A lot of foreign people say, when asking about eating habits, ‘What is your guilty pleasure?’ I have no guilt. Whatever I do, I enjoy and it’s the point. I think if you start to feel guilty about it, that’s a problem. So, no guilty pleasures. I have pleasure and no guilt at all.
In the cinematic genre known as the “Buddy Pic”, custom and tradition demand that the two protagonists adhere to classic roles—as codified by Felix Unger and Oscar Madison in “The Odd Couple” and persisting through such bro-tastic tag teams as Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover and Mel Gibson, Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin, and beyond. One character must be the “straight man”, the reasonable person, exasperated, perhaps, but relatable—and the other, the “zany” one: obsessive/compulsive (Unger), unpredictable (Murphy), neurotic (Grodin), manic depressive and suicidal (Gibson). The two unlikely heroes, thrown together by fate, must overcome their enormous differences so that they can, by working together, triumph over evil and by movie’s end, have a learning and growing moment.
I don’t know if I learned anything while running around Marseille with my good friend Eric Ripert. I knew already that I liked cheese. As it was the South of France we were shooting in, I had reasonable expectations that things would not suck.
Eric, though, definitely learned something. He learned that Marseille, France’s second largest city, is awesome. He didn’t know this because he had never been there before—which is kind of incredible—given that he grew up only a HUNDRED MILES AWAY in Antibes. It’s like someone who grew up in San Diego never having been to Los Angeles.
Why would that be?
How could that be?
Well, maybe it’s because the French don’t seem to want you to go to Marseille. When I told a French government official I met at a party that I was planning a trip to France for the show, his face lit up with interest, “Oh, fantastic! Where will you visit?” When I answered, “Marseille,” his expression sagged with disappointment. This reaction repeated itself a number of times as one Frenchman after another took an immediate attitude of befuddlement—even pique—when informed of my plans. Perhaps they assumed I would be focusing my attention on Marseille’s rich and lurid history of organized crime activity—as seen in such films as “The French Connection” and its sequel. Those days are largely past and that was not what I was interested in. A fair number of French will tell you in unguarded moments, that “Marseille is not France”, and what they mean by that is that it’s too Arab, too Italian, too Corsican—too mixed up with foreignness to be truly and adequately French. But anybody who knows me knows that’s exactly the kind of mixed up gene pool I like to swim in and eat in. It is a glorious stew of a city, smelling of Middle Eastern spices and garlic and saffron, and the sea.
So in this episode, I got to introduce Eric to part of his own damn country—his own neighborhood—for the first time. So which one of us is the crazy one? Me? Or the man who in all his life never visited his nation’s second largest metropolis—even though it was just down the road?
While we agree on the important things: food for one, we are very different people. Eric is a Buddhist. As long as I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him wish ill on anybody, whereas I regularly fantasize about planting my enemies in shallow graves. As the chef and an owner of three Michelin star Le Bernardin, he has a reputation to protect. I do not. As many of the world’s wealthiest, most powerful and influential people are regular customers of his, Eric must be constrained at all times in his opinions. He’s a diplomat. I, on the other hand, have pretty much made a living of insulting people. Eric speaks English, French and Italian fluently and has never cooked anywhere but the best kitchens in the world. I speak English, kind of. Though both parents were fluent my French is pretty awful—though it improves when I’m drunk—and my Spanish is suitable only for insulting people. I spent much of my career cooking brunch.
It can be a difficult thing to be my friend given some of my previous behaviors, my free and perhaps too-frank giving of opinions. I’m sure it’s caused Eric awkwardness at times. Which is why it’s so much fun to torture the guy. Ask him what he thinks of some horrible despot who dines regularly at Le Bernardin and watch him squirm. “He has very good taste in wine”, would probably be his answer. So, I enjoy my tiny victories: Forcing him to make pizza in the back of a food truck would be one of them. (Pizza is very big in Marseille).
Maybe there was some “learning” at the end of this particularly buddy pic after all. We both learned that Marseille is a great under-appreciated travel destination, a hidden gem that isn’t hidden at all. It’s right there in plain sight. A great city with great food, great views, sitting right on the edge of the blue Mediterranean, surrounded by freakin’ PROVENCE. It’s got it all.
And we learned that Eric’s pizza making skills are for shit.
I'm not on Twitter, but I must admit I've recently become addicted to "following" people, and even more recently, to whom those people follow. Obviously, I love following Rupert and to see who he follows. Eric Ripert, Ricky Gervais, John Cleese, etc. My ask: if Quinn was on Twitter, who do you think he'd be following? (Q3.0, that is; RF said once that Q1.0 isn't on social media, and Max said Q2.0 doesn't even email.)
This Sunday, we take a trip back to childhood with one of America’s greatest chefs, Daniel Boulud, to look at one of the most important figures in his life and career, Paul Bocuse—and at the system, the place and the culture of food that raised both of them.
Where do great chefs come from? They do not emerge, fully formed, in crisp Egyptian cotton whites, towering toques, an imperious attitude, into their dining rooms. In France, in and around Lyon, where this episode of PARTS UNKNOWN takes place, a region famous for its food, chances are they were farm boys, the children of fathers already in the industry, the working poor. They were survivors of “the System”, products of a very old, entrenched military style hierarchy which relied on methods which we would now, rightly call abuse.
Back in the day—the years that my guide, the great chef Daniel Boulud peeled his first carrot—you started early. Daniel’s childhood was dedicated to work on the family farm: milking cows, working the fields. Childhood ended for him, as it did for many chefs of that generation, at age 14, when he went to work in professional kitchens.
Things were harder then. Demanding a 12-16 hour work day of cooks was common practice. As was manhandling them. Slapping—even beating a cook was not unheard of, nor necessarily frowned upon. And if you worked with the best—as Daniel did, as a young Paul Bocuse did, as they ALL did, who rose through the French system to become what for a lack of a better word, we have come to call “Celebrity chefs”, the pressure—night after night, day after day, year after year, was enormous.
Every chef I’ve ever spoken to has one mentor who inhabits their dreams, who remains, years later, their personal nightmare. There is always someone whose disappointed or angry face, appearing in a dream, causes successful, world famous chefs to, decades later, sit bolt upright in bed from a dead sleep, mouth open in mute terror, certain they’ve left something in the oven, messed up a sauce, forgotten an instruction—somehow drawn the wrath of “Chef”.
For Eric Ripert, I suspect, it’s Joel Robuchon who still visits him at night. For Gordon Ramsay? Marco Pierre White, looming over him again and again, crawling inside his head, driving him to tears. I asked the “Lion of Lyon”, Paul Bocuse, perhaps the most famous and respected chef of the last 100 years, a man now in his 80’s, if there was someone in his past, some mentor of long ago, who still disturbed his dreams.
“La Mere Brazier,” he responded without having to reflect for a second.
When tracking it all back—the recipes, the traditions, the structure, behaviors, the genealogy of haute cuisine…when we look at the sleek fine dining rooms of the 1%ers we love to loathe, and we look back at where those techniques, those presentations, the combinations of ingredients came from—we find, largely, a group of women in Lyon between the wars, called “Les Meres”. Most famously, the fearsome Mere Brazier. These were women cooks who moved out of the houses of the rich to fill the vacuum left by males departing for the war. They opened restaurants, bouchons and bistros across Lyon, adapted dishes created for their previous clients—along with the best of what they’d grown up with—refined them to satisfy the demands of a very discerning public. Searching the mostly male kitchens of modern Lyon for where it all came from, the roots of what became, in the 60’s and 70’s, “la Nouvelle Cuisine”, —we found again and again that all roads seemed to lead back to them. La Mere Brazier, was, by the way, not just the first woman to be awarded 3 Michelin Stars—but the first CHEF—period—to hold SIX (between two restaurants).
Times were often very tough in France. Many of the principles of the grand kitchens came directly from the imperatives of survival on the farm: “Use Everything.”. “Waste Nothing”. These are dictums familiar to any culinary student today. So, what we’re talking about, when we look back for the source of all this “frippery” and “frou-frou”, the luxuries and excesses of fine dining, we find, much of the time, dishes whose inspiration began with a broke-ass farmer trying to figure out how to feed his family from a single bony rooster, and generations of abused, overworked, underpaid children—none of whom were allowed, much less able to afford to eat—ever—in their own dining rooms.
So, if you look at Daniel Boulud, who now runs some of the greatest restaurants in the country (and beyond), and you think you see a guy who lives in some aspirational fantasyland—keep in mind, he had his teeth kicked in every day for three decades or so before getting here. When you see the simple looking preparation of Salmon in Sorrel sauce in the kitchen of les frères Troisgros, try and understand that what you are seeing changed the way ALL of us now order and eat our fish today, that it marked a tectonic shift as important to the craft of cooking as the invention of the electric guitar to music.
Lastly, when looking at where it all comes from, know that it comes from a culture where food is, simply put, important. Because it IS important In the episode, we go back to Daniel’s primary school, where, for a fraction of what we spend in this country to feed our kids horrifying, processed slop, kids get to eat a healthy, delicious and relatively adventurous meal. Eating well, in France, as in Italy, Spain, most of Asia, much of Latin America, is a point of pride—an expression of identity—a birthright. Whether it’s simply a bowl of beans or a bony fish grilled over wood, its preparation is worth talking about, it’s worth arguing about passionately.
Our newfound American obsession with all things food and chefs may veer frequently into the silly zone—but we are, in our own awkward way, lurching towards what others have had for centuries: a basic understanding that food—GOOD food—is a fundamental, hugely important part of life well lived, at whatever income bracket.
When I was a young cook, getting MY ass kicked on a regular basis, or bouncing from one never-gonna-happen kitchen to another, I owned a treasured copy of Paul Bocuse’s “La Cuisine de Marche”. I’d stare for hours at a time at the photos of dishes like Truffle Soup Elysee en croute, Lievre a la Royale, his incredible whole fish in pastry, trying to figure out how, how anyone could make such beautiful things. Struggling through the recipes with my rudimentary French skills didn’t help much in solving the mystery or lessening the wonder. The dishes remained, for all my life, unapproachable—a lost ideal, legendary creations of another time that I. sadly, would never see.
On this episode, I finally got to see them. Better yet, to eat all of them, the Greatest Hits of the Glorious career of Paul Bocuse—while he sat next to me. It was an amazing, unexpected, never-dreamed of, late in life windfall. Like a lifelong Yankee fan, somehow finding himself throwing the ball around the backyard with Joe DiMaggio.
Introducing Food & Wine Chefs-in-Residence. In honor of our 2014 redesign, we enlisted star chefs Grant Achatz (above), Mario Batali, Eric Ripert, David Chang, Andrew Zimmern and Hugh Acheson to consult on monthly features, recipes and travel tips. They have brilliant ideas, but don’t always make great office mates. For full videos visit Youtube.com/foodandwine.