Read Mediterranean Summer Online
Authors: David Shalleck
Through clenched teeth, I asked how a dupe with the word “medium-rare” on it could have produced an item that was not and could not ever again be medium-rare. No one answered. Of course no one answered. I was talking to myself.
The chicken was a needed bright moment. Except for some slight charring on the end of its wing bone, it looked fine nestled next to a cluster of watercress. But when I looked at the standard vegetable garnish on the plate, I failed to ask myself why I was serving winter vegetables in spring to the woman whose creed was that all good cookery should be in harmony with the land and its season.
I knew I should have refired the course, but by this point I was in a tailspin. When the entrées for the Waters table were out, the kitchen staff seemed to exhale as one, not because they particularly cared how well their work would be received, but because my tension level was off the chart and they hoped I would now ease up on them.
When the manager reported no complaints from our distinguished guest, I indulged myself in a prayer that I had dodged a bullet with my name on it. When it came time for the post-entrée cheese course, I thought,
At least we can’t blow this
. The pantry cook handed the cheese selection to me. I was wrong. We didn’t even get that right. The first rule of serving cheese is to have it at room temperature. The assortment of California cheeses specially brought in included a couple made by Alice’s friend Laura Chenel. They had all been left in the walk-in refrigerator. I had no choice but to transfer the cheese from the chilled plate they were on to one that was room temperature. I said to the hipster waiter, “Take it.”
Because I could not see Alice’s table from the line, the hostess signaled when she and her family had finished dessert and were sitting with their espresso. I walked out into the dining room, past the waiters’ marking station—the place where flatware, glasses, and table linens are stored—and saw Alice’s sweet but formidable face at a corner banquette. I walked over to greet her.
“Thanks for coming in, chef,” I said, happy to see her. Alice politely introduced me to her husband and daughter, mentioning they were on their way to France and Italy, but wasted no time.
“This was not very good tonight, David,” she said. She gave me the name of the hotel where she was staying and said, “Call me tomorrow.”
Her tone was not as unpleasant as her authoritative message, and I sensed that she understood and had taken into account all I had to deal with—temporarily running a kitchen past its heyday with an insubordinate staff over which I had little influence and no power.
The next morning I called her, thinking we would share a laugh over how impossible our profession can be at times. I went in that direction, trying to set a confident, relaxed tone. “Hi, Alice, it’s David. What a night!”
Alice’s voice held none of the pleasant friendliness of the previous evening; in fact, it was outright cold. “Don’t you ever let that happen when you are chef of a kitchen,” she admonished me. “The owner is a friend of mine. I was embarrassed for him, but mainly I was embarrassed for you.”
She didn’t leave it at that, going on to a meticulous critique of each part of the meal, missing nothing—not even the parts I had tried to fudge. She was indignant about the out-of-season vegetables, finishing on the cheese and the dessert.
“And the cheese was cold, David, COLD! That’s inexcusable. And I could taste food odors in the cake!”
Yes, I knew that keeping cake in the walk-in with the rest of the food was bad practice. It’s something any good kitchen knows not to do, but with a staff that needed watching at every step, I had let it go.
“You are responsible for everything that comes out of that kitchen,” she chided me, “and that has to be your first priority.”
She was right and I knew it. I had known it that night as I sent out dish after dish of substandard quality. She must have heard how totally deflated I was, all my cockiness knocked out of me. But she wasn’t finished. “Before you call yourself a chef,” she went on, “remember what the word means.” It means “chief,” and in the restaurant business it’s where the buck stops. My heart was pounding so hard that after a while I could no longer process her words. But no matter. Her tone of voice carried her message loud and clear. I had blown a huge opportunity, humiliating myself in front of a woman every cook in America studies and idolizes. And worst of all, I had stupidly tried to charm my way out of a dismal failure.
Of course she was right, about the bad meal and the cold cheese and the poorly stored cake and about the fact that I—not the line cooks, not the pastry chef, not the server—was responsible for everything that came out of the kitchen. From the moment the call was over, I tried to salvage something from the debacle, allowing my mind to take me back to an old expression: “A whipped dog is a wiser dog.” I vowed I’d never again come to the game unprepared. But I couldn’t help wondering about another possible fallout. Alice would no doubt be visiting Provence and might share with Nathalie her disenchantment with me. I had invested so much in the hope that in Nathalie’s school I would become more than a good cook. I wondered if I had blown my chance for success before even getting there. The thought of failure on my journey had never entered my mind until that Saturday night. And Alice’s implicit judgment was clear: I had a long way to go before I could call myself a chef.
Reflecting on what
brought me into this demanding profession of cooking for the pleasure of others, I realize that it was not just my love of food. The restaurant business, at least back when I entered it by way of a first summer job as a dishwasher, abounds with opportunity for those hungry to get ahead. But the work also provides a hefty dose of pressure for those trying to get by. As with early television shows that aired live, what you serve your guests has to come off right the first time, and that requires top performances from all of the support staff.
Over a succession of summer jobs and part-time during school, I moved from dishwashing to plating the salads, but the night I remember most clearly was when I was assigned to my first post “on the line,” kitchen talk for stations under the exhaust hood, working on the hot appetizers. From “hot apps” to fish then meats, from sautéing and roasting to grilling, I still have fond memories of being exposed to some of the very best mentors in the business, a brigade of dedicated cooks at a beautiful restaurant at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge named the River Café.
It was there that I was also exposed to just how much time the chef, Larry Forgione, put into finding unique, fresh ingredients that were grown or raised in the States. I was endlessly intrigued, but at the end of each summer I went back to college. Later I learned that Forgione left to open An American Place in Manhattan, named by James Beard, the chef’s mentor and one of the foremost cookbook authors in America. College graduation brought me a job at a lighting and set design firm and I thought my kitchen days were over as I looked for a break into show business. But a few months later, Larry called and offered me a full-time position on the line at his new place. Unhappy with my job as a draftsman—where it seemed as if I would have to pay my dues in an office job for an eternity—I decided to cook and maybe one day become a chef.
For the menu at An American Place, Forgione was creating dishes with ingredients I had never heard of, things like nasturtium leaves, fiddlehead ferns, and morel mushrooms. “Where did you find them?” I asked him. They came from California and northern Michigan, he told me, and added that in Europe all chefs learn to be foragers. Most of them, he said, regularly wander through markets and out-of-the-way places to find something interesting or unique, and then create a dish around it. As the cottage food business grew and foragers throughout the nation contacted Forgione, his repertoire continued to expand.
At the same time, the California cuisine trend hit Manhattan. Simple, robust food came out of open kitchens with mesquite grills and wood-burning ovens. Reduction sauces gave way to flavored mayonnaise, and sprigs of fresh herbs were the garnishes instead of fluted mushroom caps. The entertainment of watching cooks prepare food while wearing black baseball caps in lieu of a toque—the classic French chef’s hat—added to the signature of this new wave of cooking that brought the high-quality dining experience many steps closer to being casual. Larry would say that what I was witnessing in New York was only a part of the California food world.
The idea of heading west to check out firsthand the restaurant scene in San Francisco began to form in my head. When I told Larry, he urged me on.
Once in California, I quickly found work at the Campton Place hotel under Chef Bradley Ogden, a friend of Larry’s. But any conversation about California cuisine’s beginnings invariably came around to the schoolteacher-turned-chef Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, her influential restaurant across the bay in Berkeley, where she successfully compressed the time it took to get food from the ranch or farm to the tables in her dining room.
In the introduction to her first cookbook,
Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook,
I read that her food was inspired by travels in France and by the cookbooks of Richard Olney and Elizabeth David. To that end, Chez Panisse was originally a French restaurant, modeled after the rustic dishes of the south of France, in particular the cooking of Provence. The influence showed in the dining room as well, where the walls were adorned with posters for films by Marcel Pagnol, the French filmmaker who had written stories based in Provence. I later learned that Waters was so inspired by these films and the lives of the characters that she named the restaurant after one of them, Panisse.
France and food were bound up together for me as well, though in my case the link involved only vicarious travel to France during my childhood. In our home, as in most American homes, Sunday night television with Disney was a ritual. But as a child of two off-camera television professionals, I also watched some shows that were not what you would expect a kid to be watching. One, aimed at an adult audience, mesmerized me. It was called
The Galloping Gourmet
and was hosted by the happy, funny, and well-dressed gourmand Graham Kerr. It ran in our area just about the time I usually came home for lunch.
The Galloping Gourmet
was a show about a flamboyant but skilled chef going through a hectic routine each episode as he deftly prepared a grand gourmet meal inspired by some exotic locale or classic technique. His hammed-up facial expressions and zany ways, along with his interactions with the live audience, made for an amusing show. I was captivated by the way he transformed raw ingredients into finished dishes—peeling, chopping, slicing, then pots and pans jangling on the stove, working two ovens as he made a meal around the main event, like roast duck with a sauce of pinot noir or shallow-fried turbot with lemon and parsley butter sauce. But what I remember most vividly were the short segments devoted to his sojourns overseas, mostly in France and Italy—the famous harbor of Marseille, where he bought the fish for bouillabaisse, the Burgundian countryside as he spoke about dishes
à la dijonnaise,
and the open-air markets where he shopped for fresh ingredients. Even if I had no idea what he was talking about when he referred to what went into dishes like
it did not matter. What did matter was that he always made cookery fun.
On the train from
Paris to Provence, I obsessed about the possibility that Alice had told Nathalie about my fiasco in London, going over all my failures of service that night, one by one, as she had with me. And so I was relieved when Nathalie met me at the Avignon train station with her son Jerome, greeting me with a hearty, “Welcome to Provence!”
She looked different from how I remembered her—she stood a little taller than she appeared at our first meeting, but was thinner and balanced her weight on a cane. She pointed to the cane as the reason for the two-month delay—knee surgery. Swiss by heritage, Nathalie had discovered Provence in her twenties and adopted the region’s sun-drenched lifestyle with the same dedication as a native. Her long, free-flowing auburn hair, angular features, wise brown eyes, and wide smile may have been a nod to the gypsies of the Vaucluse valley. She had even named her home after one of their patron saints, but since we met in Berkeley, she had moved into an apartment in town.
As we set out in Jerome’s little Peugeot station wagon, she told me that we had to make a few stops on the way home. “We must pick up some wine,” she announced, “then visit a
for some olive oil and a nursery to get starter plants of basil and parsley. It’s unfortunate when all I need is a sprig or a few leaves that I have to buy a whole bunch. Unless I am making
”—pesto—“and I need a lot, it’s wasteful. Plus, the flavor is best when you can go to the source.”
Jerome drove swiftly through the valley as we passed meadows of bright red poppies, asparagus fields, vineyards, and cherry orchards. It was too early in the season to see the famous purple rows of lavender that Provence is known for. But its nascent fields were everywhere. I could just make out the medieval hilltop villages—Lagnes, Gordes, Ménerbes—far off in the distance. They all shared a similar architectural style of stone and terra-cotta except for Roussillon, which rose from the red rock of nearby cliffs. “You’ll get a chance to visit them during your stay,” Nathalie said as she watched me gaze in awe through the open car windows. “We have to move fast because the vendors all close at noon for their midday break.”
“Where is everything else going to come from?” I asked.
“There are excellent shops in some of the towns, and just down the street from the apartment is a great
” Jerome was quick to reply over his shoulder.
“Unless of course when we go to the markets we get everything there,” Nathalie said from the passenger seat. She directed Jerome in French to turn left at the next intersection. She preferred to travel in the valley on the “D” routes as opposed to the “N” routes of the national system. “It might take a little longer, but there is much more to see on the