(the Paris kitchen, above)
Sitting in the little Paris kitchen in our apartment (it's a stretch to say it's 8 x 5), I wait for the fresh figs to bake and think back to Chef Jean-Claude Gramond's first trip to the United States. Chef Gramond has a farm in the Vosges region of eastern France, and with his wife, Jeannine, runs a small restaurant in Paris on the rue de Fleurus, within a stone's throw of the Luxembourg Gardens and just around the corner from our apartment. Stepping into the restaurant is to walk into another world. French presidents, bishops, and other world dignitaries once frequented the restaurant, and the Gramonds live in a small house on the premises. The restaurant has only six tables, a fish tank by the door, and a legendary wine cellar.
Chef Gramond is trained classically. At this time of year, autumn, he serves mostly wild game, turning up his nose at farm-raised varieties and selecting only the truly "sauvage" specimens. The figs I'm waiting for tonight are to accompany the duck breast I'm grilling from the neighborhood butcher. I'm trying to re-create the meal the Gramonds served to us last week.
The Gramonds have a son who has lived in Connecticut for many years. He's raised his children there and is now officially an American citizen, a fact of which his parents are proud. Chef Gramond gets a faraway look in his eyes when he remembers his first venture to the United States as a young man. He speaks with the peculiar longing of nostalgia when he recalls flying over the Great Lakes through skies so clear he could see the topography below. He tells us of traveling the western United States, a classic road trip, stopping at little roadside motels for the night and visiting Las Vegas and Los Angeles--the iconic America.
He asks me what I do for a living and when I tell him that I'm in children's educational publishing, he seems to think I'm in the trenches, battling forces of social decay, which he sees all around him in France. I comment that we in the United States also have difficulties in education and in defining the family, but he inserts a corrective. "Yes, but you are a big nation. Everything is possible there."
I reflect yet again on national character, on the marvels of the American imagination and its forward orientation. Yet, we admire the French for preserving classical traditions and for their steadfast hold on the riches of the past. I tell Chef Gramond that I respect him for these traits, and he thanks me.
My duck with figs turns out to be what my father describes as a "marvelous failure." It looks beautiful on the platter and smells scrumptious, but the duck is a little overdone and needs more seasoning. The figs aren't sweet enough (La Chef tells me on the phone later that it's because the fig season is over), and the sauce is too thin. But, I'll try again. Everything is possible.