AVEC VOS BEAUX YEUX [With Your Beautiful Eyes]
"Domenica, avec vos beaux yeux, find the photos of the coquilles St-Jacques." La Chef hands me a glossy food magazine. She, her six students for the day--my second on the job--and I have returned to her kitchen from le Marche des Enfants Rouges, a small neighborhood market. This time, our chariot is laden with coquilles St-Jacques, veal chops, creme fraiche, two baguettes, more apples, a lemon, leeks, celery, carrots, and two bags of yellow potatoes. We stop again at the wine shop on the way home. I mention that I had not liked the sweetness of last session's Sancerre, so La Chef asks for a drier white wine. The caviste (wine merchant) suggest a bottle of Perilot for the coquilles, and two bottles of a smoky red wine for the veal.
Today's students (all American women) are young and eager. Four are working abroad--two in London investment firms and two in the fashion industry in Paris. The other two are New York lawyers on holiday. In their early thirties, these young professionals have a wide-eyed enthusiasm for life and easy access to its many possibilities. They take copious notes, check their cell phones constantly, and quiz me on how I learned to speak French so well.
Today's menu is a variation of the previous session's meal. We start with a cheese tasting. La Chef scolds me for having put the cheese plate in the refrigerator. Cheeses need to come to room temperature for the full flavors to emerge. We then make a seasonal sorrel soup, topped with a dollop of creme fraiche and chives. La Chef serves the soup--a musky green--in small ochre-colored ceramic cups.
As we prepare the coquilles St-Jacques, La Chef hands me the food magazine for show-and-tell. It has lovely glossy photos accompanying inviting recipes, and I realize La Chef has forgiven me my cheese error. I like to think that, when she refers to my "beaux yeux," it's my eyes she's admiring rather than my snazzy new red Parisian readers that I've perched on my nose.
The coquilles are simmering in a saffron-vegetable stock, while the gratin dauphinois (scalloped potatoes) is baking slowly in the oven in a yellow clay casserole. We've added the scrapings of an exotic Venezuelan bean--the tonka bean--to the potatoes. The dark, wrinkled bean is reminiscent in flavor of a cross between nutmeg and vanilla and can be added to dishes both savory and sweet.
Before we saute the veal chops, we prepare the chocolate and caramelized apple tart and measure out the ingredients for a chocolate souffle, to be baked at the last minute. La Chef says Americans all want the same thing--chicken or fish....and chocolate.
La Chef's full-time assistant, Lily, rings at the door. She's a Californian studying for an MBA at one of the city's top schools, working for La Chef to help finance her student life in the city. She and I set the table and bring out the wines for the meal. I'm scolded again. I've put the red wine in the refrigerator. But, with sauces to prepare still, photos to be taken, and apples to be flambeed in Calvados, there's time enough for the wine to come to room temperature. I scrub as many dishes as I can. I know my assiduous attention to the mounting pile of bowls, chopping boards, paring knives, and stockpots will impress La Chef.
The conversation over lunch is lively and animated. The young women have much in common and are articulate in their observations of cultural differences in workplace and social etiquette. They hint obliquely at loneliness, and though reluctant, at first, to say so, admit to difficulties adjusting to life away from home. They eat everything on their plates, ask for seconds, and drink all the wine.
We finish lunch well past the appointed hour and head out for a walking tour of the Les Halles neighborhood, a center of culinary supply stores in the city. At a spice shop, we all buy bottles of tonka beans. Valrhona chocolate and caramels from Brittany are the hit at Georges Detou, a shop frequented by the city's bakers. Knives are on sale at Kitchen Bazaar, and at Dehillerin, La Chef's salesperson pulls out an enormous electric crepier for making crepes. It requires seasoning, and the large round cooking surface must be rubbed smooth over time with a stone. I'm curious if the stone is part of the package. This elicits a roar of laughter from La Chef and her salesperson. I chuckle along, having survived the cheese and wine blunders.
We say our good-byes near the Palais Royal, and since La Chef and I are heading in the same direction across the river, she invites me to take the bus with her. It's a magical time of the day, near sunset, and with the angle of light, the rooftops seem to glow. The Musee d'Orsay even looks as if it has a thin layer of snow on the roof--impossible, since it's in the seventies today.
On the ride home, we talk about family. La Chef tells me of her ex-husband's tragic Polish background, and I bring her up to date on my partner's slow but steady recovery from knee surgery two years ago. I feel an unexpected intimacy beginning to bud, and as we step off the bus and exchange la bise--the French air kiss--our cheeks actually meet, and I think to myself, "I'm making a new friend."