It all began with a conversation in an espresso house in New Orleans with my two great friends Charlie Trotter and Emeril Lagasse. They said, “You must go see “The Pope” with us”. I knew they didn’t mean the Holy Pontiff in Rome .. they meant Chef Frédy Girardet in Switzerland. This was back in 1993 and Chef Girardet was regarded as the finest practicing chef in the world by nearly all of the world’s gastronomes. Some thought Chef Paul Bocuse was the reigning high priest, but others pointed out Chef Bocuse as too commercially successful to have such a deified term. Charlie and Emeril had been there a few months preceding this espresso-fueled discussion and to them it was so. They had glory shining in their eyes as they attempted to convey to me how transformational of an experience it would be to dine at this culinary master’s restaurant in the little town of Crissier in Switzerland. If these two could be so awed I didn’t anything more to convince me to go, nothing, that is, more than time and money. As it would happen six more years would pass before the stars came together in the proper alignment before I would be able to go on a tour of Europe’s finest restaurants. But by that time Frédy Girardet retired thus forever ending my opportunity to dine with him. Or so it would seem.
Just a little over two years ago Charlie called me and said, “We’re going to France, Brother.” It was not a question. It was not an invitation. It was an announcement, a declaration. “We have the tour to end all tours lining up around Labor Day.”
So, what began in New Orleans eight years earlier was now coming to fruition in the form of airplane tickets, hotel confirmations, car rentals and reservations in a number of the world’s most glorified restaurants. I wrote down the names of these places in my yearly calendar. Yet still it seemed like a dream.
The nucleus of the trip was created when the prestigious Champagne house of Veuve Clicquot invited us to what they were having as their “Millennium Gala”. On September 9th, 1999, (9.9.99) we along with 599 other happy celebrants were asked to join them at The Palace at Versailles!
Our itinerary was a work of love guided by Charlie and our mutual friend, wine connoisseur, Mr. Steve Greystone of Boston. Working from their personal memories, Guide Michelin and a Relais et Chateaux book they refined the trip like one might refine the plans for a championship golf course if one’s name were Jack Nicklaus.
Ultimately when the trip was over, and we returned to our homes we concluded that there were many amazing dishes, people, sights and times. There were two restaurants that would be the most memorable of this “tour”. They stand out because they so perfectly personify not only their creators but also the ideals of creativity themselves.
I have never traveled further nor on a road more tortuous than the road we traveled on to get to “El Bulli”. Yet the physical road was only the beginning of this experience. Chef Ferran Adrià, (artist, genius, scientist, madman, saint, poet and/or charlatan), take your pick; mine is in here but I’m not saying which just yet, snake charms us up and down this rocky route to his restaurant and then proceeds to rewire our neural circuitry with food combinations and techniques that deconstruct our precepts on nothing less than, “What is dining?”
Chef Adrià could scare you. That’s how good he is. From the first courses I felt like I was in a dream watching Minnesota Fats constantly run the table. Then “The Fat Man” did a David Copperfield and made the pool table disappear! The overall reaction to his food is, “How in the did he do that?” To describe it with words is difficult. When you look at one of Picasso’s images of a woman you can make out that there is a face with eyes, lips and a nose, but the pattern is so “de” and “re” constructed that it forces you to rethink the order of things. This is what “El Bulli” is all about. To paraphrase another genius, “Six turns out to be Nine”.
What about a few of these dishes? A pea soup is served in a small glass. The waiter asks you to drink it all in one smooth motion. Not fast. Not slow. As you do you note that the warm pea soup is tasty. Then about midway through the glass the liquid turns suddenly cool and finally nearly frozen. Gulp!
In another; a bowl of “Tagliatelle Noodles” are presented “Carbonara” styled. The “noodles” are warm, but they are not made from pasta but a savory jelly. (Hot jelly that didn’t melt!). There were bits of ham, some Parmesan and a cooked egg. It tasted of Italy, but there is a zip code in Ferran’s brain that this “Carbonara” actually hails from.
Some of the dishes ring out with Spain’s most famous iconic flavors. We had a mussel dish where the mussels were wrapped in a translucent faux ravioli shaped pasta, (more jelly actually) but sauced with a mixture that, if you closed your eyes) tasted like a great traditional gazpacho.
Several members did close their eyes and refused to finish a seaweed sorbet that accompanied a plate that also held red clams and raspberries.
Another sleight of hand caused several people having the menu to believe that desserts were underway. A slab of roasted pineapple was set down in a bowl and topped with a coconut sorbet. A dark rich looking sauce, (chocolate?) was drizzled around the edges of the fruit. Then you taste it and the flavors are all savory, not sweet at all. The dark sauce turns out to be a reduced poultry jus. The coconut sorbet has no sugar. The pineapple still holds its fruit flavors but more as a chutney would. It’s as if the Chef were saying, “Psyche!”
What many guests won’t be able to enjoy that made “El Bulli” so extraordinary for us were his, his brother Alberto’s and their partner, Juli Soler visit to our table. When we had finished the final courses, they came out to a standing ovation. The next hour was more reminiscent of a press conference with our group asking questions of this tour-de-force with Ferran, responding through an interpreter (José Andres!) like a very happy and gifted child. I thought of Tim Hulce’s performance as Mozart as I watched him speak. He certainly presents the most relentlessly artistically fearless restaurant I’ve ever been to. With a vision this commanding you might think he would be conceited and spoiled but he was like the Mozart of the film because his genius was wrapped in cloth we all wear. And it seems he steps into that cloth like we do…one leg at a time. But seems is the operative world at “El Bulli”.
It was not originally on the itinerary at all, but as the months drew closer to our going Charlie came to one of his famously resolute decisions and told Steve Greystone, “We’re going to add in Michel Bras. Norman can’t go to France without dining there!” With that he pulled out his map of France and like Rommel plotting his campaign of North Africa Charlie drew his heavy, dark marking pen along the routes to lead us to Laguiole and to the culinary home of the Michelin Guide three-star chef’s restaurant.
Somewhere in the middle of our long drive I realized that we were not going to a hotel to change clothes, so I was forced to do a quick change in the driveway. Luckily the restaurant is perched high on a hill and the driveway was below the sight lines of the guests as I jumped into appropriate clothing. As we approached the building the other members of our party signaled for me to hurry up in that we were being invited to say hello to Chef Bras in the kitchen.
The restaurant is designed in neat, precise lines of stone and glass cut into the hills. It is an architectural anomaly with the rough-cut surrounding environment, but it works in a way that is nearly miraculous. I hurriedly joined the other guests as we were escorted into the kitchen through electric sliding glass doors. The kitchen was basically divided into a hot and cold side. Everything was sleek, modern and obviously cleaned and organized without pity. On the cold side prep a group of chefs worked in various modes of preparing desserts. Windows bathed them in natural light from behind. We could see a tub of large peaches being laboriously basted in their own poaching juices, slowly and lovingly. Our appetites began to rumble.
We directed our eyes to our left. A dozen chefs scurried furiously around the delicate, lithe; trim form of Chef Michel Bras. He appeared to be in his mid 50’s but works amidst his chefs with the vigor and intention of a 30-year-old. He was kind enough to come out and quickly greet us. Then we were escorted to our table of six overlooking the grassy, stony cliffs of the lands around us. Winds seemed to be a constant here in the area around Laguiole. On this sunny day in early September they provided a soft visual tease to the long grass that lay beyond our window and the unobscured land and skyscape around us.
The oblong table shape allowed for all of us to easily see each other when we spoke. It was adorned with a row of small squashes collected from a nearby garden. Somewhat large dark gray rocks were set at each place. The rocks had an even slit carved into them and flatbreads of various flavors were inset within them. Beautiful, unique cutlery made by the world famous Laguiole knife factory, whose Phillipe Starcke designed building we passed just miles before arriving here at Michel Bras lay to the right in the “nine o’clock” position of each of our place settings.
We had the Chef’s tasting menu of course. No written menus were offered so all of the courses arrived without our knowledge of what they would be. They simply asked if anyone had any allergies etc. before Chef Bras determined our progression. All of the courses were announced in French. Since none of us were fluent in French it added to the mystery of the meal. We were in a sense forced to form our own conclusions as to what some things were with only our eyes and palates as guides.
The first little taste was a simple presentation of peeled, tiny, perfect heirloom tomatoes that you were told to first dip into a tiny bowl of mayonnaise and then some salt. Next came a savory tart made with local wild mushrooms. With these two dishes you begin to sense the difference between chefs like Ferran Adrià and Michel Bras. Michel’s food comes straight at you out of the countryside. It is hard to see where Michel’s hands connect with Nature’s. Such is the seamlessness of his vision. He is not going to play the illusionist. He shows his genius with a masterfully light touch. He has a surgical skill with seasoning and proper cooking times. The food is in perfect accord with the place that he calls home.
A deeply scooped out Bernardaud bowl arrived. On the left rim lay a large finger shaped portion of perfectly cooked mackerel. A ridge of celery root purée was in the bowl. The lower right hand rim of the plate was dusted with a clean tasting citrus zest powder.
The “Ultimate Chef’s Salad” is how we collectively described the next dish. It was one of the most harmonious assemblages of vegetables, legumes, herbs and shoots. It was served tepid with a delicate vinaigrette. It is known there, (and now the world over) by the name, “gargouillou”.
A decoratively colored glazed tile was presented. On the left was a four-inch long Breton lobster that was presented in its shell. To its right was a homemade cracker rectangle topped with an intense confit of sun-dried tomatoes. An aromatic molasses reduction glazed the crustacean.
The foie gras course was next. It was served hot with a puree of pumpkin, apple batons and cabbage strands. There was a jus that I detected some Spanish sherry wine vinegar in.
The next course was a mystery to us until the sommelier that had been helping us throughout the meal came back over. It looked a bit like a pale zucchini cylinder in the middle of the plate. Its flavor was somewhat like zucchini meets romaine. As it turns out it was celtus, which is also known as ‘stem lettuce’. The celtus was served with a very pale emulsion made with corn as well as a heady black truffle essence.
The meat entrée was a 2-bone rack of lamb with a stew of bulgur wheat. The presentation was very simple. With every main entrée course it seems the Chef has the service staff bring a dish native to the Auvergne region called aligote. Aligot is a humble peasant styled dish native to the region made from a cooked mixture of cantal cheese, potatoes and garlic. The waiter comes over with a large bowl of the steaming mixture. They deftly worked two spoons in elliptical motions and magically maneuvered the long, gooey ribbons into a neat mass on each plate. The rusticity of this dish indicated the chef’s self-assuredness in that it had no frills and no apologies for its simplicity.
I cannot overly emphasize how beautiful and delicate each plate was in the savory dishes. This line held through in faultless exactitude with the desserts! This is what you can expect in a true “three star”. There are no gaps anywhere. It is an Olympian performance in a gustatory gymnastic “all around” competition. Bras and his team never let up.
Cheeses local to the region were enjoyed with more wine.
Some of the dessert dishes included; A pumpkin liquid-center chocolate cake, which had an extraction of coffee on the plate; a “Guggenheim” shaped spiral with a mocha-caramel served with a sherry glass of coffee mixed with a prune eau-de-vie; and a “Popsicle” like concoction presented with three little pots of various sauces to dip them in.
After the meal the Chef greeted us again. He came to our table dressed in running clothes. He was shy and self-deprecating in a way. He thanked us for coming and then he was gone. As the sun began to fade Sergio guided us back into the kitchen. We slowly wandered around the quiet, clean and now empty place. It was a beautiful kitchen, but it is the people who make this restaurant so perfect. People guided by the gentle genius of Laguiole.
A few days later, (and on our last day that Charlie would be within that he had to return to Chicago), the phone rang by my pillow at 6:30 AM. It was Steve Greystone.
He whispered low but firmly, “Get dressed for church.”
I had been in bed less than three hours.
“It’s a Wednesday,” I reasoned.
He countered, “It’s Charlie’s 40th, as you know, and I’ve got a little surprise. You need to be downstairs in one hour”.
He then he added, “Oh, bring your passport…. just in case.”
We had driven many hours the night before to the tiny town of Veyrier-du-Lac the location of the three starred, Auberge de L’Eridan on the beautiful Lake Annecy.
We’d arrived at the culinary home of the 3 Star restaurant/inn of Chef Marc Veyrat. As planned many months earlier it would be here that we toasted Charlie with plenty of wines from his birth year, 1959.
But now a van was waiting for us in the driveway. Steve was positively beaming with pleasure as he hustled his brother Gene, fellow wine collector, Dr. Lee Smith, Chef Todd English, Charlie and me into the vehicle.
We pulled out of Annecy on one of the most beautiful mornings imaginable. The sun shone on the lake and the hills around us seemed bathed in celestial light. We passed out of France into Switzerland. The border police even smiled benignly as we were flagged on. The suspense was killing all of us but Steve. Where was he taking us? What could he be plotting? There were no restaurants around here that we’d heard ever of. Was this going to be a winery tour? Out here?? It wasn’t making sense.
About an hour into our trip Steve took a phone call on his cell phone. Moments later Steve instructed our driver to “follow the guy in that motorcycle”. He led us up some winding residential streets eventually leading us to a stop at a home with an electrical gate. The motorcyclist got off his bike and pushed some buttons and the gate opened for us. A nicely dressed lady and her dog came out followed by a trim gentleman with white hair. He looked familiar. NO WAY! Could it be possible?! Our minds reeled. Steve turned around to us and flashed a smile and said, “Hey now! Chef Frédy Girardet is cooking lunch for us here in his HOME!”
And so it was. There on a crystalline day in the hills and vineyards overlooking Lake Geneva the man himself turned on his stoves and gave us the gifts he shared for many years to the world’s most privileged diners. Well, “most privileged” up until now. We had the “kitchen table” of all time. If this story had a soundtrack, you’d hear angels hitting the high notes about now.
I can barely describe the anticipation. Many years ago I had the honor of being invited to Tennessee Williams’ home for a party in Key West. It was like that. You keep saying things to yourself under your breath like, “I am in Chef Frédy Girardet’s driveway”. “I am in Chef Frédy Girardet’s kitchen.” “Chef Frédy Girardet is offering me a glass of Champagne from his own HAND!” My god when we first pulled up the dog rushed up to meet us in the driveway and we all shot each other a look of jubilation knowing it was Chef Girardet’s DOG!
We started with Champagne outside. It was his privately labeled Frédy Girardet Brut Blanc de Blanc. But of course.
His backyard abuts a steep hill. Switzerland lay all around us. After an appropriate period of relaxing and chatting out on his patio we were led inside.
Their home is exquisitely decorated. They have original paintings and sculptures of modern artists throughout. There was a strikingly bold painting by Calder in his kitchen. The kitchen was spotless and modern but still quite warm and intimate.
As it turned out the gentleman leading us on the motorcycle was Chef’s Maître d’ at Restaurant Girardet for many years His name is Jean-Louis Fouqueteau.
It was he that Steven Greystone had co-conspired with to make this surprise meal happen. Because Steven had spent so many times “at table” in Crissier they granted this fairly extraordinary request. Jean-Louis asked us to make ourselves comfortable and be seated for the lunch. We sat at a table, which was set with a small bouquet of just cut flowers. I sat between Chef Girardet’s mother and Charlie. Charlie sat next to Madame Girardet…and so on.
It was humbling to see him and know that he had spent almost 40 years as a working, cooking Chef. When I think that many of our current generation may not even know his name nor understand that, in a business not exactly known for accord, there was a near unanimity in agreeing that for a peak of nearly ten years he was deemed “the best”. (And he wasn’t French!) He did it through sheer hard work and what must be a pitch perfect palate. He did it at a level and with a consistency that would inspire people the way other “iron men” like Cal Ripken Jr. might inspire a baseball fan and Michael Jordan a basketball fan. In contrast to the mentality of many who cook now and are aching to be the next “lagassetrotternobukellerboulud” in this time of microwave speed needy gratification, well…it took my breath away. It was as if I were in the presence of a “human cathedral” of complexity, mastery, grandeur, spirituality and time.
We learned later from Jean-Louis and in very hushed tones that the Chef had not yet entertained guests outside of the family in their home since selling the restaurant. (I learned some years later from my dear, brilliant friend Colman Andrews that he had been there before us. Colman is the pioneer of so much). We had heard through the grapevine that selling the restaurant had left the Chef in a state of near despair. Although we could not tell it overtly that late morning we learned that Mr. Girardet wasn’t completely comfortable at first in having these American chefs in the bosom of his home. He told Jean-Louis that he wasn’t sure if he would cook or let his chef do all of the cooking. We also learned that the wines we drank were not the ones he originally had planned on. But that all changed…
It became clearer with each minute to Jean-Louis that the Maestro was not going to give up either the control of the kitchen orthe wine cellar. With each course the chef’s supernatural love of cuisine and being the consummate host bloomed into full flower. We began with a course of fish from the lake we could see from his yard. He poached it and served it tiny mussels, a fricassee of vegetables and with the lightest buttery sauce imaginable. We had a composed main plate featuring veal; the sweetbreads, kidneys and shin. He prepared his infamous lemon tart that he made while we dined. He put together an amazing cheese tray with all of them local, which he described in loving detail. We drank ’89 Bonneau du Montray Corton Charlemagne, ’89 Sassicaia, ’61 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, ’45 Chateau Latour and a 1975 Domaine du Mont D’ Or Mavoisie.
Did he plan on pulling the ’61 and the ’45 from his cellar? Hell no. But his heart had gotten involved. And like a man or a woman in love he couldn’t help himself. His passion required it of him.
At the end of the meal we all returned to his patio table and drank espresso and talked about cuisine and careers. He is trim from years of biking the hills near his home. His hair is full and his gaze is steady. He laughs easily but there is a resolve in his blue eyes that may have warned us of what he then shared with us regarding his future. And what he wants is this…
He wants to come back! After the forty years of cooking the Chef still wants more of it. And the real kicker? He is considering an American location, possibly New York or even Las Vegas! We couldn’t believe our ears. We were surrounded by the beauty, peace and comfort of this home in the Swiss hills, but he was not yet content to be out of the game.
We knew we had to get going. With no traffic we’d be lucky to get back to Annecy and a quick change of clothes before dinner! Yes. We ate all this and drank all this knowing full well that we were still going to dine at the three-starred Marc Veyrat’s restaurant that night in celebration of Charlie’s 40th birthday. But what could we do? Greatness in our chosen profession had granted us the invite us to his home to dine. We dined and went to Heaven…courtesy of The Pope.
Norman Van Aken ©, Copyright 2001
(Originally published in Food Arts magazine)