One summer I accepted a gig in France, the London agency paired me with a firecracker of a girl called Nina. Nina’s role was to serve at table for our client, a French aristocrat. Nina was from Oxford and Chile and was studying for her Masters. For her this job was a way of filling in a summer whilst not paying rent on a flat in Bristol, where she was studying. As a waitress and summer companion she was spot on and came with added benefits. She would read books as I was chopping vegetables and whenever she came across a funny paragraph, Nina would dramatically read the passage out loud to me. She also had a raft of humorous waitressing stories and was fun to be around. Nina was the embodiment of Radio 4’s afternoon play. She would also drive me around, quiz me for pointers on French grammar and ask me to make sense of idioms as she was decoding the intricacies of the French language.
The house Nina and I were billeted in was in the untouched part of an old village. It was on the top floor of a tall building, with narrow dark stairs and no lift. Four families lived in this property and we all scrambled for places to park our little French cars in the property’s medieval courtyard. It was very much on a tourist crossroads for the Islington set who, back then, weren’t yet dabbling with veganism and Ibiza. It was the sort of place where if one turned on one’s wifi to try and steal someone else’s wifi, there were no routers sending out a wifi signal that could be stolen. None, not one. Admittedly this was ten years ago, but still. The tourists took photos of all this quaintness; they were oblivious that ‘all this’ was actually squalid.
Our client, the Prince, lived two villages away in what had at one time been the coach house of a house frequented by Voltaire.
The Prince was a charmer and made old school look avant garde. Outside of the summer months he lived in a beautiful house in Paris, in a road I would later come to know very well. His mother had been ‘something in the theatre’ which meant he grew up mixing with artistic types. All the Prince’s guests were ladies of a certain age who had once been dancers. Nina, who had access to the first floor of the Prince’s house, more interaction with the guests and a taste for gossip, first floated the idea that these ladies might be gay. Whilst we never had proof one way or the other, it did add a certain air of mystery to the summer. There was only one male visitor who was also a top drawer charmer. The Prince always referred to this guest as Henri. One morning Nina asked me what the French idiom was for ‘hooray Henry’ we realised in unison that it should be hooray Henri. A bit later when Henri had left I was chatting to the Prince and I referred, in passing, to Herni, as ‘that bloke’. This was the one and only time when the Prince raised his voice to me. “‘That bloke’ is in fact the Duke of Chevreuse and must be referred to, at all times, by his title”. And there was I, thinking France was a republic. Shortly after that I realised that the Prince’s own title had been given to his family by Napoleon Bonaparte, making our Prince a Prince of the republic.
Throughout the summer, guests would find their way to this secret idyll with its walled gardens, birdsong and terraces scented with roses. The gardener Jaques and his wife Christine lived in the little house at the back of the main house all year. Jaques had a bit of a wonky eye, unintelligible French and a gift with landscaping. His garden was a daily source of joy for me. At the Prince’s house life was lived very much outside, even the kitchen door was always left open to let in the scent of flowers and the odd bee. As a chef, it is a hygiene no-no, but the Prince himself would open the door for me each morning, so that the kitchen would be bathed in sunshine, and who am I to argue with the client?
Guests usually came in pairs and stayed for four days or perhaps a week. Usually there would be four guests, but occasionally there might be six guests. All the visitors seemed to know each other and my impression was they were all taking an intricate grand tour of France. Each stop on the tour was to see another friend in another summer house. I suspect this route had been finely tuned over decades of summers, like a vast game of musical chairs which enabled each guest to arrive at an estate just as the previous guest had departed. The Prince’s house was a beloved stop on this annual merry go round. The Prince was known for his encyclopaedic knowledge of Voltaire, his love of fine food and his beautifully served al fresco meals. Jacques the gardener, Nina and me were all there to play our part.
Before the arrival of one guest I was briefed several times about her magnificent culinary skills. This lady had inherited a prestigious Parisian restaurant that was past its best and built it back up to the pinnacles of gastronomy. Along the way she herself had won one of the coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France. In other words, what she didn’t know about cooking was not worth knowing. I was informed by the Prince that I was going to be lucky enough to watch her work in the house’s kitchen and that I should offer her whatever help I could. This, the Prince told me, would be the opportunity of a lifetime. I was excited and a little bit scared. Scared that I would be assessed by the prize winner and found to be wanting.
The Prince formally introduced me to this star guest, who I will just refer to as Madame. The Prince listed all her titles, her accolades and recounted some of the dishes he had eaten in her restaurant, mouthful by mouthful. The French often relive meals mouthful by mouthful, it’s not that unusual, however in this case it was done with extra gusto and closed eye reverence. Both Nina and I tried to look suitably impressed.
Madame seemed more than keen to show off her skills and the following day Nina drove Madame and me to the nearby city so we could go shopping. Whilst I am a fan of a big ‘shopping hit’ in a massive hypermarket, the time rich, wealthy French like to buy each type of food in a specialist shop and ideally visit at least three cheese shops per outing. No elderly French person can choose a melon in less than twenty minutes and no grocery run is complete without at least a half hour conversation with the baker about ‘the Italians’ or ‘next door’s cat’. I wish I were exaggerating. I’m often taken shopping by French clients in the early days of a contract, to be ‘shown how to shop’; I’ve seen this pattern of behaviour repeated by unrelated clients in Brussels, Paris, Switzerland and all over the south of France.
I can’t remember shopping with Madame, I suspect Nina dropped me at the hypermarket whilst chauffeuring Madame around. With the car full of my usual supermarket bulk buying, Madame’s few beautiful bags issued by the city’s most expensive artisanal food shops looked like glossy VIPs at a jumble sale. I was curious to see what ingredients Madame had selected.
That afternoon, as Nina and I were on our break, Madame must have entered the kitchen to get started on a spectacular dish. When Nina and I returned, I noticed in the larder a basin covered by a plate. I was tempted to look under the plate, but resisted. Each morning the Prince told me what to cook for lunch and dinner, this evening like every other evening I checked the menu that had been issued by the Prince and cracked on with preparing things. I put extra effort into how I cut the vegetables, how I seasoned each dish and how I presented every item that evening. I wanted this famous chef to be, at the very least, happy with her dinner.
Nothing unusual happened until just before lunch the following day. Madame arrived in the kitchen, clad in a bikini, beads of sweat on her skin. She was too hot sunbathing so she thought she would get started on dinner. Lunch was busier than normal because the next door neighbours had popped over and had invited themselves for lunch, much to the chagrin of the Prince. The Prince was a generous and affable host, but also he was a planner and unexpected was not a word he liked. I got the impression he’d far rather play host and be in control than to schlepp about France for the months of June, July and August, as all his guests did.
Madame did not wash her hands as she entered the kitchen, even though I pointed out where the nice soap and hand towel were. This is another hygiene no-no, all good chefs as they enter a kitchen, wash their hands. To not wash your hands would be like to cross the road without looking. I also offered her an apron.
Madame did not seem to know how to be in a kitchen with another chef. Chefs learn how to ask if the other chefs in the brigade need the oven before they themselves put something in the oven. We keep ourselves and our workspaces clean, if one person gets ill from food that comes from a kitchen we work in, we all take responsibility for it. We work as a team, we have a hive mind. We move out of the way when someone is carrying something heavy or hot, or both. We anticipate each other’s movements and needs.
Madame got under my feet. She used my knives, without asking, to cut down on to metal, rather than onto a proper chopping board. And most heinous of all, sweat dripped from her bare torso onto the canapés that Nina was just about to take out to the lunch guests. I tried to keep a lid on my annoyance, but I doubt I was successful.
After lunch as Nina and I were washing up the delicate glasses the Prince came into the kitchen to thank us for lunch. He told us that Madame’s dish would be served for lunch the following day and that I should watch the final stages of the dish in detail. Madame joined us in the kitchen and told me what I should cook to accompany this grand dish that had already been four hours in the making.
Dinner that evening passed off without anything notable happening and I was relieved to be able to serve food that didn’t have guest sweat as an ingredient.
The following morning Nina unloaded the dishwasher as I started to make the side dishes. Madame arrived in the kitchen, once again in a bikini, beaded in sweat and didn’t wash her hands. I offered to help Madame, but she was happy to cook by herself and seemed to get under my feet a lot less than she had done the day beforehand. She made a classic French tomato sauce out of physically perfect, expensive tomatoes and then started to boil the secret ingredients, from the basin. When I saw that the basin had soaking beans in it I thought she might be assembling the classic French dish of cassoulet, but that is a winter recipe of sausages, ham, beans and tomatoes. I was confused, what could Madame be planning for her lauded main course? What show stopper did she have up her sleeve, for her friend the Prince?
At lunchtime just before the starter was due to be served, Madame asked for a dish to present this gastronomic delight in. She proudly spooned her handiwork into the most beautiful serving bowl I could find. It then became clear to Nina and me what we were looking at. Madame had taken a day and a half to make Baked Beans.