Post Provence—Part 2

Photo Credit: Gourmet Traveler, Chris Chen Alain Ducasse This story was published originally in the L.A. Times Syndicate and now follows Part 1 of the trip that has never before been published anywhere! It is a sort of inside joke amongst food professionals that we “sacrifice our bodies for our profession.” The truth, however, is that we are only partially kidding. Although professional wine tasters are not expected to swallow all the wine they evaluate and thereby become alcoholic, food tasters are not usually provided with the same means to chew and discard (or as it’s known in the industry without mincing words: spit). We are therefore often in situations which become the epitome of a mixed-blessing: the food may be an extraordinary delight to the senses but we are also paying the price of suffering by consuming an excess of calories, thereby doing repeated damage to our health and well-being. Eating small tastes would be the obvious solution but the seductive conspiracy of conviviality, politeness and wine-induced abandon inevitably lead to overindulgence.

On a recent trip to Provence, however, my body finally rebelled at of all places, a restaurant considered by many to be the finest in the world: Louis XV in Monte-Carlo. I had spent two and a half weeks eating and drinking an enormous variety and quantity of Provençal food, promising my husband after each meal that the next one would be more moderate. For our last dinner in France, I made reservations at Louis XV. We arrived at this culinary Mecca 7 hours after having eaten lunch at another three star restaurant in Cannes and I was still full. It turned out that I had saved the best for last and, to my horror, it was too late. I could no longer eat. All systems said no. One more bite and I seriously felt I would pass out or worse yet become sick and totally humiliate myself in this most elegant and exquisite jewel box of a dining room. I was torn between tears of despair and relief. It was over. My body had limits after all and this meant I would never, despite my commitment to my profession, be obese. My husband’s immediate reaction was a self-protective: “Don’t think I’m going to eat your portion for you.” So I entreated the maitre d’ in my very best and most persuasive French, to make an exception and provide a doggy bag (a major faux pas in even the humblest of French restaurants) of my uneaten partridge with violet artichoke hearts and liver. I explained to him that it was nothing short of a tragedy for a food person to have waited years to experience Alain Ducasse’s food only to have been struck suddenly by this bizarre incapacity. He was most sympathetic and charming and after I spent the evening enviously watching my husband and others around me eating their dinners without problem, I was presented with my “sac de chien” which included an entire box of the chef’s home-made truffles. I wondered how long it would take to recover sufficiently to enjoy them but needn’t have worried. The next day on the airplane, I ordered the hot chicken breast meal for lunch. I unpacked my partridge with accoutrements and laid it on top of the chicken for a few minutes to heat it through. Amazingly, the chicken came with perfectly cooked haricots verts so, ignoring the chicken, I had a glorious meal. Five of the little truffles were just right for dessert and I must admit I gloated with the certainty that I was surely the only one on the plane enjoying the cuisine from Louis XV. Several weeks later, I recounted this experience to a colleague over lunch and to my surprise she relayed a similar experience she recently had at Taillevent, another fabulous 3 star restaurant in Paris. We both came to the same conclusion: every course of a formal French restaurant meal is complex and contains a reduction--a quantity of stock that has been intensely concentrated so that, in effect, one is eating a microfiche version of an enormous meal. This is fine for a grand occasion but not meant to be experienced on a daily basis. Home cooking, by contrast, even for entertaining, usually consists of simply prepared courses with only perhaps one star (not including the dessert) that is richly complex. For example, grilled fish or meat, or herb roasted chicken, with steamed broccoli or string beans perfectly complements a rich and creamy gratin. And this is essentially how I (and my body) love to eat most of the time. P.S. I sent this piece to my friend in France whose husband has published some of Ducasse’s books and her response: “Tres drole Rose, mais surtout ne l’envoie pas a Ducasse!” (Very funny Rose, but above all do not send it to Ducasse!) Par contre I think he would have been amused. He has a great mind and surely a great sense of humor usually accompanies it. In a recent interview in the Gourmet Traveller (a fantastic magazine from Australia) Ducasse was quoted as follows: “Everything changes. It’s essential to have a global view, but to stay local, stay close to your roots. The future is to cultivate your difference. Look at everything but cultivate your differences.” I find this to be beautifully wise and profound.