change it to 7 people. Uuuuh, sure…like I could say NO! So they said, let's just roast those 2 chickens we have (that was supposed to be for dinner) and eat in an hour. Uuuuh, sure…like I could say NO! So I told everyone to clear out of the kitchen so that I could panic in private as I hadn't roasted a chicken since cooking school! My mind went blank. AAK! One hour!?!? There is no way I can do this! How do I roast a chicken? Where is the damn wishbone I have to cut out? Is that the neck or the butt? AAAAK! I managed to find the wishbone and dig it out, and then I rubbed them with olive oil, salt & pepper and sprinkled cayenne and paprika on it to give it a beautiful golden color and hopefully some flavor! I stuffed it with a lemon cut in half and a fist full of any herbs I could find: parsley, tarragon, rosemary, and sage. I intended to cut the tip of the wings off but got nervous and cut up too far so when I tied 'em up, the little wing stubs kept popping out to the side. I threw them in a 200ºC oven and prayed.
I basted them with white wine, Dijon mustard, and lemon juice. The baster kept falling out of the bowl, bouncing across the kitchen floor, flinging basting juice everywhere. The recipe said to cook for 1¼ hours to 140ºF in the thigh but I took them out after an hour and the temp read 158ºF! AAAK, the chicken is going to be like sawdust! I was so nervous that I couldn't remember how to cut up the chicken so I just brought the 2 now golden beasts out on a platter with a carving fork & knife, said "Bon Appetit", ran back to the kitchen and prayed to the patron saint of poulets (chickens)! All those years in catholic school paid off. When they cleared the table, there was half a chicken left. I ripped off a chunk and I was floored! It was delicious!!! It was moist and juicy and wonderful. Now, the funny thing is that they didn't comment on the chicken but they all raved about my near disaster quiche.
A near disaster quiche
In London, one can't buy a pie pan size pre-made roll of puff pastry like they have in Paris so I bought this brick of industrial strength puff pastry which, after seeing what it can do, could no doubt straighten the Leaning Tower of Pisa if they slid some of this under and shot a blow torch at it. I rolled out the pastry and put it on the pie plate. I didn't prick it full of holes (duh!) but put a smaller pie tin on top weighted down with about 30 spoons... so it was pretty heavy. After about 10 minutes I looked in the oven and it had almost pushed the smaller pie tin over! So I grabbed it out of the oven, attacked it with my fork and managed to smack it back down, poured the quiche batter in it (4 eggs, 3 heaping tablespoons crème fraîche, 3 diced sautéed red peppers, curry, a handful of basil ripped in half, salt & pepper - topped with grated ementhal), threw it back in the oven and once again prayed to the patron saint of puff pastry dough.
It was almost ready and I set the timer for 2 more minutes. When I went to take the pastry out the edges were burned to a crisp. AAAAK! Now what?! So I carefully chipped of the charred part with a small sharp knife and presented the quiche and salad with a rousing "Bon Appetit" and bolted back to the kitchen, resigned to the fact that the whole meal was a disaster (I hadn't tasted my chicken at this point). After lunch, they all came bounding back to the kitchen and raved about the quiche, or pie as they called it! Not a word about my lovely moist juicy chickens, but about my burnt, lopsided quiche. I took the train back to Paris on Monday morning and went straight to bed! I was exhausted!
My cutting board for a keyboard????
I took a quick trip back to San Francisco and New York to interview at both hi-tech companies and restaurants. Yes, I find myself donning my old hi-tech marketing hat as I can't pay rent on my paprika roast chicken alone. I also couldn't miss the Quercini's 4th Annual Villa Congo Christmas Party. I had just flown in from NY so I fell asleep on the fireplace at about 8pm but the food was, as always, marvelous. Prime rib, fried artichokes, home made salamis, cheeses, crab cakes that would put any east coast crab shack to shame, rotisserie sausages, panettone, tiramisu, s'mores over the fire and Chef Bruno's famous homemade creamy limoncello. Molto bene! Buon natale!
Prayers and thanks
This year I ask you to keep my high school friend Scott Marconda in your thoughts and prayers. A year ago he was practicing law in a big cushy office in California. Now he is leading the troops in Fallujah, Iraq and my stomach turns every time I hear of yet another marine that was killed. On Oct 28 he emailed: "There's something here I have to do. It's going to take a while. I will be away for a while. You all may not hear from me...". Relief and gratitude washed over me when I received his email on Dec 11: "Been shot, frag'd, mortared, bombed, RPG'd and still kicking it here...".
Many other things to be thankful for as well: my friends from home and abroad & the friends I've met here in France who've embraced, encouraged, helped, fed, housed, clothed, financed & cheered me every step of the way the past year; LOTS of babies this year: Ellen's on her 3rd; Ashley had her 2nd boy, my brother had a little girl, Karin, whose husband Sean was sent to Afghanistan twice, had her 2nd baby just as they were reassigned to Alaska (as far from Afghanistan as you can get!), Joan & Rich had a baby boy and Mark & Chantal had their first boy also; Jessie & Martin got engaged; some got divorced; Tracy is taking on China; and a few friends, thank God, conquered cancer...so much, much, much to be grateful for this year.
Best wishes and kisses
What's next you ask? SF, NY, Paris? I have no idea! Really! Paris for now, but stay tuned...film at 11. So I bid you adieu from my little window in Paris. I wish you all the best for a peaceful, prosperous, healthy, and joy-filled 2005 and may God bless us all. Meilleurs voeux et bisous de Paris (Best wishes and kisses from Paris), xoxoxoxoxo Laura