How do I justify spending a small fortune for one evening? Was the experience worth possibly hundreds of rescued books (my currency)?
Yes. Yes, it was. Thankfully.
Particularly when one takes into account the imaginative time of anticipation and the echoed time of appreciation.
Our June 22nd dinner at l’Arpege began at least nine months ago when I watched the first episode of the third season of the Netflix series, Chef’s Table. As our trip to Paris approached, I watched it again with my sweet, Jim. I was fascinated with how chef Passard talked about the creative “gesture” as much as his status as the “maestro of vegetable cuisine.” I blogged about it in this post.
Actually eating there seemed like a distant fantasy.
Then, surprisingly Jim made a reservation. I was both excited and horrified. What if the fantasy doesn’t match up with reality? What an expensive disappointment? Reading this less than positive review, “The Crushing Disappointment of l’Arpege” didn’t help my anxiety either. But, I am not a food critic. It is not my job to convince, justify or explain. My job is simply to enjoy the best I can. Food blogging is perhaps a more self-centered but less self-righteous mode of sharing gastronomic experiences. Look what I ate, I am so happy and you should be too……..the capitalist-consumer nostalgia is not lost on me.
The limits of food criticism and blogging aside, Thursday, June 22nd arrived. We were in Paris. While Jim was working at the Paris Airshow, I took two cooking classes, Monday and Tuesday. I was immersed in learning French cuisine. Learning, eating, watching, walking, and eating again. I felt like I was training for l’Arpege. I couldn’t have been more emotionally prepared to have a wonderful evening of new tastes and the best of company. I was determined to enjoy it, darn it!
During our short walk to the restaurant I carried my determination with the nervous intensity of carrying a jug full of precious water through the desert. We were seated promptly in the cellar with rugged walls and about 6-8 small white-clothed tables for two. Our server introduced himself. Jim and I talked in reverent hushed tones. We noticed the other tables and our fellow diners. Then the amuse bouche arrived. I gingerly picked up the colorful, beautiful bite, and then I don’t remember anything but fragments of the evening.
Time slowed and sped up, tastes were surprising, often I didn’t recognize what I was eating, names were curious, textures and colors were popping. I remember being suspicious of hay-flavored ice-cream and then loving it, how the sole tasted light and substantive floating on a flavored foam, how the duck felt like an assertive steak, and mostly how the vegetables blossomed, fluttered, foamed and floated. I didn’t take pictures, I wanted to just be in my mouth.
Towards the end of the meal, Chef Passard himself emerged to meet each table. I was starstruck (and I am too cynical for celebrity worship). This never happens. While Jim was talking with him…words…..anniversary….yada yada…happy to be here…take a picture..more words….in my inner monologue, I wondered how can he, a chef, be dressed in all glowing white, panjabi and sandals? In the picture, I look like I’m holding my breathe, horrified and confused.
The evening was worth it. It was small slice of an event that will continue to echo in my memory as long as it functions. This was a memorable meal fed by expectation, digested and converted into inspirational energy. The experience wafts beyond the three hours.
Yes, I still feel guilty that I could feed a small village in Bangladesh or a few hundred at the homeless shelter in Indiana. The guilt is warranted. However, that one evening of experiencing the best efforts of a creative artist, the produce of a beautiful country, the historical, political, social and ecological complex context that made that meal possible continues to make me feel human with the privilege of sense, sensation and guilt.
I, hungryphil, am most drawn to Passard’s philosophy of small things that is best expressed in his recipes. Here is how he introduces his recipe for peaches with lemon and saffron:
Peaches with Lemon and Saffron
“I always like to give a lift to stone fruit simply by adding a tangy touch of lemon juice to it. This recipe takes the lemon further: its chunky segments are stewed alongside segments of peach in a little butter. The lemon adds a vivacious piquancy to the gentle peach, and the heady scent of saffron and some grenadine syrup add to their flavors. The real key to this gastronomic treat, however, is adding olive oil – of the finest quality you can afford- at the end of cooking. Slivered toasted almonds complete the presentation.”
Notice the language of lift, of furthering, of gentility, of quality, and of presentation. This is the perspective I hoped to have absorbed in eating at his restaurant. I didn’t want a meal as a privileged traveler’s trophy. My determination to make the meal great may have made it so. So what? The meal at the least met my expectations half way. It lifted and furthered my taste, like the segments of peaches. Like his recipe, I imagine my fragmented memories and appreciation will “murmur very gently” for years to come, just like chef Alain Passard’s recipe. I will not stir or mix it with bad reviews.
“Partially cover the pan, and adjust the heat to allow the juices to murmur very gently for 20-30 minutes. During this time, do not stir, or mix the ingredients, or the segments of peach may break.”
For the full recipe to go: http://www.veranda.com/food-recipes/how-to/g1112/alain-passards-refreshing-vegetarian-recipes/?slide=2
Thank you Jim for making this experience possible. What a wonderful evening walking with you in Paris after a beautiful meal! You are my celebrity crush. I don’t look horrified and confused here.
So, there is it. The story about how I ate an uncomfortably expensive meal and found comfort in human creativity.
Now, I’m off to see a local exhibtion, “Making it in Crafts III” http://www.artlafayette.org/current-exhibits/
Come with me!
Wishing you happy eating at home and at expensive restaurants,