Dining in France: Getting My Hands on the Good Stuff
- Published on Monday, 16 February 2015 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
How I Struggled, Salmon-like,
Up the Food Chain
Since moving to Paris, I’ve had low-end food and high-end food. After much experience and careful reflection, I have reached a conclusion: high-end is better.
I once ate a frozen hamburger. Oh wait — that sentence is not entirely accurate. Let’s take it word by word: “I” is true — this really happened to me. “Once” is also correct, in the sense of both “at some point in the past” and “only one time.”
However, “ate” here doesn’t mean “chewed, swallowed and digested in its entirety,” but rather “took one bite, couldn’t believe how bad it was, took one more out of horrified fascination and threw the rest away.” Also, “frozen” in this context means “incompletely thawed” and “hamburger” means “thing resembling a hamburger but no longer worthy of the name.”
This memorable event took place when I was in high school back in the Midwest in the early 1970s. I was driving somewhere with a bunch of friends, and we needed to stop for both gas and food. We found a filling station first, and when we went inside to pay, one of the guys noticed that they had “one of those new microwave things.”
This was before microwave ovens became common equipment among home and poodle owners. At the time they were considered to be cutting-edge technology, the next great modern convenience, and this particular one was part of a new (and doomed) marketing concept.
My friend had heard about this somewhere and got really excited about it: “It’s amazing — they make hamburgers and freeze them, so all you have to do is heat one for a few minutes in the microwave and you’ve got a hot meal!”
Indeed, the station had a freezer case full of edible stuff under a “menu” marked with a now-forgotten brand name — something like “Radargrub” or “Zap’n’Gobble.” Not wishing to be left behind in the advance of civilization, we asked for a couple of burgers, and the attendant stuck them in the oven for three minutes, which was supposed to be the time needed to make them piping hot and delectable.
It wasn’t. Mine was cold on the outside and still rock-solid in the middle. And, worse, not even worth putting back in the oven. This was when I learned something that the Radargrub people should have figured out before they invested all that money: you can’t take an entire hamburger, with cooked meat, mustard, ketchup, pickles, cheese and bun, store it at minus 10°F for three months and expect it ever again to taste anything like an actual hamburger.
But my tech-crazed friend was undaunted. He kept saying, “Isn’t this great? You can eat lunch without even having to go sit down in a restaurant!” Which of course is a lot like saying, “Isn’t this great? You can have sex without even taking off your clothes and lying down in bed!”
Now then: I told that story purely to establish a baseline. Having tasted that hamburger gave me a zero point on the gastronomy scale against which to measure future culinary experiences.
While following the usual procedure of growing from a teenager into a young adult, I began to notice that the food at most low- and mid-priced American restaurants was not all that much better than a petrified hamburger. I went out to eat now and then, and usually, with a few notable exceptions, went home thinking, “I could have made that better at home for less money.”
So when I came to France for the first time as a tourist, it was a revelation. France’s reputation for fine cuisine is deserved: coming from the States it seemed to me as though every single place that served any kind of food was superb. I ate in what I now realize were just run-of-the-moulin corner cafés, crêpe joints and greasy cuillères, but still loved every meal.
Then when I moved here, I noticed that French people tended to be very particular about where they would go to eat. Which brings us to the topic of national stereotypes. As anyone who has been around any block (except for the one I grew up on) knows, clichéd generalizations about the character traits of this or that nationality are nearly always stupid and untrue.
But in the area of restaurant selection, my friends seemed intent on reinforcing one of the stupidest, least true stereotypes about the French, namely that they are negative and cynical. They all had very short lists of their preferred restaurants, which they would invariably describe using the same phrase: “pas mal” (not bad).
No place was ever “good” or, Bocuse forbid, “great.” If they really wanted to lavish praise on a restaurant, they would say, “Ce n’est pas trop mal” — “It’s not too bad,” with the accent on the “trop.”
Deciding where to go for dinner was a serious discussion, and often went like this:
“Where shall we eat tonight?”
“There’s a new place in the fifth that’s supposed to be not too bad.”
“Really?! Sounds fantastic.”
“The critic in Le Monde absolutely raved about it. He said, ’It only makes you puke once.’”
“Wow! Let’s go!”
Once in a great while, like a dog waiting under the table for someone to drop a bite of steak, I would have the opportunity to eat in a Michelin-starred restaurant. As all epicures who have been to France, or Earth, know, the Michelin Guide is considered the foremost authority on restaurant quality. It uses a very simple rating system of one, two or three stars — respectively meaning “not bad,” “not too appallingly vile” and “not a whole lot worse than getting tased in the crotch.”
Actually, one star is already a sign of true excellence, because most restaurants have none. Two is fantastic and three is a rare honor, indicating that every single aspect of the dining experience has attained the highest conceivable quality. And that every single item on the check has attained the highest conceivable price.
Due to this last factor, my own dining experiences in these places are few and far between. For me the key ingredient in any Michelin-star recipe is a close friend from out of town with a good job and an expense account.
But it does happen, and I have had the pleasure of integrating into my body mass a boulanger’s dozen or so of one- and two-star meals, as well as one three-star dinner, which was, like the frozen burger but in its own way, also a memorable event. However, what I remember most clearly is not the food.
It took place at Lucas Carton and, in keeping with the above-mentioned principles, was paid for by a (friend of a) very close friend with a great job and a virtually bottomless expense account. To be precise, an ex of mine from New York was in Paris with her new boyfriend, who was a top-level money manager. At the time, he was managing top-level money for a preposterously wealthy person whom you have heard of, and was in town to talk with representatives of a global financial institution whose name rhymes with “The World Bank.”
This was a guy who didn’t even start thinking about money until there were at least five zeros left of the decimal point. He and my ex were staying at the Ritz and getting around town by chauffeured BMW. I went to a couple of bars and cafés with them, and Midas (not his real name) would always pay with a high-denomination bill and refuse the change. In other words, he was leaving tips all over town that often exceeded 100 percent of the check.
He didn’t do this at Lucas Carton. After all, there were nine of us around the table — this was before the euro, and there was no such thing as a 100 wazillion-franc bill.
So, after a multi-course meal with a white-truffle theme and sublime wine pairings (I do remember that much about what I stuffed in my tartehole that night), our host paid the check with a rhodium-plated credit card and then left, in this order: a little stack of cash for the waiter, another one for the wine steward, and quickly through the front door.
This created a situation. It wasn’t Midas’s fault: he ducked out fast to flag down his chauffeur so the car would be there by the time the rest of us got outside, which was very considerate, and he didn’t realize that there were other people to tip.
This was a three-star, which meant that in addition to waiters and a grape squeezin’s captain, it also had a doorman, a maître d’hôtel, a cloakroom attendant and a small regiment of sub and cub waiters who stood around on high alert, ready to fill glasses, retrieve dropped napkins, straighten tiaras, etc. — all of whom live for, and possibly on, tips.
One of the World Bankers and I were the last to leave, by which time the entire staff, plus I think a couple of busboys from the café next door, had lined up at the exit, forming two rows of the highest conceivable quality.
We saw what was happening and conducted a quick liquidity assessment. I checked my wallet and noted, not without a twinge of embarrassment, that I only had 50 francs on me. That was just enough for the cloakroom attendant, so I ingratiated myself with her while my tablemate subdivided whatever he had and sprinkled it around like truffle shavings on a slab of foie gras.
Thus, by the end of the evening I had both stuffed and saved face. And went to bed savoring the satisfaction of having ingested an extraordinary meal, rubbed épaules with the elite and, in the process, established the high point on my gastronomy scale.
Then, in the middle of the night, I jolted awake, gripped by a sudden panicky realization: I never tipped the gas station attendant!
I still have nightmares about that iceburger.
Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is now available on Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.
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