The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - and Perplexing - City (10 page)

If you can’t make it to Pâtisserie Viennoise, you’ll be missing out on not just the most fabulous cup of
chocolat chaud
in Paris, but a pretty formidable range of
Viennese desserts, like Sacher torte, filled with apricots and glazed in shiny chocolate; flaky rectangles of Strudel bursting from an overload of cinnamon-baked apples; and hearty rounds of savory, bacon-studded Tyrolean bread. And perhaps a close call with death.

Luckily, my version of Parisian hot chocolate is easy to make safely at home, and you can use either regular or low-fat milk. But do use a top-notch chocolate. Since the recipe has so few ingredients, the quality of the chocolate really does make a difference.

2 cups (500 ml) whole or low-fat milk

5 ounces (140 g) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

Pinch of coarse salt

  1. In a medium saucepan, warm the milk, chocolate, and salt. Heat until it begins to boil. (It will probably boil up quite a bit at first, so keep an eye on it.)

  2. Lower the heat to the barest simmer and cook the mixture, whisking frequently, for 3 minutes. If you want a thicker consistency, cook it another 1 to 2 minutes.

SERVING:
Pour into cups and serve
nature
, or with a giant mound of slightly sweetened whipped cream. Sugar can be added, to taste.

STORAGE:
Le chocolate chaud
can be made in advance and stored in the refrigerator for up to five days. Rewarm over low heat in a saucepan or microwave oven.

A FISH OUT OF WATER

I’m scared of fish. Terrified of them.

Even dead, they have those unblinking, glistening, glazed-over eyes that stare off into the distance, but always seem to be looking at me. When I see them lying there, I’m convinced that their slippery bodies are somehow going to miraculously spring back to life and take a chomp out of me.

For reasons unknown, I’m not afraid of snakes, spiders, alligators, lizards—or shellfish, for that matter. Dead or alive. But what really scares me, even more than scaly fish, are those shape-shifting, squiggly, vile creatures from the deep—squid.

It’s a fear deeply rooted from the time my sister chased me around the house when I was six with a Marineland booklet spread open to the double-page larger-than-life centerfold of a giant octopus unfurling its tentacles around some innocent rock. I was sure she’d never find me hiding under my bed. But she did, and tossed that terrifying tome, spread wide-open, under there with me. It’s a trauma I haven’t recovered from to this very day.

Forty years later, yes, I’m still haunted by those evil encephalopods, and I think all of them deserve a fast death in hot oil—breaded first—then drowned in spicy sauce. That’s the fate those ugly suckers deserve.

You can imagine my reaction during my first week of work in the kitchen at Chez Panisse, eager to do my best, when a huge plastic tub brimming to the very top with gloopy, gooshy squid was thrust into my hands, which I was expected to clean. Even though I was just one week into my two-week trial period, there was no way I was touching any of them. Conjure up your worst nightmare, and that’s mine. In a panic, I had a sudden urge to go to the restroom, where I stayed until I was sure the project had been handed off to someone else. Thankfully, later I moved on to the pastry department, which was tentacle-free, and I was off the hook forever. Or so I thought.

At the markets in Paris where the
poissonnières
proudly display the daily catch of seafood on mounds of cracked ice, I find myself scared, but oddly attracted to, those slippery little devils lying in a soggy, cold heap whenever I pass them. I get a smug satisfaction knowing they’re awaiting their fate for all the psychological harm they’ve caused me over the years. (Somehow I gave my sister a pass.) I knew they were dead but felt oddly drawn to them, peering over at the tangled pile,
almost
wanting to touch one to find out what it feels like.

Funny how we’re often fascinated by what we’re most afraid of. Who hasn’t peered from a giant skyscraper or bridge wondering what it would be like to tumble off the edge? Or what it would be like to go to your local fish market and tell the friendly, ruggedly handsome young men there that you want to work with them gutting fish all day?

One of my favorite places to buy fish, called Pêche Paris, is at the
marché d’Aligre. Brightly lit so you can inspect everything, the seafood at Pêche Paris passes even the closest scrutiny for freshness. Its ice-blue countertops are brimming with the pick of the
pêcheur:
tangerine-colored chunks of salmon, spiky, cross-eyed
rascasse
, silvery little sardines, delicate fillets of crimson
rouget
, and slender sole française, as flat and lithe as an Hermès calfskin glove.

When I was writing a book on frozen desserts, my freezer quickly filled up, and I needed to jettison several batches of ice cream at a time to make room for the next couple of batches waiting to be churned up. I correctly assumed that Pêche Paris had a big ice chest, and the young fellows who worked there, with their only-in-France waistlines, could handle eating much more ice cream than a certain American, who foolishly squandered his enviable adolescent waistline on chocolate. When the guys saw me coming, they’d drop everything to say hello, eager to see what flavors I brought them that week.

I believe in taking advantage of my decision to live in a foreign country by making myself open to new adventures whenever the opportunity arises. So one day, while I was talking with my fish boys, I asked if I could work there. Of course they were stunned. I mean, who in their right mind wants to handle ice-cold, icky fish all day, then head home all wet with fish juices clinging to your arms and sticky little scales clinging to your hair and eyelashes? Aside from the fact that I would be dangerously close to the squid, even more frightening was that they told me to come the following Wednesday at 5:30 a.m. And let me tell you, there’s nothing scarier than I am at 5:30 a.m. A giant octopus doesn’t even come close. As anyone who’s worked with me can attest, I’m distinctly unpleasant in the morning. Waking up when it’s pitch dark in the dead of winter, trudging over to the marché d’Aligre, and hefting dead fish all morning suddenly didn’t seem so appealing, the more I thought about it. But since I had asked and they had said yes, it was too late to back out.

On my first day I managed to arrive just two minutes late. The French may have a reputation for being laissez-faire about things like punctuality, but when it comes to work, that reputation isn’t always well deserved. The
fish boys were already in full swing under the blazing, harsh lights, shoveling ice, thwacking off fish heads, and ripping out their bloody guts.

We rifled through a pile of tall rubber boots to find a pair that would fit, which I slid on, and someone handed me a thick blue floor-length rubber apron. I’d been completely waterproofed, and hefting all those fat carp and slithery conger eels around, I soon saw why this was necessary.

Because I’ve worked in restaurants for almost half of my life, I’ve learned there are three things you need to do to survive in any food service environment. The first is never to lie about your experience or skill level. There’s no use bragging about something you can’t do. You’ll be busted for it almost immediately, and it’s more endearing to be eager to learn new skills than to screw up.

The second thing that is that you need to know how to move in a kitchen. That’s how I got my first restaurant job in college. I had no experience, but the head chef said I knew how to move. And I got hired.

And last, you must have the willingness to do anything. I can’t tell you how many interns I trained who rolled their eyes when I asked them to juice a case of lemons or pit a flat of cherries. You would have thought I asked them to clean the bottom of my work shoes with their tongues. At Chez Panisse, even Alice and the head chefs take out the garbage, and in a restaurant kitchen, if you’re above doing any sort of work (except cleaning squid, of course) you’re not part of the team.

As I started working at the fish market, I realized it had been at least twenty years since I had tackled a new job. Working at home by myself, I’d forgotten that feeling of inadequacy and having to prove myself as “the new guy.” So I was careful, since there’s nothing worse than messing up something big on your first day to make you feel really horrible.

The first job they gave me was prepping a case of
dorade
, a task that consisted of using a jagged metal scraper to briskly rub the scales off each chubby fish, lopping off the head with scissors, slicing open the belly, and wrenching out the soggy mass of oozing organs with my hands. If you don’t think about what you’re doing, it’s fine: you just cut, slash, and yank. If you stop and think about it, you gag. Especially at 6:03 a.m.

There’s a reason fishmongers are not called fish “butchers”—you don’t want to hack away at them. Each fillet needs to be clean and neatly trimmed. No one wants to get home and unwrap a piece of fish that looks like it’s been on the losing end of a tug-of-war with a cat.

Once I finished cleaning the small fish, I graduated to the bigger ones, which were slapped down in front of me, making me extra-appreciative of the apron and boot combo. Aside from one whole salmon that looked like it was the victim of a serial killer with a penchant for fish that swam upstream, I didn’t do so badly. My weakness was that I wasn’t so quick, which is to be expected when dealing with something new and unfamiliar. And those fish were tricky little fellas: unlike blocks of chocolate and cups of sugar, which stay put, fish slide around as you’re working on them. Filleting one is like trying to change a tire on a moving car.

I also learned how to shuck scallops quickly and neatly, the correct way to skin and slice an eel, the delicate art of peeling the thin skin off sole, the ease of deboning a sardine with a slip of my thumb, and how not to grimace when people inquired about squid. Which whenever I passed, I looked at longingly, imagining myself running my hands over their slippery bodies, fondling those fleshy tentacles. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

The hardest work wasn’t at the fish market, though, it was when I got home after work. (As a courtesy to others, I walked home instead of taking the Métro.) After my first day, as soon as I closed the door behind me, I dove into the bathtub for a good soak, thinking that would wash off the smell. Unfortunately, I discovered that hot water just seals in the fish essences even deeper. I tried scrubbing my hands with industrial-strength soap and holding my hands under running water while rubbing them with a stainless steel spoon, which usually works, but was no match for the powerful smell of fish.

I was reminded of the film
Atlantic City
, where Susan Sarandon comes home every night, cuts a few lemons in half, then rubs them over her arms and hands while her voyeuristic neighbor (Burt Lancaster) watches lasciviously from across the way. So I followed suit. Unfortunately, all that
left me with were two hands that felt as if they’d been immersed in battery acid.

After a couple of weeks at the
poissonnerie
, I started to feel I was getting the hang of things and was doing a decent enough job for them to let me stay on as many weeks as I wanted. Not that it was glamorous, but being there, hanging out with guys who should have been modeling for Dolce & Gabbana, having coffee in the café with the market workers, really made me feel I was blending in with the French. Surrounded by piles of dead fish, their entrails permanently lodged underneath my fingernails, the floor slippery with sea water, and flaky, translucent scales littered in my hair and eyelashes, I somehow managed to keep stoking a warm and fuzzy glow inside for what I was doing.

So imagine my surprise when one morning as I headed to the changing room to don my rubber boots and apron, Thiebaut took me aside and said they didn’t need me anymore. At least that’s what I think he said. He mentioned something about
les droits
, which in my predawn French, I believe meant something about French law, which is very strict about who works where. There’s a chance, too, that I could have been fired. But I’d like to believe it had something to do with my lack of working papers.

Dejected, I went home and climbed back into my still-warm bed, a bit depressed. I curled up under the covers and pulled my pillow beneath my head. The only thing perking me up was that my hands smelled, well…they didn’t smell like anything.

I thought back on one morning when I was in the shop a few minutes before we opened, alone with the fish. I had walked by a big pile of squid on ice and I suddenly plunged my hand right in and moved it around, fondling the cool, glossy heads with my fingers, trying to avoid the tentacles (I didn’t get
that
crazy), and in that moment, I overcame my biggest fear in the world, one I’d been dragging around all my life.

By the next day, I didn’t feel so bad about not being asked to return. (My editor keeps crossing out “not asked to return” and replacing it with “fired,” but I’m sticking to my story.) In fact, I was a bit relieved to be
fired—I mean, not asked to return—since that meant I’d no longer spend six sleepless nights of the week panicking about waking up at an ungodly hour on the seventh.

I’m glad to have had the experience of working among some of the handsomest
poissonniers
in Paris, too, and I still stop by at least once a week and buy my fish from them. But I’m still going to stay away from the squid—unless no one’s looking.

SARDINES AUX OIGNONS ET RAISINS SECS A LA MODE DE VENISE
VENETIAN-STYLE SARDINES WITH ONIONS AND RAISINS
MAKES 8 SERVINGS

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