The Moment a French, 3-Star Chef Invites You To a "Little" Bar-b-Que at His Home in the French Countryside ... Plus a Recipe for Beef Paleron
“I propose you – how you Americans call it – bar-b-que at my house next Saturday. Oui?” – the moment a French, 3-star Michelin chef invites you to his home for a “simple” bar-b-que …
A little background first: this chef – we will call him “Chef” – was one of several professors I had during my culinary training in Lyon, France. Chef seemed to have a natural predilection for Americans, and there happened to be 3 of us in his class; we were very fun and loud at times, we were expressively and outwardly amazed by nearly everything he demonstrated, and we were always ready for a good joke (most of which got horribly lost in translation …) We were definitely the “cool kids” in class; however, I suspect, in this case, Chef’s propensity for Americanisms was propelled more by his appreciation and deep admiration of the very young and beautiful, American and aspiring food writer whose work station was right next to mine … We will call her “Samantha.”
So, on a sunny evening in June, at 7:30 pm, my husband and I, Samantha and American #3, we will call him “Mike,” arrived at a quaint, two-story house just outside of St. Etienne, about a 45-minute drive outside of Lyon.
Chef greeted us with champagne aperitifs which we drank at his warped picnic table first toasting to health and happiness. After a tour of his half-finished wine cave (basically a giant hole in the ground,) his dilapidated barn (perhaps the future site of a super-rad and exceptionally-exclusive restaurant,) a tour of his bachelor pad (complete with hunting trophies and tennis medals dating to his childhood, well-stocked Eurocave and impressive stereo system,) we were asked to take a seat at his dining room table.
Chef darted into the kitchen where the resounding sounds of pots and pans and the smells of stocks and butter reached us. With Chef busy at his craft, it gave us more time to study his bachelor pad; the bachelor pad of a 40-something-rock-star-chef who I suspect is only biding his time as a professor at a prestigious culinary institute. I like to imagine him plotting away every night, designing underground restaurants or an extraordinary backyard 3-star hole-in-the-wall. I could be completely wrong; if I am and you read this, Chef, please don’t send me an angry facebook message in street-French that will require me to request translation help from my savvy 8-year-old. I like to imagine my eldest baby boy speaking and thinking only in proper, beautifully versed French …
Anyways, after some speculation on what Chef was creating, “something smells soooo good!”, some compulsory selfies with Gregoire, the boar head who hangs proudly above Chef’s bar (Chef single handedly paralyzed him in a hunt the previous year and had to finish him off by hand with a knife …), and trying our hand – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – at shucking oysters from the Baie de Archachon, Chef marched in with the first course of the night – an extraordinarily adorned cup of surprisingly sumptuous fish soup. This first course – still, to this day, the most delicious soup I have ever eaten in my life – was quickly followed by the second course of equal gastronomical magnitude, which was then followed by the third course, which, again, was equally as impressive. The fourth course, the fifth course, the sixth course, the seventh course, the eight course, and – I kid you not – ninth course, (or was it 10? Does the homemade digestif that looks like it may or may not glow in the dark count as course number eleven? Probably not) followed suit.
Side note: encouraged to choose freely from the many bottles of wine in his Eurocave, the order of courses remain – honestly – a bit blurry. Were it not for my husband (our dark knight and designated driver for the night) we may only have our dimly lit photos to reconstruct the order of gastronomical indulgence and hedonism that took place in that tiny village outside of St. Etienne on that momentous evening in June. Thank you, dear husband.
The courses included wonders like charred mashed potatoes with squid ink and a blue cheese and escargot gratin. We were presented with a tiny glass bulb, which, when lifted, revealed two impeccably steamed and flawlessly plated scallops. There were watermelons that were sous-vide more than 5 times to intensely concentrate their sweetness. There were baby carrots so perfectly cooked, you could cry. We were served foie gras, delicately sweetened and perfectly seared. That night, there were gravity-defying dishes, dense and complex dishes and simple, sincere dishes. There were dishes he whipped up on the spot and there were dishes that he had to have been planning for at least a day or two in advance (like the one for beef paleron I am about to share with you.)
At 6:30 am (as you can imagine, 9 – 10 courses take quite some time to finish,) we said, “au revoir,” and with the morning sun in our faces, we started our 45-minute drive back to Lyon. Regret, exhaustion, too much wine, something circulated throughout the car. I speculate a lot had to do with exhaustion and too much wine; however, I couldn’t help but think, “Had we just experienced the pinnacle of our short- but sweet-foodie lives?” Samantha, who has eaten in Michelin-starred restaurants for most of her young life, Mike who has traveled to more than 40 countries on a quest to try the most delicious and interesting food he can find, and me who has eaten at more French-foodie restaurants than I could name (including both old and new Trois Gros Restaurants) – had we just completed the VERY best meal of our lives, never to be compared to any other meal ever again? ...
Click here for an adaptation of Chef's Beef Paleron. It takes 12 hours in the oven and a little longer on the stove top. I hope this will give you, dear reader, plenty of time to contemplate my existential-foodie crisis and answer the question: have we already reached our gastronomical summit?