My thanks to Lauren for recommending this book!
The Apprentice is the second autobiography I will have commented on for The Marginal Virtues, and its author, Jacques Pépin, is a French emigré to the United States who, along with Julia Child and others, introduced French cookery to America. (One wonders what they and others of their school thought of the American backlash against the French in the noughts.) Oddly, there seems to be no popular name for this group (whose work will, I presume, be featured in Pépin's book), so I will dub it 'the French School'.
The edition I am using was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2003.
Being an autobiography, The Apprentice shares much in the way of a bare-bones 'plot' (if you like) with Bret Hart's book Hitman. Both describe the apprenticeship of the authors in their respective fields and their rise to prominence (even pre-eminence). I should also say of Hitman that one of its more enjoyable aspects was in the early going when Hart described some of the unusual characters whom he encountered as a boy and young man, and his learning pro wrestling at the feet of his father and of other old hands in the business. And for me one of the most enjoyable aspects of The Apprentice was Pépin describing his early days as an apprentice, although, unlike Bret Hart, he seems to have been able to achieve success, if not fame, at a much earlier point in his life.
Apprenticeship is, I think it may be fairly said, a lost art generally. But I want, not to focus on one particular aspect of The Apprentice or another, as I have with other marginal commentaries, but simply to quote and remark upon a handful of anecdotes or stories or passages that I found memorable. The tenor of The Apprentice is easy-going, despite the hectic pace at which Pépin ofen found himself working, and I feel it deserves like treatment. Incidentally, at least one of the passages I found memorable includes profanity; you have been warned.
Jacques Pépin was born in 1935 in France, and the story of his birth is certainly memorable:
I was born... in the town Bourg-en-Bresse, about thirty miles northeast of Lyon, the second of three sons of Jeanne and Jean-Victor Pépin. Weighing only two and one half pounds, I nearly died at birth. The midwife lined a shoebox with dishtowels and put me inside, placing the makeshift incubator between two bricks that had been warmed on the stove. [p. 4] And the government of Ontario spends how much on incubators? All kidding aside, this is one of those moments where keeping a cool head (the acquisition of which requires the practice of virtue) on the part of the midwife is what did the trick. Also, it reminds me of the scene, in the animated film version of 101 Dalmatians, when Roger revives the puppy, later to be named Lucky, by rubbing it vigorously in a towel.What is also memorable from Pépin's early days is a memory of his of his father:
[M]y father was big, barrel-chested, and jovial - a happy guy, a man's man, more like one extra overgrown kid under our roof than an authority figure. ... When fooling around... he would show off by hurling walnuts against the outside windows of the café with the accuracy of a major league pitcher. The nuts shattered each time but never broke the glass. It was his private trick, and he got a kick out of seeing our puzzled faces. No one ever found out how he did it. My mother, who tried it once, broke the window, and Roland [Jacques Pépin's older brother] and I never dared to attempt it. [p. 5] This is definitely an impressive trick, all the more so since, as Pépin informs us, his father would usually do it after having quite a few glasses of wine, of which he was quite fond. Lest the reader be concerned, I should say that Pépin's father did not seem to suffer from alcoholism, despite the fact that he drank, and often heavily. There are several Frenchmen whom Pépin describes as being 'fond of wine' (and who could be said to be alcoholics), but the only person he describes explicitly as an alcoholic is the late Craig Claiborne, an old friend of his who was a food critic for the New York Times who, in the sixties and seventies, more or less invented the art of restaurant criticism.Pépin tells a number of stories of his childhood, including his brief career as a petty thief (pp. 26-8), a fishing trip with his brothers, which results in the first meal that Pépin cooks himself (pp. 35-8; the which is of the kind few parents would allow their children to just go off and do these days, more to the worse, in my view), and accidentally getting drunk off his father's wine while showing off to a friend (pp. 32-3).
Later, in the fifties, Pépin goes to work in Paris after serving as an apprentice in the region around Lyon. He is sent to work at a hotel called Le Meurice:
In those days, Le Meurice, a hotel on rue Rivoli, was arguably the most aristocratic establishment in Paris, and its dining room menu offered the most sophisticated and traditional French cuisine in the city. Instead of laboring in a basement, [where the kitchen was located when he worked briefly at a Parisian brasserie called La Maxéville] I found myself in a kitchen so spacious and empty that I could have roller-skated from station to station. During the war, when Nazi generals requisitioned Le Meurice as their Parisian base of operations (if you're going to occupy a nation, may as well do it in style), nearly eighty chefs worked in the kitchens. By the time I came, there was a brigade of only sixteen.
My boss, Executive Chef Ripert, was a dapper little man in his sixties with a narrow, straight moustache. He came to work carrying a cane tucked under one arm and wearing a black suit with a white, starched collar, a derby perched on his head. Chef Ripert had worked under Auguste Escoffier himself, and the great chef would have been proud. His protégé had neither forgotten - nor altered - a single classical detail.
And that included his way of communicating with the staff. Chef Ripert gave orders through a megaphone, and the noise that it generated, combined with his south-of-France accent, made him nearly incomprehensible. Still, great stuff was produced in that kitchen. It was my first exposure to haute cuisine, and I committed to memory every bellowed command and every step in every dish.
I was commis entremetier [italics original], a job that consisted of preparing the vegetables and soups along with garnishes. ...
Cooking under Chef Ripert was more structured, complicated, and demanding than anything I had ever experienced. There was no room for mistakes. This was, after all, the venerated cuisine of master chef Marie-Antoine Carême, featuring extremely intricate preparations and passed down to us firsthand through Escoffier. The work was so detailed that, even with sixteen chefs, if we had to serve more than forty customers at one time, there was pandemonium in the kitchen. [pp. 79-81] Later Pépin would work in a kitchen with, if anything, an even more highly structured and hierarchical regime at Le Plaza Athénée in Normandy. But his brief stint at Le Meurice is representative of much of his experience learning the trade in his native France. On the one hand, the training is excellent. Pépin learned everything in France from watching what others were doing and copying them, and from (you might say) 'rehearsing' the dishes when making them over and over again. The environment in French kitchens, or so Pépin's experience would demonstrate, allowed for mastery of nearly every aspect of cookery. And, despite their autocratic mannerisms, the executive chefs encourage their staff to strive for excellence(fear, admittedly, being one of their most important goads). French cooks in the profession also displayed strong consciousness of their being a part of a great, old tradition. Chef Ripert, as we saw, was directly connected to Escoffier, the apostle of the great chef Carême. Even in more modest kitchens, Pépin was still part of honoured tradition, learning regional dishes which had been made and served since time out of mind. On the other hand, there was often not much room for bonhomie in French kitchens (at least not the larger ones), although Pépin is never less than respectful of the chefs for whom he worked, and seems to have relished the challenge of making a dish in accordance with the expectations of perfectionists such as Ripert or Diat (the executive chef of Le Plaza Athénée). Moreover (although shortly after Pépin's departure for the United States the phenomenon known as 'nouvelle cuisine' was about to sweep through France), the hidebound nature of French traditional cookery is evident, and one rather gets the sense that although Pépin appreciated learning and working in the great French kitchens under master chefs, he did not truly enjoy cooking per se until he is able to move away from the encumbrances and restrictions of the organisation and cookery of classical French kitchens. In any case, I think that Pépin would not have been able to strike out on his own so successfully and be such an integral part of the 'French school' in America of the sixties and seventies without the rigorous training he received in his native country. The learning and acquisition of the virtues, disciplines, and habits needed must often take place in a highly structured environment where one must submit to being taught by others before striking out on one's own to apply what one has learned in new and exciting ways (much as, say, Picasso mastered classical styles of painting before painting his great novel works).
Pépin was drafted during the course of the Algerian War, and his experience typifies one of the most incomprehensible aspects of military organisation, which is the co-existence of the dutiful and heroic and the petty and idiotic. Because Pépin, by then a highly-trained chef, never left French soil, he got to experience some of the latter:
Every morning before dawn — the hour at which I had once gaily made my way home from the cafés — we rolled out of our hammocks and ran for five miles through the gloomy pine plantations that line the coast in that part of France [near Bordeaux]. An hour of push-ups, sit-ups, and chin-ups followed. Then more running. And when that was over, more calisthenics. I was miserable.After Pépin goes to America, he meets and befriends a fellow emigré, Pierre Franey, and his friend, the aforementioned Clairborne (at that time a friendly, boisterous food critic). Clairborne knew how to throw a party, and Pépin finds himself taking part in what is billed as the 'grandest picnic of all time', held on Gardiner's Island in 1965 (pp. 170-2), and one of the largest clambakes ever held in the Hamptons (pp. 172-4; described as 'the clambake to end all clambakes'; had it been held after the First Gulf War, it would have been called 'the mother of all clambakes'), which included a visit from a television crew:
The time came for us to receive immunizations for who-knows-what dreaded desert diseases. Their symptoms must have been truly awful to justify the pain inflicted by those veterinary-grade stainless steel syringes wielded by an assembly line of sadistic medics. My shoulder still throbbed the next day when our drill sergeant lined us up and asked if anyone in the regiment knew how to drive. Two recruits stepped forward, no doubt expecting that their prowess behind the wheel would get them out of a morning on the obstacle course. Smiling, the sergeant pointed toward two shovels.
"Clean out the shithouse," he said. And thereby he imparted the two most important military lessons of all: keep your head low, volunteer for nothing.
Years in various kitchens had kept me in surpisingly good shape, which turned out to be a mixed blessing. I passed all aspects of my physical training and was deemed worthy to serve both aboard ships and in the navy's land-based commando units, meaning that the sands of Algeria were very likely to be my next stop.
The only blot in my near-perfect boot camp record came completely by surprise. Despite my professional status, I had to pass the official navy cook's exam. True to the spirit of bureaucracies everywhere, the test was given by a petty officer (petty [italics original] being an especially appropriate word) who fancied himself a professional cook. He ordered me to prepare eggs bénédictine [ditto]. I had prepared this dish in most of the restaurants where I had worked. ... I had made eggs bénédictine dozens if not hundreds of times, without a word of complaint from the most discriminating palates in the world.
The petty officer took one look at my preparation and snorted. "You call yourself a cook?" he said. "Everyone knows eggs bénédictine calls for poached eggs to be served with a purée of salted codfish and a cream sauce."
... I had never heard of that version and never met a cook who prepared eggs bénédictine that way. The petty officer had found this archaic version of the dish, viewed as a quaint curiosty by all professionals, in my precious Escoffier's Le Guide culinaire [ditto]. It was a trap, but the damage was done. I flunked, Algeria beckoned.
I was spared that fate[.] ...
... I was assigned to go to Paris, where I was to work as a cook for the officers' mess at the Pépinière, the navy's headquarters.
There, I was put under the command of a Breton who must have attended the same cooking school as the guy who had flunked my eggs bénédictine. ... He knew as much about cooking as I knew about skippering a destroyer, but like so many talentless bureaucrats, he had a cockroach-like sense of survival. He realized that he needed young draftee-chefs who had been properly trained... to cook the quality food demanded in the Admiralty mess — cooking that he, of course, took complete credit for.
Left to his own, he would have been put on a troop transport ship destined for Algeria before the officers finished his first soup course. He needed us desperately to make him look good, but his dependency on us made him resentful of our ease in the kitchen[.] ...
He rarely ventured near the stove. But once, when he had had more than his usual allotment of wine, he became confident enough to butt into a discussion we were having about the precise way to prepare the mousseline sauce that was going to accompany a dish of asparagus. A classic mousseline is light and frothy, made with hollandaise sauce combined with whipped cream.
"Mousseline sauce," he slurred. "What do you sissies know about mousseline sauce?" He stood behind the stove, flicked his wrists, and proceeded to cook the asparagus in a rusty iron pan. Instead of throwing the spears into rapidly boiling salted water, he dropped them casually into barely hot, unsalted water. After a few minutes, the beautifully green asparagus started to turn a faded khaki color. I covered my mouth and barely succeeded in suppressing a laugh.
After draining the spears, he used the same pan for his sauce, first placing some fat and flour in the bottom of it and cooking them, then adding water to make a thick glue, which turned beige when he deglazed the pan of its rust deposits. Whistling tunelessly, he added a dozen eggs, brought the mixture to a boil, and kept it on the heat long enough for the eggs to scramble nicely. Finally, he folded the slop into egg whites that were already grainy from overbeating. The entire mixture liquefied into a lumpy, brownish soup, which he proceeded to ladle over the asparagus, proclaiming, "Voilà!" [italics original]
The laugh could no longer be suppressed. It burst from me, and of course that got the other two chefs going.
Those little eyes for a moment looked crestfallen. But then they became mean. I knew I was permanently on my superior's bad side. [pp. 107-9] Thanks to a remarkably lucky set of circumstances, Pépin ended up working for a number of presidents of France, including Charles de Gaulle himself, as his military service, so he escaped what would have undoubtedly been a dreary and torturous time with the beady-eyed Breton. Pépin's life in the French military certainly illustrates the difference between the way the virtue of obedience is inculcated in France's kitchens and its military forces at the time, and the way the community of the workers was formed. In Pépin's first job in a kitchen (outside of his mother's, that is), he became part of the crew by having an elaborate prank pulled on him, in which he went from hotel to hotel looking for a machine that ended up being two concrete blocks in a bag (pp. 48-50). And in the kitchens of France, especially those of larger and more demanding institutions, obedience is certainly expected. Yet you can't help but feel that the chefs at Le Meurice under Ripert, or those at Le Plaza Athénée under Diat, are learning obedience in a much more salutary fashion than what Pépin experienced in the military. The lesson of 'keep your head low' which the two unfortunate recruits who get shithouse-cleaning duty is hardly one, I dare say, that should be encouraged as part of learning the virtues of loyalty and obedience. Admittedly, as Pépin himself notes, 'self-expression' or the individual 'interpretation' of recipes was not at all encouraged at Le Plaza Athénée (or at other kitchens), but you still got the sense that the chefs slaving away felt they were part of something greater than themselves, even though, as I commented above, they may not have been enjoying their jobs. Meanwhile, the hierarchy in the realm of military cooking is, at least as Pépin tells it, replete with time-serving bureaucrats, talentless hacks and officers petty in every sense of the word who would have never achieved positions of such responsibility had they had to have been accountable for their own cooking. Neither, moreover, are these men able to command or worthy of the respect Pépin evidently felt even for such autocrats as Ripert and Diat, who, fearsome though they may have been, were accomplished and excellent chefs who knew their stuff and who knew how to train their staff so that they could expect the best from them, too.
I was to help Pierre secure the sixty lobsters. The previous day, Craig had informed us that he had arranged for an added twist. Not only did Pierre and I have to catch the main course, but our efforts at hauling up lobster traps were to be filmed by a television crew.Later, Franey and Pépin, longing for a taste of home, are behind a more obvious fiasco. Those of you with delicate stomachs or a staunch adherence to vegetarianism or like life-styles may wish to skip this story:
We didn't know a thing about television, but Pierre understood enough about the habits of Long Island's lobsters to have taken the precaution of buying a couple of bushels of them the previous evening at Grossman's fish market on Montauk Point. In the semidarkness, we loaded the store-bought crustaceans aboard Pierre's boat, used them to supplement the grand total of five lobsters that had wandered into his traps on their own, and then lowered gear and captives back to the ocean floor.
At filming time, we pulled up the cages and started removing the lobsters and placing them in a bin — all with exaggerated gestures of surprise and happiness. The lobsters, even those we had purchased at Grossman's, seemed to know their parts, slapping their tails and brandishing their claws. All of a sudden, Pierre stopped laughing. His eyes got larger, and he gestured with his chin to a store-bought lobster. I squinted and realized that we'd forgotten to take the rubber bands off their claws. The cameras rolled on. [p. 173] The whole affair rather feels like a premonition of reality TV, and, indeed, as some of Pépins comments later about the tricks TV chefs use to make their dishes 'look' appetising on television, dishes which, cooked properly, would look nothing like how they turn out on the cooking shows, it is evident that Franey and Pépin dimly understood that the point of television is appearance, not reality. But really this story is hilarious because they got caught doing what everyone knows happens on television; that is, faking it. That the Grossman's lobsters were playing their part so well only adds to the hilarity.
It started when Pierre and I were at Craig's complaining about how difficult it was in the States to secure the offal common in French markets... especially calf's head (tête de veau) [italics original], which Pierre loved. ... It was puzzling to us that even though veal was easy to get in America, and of great quality, it was impossible to purchase heads. What happened to all those calves' heads?No story, of course, would be complete without romance, and Pépin's tale of how he met and wooed the woman whom he married also proves that he is quite capable of making a fool of himself without Pierre Franey's help. It all began when he became a ski instructor at Hunter Mountain:
You never knew whom you'd be partying with at Craig's — except that the person would be involved deeply with food. As it turned out, one of his guests was a meat supplier, and he told us that he had plenty of calves' heads and would send us some by the following week.
The next Saturday, three large cases... arrived. We were ecstatic, until Pierre tore open the first case. Craig's meat purveyor friend had... certainly lived up to his promise. The crate contained calves' heads all right - but in exactly the same condition they had been in when lopped from their owners' necks, which is to say with hair intact. ... [N]either Pierre nor I had ever dealt with a hide-covered calf's head, and twelve of them were literally eyeing us now.
... Surely the hair problem could be overcome. I recalled that in France, butchers usually removed the hair at the processing plant by dropping the head in scalding water and scraping the fur off the skin. ... [W]e scalded one head. At the end of a smelly, messy half-hour, every hair remained firmly rooted in its follicle. In desperation, Pierre requisitioned one of Craig's razors and tried to shave the head. He destroyed a few razorblades but put barely a scratch on the head. Our other attempts met with similar results.
So instead of enjoying a taste of home, Pierre and I were stuck with the problem of how to dispose of a dozen rapidly decaying calves' heads in the Hamptons. Pierre came up with what struck us as an ideal solution... . The heads would make a feast for the lobsters and crabs crawling across the bottom of the Atlantic. Just before sunset, like mafia hit men disposing of evidence in the time-honored New York fashion, we piled all three cases of calves' heads in his little boat and furtively motored out until the shore of Long Island became a hazy smudge on the darkening horizon. Wishing the creatures of the deep bon appétit [italics original], we dumped the heads and watched them slowly disappear into the blue-green water.
For a couple of days, it looked as if our calves' heads were, indeed, sleeping with the fishes, and none of our tony neighbors were the wiser. We'd gotten away with our crime against Hamptons sensibilities. Or so we thought.
Then, thanks to prevailing currents, our heads resurfaced. The East Hampton Star [ditto] ran a front-page article that ranted about a cultist group that had murdered calves... . Foreseeing headlines about the arrest of a couple of crazed French chefs in subsequent editions of the Star, Pierre and I thought it prudent to maintain our own version of omerta. [pp. 174-6] Gruesome, yet again hilarious, and made all the more so by the incongruous comparison of the disposal of the calves' heads with the 'time-honored New York' mafia practise of dumping bodies in the ocean, complete with the unlooked-for and unwanted resurfacing of the evidence. It seems as though Pépin's funniest misadventures all happen on Pierre Franey's boat. Pépin's dry observation, that '[f]or a couple of days, it looked as if our calves' heads were, indeed, sleeping with the fishes', cracks me up every time.
It sounded like a pretty good deal to me: a small stipend, free lift tickets, no lines, and, best of all, a snazzy uniform that drew a very positive reaction from the young, single females on the slopes of Hunter.The book's action seems to speed up, as it were, after this point. Pépin does not spend a lot of time dwelling on his professional success in America; indeed, except for his spell as chef to presidents of France and his (as he puts it) groundbreaking work for HoJo's, he rarely dwells on his achievements. Rather, as the name of the book, The Apprentice, signifies, most of the stories which Jacques Pépin recounts are those in which he learned something. Perhaps the most important lesson he learns (learned ironically, perhaps, in the company of the French School) is that the achievements of professional cookery are, whatever their excellences, never as enjoyable, never as worthwhile, as the pleasures of sitting at table, dining on good food, in the company of loved ones. The anecdote with which Pépin ends The Apprentice (pp. 287-8, 290-1) illustrates this:
I had my eye on one young woman in particular. She had short, dark brown hair that went well with her winter-tanned skin and the handful of freckles that were sprinkled across her cheekbones as if to advertise the fact that their pretty owner possessed a perky and ever-ready sense of humor. I figured I was in luck one afternoon when she joined a large party of us who regularly gathered in the bar to unwind after a hard day on the slopes. But then I saw there was a man with her.
"Who is the guy?" I asked Margot, Karl's wife. [Karl and Margot Plattner ran the ski school at Hunter.]
One Saturday morning a month or so later, Margot, who ran the administrative side of the ski school, told me that someone had signed up for a private lesson with me. Private lessons were expensive — twenty dollars an hour — so it was an honor and a testament to one's teaching skills to be requested as a private instructor. ... I strode out into a sunny winter morning to meet my new student.
It was the brown-haired woman.
I always took a serious approach toward my responsibilities as a teacher. Perhaps because of my pupil's marital status, I went out of my way to comport myself as a professional for that hour, pushing her hard, correcting her every flaw, no matter how minor. I barked at her to turn into the hill. I tapped on her legs with my pole when her form slipped. ... It was a good lesson. She definitely got her twenty bucks' worth.
A week later, Margot approached me, shaking her head. "Gloria has signed up for another private hour with you," she said.
"She seemed to have made good progress last week," I said.
Margot looked at me with exasperation and put her hands on my shoulders as if about to shake a little sense into a child. "Jacques," she said, very plainly, "Gloria and her husband have separated."
Observing my blank expression, Margo said, "What if I were to tell you that Gloria is an expert skier? A member of the Ski Patrol."
Ever so slowly the message sank in.
But I still had a problem with the concept of her being separated. ... I didn't want to appear forward, but I wanted to show interest. So as I left the bar that evening, I dropped the cover of a matchbook with both my home and work numbers on it onto her lap, saying, "Give me a buzz."
Sunday passed without her calling. Monday came and went. No Gloria. It was Tuesday afternoon when the phone in my office finally rang. After consultation with all of her friends, she decided to relent and give the idiot one more try.
And I even managed to blow that one.
"You want to get together for a drink?" I asked.
After accepting my invitation, Gloria skipped lunch and called a friend to walk the dog that evening, certain that "drink" was a euphemism for drinks, dinner, and who knows what else.
I had something more literal in mind and escorted her directly to my apartment, uncorked a bottle of red wine, poured us each a glass, and then drank. When our glasses were empty, I checked my watch and said, "I have to get to a class in ten minutes. You can make your way home by yourself, can't you?"
Gloria promised herself never to speak to me again. ... [Later they get married.]
That night [the night of their wedding] marked the beginning of a very special partnership, although Gloria still insists that I owe her forty dollars for two completely unnecessary ski lessons. [pp. 186-8, 192] In addition to being hilarious, with Pépin taking every opportunity to highlight his cluelessness, the story illustrates the distinction between reality and appearance (for full effect I should have quoted another anecdote in which Pépin made fried ham and eggs in such a way that they looked horrible but tasted great which helped Gloria get over her fear of cooking for him, on pp. 188-9). Pépin bungles his way into Gloria's heart, probably because, despite being at one time an 'idiot' whom she would give just 'one more try', his more praiseworthy qualities must have been visible to her. Perhaps the best part is when Margot Plattner slowly explains to Pépin that Gloria is an expert skier; the lessons were supposed to be a front, but he never grasped that concept. No; 'I have to get to a class in ten minutes. You can make your way home by yourself, can't you?' takes the cake. It is possibly the best story of a worst first date I have ever seen, especially when you consider the end result!
The world is divided ino two types of fishermen: those who catch fish and those who do not. Gloria is of the first group. She barely wets her hook before she's pulling in a flopping trout or bass. I can sit next to her, use the same bait, the same gear, and fish all day without a nibble.
So naturally there was some wifely derision when Jean-Claude [Jean-Claude Szurdak, an old friend of Pépin's and like him a French emigré to New York in the sixties] and I set out one morning... on a fishing trip in Long Island Sound. "We'll be supplying dinner," I said.
Gloria muttered something about my picking up a pork loin at the market on the way home.
Her skepticism was reinforced when Jean-Claude began to assemble our provisions. ... He doesn't understand the point of spending an invigorating day on the water without refreshments. That morning, we selected a couple of bottles of vintage Champagne from my cellar. From his home, Jean-Claude had brought an assortment of artisanal cheeses, some proscuitto, and several duck breasts he had smoked.
... [W]e set out from the harbor in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. For early November, it was an exceptional day. ... We could see the sun through thin, high clouds. And the sea was flat calm. Still, as anyone who knows will attest, November is far from the best time for a fishing expedition on Long Island Sound.
For the first hour or so, it looked as if we would indeed be dining on pork loin that evening. ... The captain suggested a change of tactics, and bluefish started hitting. ... Soon we all had our limit of keepers. ...
Driving back to Madison, I turned to Jean-Claude and said, "We are going to have a night of fish."
"How are we going to cook them?" he said.
I thought about that question as I drove along I-95. When we lived in France, Jean-Claude would never have asked such a thing. There were only a few things to do with fish: poach, sauté, or bake and dress with one of the classical sauces. Now I found myself without a pat answer to Jean-Claude's simple question. From a culinary point of view, the decisions we faced showed just how far we had come since we had stepped off our respective ocean liners four decades earlier. ...
So what did Jean-Claude and I do with our wonderful catch?
We smoked some of the bluefish fillets, because that brings out the best in this oily, thoroughly American fish, and we garnished them with a mustard potato salad seasoned with dill. Drawing on some of the influences of both the Far East and nouvelle cuisine, we took some of the striped bass and made carpaccio flavored with sesame seed oil and soy sauce. We grilled the blackfish, adding just a little oil, salt, pepper, and lemon juice and also prepared a seviche from the same fish, flavored with hot pepper, cilantro, mint, and lime juice. As the pièce de résistance, we poached some of the striped bass fillets in Champagne and white wine and accompanied them with a cream sauce that included mushrooms and shallots, a dish that I prepared back at Le Pavillon when I first came to this country.
The next morning, I helped Jean-Claude load his Subaru station wagon with several coolers of bones, heads, and trimmings. He made me promise to come up to Hunter when the snow started flying. We'd cook something good in the fish stock... . Jean-Claude climbed behind the wheel and started the car.
"I'm not sure whether I enjoyed catching those fish or cooking them more," he said.
I felt the same way.