I remember the day so vividly: Waking up to the golden statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking my window – she stood proud, unadulterated, and poised at the top of a palace the pope once called home. Watching me. As though she knew already what the day had I had in store.
The morning (in the restaurant)
It was my second-to-last day working at Michelin-starred restaurant Christian Etienne. It was my job to set up the boucher (meat) station each morning upon arrival – while sipping an espresso the sous, Fabien, had made for me earlier.
On this day, however, though I arrived early, I did not have the luxury of espresso: I was surprised to find both Masterchef Etienne and Pastry Chef Alain walking through the kitchen gathering ingredients. This was not their daily routine; most days they would arrive within an hour of one another (never at the same time) and go straight to their upstairs office.
Feeling the pressure of the chefs’ presence, I went immediately to my own workstation to look through my prep list and organize for the day.
Within moments I was approached by Chef Etienne. He was a jolly, Provençal French chef who often trailed in laughter while he spoke, and always had the most intoxicating aura of black truffle essence about him. He asked me a question in French, and, though I was fairly proficient in the language, I didn’t understand him. Embarrassed, I didn’t ask him to repeat it. I simply said yes, “Oui,” as you do when the Master asks you something.
And never would I say not to chef. He was, and still is, a culinary genius – I knew I could trust whatever he had in store for me.
I changed out of my whites and into my jeans; into casual street clothes not allowed in the kitchen, and discovered Chef was to take me for a ride on his motorcycle. A ride somewhere. Unknown. A ride through the countryside…
The afternoon (through the country)
We drove north through valleys and rolling hills. It was the first warm, sunny day in months and the Mistral was quiet. The helmets allowed for conversation, and chef spoke of the beautiful landscape, including the gorge where all the locals brought their companions for romantic picnic luncheons and river-walk strolls.
After an hour of breathtaking views, we came upon an old castle. He turned off the engine and told me we had arrived.
There were so many questions running through my head. Where were we? What is this place? What are we doing here? I was still in awe of the beauty we had experienced already.
Here I was: standing at an entrance to a castle with chef. Suddenly, hordes of Masterchefs, camera crews, journalists, sommeliers started appearing as if from thin air – was this castle fantasy? – including Pastry Chef Alain, whom I knew well from the restaurant (unbeknownst to me, he had been following behind).
I heard my name, “Ranelle.”
I was in such a state of wonder.
Chef Alain called again. “Ranelle!” He needed help unloading the van.
The van. Our van from the restaurant. Full of…
Caught in a wave, a bustle of passing faces, I made my way to Chef Alain and helped unload boxes, bags, crates… It was at this point when Chef Alain smiled widely and asked if I knew where I was, or what I was doing at this mysterious castle. I don’t remember what I said, but he sensed my curiosity and explained: We were at a Michelin 2-star restaurant within a castle, hosting some of the most influential French Masterchefs and culinary experts from around globe. Each Chef was to present and prepare their signature dish live on French television while sommeliers educated about grape varietals from the regions.
My eyes, I imagine, were the size of plums. My smile so wide it hurt my cheeks. I could not believe what I was hearing – especially as I learned I was to co-present a truffled asparage and aubergine hors d’oeuvre with Chef Etienne on television.
It was all a blur; I vaguely remember explaining to a live audience, in my best French, how to prepare these bite-sized morsels of truffle delight.
It went: cheese crisp – truffle slice – asperge mousse – cheese crisp – truffle slice – aubergine – truffle slice…
Everyone had a good laugh as I struggled through each word – my French still that of a comparative beginner – but I tried my best to win them over with charm and the smile still (uncontrollably) crossing my face.
After, when the mood had settled, and the adrenaline had finally begun to calm as well, I strolled the grounds. Here I discovered endless tables covered in signature dishes from the present chefs: pastries, breads, charcuterie, fermentations of local produce, wine, and cheese. Nothing in short supply. Food/drink flowed throughout the afternoon.
Some of the most memorable signature foods:
-spicy, marinated shrimp skewers with melon ball
-cured leg of lamb (the chef walked around and thinly sliced meat with his knife)
-sea urchin foam with chili and coffee
-truffle delights, mentioned above, obviously
-lamb sliders with olive and rosemary
And the wine! The ratio of wine to people was, humorously, 7:1 (and was likely even more). I have never seen so many open bottles (and only bottles of vintages I could never afford on my own). I found fascinating the many varietals sampled from different months within the same vintage; it was absolutely fascinating to taste and pinpoint the flavor changes from grapes harvested at different times.
Sommeliers chimed in to explain each grape, and together we sipped fresh, zingy Sauvignon Blancs, well-cured leather Malbecs, gamey, vegetal, seductive Pinot Noirs, chocolate-fig Merlots…
We spoke of our passions, and, mostly food-related, experiences. Our lives and loves. We laughed at funny stories while enjoying fare and drink and commented on the specialties of chefs who had dedicated their lives to the pursuit of food perfection.
As the afternoon wore on, slowly turning to dusk, it became clear that the day would soon be over. As the saying goes, all good things (must) come to an end.
And so it did.
While all good things end, however, their impact does not. The day lives on. I was left with warm feeling of bliss and sunshine, tastes of the land and its bounty still lingering at the back of my tongue, the memories still present at the front of my mind.
I still close my eyes to reflect, to remember, recall. The sights and smells. The sounds of wine hitting crystal glasses. The passion of a land so deep it could reach the center of the earth. And who knows what they would have to eat there. I close my eyes. All of the things I see, taste, touch behind my eyelids. When I open them again, these memories turn to stars.