Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Odyssey

My friend Tom and I flew back to Ithaca last weekend for a surprise reunion of all the alumni of L'Auberge du Cochon Rouge, aka The Piglets. The chef, Etienne Merle, mentored a slew of restaurant folk who have scattered around the globe, and we returned my case.....31 years to pay homage to his leadership, his genius.... and his probably misplaced faith in us.

L'Auberge du Cochon Rouge opened in 1971 in the farmhouse I used to live in, and ran successfully until the late 1990's....a remarkable run for any restaurant. I worked from the opening moment and then on for a year or so, and returned for stays from time to time. Jane and I were married under a tree in front of the place in 1976.....the last time I saw Auberge or Ithaca.

Tom and I barely made it in to town from Philly and San Fran: ground fog at midnight on Thursday night kept us circling above in the moonlight for an hour. We finally landed and discovered.....there are different kinds of fog.

In Homer....the guy, not the town in Upstate...... in the Odyssey, when Odysseus finally returns to his home in Ithaca he doesn't recognize it.....because his patroness Athena has shrouded the place in fog to protect him from his enemies. When he wakes up on the beach, he at first thinks he is on some strange island.

No shit, Odysseus. I spent six years living in Ithaca......but this was forty years ago. For me this homecoming involved serious fog, and I only wish Athena had my back. Each step I took throughout the weekend, each glimpse I had of .....the lush woods, the funky old farmhouses and townie Victorians, the Lake....not to mention the fucking campus.....spooked me.

I felt like I was shedding some skin and stepping back into the persona of that kid that I was when I lived here. Odysseus came back for Penelope: I came back to pay homage to Etienne, but wound up re-introducing me to myself.

One of our regular, loyal patrons at L'Auberge back in the day was Carl Sagan, the.....scientist? (If you don't know who Carl Sagan is, I really can't help you....go back to MySpace and good luck to you and go fuck yourself while you are at it). Carl once told me that our human brain has easily enough storage capacity to remember every moment of our color, 3-D, with sound, smell, and tactile sensation all intact. Whether we store this stuff to begin with, and/or whether and/or how we access it is the real question.

In my case it took just a glimpse of the landscape....a house, a road....and it all came flooding back: the Armory where the soccer coach dragged me to register for the draft and get a haircut on my 18th birthday; the farmhouse I painted with spar varnish and lead paint....and where I first met Jane; the movie theatre where we had our first date, and the sorority where we hid in the basement from the cops after the ensuing high-speed motorcycle chase; the misty steps of Cascadilla Gorge near our downtown apartment....yes, I guess I really did ride my dirtbike up the steps to class every morning; the downtown building where we lived; the rooftop my Irish Setter used to escape with the Thanksgiving Turkey; the fire escape where Jane and I had a sabre fight drunk on tequila for the first time that ended in us crashing through someone else's window; the State Diner, where Jane worked graveyard for 25 cent tips and walked home in the snow at dawn; the ancient un-insulated farmhouse where nearly actually froze to death in the winter of '75.

Normal stuff.

And Merle..... and L'Auberge du Cochon Rouge. He finally closed the weekend we opened the Cachagua Store, which is why the legal name of The Store is The Red Pig Roadhouse.......Cachagua talk for "L'Auberge du Cochon Rouge".

Laurent and Kaethe Bessou sponsored the reunion for everyone. Laurent used to be my busboy....well, he was a three point waiter when I was a four. Kaethe's dad Wally was my landlord in the farmhouse, and the landlord of L'Auberge. The family built a resort and spa on the site of my old farm garden next to L'Auberge, and put all of us up for the weekend for the reunion. They also have a cabin next door where the next generation was actually generated..... and now lives. And.... by some strange coincidence.....the farmhouse that Mr. and Mrs. Etienne Merle now inhabit is right next door.

The fiction for the gathering that covered the surprise was the 30th anniversary of Laurent and Kaethe's wedding.....also at L'Auberge. They own Pearl Resorts in Tahiti, and the 30 is the Pearl it was perfect.

We did the anniversary on the Friday night. Etienne, food-oriented semi-prick that he is.....had planned a dinner for the next night for a select few. At first: six. When Tom showed up, he was reluctantly added. Then I showed up. Well, OK, after 31 can help out, and we have a '75 Yquem. Then our buddy Steve and his wife. Well, OK...but don't tell anyone.

On Saturday, we managed to coax Merle over to the Spa (where everyone had gathered) for a "cup of coffee" around noon. When he arrived, the ever-beautiful Leslie Dingle and I grabbed him by either side and walked him towards the garden.

Etienne had his menu for the dinner all worked out. As we walked he showed it to me, and gave me my marching orders: "You can handle the lamb course, right? Right? And the potatoes, you fucking Irishman......" He was in the middle of the party before it dawned on him that he WAS the party.

For all is my toast:

On October 1, 1971 I was an innocent, confused, lost EE student at Cornell….too dumb to realize that if you hated what you were studying you could change it. My friends and I were the tenants that got evicted from Wally’s farmhouse when Auberge was created. That afternoon I was quietly picking corn in my garden about where you all are sitting. Etienne had fired his entire kitchen staff on the morning of the opening. I had no restaurant experience to speak of……the two of us did 150 dinners that night, and I washed dishes until dawn. I had never seen anything like it: the intensity, the creativity, the skills, the insanity…..mostly the intensity. Well, the insanity, too......

My life changed the way Patty Hearst’s changed when she met the SLA. And for the same reasons......

Etienne is a charismatic leader and a great teacher. Lessons I learned from Merle run through my head every day….even 36 years later.

Things I learned from Merle:

4 yolks to a half pound of butter for hollandaise. Three eggs to a pint of cream for quiche. One egg to a half cup each of flour, water and milk for crepes.

There is a difference between “flambée” and “flambeaux”.

Five Dollar Tricks were actually worth the five dollars….even when the five dollars meant 2.75 hours worked. Wanna retrieve that sunken cork, do ya?

Pas de pitier pour le canard bouteux. No pity for limping ducks.

Incompetence must be punished. Instantly. Possibly with cold steel.

Beaujolais Villages goes well with truffle omelettes at dawn at the close of an18 hour shift.

After working a 23 hour shift in New York City, a really cool thing to do at 7am is to go over to the Precinct on 52nd Street and watch the hookers being released from jail. Remember to bring the Beaujolais. Prep starts in an hour.

Diving in your competition’s dumpster will tell you a whole lot more about the place than walking in the front door and eating off the menu.

When the chef says: “Put sherry in the consommé!” he does not mean the entire case.

Always tip everyone in sight.

Deguellasse is a term of endearment. Deguellasse means: “So disgusting it is as if it were dragged from the throat of an animal….probably a camel.” This was my nickname, bestowed upon me by Pierre Merle. I would rather this after my name than a degree from Cornell. Michael Jones, DG.

Veterinary laxatives are a more effective Mickey Finn than chloral hydrate. The client runs to the bathroom where you can jump him, rather than having him pass out right there in the dining room.

If romancing a daughter with the mother present, do not hit on the mother after the daughter has spurned your advances. This leads to the following: When serving broiled grapefruit with sherry….the grapefruit should be cut in half, not served whole.

If there are two of you…..doing all the courses and washing the dishes for 100 people in a tiny restaurant, and you accidentally cut The Chef while replacing his freshly washed knife in the knife rack……he will instinctively hurl a pot of boiling oil at your head. Nothing personal. You will probably duck in time.

If Etienne is driving to meet you at a bar or restaurant, and you are broke, order pastis. It is more difficult for passers-by to tell that you have ordered only one drink in the past five hours. Hope that the bartender is Etienne’s illegitimate step-cousin.

A two day wedding in the country for 40 to 50, featuring a multi-course sit-down meal on Saturday night with the restaurant closed, and featuring a case of Nuits St. Georges ’45, plus a Sunday Brunch with a couple of cases of Moncontour and a big croque-en-bouche…..should cost about $1700 total, payable in installments over years.

Do not attempt to make the caramel for a croque-en-bouche for a wedding in the country for 40-50 while bitterly hungover.

If you deduct the employee meal from the minimum wage BEFORE you calculate FICA, you can save about $19.31 over five years….if the minimum wage is $1.80 per hour.

If you are stealing the silver sugar bowls from Four Seasons after spending $1500 on lunch for two in 1972, make sure that the pockets of your blazer…..and the lining of the blazer….do not allow the sugar to pour a snail trail all the way to the maitre d’ station.

Naiveté must be punished…..punished gently, but punished nonetheless.

Every new employee is a potential partner and savior…..if he is not a miserable prick that will stab himself and sue you after stealing all the silver and cognac.

Be particular.

A choking customer can be saved by stabbing them in the voice box with a fork.....or is it a knife?

Even if you love and respect someone who calls you for a recipe for escargot butter at 2am….it must include a full tablespoon of every herb and spice you can think of…..including cardamom.

White pepper stops bleeding. Sort of.

The whole secret of fine dining is to make something using flour and water, and sell it.

Desserts should really cost about 13 cents!

If you pick up something that is very hot with a damp rag and are burning your hand….to stop the pain…… just squeeze harder.

Never do anything in the air: “Pick it up! No! Put it down. PICK IT UP! PUT IT DOWN!”

The word Femurs does not refer to the largest bone in the human body. "This dish needs a little femur before it goes out......"

The those extra desserts are always for The Gentleman Upstairs. And WE are The Gentleman Upstairs.....

In fifty years.....none of this will matter.

The Main Lessons:

I am really good at dealing with chaotic situations. Especially if I helped create the chaotic situations.

During Service you pour your whole heart, soul and body into the work. You do it right, and right now, whether the guests deserve it or not. Personal feelings don’t matter. Injuries don’t matter. You can sort it out later at Table 10….where all things are forgiven. Well, almost all things.

Friendships: those cured in the fire of Service, are for life. Thirty-six years are as ten minutes. This gathering is testament to that.

Possessions: the value of anything you own is only determined at the moment when you give it away, or share it with friends. What is the value of something you keep for yourself? Zero.

In any reunion like this, there is the inevitable comparing of who looks good, who is doing well, and maybe who is doing not so well. Clothes, shoes, surgeries, whatever. Luckily we are all driving rental cars….so that part of it is out.

A couple of people have said something along the lines of: “I wish Etienne had gotten more for all his hard work and talent.” Like, where is his Lexus?

I am stunned by this.

Etienne has Marcia. Etienne has Ithaca… Laurent pointed out……this particular beautiful corner of Ithaca. And, for what it is worth he has all of us….

Well, and more. There is another generation out there. Frank Larson’s son works for me….a great worker who came to me already Merle trained from UC Santa Cruz: stress, chaos, worries. Tom Emery’s daughter works for me…..she came to me Merle trained at age 15.

One of the greatest pleasures in my life has been working next to my son in the kitchen since he was three…..just as Etienne worked in Pierre’s kitchen since he was three…..standing on milk cartons to get to the sink...a tip from Pierre that I remembered. Brendan worked with Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin when he was eight, shucking oysters after Eric spotted him in the dining room. He works at Mugaritz in Spain and owns a bar in Prague and is one of the best young chefs in America. And every time I see him pick up a knife and lean over his cutting table, I see Merle’s legacy.

Far from feeling sad for Etienne…..I am jealous. We should all be so lucky.

A nos femmes, nos chevaux, et ce qui les monte!


Blogger IBG said...

A L'Auberge reunion? What the fuck? Ian

7:04 AM  

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