ON THE JOB
Crossing the rue de Rennes this morning on my way to catch the Metro, I catch sight of the Montparnasse tower to my left. Early morning mist shrouds the building, which ordinarily dominates the neighborhood. I join the workaday commuting crowd, on my way to the Thursday market at the Place de la Bastille--my first day on the job as La Chef's assistant.
The market is one of the largest in the city and offers everything from fresh seafood to duck and rabbit, from breads, cheeses, spices, and dark grapes from Provence to scarves, tee-shirts, and thread. We buy fresh sorrel, mint, and tarragon, grapes, a small piece of parmiggiano, two whole-wheat baguettes, three renne de rennettes apples, and a bouquet of assorted flowers. The six students--three women from California, two sisters from Atlanta, and a Canadian photographer from Vancouver--snap photographs. My job is to pull up the rear, filling up the little chariot with provisions chosen by La Chef from her favorite vendors. Much of La Chef's shopping for her classes is done in advance, and she keeps basic supplies on hand in large quantities. Five pounds of Valrhona bar chocolate are in her pantry on any given day. So today, we buy only the last minute necessities, stopping at a neighborhood wine shop for two bottles of Sancerre (from the Loire Valley) on the way home.
La Chef works out of her home, which was once part of a large jeweler's shop. Her kitchen is spacious and bright--a Parisian luxury-- with two French windows opening onto the courtyard below. Each student, including me, dons a large white apron in preparation for cooking, and La Chef begins to explain the day's menu. Since it's autumn, we'll start with a pumpkin soup. The next course will be a mushroon and cheese souffle. For the main course, it's a modified coq au vin and a veal dish with greens. The dessert is to be a chocolate tart with caramelized apples.
I am assigned the chore of cleaning greens, tedious work, since greens in France come with the dirt they were raised in, so a lot of rinsing is required. And, La Chef is worse than I in the kitchen--she uses every utensil in sight, and she has a lot of them, so I'm kept busy washing knives, bowls and measuring cups, saucepans, roasting pans, electric mixers, an impressive grater called a rasp, spatulas, cutting boards, even the French equivalent of Tupperware containers.
The students chop herbs to make a bouquet garni for the coq au vin, they grate cheese for the souffle, chop apples for the tart. On the stove, the chicken and veal cook slowly in wine in their separate cocottes, while the pumpkin simmers in homemade chicken stock. I do the odd job here and there, melting chocolate, separating eggs, and reach up to the top shelves to retrieve sundry items for La Chef. She seems to think I'm exceptionally tall, and we laugh when I explain that I live in the land of the Vikings, where many women tower over me.
In a group of this size, I realize I'm there to help with the social aspect too. La Chef invites me to talk of the day trip my father and I took earlier in the week to the shoe town of Romans, which lies on the Isere River to the southeast of Paris. The bargains for top designer shoes--Clergerie and Manoukian--get everyone's attention, and pens come out of purses to take down all the details. I start to feel like a bit of an expert.
Eventually, the entire meal comes together, and we sit down at the large oak table in the center of the room to begin the feast. We toast La Chef and move in relaxed succession from one course to the next. I'm especially entranced with the soup. We serve it in small glasses, sprinkling chopped parsley, shaved parmiggiano, and two single threads of chives on top of each one. La Chef says, "Presentation is everything."
We mop up the juices of the coq au vin with bread. La Chef shows us how to do this with a fork--for polite company--but we all give up and use our fingers instead. Soon, we've come to dessert, and as I eat my piece of tart, I look to see if there's any more left. There isn't, and I'm disappointed. I'll have to make this for my father. That way, we can each have a very large piece, and I'll feel satiated.
Coffee follows dessert, contact information is exchanged, good-byes are said. I must have done a good job--La Chef invites me to come again on Saturday, and I say yes.