Oui, Oui EEmehrikhan
It was October of 1987, right around the beginning of the third week, when Black Monday occurred: The largest US stock market crash since Black Tuesday in 1929. With President Reagan at the big desk, the DOW on the morning of October 19th was at 2200 points and took a 508 point dump, the largest free-fall in history. That is a universe away from its current comet ride towards the sun. The drop, a 22.6% free fall, would take today’s 28,000 point hayride to $21,672 – still 10x as much as that gut punch in 1987.
One month to the day after Black Monday, I was living with my fiancée, Amy, on a small park where the paragliders landed in Chamonix, France. I had scored a stage (audition) to cook for the owner of a 14-room lodge just blocks from our place. The job would be from December 1 until May 1 and would have had us working in this oh-so-paramountular and iconic ski town for the winter – which ending up being a huge year with tons of snow. It was gonna be epic. My task was to show up on Saturday morning and cook for the lodge owner and his family. His name was Ricard, and he was the French rep for SWATCH – the at-the-time hip and colorful watch that was the rage in the US with all the hipsters, before they were called hipsters. Then, in my circle, they were called walerons. Different times.
We went to the farmers market early that Friday morning before my tryout. That farmers market – with the produce from Piemonte Valley in nearby Italy, just a short drive from Chamonix – was a kind of wonderland dreamy place for a young chef. Like Aspen Farmers Market would be if the Salinas Valley were an hour away.
I bought a rabbit dripping blood from its mouth, potatoes and celery root, a grip of the wildest mushrooms, and some polenta for a cake. Amy had spent the last two years in Oakland cooking at Mesa under pastry chef Michael Keane – I was at the very least confident that dessert was going to impress.
I had spent the previous year in the Bay Area working at Zuni Café and for free at Chez Panisse when they’d have me. So I was, at that time, somewhere deep in the zone of seasonal and local, really simple and delicious.
We had a tiny apartment in Chamonix with an even smaller kitchen. Polenta cake finished, rabbit stock made, everything mis’d out for my 9:00 start time the next morning in the small but romantically wonderful kitchen at the hotel. I was gonna nail this.
I show up at 9am, and the oldest woman I’ve ever come into contact with, greets me at the door. She is Ricard’s grandmother. She’s gotta be 158 years old. She points to the kitchen and pulls a chair up to the large wooden harvest table which served as pass, prep, receiving, wine service and communal epicenter in this small, dark-woody, low ceiling’d dining room. It was truly lovely.
For three hours she watched my every move. Didn’t speak, didn’t read, didn’t write anything down, didn’t move. Had she not been blinking I would have assumed she had experienced a medical event…and had at some moment died and suffered immediate rigor mortis without my noticing. At exactly 11:59am – six other people all walked in, and the seven of them began speaking this high mountain village patoi (that on my very best days of minimally speaking French I had not word one of understanding what they were saying). Ricard, who spent half the year in NYC, looked at me just after noon and in perfect English said, “Ok Dave, let’s begin.”
I served a squash soup with escarole, a warm endive, pork belly and hazelnut salad, and the rabbit that was braised with a purée of celery root and a mushroom glace…it was a hit. Slam dunk on the polenta cake and I was sure the job was mine. Grandma was quite lively at this point – the family was pounding non-labeled red wine bottles like it was a 50-mile water station during a 100-mile run. She grabbed my hand softly before she left and said something I couldn’t have possibly understood, which was either “That was not bad” or “You are an idiot American and your dollar is worth shit right now.” I’m gonna go with a blend of the two sentiments; I think she kinda dug me.
They had a small family meeting on the other side of the dining room and, as I was rolling up my knives, Ricard came and said, “Dave, the family loved your food. The job is yours.”
Yahtzee. Bingo. Holy mackerel!! I scored a job in a small Chamonix hotel with 10 tables as the chef for the winter. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. 20 to 30 guests per service. They were going to pay me. This is going to be a dream come true.
That next Monday morning I showed up early to start cleaning the kitchen – puttin things together in a way I thought would best work for me while showing them that even though I wasn’t supposed to start for a week, I’d be in there early every day until then – making this kitchen mine.
Just about 30 minutes into my first morning in MY KITCHEN, the door opens and in walks the mailman. I immediately recognized him as the mailman, cause he was dressed, just like a mailman. He put the mail on the harvest table, which clearly also served as the mail drop table, and started speaking to me in that native tongue of the Chamonix French. I understood not word one except for something along the lines of “You must be the new chef. I’ve spent my whole life in Chamonix. Where are you from in France?” and stoopidly with two o’s in what was probably the worst French ever spoken in Chamonix I said “Hi, I’m Dave. I’m from Boulder, Colorado, I went to The Culinary Institute of America.” He said, “EEmehrikan oui??” To which I said “Oui, oui EEmehrikhan.”
The mailman turned and left. I kept cleaning. 30 minutes later, the mailman returned with a police officer. Part police officer, part tourist officer, part assistant to the mayor. In part, I was done. No visa, no work permit, no job. The officer yelled a few comments at Ricard who showed up at about this time. It was a polite yelling; I think they were related on their mother’s side. Ricard was a little less patient with the mailman – who had ratted me out like a stoned and hungry wedding crasher…at a 12-person wedding party. I was done.
Ricard explained that in order to get a work visa I would need a permit, and permits were only issued to visitors with a work visa . “It was nice to meet you, Dave. I was hoping we could just fly under the radar, but ………. your French isn’t so good.”
My coffee with the mayor later that day, who was very nice and a very happy gentleman, was a quick cup. “I can introduce you to the chef at Restaurant Albert 1er, but any work verification would take 6-8 months to receive.” I think he also said, “And your French sucks”, but his head was turned so it wasn’t obvious. With the dollar plummeting and our one year’s allowance of cash now looking like about 4 months of staying power – just like that, from a Saturday on top of the world to a Monday afternoon calling the leasing agent and ditching our place – we were outta there.
Chamonix is beautiful. Tough place for an EEmehrikhan to land a winter job.
Happy Holidays to all of you. We at the Big Red F hope that all of you have a truly safe and wonderful season filled with giggles and love. We look forward to seeing you in the new year, and we look forward to showing you that in our 26th year of this restaurant company, we are going to have our very best year – focusing on outstanding food and memorable hospitality ……. like never before.