Michel Richard

My son Philippe and I were eating rib steak with our friend Michel. It was his favorite.

Someone came to the table and whispered to him that a tray of already baked puff pastry had been dropped on the floor. He left us and went into the kitchen of Central, his restaurant.

After perhaps 20 minutes, Michel emerged, smiling broadly as he put before us a plate on which a puff pastry swan swam in a huge pool of whipped cream. So was born a Michel Richard creation made from fractured puff pastry that itself had been made with Wondra flour, an ingredient I am far too snooty ever to use.

In the food world Michel Richard was a giant and in his personal life he was outsized too.

I met Michel in 1991. Marvelous Market had opened the year before and Jean Louis Palladin had put our bread in his restaurant at the Watergate and had invited me into his huge circle of friends. When we learned that he and I would be in Los Angeles at the same time, he invited me to join him at Citrus, Michel’s restaurant in Hollywood.

I had not seen a restaurant like that before. Light and open and simply decorated with the kitchen in the front visible to all. I was ushered to a back table that was littered with champagne bottles. Jean Louis was sitting with a round bearded man. Even before introducing us, Jean Louis poured a glass for me and said, “Taste this because you will never taste it again.”

“Don’t waste it on me,” I said, “I don’t like champagne.”

Michel looked angry and asked Jean Louis, “Qu’est ce cul?”

“He’s my baker,” Jean Louis said.

Michel said to me in a voice of pure scorn, “Oh, you’re boulanger. A boulanger!” He pushed a loaf of bread across the table and asked me, “Can you make this? Can you make a bread like this?”

I didn’t know how to do it.

Seven years later on the eve of his 50th birthday Michel Richard left Los Angeles and moved to Washington to take over full time his restaurant in the Latham Hotel.

This wasn’t a good time for Michel. His family didn’t want to move, but he had tired of Los Angeles about which he complained incessantly. “They come into the restaurant and ask for a piece of grilled fish, sauce on the side.” He felt unappreciated, his art unrecognized.

I do not use the word “art” lightly; Michel was truly an artist. The walls of my apartment would convince you of that. On them is Michel’s “Jolie Pomme,” a painting he gave to friends one Christmas as well as a caricature  of me he drew in charcoal.

He drew and painted and brought his artist sensibilities to his restaurants, imagining how he would like to have his dishes look, drawing them before making them.

But he was a chef above all. As he thought visually about his foods he thought about other senses as well – how to give foods flavor combinations and unexpected and pleasurable textures.   He loved “crunch” and talked all the time about the importance of texture.

Michel had complicated relationships with everyone who loved him but during those first years in Washington he was happier than he ever had been in his life. He said so.

Jean Louis had created in Washington a unique community of chefs who supported each other and socialized, but he had left the city and moved to Las Vegas, the first important chef to move to that strange place. Michel took over Jean Louis’ role as Washington’s host and his happiness about being in Washington made him the center of the food community.

Perhaps that would not have happened except that when Michel moved here somewhat bitter just before his fiftieth birthday, we learned that his birthday was approaching and Roberto Donna organized his chef pals to give Michel a surprise party.

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We all arrived furtively, plans having been made to get Michel away from Citronelle while we gathered bringing foods with us; and when he returned we surprised him in the private dining room of his own restaurant.

He was astonished and touched and knew right away that Washington for him was going to be different. He told me so.

In fact he made it different. Every afternoon he sat at Citronelle, outside or in the upstairs bar or at the chef’s table in his kitchen, and people passed by for a cigar and/or a glass. Customers, chefs, Georgetown neighbors, visiting friends, whoever wanted to come.

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Wine was freely poured, good wine, and generally Michel would ask, “Are you hungry.” No, people would say, and he would respond, “I am.” Shortly thereafter slices of my bread would appear with butter and a plate of thinly sliced American “prosciutto.” (Michel, like Jean Louis, was a champion of American foods.)

He had a wonderful life then and it became the most creative period of his life. He invented incessantly. He left his restaurant at 10 pm or so, sometimes going out with others.

He returned to his home and like most chefs had to do something before he could sleep. He watched infomercials on television, the contraptions they were selling. Often he would imagine a food use for them, a new idea, a new dish; and he would order one to be sent to him.

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Michel with Phyllis Richman

            Sometimes in the morning before appearing at the restaurant he would prowl Home Depot stores looking at hand tools and imagining food uses for them. And he’d bring his newly purchased tool with him to the restaurant.

Often he arrived early in the morning and could spend an entire day, sometimes more than a day, inventing a new dish or a new technique for cooking. He was perpetually excited about his work always trying something new and different, a bright orange carrot mousse atop a bright green liquid made from carrot tops, a cloud of nitrogen to dazzle my 96 year old mother before serving to her the ice cream he had made for her.  A six-foot tall croquembouche, a wedding cake for my son’s wedding reception, carried to it by four men.

He was so happy then that he even started to exercise.

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In those days he produced his magnum opus, Happy in the Kitchen, a beautiful book. This was the period in which he was named best chef in America and Gourmet Magazine put him on its cover.

But far earlier when Michel was still in Los Angeles people had put the bug in his ear that he ought to “expand his brand,” as it’s now called. So he had created Citronelle, a cousin of his fabulous Citrus and in the flash of an eye, there were Citronelles all over the country.

No one I know can manage successfully restaurant chains whose greatest virtues are supposed to be creativity and personality. Michel couldn’t. The Citronelles closed one by one, all but ours.

Many of us hoped that Michel was finished with that part of his life. He was so happy focusing on Citronelle, creating, entertaining his guests and enjoying their enjoyment.

He decided to open Central in downtown Washington. That seemed all right. A second restaurant a couple of miles from his own Citronelle where Michel was now in residence.

Central was fabulously successful.

Other opportunities came and came for Michel and others to profit even more from his prodigious talents. Some of his friends implored him to be satisfied with what he was doing. His life was so good. He knew it was good.

I organized Michel’s friends to try to dissuade him from expanding because years earlier I myself had given into the temptations of more-ness and ruined the highly successful bakery I had opened in 1990.

But Michel proceeded, first opening Restaurant Michel in Tyson’s Corner, an unappreciative neighborhood of our city that skins alive worthy restaurants that deserve support. Then he opened in Atlantic City – and then Los Angeles (again) – and then Las Vegas – and then finally in New York where he failed in a horribly visible way.

He returned to Washington, spent and lost. He lived just up the street from Bread Furst where we saw him often. His friends tried to brighten his life and I think we did. Certainly no one ever had more loyal friends than Michel.

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Michel with Francesco Ricchi

            Michel Richard prepared us for his death.   All who loved him – and there are so many – tried to be attentive during his last years but we knew that he would die and far too early.

Of course no one could save him and now all those who loved him are left only with our memories. I have many:

A trip with him to Brussels where he was reunited with his mentor, the greatest of pastry chefs, Gaston Lenotre, then in his 80s, who threw his arms about Michel, kissed him on both cheeks, and said, “Mon protégé, mon meilleur étudiant.”

Those many occasions when I was permitted to join Michel when he was in earnest conversation with my son, Philippe. They had a special friendship and when they arranged to have dinner they sometimes included me but only if I agreed to come late.

A trip to Paris with Michel and Thomas Keller of The French Laundry and others. We arrived (of course) in the morning and agreed to meet at 10 AM at Maison du Chocolat. When we got there and began to look at the beautiful chocolates we turned around and there was Michel sitting, eating and he turned away briefly from his chocolate bombe to give us a mischievous look.

And one more trip, a particularly memorable one because the weather in Paris was alternatingly cool and warm, and we sat outside a little café just behind the National Assembly, watching the guards patrol, sipping beer in the sun. And Michel said, “Could anything be better than this?”

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Perhaps, Michel, the opportunity to do that one more time.

On the Road

I am driving across the country for no reason other than that I have not driven across the country before and therefore there is too much I have not seen. This seemed like a good time to do that.

Seeing Asheville, North Carolina for the first time was wonderful; seeing Hazard, Kentucky again after 52 years was not so wonderful. It hasn’t changed very much.

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I had in Birmingham an expectedly wonderful dinner at the Highlands Bar and Grill and I was disappointed by a return to dinner at the Boone Tavern Inn in Berea Kentucky at which I spent so much time in the early Sixties.

In the old days part of the adventure of travel, a big part, was discovery. That’s still true of course. I used to love in the old days seeing signs advertising a restaurant five miles ahead, then at three miles, then at one, and then coming upon it.

It’s still possible to do it but it’s harder. The Interstate highways are so easy and tempting and the old roads not always so good.   And the Interstate system, drawing so many motorists, has it made more difficult for small local eateries that once depended on travelers to prosper now, even survive.

But the bland predictability of the Interstate’s food offerings – Shoney’s, McDonald’s, Subway, Sonic, Pizza Hut – makes it impossible for a curious hungry man to stay on those highways.

So I found myself driving down Route 331 south of Montgomery, Alabama and I began seeing signs for It Don’t Matter Family Restaurant. I was about three hours from Eglin Air Force Base, my destination (that’s another story) and when I came upon the restaurant, I turned into its parking lot

It was 11 am, Sunday morning and 22 cars and pick up trucks were in the parking lot. I looked at their license plates and nearly all were from Alabama. I took that as a good sign and parked.

The glass door had a prominent sign asking me not to wear my sidearm into the restaurant and when I entered I saw a cavernous space with many, many tables and on the left two banks of steam tables. The greeter said, “We’re buffet today. Is that alright?”

She led to a table and asked, “Sweetened tea or unsweetened?”

“You must know I’m a northerner,” I said. She smiled sweetly.

I went to the buffet and saw what others were putting on their plates. Braised beef, fried chicken, lima beans, black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes, an array of salads, and so on and so on.

A big man wearing shorts and a T-shirt was moving among the tables talking cheerfully to people and I asked if I might meet him. Of course he had a story:

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Pete Hayes has a complicated life. He is master plumber and a master electrician who works full-time for the Montgomery school system. In real life, however, he owns this massive restaurant to which he drives each evening after work and at which he spends his weekends.

In another real life he owns Highland Kar care, an auto shop next door to the restaurant. In a real life to come he is going to open a barbecue restaurant. And in a former life he was a professional wrestler. That was life he liked best.

He was based in Atlanta and wrestled in a different town each night, the Carolinas to Michigan. On weekends he returned to Atlanta for a Saturday morning television show, then drove to Chattanooga to wrestle in the evening, then to Marietta, Ga to wrestle on Sunday afternoon and then back to Atlanta to start the week again. He was knows as “The Enforcer,” sometimes “Los Lobos,” sometimes “The Masked Superstar,” and in the last part of his career “The Skullmaster.” I gather he was always the villain.

He bought the restaurant not for himself but for his son. He intended to be there only on weekends and only to grill steaks. The first time he did it, he went to a butcher in Montgomery before driving back and bought twelve steaks. They were sold out in the first thirty minutes of the evening.

The next weekend he bought 24 and they were sold out in an hour. Now he buys whole ribs and butchers them himself. A sixteen ounce ribeye for $18. I asked how that is possible. He shrugged.

I have nothing to say about Mr. Hayes’ wrestling career but I liked the food in his restaurant and I loved the place. His story seemed to me such an American story – a high school football star from a small town who became a maintenance man and really loved wrestling, still does – now an entrepreneurial with no interest beyond family and work – certainly no thought of retirement.

“Why would I do that?” he asked me.

 

Water, Water Everywhere

I recently returned from a trip with Philippe, my son. We were in hot climates and at high altitudes and he reminded me several times a day to drink water. He bought bottled water for me and made me carry it around in my little sack.

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My other son, Francois, is calmly critical of my water intake telling me that the thirst instinct fails in old age and that when I sense thirst it is already too late.

I irritate them by reminding how much coffee I consume and how much water is in the fruits and vegetables I like to eat (not to mention Scotch whisky and gin I like to drink); and they scoff.

When Philippe and I were at the airport returning from our trip, I watched a young woman arguing with an official at the security x-ray machines. She didn’t want to give up her half-empty bottle of water. The line grew as the woman argued before, of course, ultimately giving in.

She was about to board a flight on which water would be available and free.   I didn’t understand what she was fighting for.

I rarely drink water but I know that in this respect as in so many others I am out of step with modernity.

I was born and raised in Baltimore which had when I was being born and raised there one of the most advanced water systems in the country. We were proud of it particularly my family whose friend Abel Wolman was the architect of the system and the founder of modern sanitary engineering.

We Baltimoreans thought our water was the best.

Even so no one ever suggested to us that we “ought” to drink water. When we were thirsty we drank from the tap and from public water fountains (that were segregated by race).  We took water for granted. It was ubiquitous. It wasn’t important.

If, when I was younger, someone had used the word “hydration” I would have thought it was a mispronunciation of the flowering bush.

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What did “hydration” come from? I have always known the word “thirst;” but “hydration” seems to me to be one of those ailments we invent to excuse ourselves from personal responsibility. Instead of saying, “I am thirsty,” we create an explanation to justify a feeling, “I am dehydrated.”

I must acknowledge my sons’ loving fears. I am old, perhaps too old to know when I need water. Drinking water is indeed more important at the top of Machu Picchu than at Cape May.

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But most of the water we put into our bodies comes from fruits and vegetables and coffee and tea and milk and much of we put in our mouths.

As nutritionist Marion Nestle says, “Watermelon is called watermelon for a reason. It is mostly water and perfect for hot summer days.” She also points out that thirst is a good indicator of the need for water as are some other bodily signs too intimate to write about here.

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Photo by Quinn Grundy

So how did the world’s mostly widely consumed beverage become so quickly treated as a need we were being deprived of?   And particularly why have people turned to bottled water to satisfy their “need.”

I see people on subway trains here and on the streets, summer and winter, carrying bottled water. Sometimes the bottles are refillable steel, more frequently they are flimsy plastic.

People buy water in grocery stores. Why do people spend their money to buy something that is available free everywhere?

Some people buy water, I suspect, because they don’t like the chlorine and other strange flavors and odors that come from their taps. Others don’t like their tap water. (I share those sentiments.)

We have not kept up our water either. What has happened in Flint Michigan is an extreme outcome of our indifferent investment in water systems, not to mention all other public services and facilities.

Others are buying bottled water as they turn away from sugared and artificially sweetened drinks. And the consequence is more and more plastic bottles to dispose of.  (Read, if you wish, about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating island of trash the size of Texas.)

But we’ve been drinking water for all of human history – long before plastic was invented.   Ceramic jugs were carried on camel trips in the desert and more recently metal water bottles were carried on long hikes. But drinking bottled water in ordinary life was mostly unheard of except that we were advised to do so in countries that were said to have undependable public water systems

People in those dark and ignorant days did leave home not carrying water. They did walk on city streets without water. People rode the subways and busses and bicycles without water bottles. It’s a wonder the human race survived.

Now people carry bottles with them as if they fear they won’t find water when they are thirsty. Now we don’t trust our thirsts and wearing water has become a fashion statement like the silly often turned-around baseball caps young men now wear.

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Could there be some nefarious commercial interests in all this? Tap water is such a better choice. It’s cheap and doesn’t involve polluting plastic. It is so much better in every way even if you have to put a filter on your faucet as I do.

As Marion Nestle puts it:

…let’s start with the fact that bottled water is the most brilliantly marketed product ever invented.  The companies get it practically free out of a tap and charge you a dollar or more – sometimes a lot more – for a quart or less).  The plastic bottles pollute the environment.  Worst of all, drinking bottled water makes people less apt to be vigilant about protecting public water supplies.

I could not believe that when Philippe and I were standing on the Equator a couple of weeks ago so many people also there were carrying with them bottles of Dasani bottled in Latin America and sold to suckers like us.

I confess to you that like my grandmother, I have no love for water as a beverage. When I see all those people carrying all those plastic bottles, I want to say to them, “Water is for bathing.” But even those who are fond of drinking it – even those who think they are preventing horrid maladies ought to consider getting their water in the old-fashioned way.

 

 

 

It’s Never Good Enough

I am a not an easy man to work for. (Ask anyone here.) I am frequently pleased but rarely satisfied.

Each morning I walk to the bread rack to look at and feel the breads – to see if they are baked to the color I want, whether they were proofed fully before baking, whether they are heavy or light.

For several days our Palladin’s bread was too dense.

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It didn’t have the crisp crust and light, airy interior it is supposed to have. And so I came to work at 3 am the other day to learn what had changed and to make it possible for us to get back the qualities we want in that bread.

One very busy Saturday morning I passed through the bread bakery and saw baguettes that were heavy and soft. (You get accustomed to looking at breads and know if they don’t look right.) I picked one up. It was indeed heavy and soft.

I asked what happened. Nafta had felt rushed when at 10:30 we ran out of the 7 am baguettes. He felt the frustration of customers and baked the second batch before they were ready to be baked.

We talked about it.

Then as fate would have it, I ran into a customer who said to me, “I come here for your baguette because it’s so wonderful.” I saw her carrying a deficient one and I resisted saying what I thought. For this reason:

A decade ago a customer was sitting in a corner of The BreadLine, my restaurant downtown. He motioned me over and said, “You make the best baguette I have ever had.”

“That’s funny,” I said, “I have never made a baguette that satisfied me”

I saw his face drop and I realized what a cruel and insulting thing I had done. Now when a customer pays a compliment I say simply, “Thank you.”

But our customers are really sophisticated and I think you expect us to police our quality. You should expect it.

IMG_2125    So every day I taste our soup and a salad or two and other foods as well. (Not good for my figure as you may have noticed.)

Sometimes I say to Robert that the fried chickpeas don’t have enough cumin or the soup needs a little salt.

That’s my job here.

I am certainly not the only person here who pays attention to what we do – far from it. Eun Yim, our manager, certainly does. She is particularly sensitive; it seems to me, about English muffins too small or bagels with that tight navel opening that I dislike

I think our staff contains a lot of critics and we want that to be the case. We want to be proud of what we do and I believe – I hope we all take every opportunity to accentuate the positive: Our baguette is the best I have made in my baking career and our croissant is perfect every day. But I remain, I guess, generally critical.

I have no right to have such confident in my judgments. I became a baker at the age of 52 and before that had been just an eater. When I was a child my grandmother used to say that I had a stomach but no palate. I hope I became discerning as an eater and certainly I always had strong opinions about food that I felt free to express. But I wasn’t a professional. (One doesn’t have to be a professional to be opinionated about food.)

When I opened Marvelous Market in 1990, I knew nothing about bread other than how to replicate some of the breads I had seen in other bakeries. We offered very little food and no pastry at all. And seven years later I audaciously opened The BreadLine, a restaurant, never having been the chef of a restaurant.

Now after 26 years of making foods that others like to eat, I may have some claim to knowledge; but I am still a novice compared to many of my colleagues whose careers began practically in childhood. I just hope I have learned enough to earn the right to my naturally opinionated personality.

When I am trying to develop a food, bread, or dessert I nearly always have in my mind what I want, how I want something to look and taste and feel. It starts with an idea that I work on in my head before using my hands.

Driving to the bakery or reading the newspaper, I get an idea.   We had received colorful carrots from the Mennonite cooperative in Pennsylvania. Roasting the carrots would make them really sweet. Pomegranates are still available and I thought about adding arils for color, texture, and flavor. Wheat berries for texture. Radicchio for a seasonal bitterness. Radicchio with wheat berries. Two wintery ingredients. Different textures. Very different flavors. Then I thought about tahini for a nutty flavor.

Great ideas, perhaps, but the salad didn’t taste good and was utterly ugly. That was a really bad idea.   It doesn’t matter; I’ll think about it and another idea will come.

I am not autonomous here, however, and I certainly don’t do all the development. When we were tasting new coffees to replace what we had, I expected certain flavors of chocolate and a certain bitterness and sweetness. We tasted coffees but it was Eun who chose La Colombe.

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In the pastry kitchen Cecile Mouthen is on a spree right now.  She is creating new muffins and cookies and greater varieties of all sorts of desserts. Just yesterday she presented for sampling a baklava pie and a coffee cake – a cake made with coffee.

 

Much of what we all do is monitor and correct. Eun and Jesse tasted the carrot cake and thought it was gummy inside. I agreed and so did Cecile. She thought she knew why and made changes in the size of the carrot pieces inside.

A soup had too much cumin. The rye bread was flat. We make imperfect foods every day.

Sometimes we have recipe drift; a recipe becomes so familiar and made so frequently that the paper disappears and that doesn’t matter because everyone knows how to make it anyway. Except one day we notice that it’s become something other than the original recipe.

Sometimes we get a better idea. Less rice and more peas in the chicken salad. We are lucky; we we can make changes right away in our food. A multi-store bakery wouldn’t be able to do that.

We want to be proud of what we do and one of the pleasures of making foods is that we always have a chance to make them perfect the next time we make them.

One of the frustrations of making foods is that they are never perfect. This is my third bakery and although I know we are making very good foods here I am never satisfied. It’s a curse. It prevents my enjoying as much as others do what we make here. It makes me restless.

I have a secret list of improvements, changes to make in foods customers already like. I have recipe fragments for spring vegetables. I look at cookbooks and favorite blogs and websites. Others do the same thing.

If consistency is the hobgoblin, invention is the angel.

I made a list of new foods for spring. We’re going to discuss it. Other will have other ideas.

Where are the customers in all this? Well, for one thing customers make suggestions. Customers remember foods I made 25 years ago and ask that we make them again. Most important, customers criticize. (Perhaps not as much as we would like.)

But if the customers like and buy our foods shouldn’t that be sufficient, indeed shouldn’t that be conclusive?

I just don’t think so. We are unable to stop tampering.

 

 

When Did Emergency Become Snow’s Last Name?

I returned early from a conference in California to which I had committed myself. I did that because Bread Furst was robbed.

Two men invaded our space and beat Jesse McCormick with a pistol.

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It was in the middle of the day and brazen. It was awful. I wanted to be here and left San Francisco the moment my obligations ended there. I arrived 13 hours before the snowstorm.

Our staff met that morning to talk about the storm even before I arrived. By that time Metro had peremptorily announced it would close for three days.   A three-day closing even before the first snowflake fell? Our public transporation, our bus and subway system closing because streets above would be snowy?

Why?

I understand closing pieces of the city when closing is made necessary by the weather. But I don’t understand what we, the city of Washington now do: Close virtually everything in anticipation of difficult weather.

“This is not a storm that anyone should take lightly, and I would urge all residents to plan to get to a safe place before the storm arrives Friday afternoon,” said Metro General Manager/CEO Paul J. Wiedefeld.

I don’t believe that anyone was taking the storm lightly and I realize that Mr. Wiedefeld is new to his job. But surely he knows that our busses and subway are not a discretionary service.   The people who make the city run depend on busses and the subway. Those who work in stores and restaurants and hospitals commute by bus and train. Shutting down public transportation shuts down our city.

Our general manager, Eun Yim, anticipating the snow and the city’s shut-down, rented rooms at the Day’s Inn down the block and she offered them to staff who wanted to stay. Four did.

Others of the staff who live within a mile or so walked to work.

Thus we were able to stay open during the storm; and because we paid incredible sums for Uber rides we opened on Monday fully staffed.

 

            When I was a child my family lived on West North Avenue in Baltimore across the street from Gwynns Falls Park. Our elementary school was a mile away.

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During winter snow days we hoped our school would close.  It rarely did and so we would dress up, put on galoshes, wool hats, and mittens and go to the corner to wait for the streetcar. In general snow was fun for kids.

For grown-ups too life went on during snowstorms. People were often late to work but they went to work. Businesses opened. People drove.

It is true that cars were heavier then; perhaps they had better traction than cars do now. And during snowstorms people put chains on their tires. Chains were a lot of trouble and got replaced by snow tires with deep treads and metal studs.

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We had two sets of tires, summer and winter then. Now many of us have lighter cars and snow tires have given way to all-weather tires that are a compromise between summer and winter.

In addition, of course, people live far afield and travel long distances to work.   Children don’t walk to school any longer.

But still Washington seems unusually timid to me. Cities more northern that ours cope better with snowfall.   I know they have larger snow removal budgets and more equipment but I think they cope better because for them snow remains part of life.

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Not here. In Washington we traumatize ourselves. Last winter the simple forecast of snow was enough to get schools canceled and the Federal government closed. The threat was sufficient.  I found that particularly outrageous. I was offended when weather forecasters forgave themselves when the storms they puffed up abruptly deflated by explaining how difficult it is to forecast here.

At least this time the snow came. But look at what we did in anticipation!

We shut down the city. We closed even the federal government.   Is the federal government a non-essential service?

No postal delivery – well, we privatized that. But that can’t be the reason. Chipotle was open and it’s private.

The DC government was closed but gas stations were open.

Is Grover Norquist right?

I am pretty certain that the Pentagon and National Security Agency went on working during the storm. But the rest of us conspired to make a winter storm a danger nearly as terrifying as ISIS.

We are doing this to ourselves.   When storms begin to form we are told minute-by-minute about their rising threat.   We follow the forecasts obsessively as television and the Internet burn with news. As a storm approaches we are pulled into near-frenzy. We predict closings and then impose them. We cancel thousands of airline flights.

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We are redefining what constitutes an emergency. Before the storm hit the city Washington’s mayor declared a disaster; so did the Commonwealth of Virginia. And Maryland’s governor warned people to stock up in preparation for a week of isolation.

(He must have been brought up on the prairie.)

We were not shut down by the storm. We shut ourselves down in anticipation of it. We left only the duration of the shutdown to be determined by how much snow actually fell.

We are simply accepting a redefinition of emergency. If emergencies are now awful things that might happen, are we now going to live in a perpetual state of emergency?

I know I am an old-timer, a fogey, but it wasn’t like this before.

“The actions we are taking today are all in the interest of our customers’ and employees’ safety, and will help us return to service once the storm passes and the snow is cleared,” Mr. Wiedefeld said.

No, that’s not so.   Metro trains were not sheltered during the storm as he promised; and even two days after it ended only fractions of service were restored.   Two days after the storm ended even the few busses that ran were given a 5 pm curfew.

Mr. Wiedefeld explained that Metro has consistently promised more than it was able to deliver and he wants to change that culture.  He did not want to make promises he couldn’t keep.

But of course if you promise nothing, that is a promise you will always be able to keep.

The timorous response of Metro contrasted sharply with the transportation systems of other eastern cities and with Amtrak that continued its service through the storm.

New York schools opened on Monday. Washington schools did not and Arlington County announced that its schools will be closed until Thursday, five days after the snow ended.

Why not open the schools and require students who miss days to make up work?

Jesse was pistol-whipped a week ago and has 18 stitches in his head. He lives in Alexandria where the Metro wasn’t running; but with a concussion and drugs for it he returned to work yesterday.

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As for the return of our public services, we’ll just have to wait and see.

 

 

 

 

Slipping into Tipping

At the very end of 2014 I wrote an essay about my tipping dilemma and asked for advice.

You know, I suspect, something about restaurant tips. Restaurants are able to pay a modest hourly wage, below the normal minimum because the preponderance of a waitstaff’s salary comes from tips. This is a good thing for both sides. Restaurants are able to contain labor costs and waitrons earn far more than they would if they were receiving an hourly wage.

Of course it’s you who are paying the difference.

Retail is something else. Bread Furst pays a good wage to our retail staff – well, good by industry standards.   We do that because we don’t expect customers in our bakery to pay a 15-20% tip. Indeed, I don’t expect our customers to tip at all.

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It is not, after all, expected in hardware and grocery stores, nor at Saks Fifth Avenue.  So why should it be in a bakery?

I have always disliked the way in which quick-service food retail handles tipping .

For me this is an aesthetic issue and I take my lesson from what I have experienced as a customer:

I order at the counter from a young woman in torn jeans and a wrinkled and slightly soiled shirt. I want a coffee to go. She turns around, takes a cup, presses a spigot, asking, “Leave room for milk?”  

She turns back, hands the coffee to me and with a few strokes hands me an I-Pad that says:  

Coffee                              $2.95 

Gratuity          ______      10 %

                          ______      15 %

                          ______      20 %

I think, “Jeeze, she’s simply filled a cup. Why should I tip her?” I look up querulously. She is looking directly, expectantly into my eyes. 

I didn’t want customers to have this experience here and so I banished tipping.

 

Well, guess what. It happened here.

If you are a regular customer of Bread Furst you know that our service has been slow. One of the principal reasons is that I made a big mistake at the beginning in my choice of point-of-sale systems – our cash register system. At the time it seemed to be the best choice available; but in fact, I chose a system that made customers wait long times to check out. It was frustrating to you and awful for us.

We took a long time to choose a new system but finally we did and we installed it last week. It comes with a tipping option that forces you to choose.

 

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As a result tipping increased 300 percent.

I really don’t know what to make of this and what to do about it. I know that customers have asked frequently during our year and half of life if they could leave tips; and for a year we have had a discretely placed jar for those who really wanted to do so. That seemed like a good compromise. Customers who really wanted to tip could do it and those who didn’t want to weren’t made to feel guilty about that.

But it seems to me that some customers who didn’t think about tipping were now being asked directly to tip and I wonder if some of you may resent that.

But perhaps that is just the view of a 77-year old traditionalist.

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Eun Yim, our general manager and a far younger person than I, says that the practice “has become so standard (that when I shop) I don’t think about it. If it’s a quick service place and I order a cup of coffee, I don’t see any reason to tip.”

 

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Matt Demma who works here on weekends, a young man committed to the retail food business, says he always tips when he buys because he knows that like him, the people serving him “survive on their tips.”

And I know that some of you want to tip.  Indeed a customer told me just a day ago that she wanted the option when she checks out.  (But another customer overhearing the conversation said he finds the tip screen a subtle coercion.)

I really don’t know what to do. On the one hand I don’t want to deprive our service people of a wage increase. That’s what it is, a wage increase that costs us nothing. On the other hand we already pay a decent wage and we are paying a fortune for health insurance.

We could do what restaurants do and, in view of the energized tipping, lower our base wage. We’d benefit from that as an organization but it wouldn’t please our sales people.

But what about that? Why is it that the salespeople alone benefit from tips?

Our sales staff is very important as it is the face of our bakery.   But what about those who produce what we make for you? What about the bakers, cooks, and pastry staff? They don’t benefit from tips unless we pool them; and that is something that some restaurants do.

None of this addresses the curious fact that in spite of what I wrote in 2014, we slipped into tipping and did that at a time when others, led by Danny Meyer, the estimable New York restaurateur, are questioning and abandoning the practice.

We have taken the tipping option off our point of sales system at least for the time being. Please let us know what you think.

 

 

 

Cooking from the Pantry

Would you like to know about my craziness – well, some of it.

My new year’s resolution is not to lose weight; that’s a year-long, lifelong resolution. Nor is to be a better person; that’s unachievable. My resolution this year is to bring greater order to my home.

That may seem to you so simple as to be unworthy of a new year.  But it’s not.

I am focusing right now on the kitchen and have a bossy friend helping me.

Clearing space there required me to take from the cupboards all of their contents.

IMG_2085            In my defense, I point out that I am a professional and so sometimes I buy ingredients with which I can experiment. They accumulate.

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And in my defense, sometimes people bring to the bakery foods they want us to sell and friends bring to my home gifts of foods they think I will enjoy.

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Those foods pile up a bit but this does not explains some foods that only I could have brought in.

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I will learn what this is only by opening it. (I hope it isn’t durian.)

I suffer from a peculiar pathology, culinary hoarding.

I go to a store to shop for a particular recipe I have in mind, one that requires, say, unsweetened coconut milk and I stand before the store shelf on which it reposes and say to myself, “Do I have any coconut milk at home?”

Well, I say again to myself, “I don’t want to make a special trip if I don’t have it, so I’ll buy a can just in case. Oh, I might as well buy two so I don’t have to wonder the next time.”   But when the next time comes I repeat that litany and the result is:

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I do not want simply to put back into the cabinets what I have removed and so right now I am sleeping each night with dreams of food combinations.

I try to imagine foods composed exclusively of what I have on hand. But how could I combine one of Joyce Goldstein’s superb jams with another ingredient also in the pantry. I stand before the counter and try to imagine combinations. But do hearts of palm really go well with lingonberry?

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So I altered this unrealistic aspiration and tried to think of recipes that might combine an ingredient I have on hand with fresh ingredients I buy. That was easy but I fear the weeding out will take too long.

 

My helpful friend had a better suggestion. Meals composed of several courses each of which uses one jar on hand:

Martinis with pickled corn served with toasts with caper flowers and anchovy paste.

Followed by room temperature pork roast with with mango chutney and a salad of avocado and hearts of palm

And a dessert of shortbread cookies with assorted jams.

I can do this. I can have a series of dinners here with friends who are adventurous eaters. I have a lot of such friends. But with foods like these, how long will I keep them? How many dinner parties must I hold? How long will it take?

Frankly I am praying for a couple of blizzards.

 

 

 

 

The Democratization of Criticism

Back in the old days, there were two public voices of food criticism in Washington. She was Phyllis Richman of the Post and he was Robert Shoffner of the Washingtonian.

Shoffner immersed himself in Washington’s culinary history and wrote with real knowledge about our traditions and development.

Richman first wrote a food column for the Baltimore Jewish Times, then a restaurant column for the Washington Star, then for the Washingtonian and starting in 1976 for the Post.

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Richman was a pioneer of newspaper food criticism in America, of the generation of Craig Claiborne at the New York Times, Lois Dwan who wrote over three decades for the Los Angeles Times, and others.

Richman had a demanding role; much was expected of her and after a few years at the Post she had three jobs: Food editor, restaurant critic, and syndicated columnist.

What made her job particularly difficult, it seemed to me, was that before the era in which she and others were writing, food criticism had been thought of as “woman’s work.” But Richman considered herself – and was in fact a journalist. She was boxed in, however.   When, as she says, “Food was just food and family, it was acceptable for women to write about it. But when it became money and glamor, then it was men’s work.”

As true as that is, Richman’s voice became more powerful in the Washington food scene’s than anyone else’s had been. Many times I saw the reactions of restaurateurs who realized that she was sitting at one of their tables. They knew how powerful a review from her could be. Her review of Marvelous Market on a Sunday in October, 1990 brought 250 people to a line outside our door. The police came to see what was happening and busses paused to see the sight.

No one will ever be that powerful again.

From 1983 to 1988 Tom Sietsema, then a college student, was her assistant before he moved to Milwaukee to be food editor of the Journal, then to the San Francisco Chronicle to write about food, then to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to write about food.  He returned to Washington in 2000.

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The demands now made on Sietsema are greater even than those that were made on Richman. He is of course first our restaurant critic and writes a restaurant review for the Post Magazine every week. As well he previews new restaurants in the Post’s Wednesday food section, writes periodic stories for the front section, hosts a weekly on-line chat, and wrote post cards from the road once a month that have now been replaced by major stories on the food scenes in other cities.

Yet in spite of it all he is far from being the only food voice in Washington. There is David Hagedorn of who writes for D.C. Modern Luxury and the Wall Street Journal, Don Rockwell who hosts a popular Web site, Tim Carmen of the Post, Todd Kliman and others at the Washingtonian Magazine, Prince of Petworth, Bright Young Thing, and occasionally Warren Rojas of Roll Call.

And above all – Zagat, the little red book (not to be confused with the sayings of Mao Tse-tung).

In 1978 I was working for the Boston Police Department and one evening Barney Frank, then in the state legislature, told me that our mutual friend from the National Student Association, Tim Zagat was going to create a restaurant guide.

Zagat during our student years had talked about ways of empowering consumers, aggregating them so that their opinions about many consumer goods could have more powerful effects. He had dreamed of rating restaurants, films and stores, airlines and others.

I was then an avid home cook and Craig Claiborne reader, a believer in expertise, and I said to Barney, “That’s an awful idea.   You don’t become a restaurant critic just by eating out.”

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Wow was I wrong! That is exactly what happened. People became critics. The little red book was successful in city after city. Hundreds of thousands of people bought it, responded to its surveys, and relied on it.

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But what empowered consumers even more was, of course, the Internet that gave a forum to everyone, anyone, and a forum of irresistible immediacy.

There are many, many professional Web sites like Eater.com and offshoots of publications like the Web sites of the Post and the Washingtonian. There are wonderful food sites like Serious Eats, personal Web sites, travel sites like Trip Advisor. And then – of course – there is Yelp.

Yelp is in a category of its own, getting 135 million visitors monthly who want to know about hair salons and dry cleaners. (Under the category “Best Prisons” the D.C. Jail gets one and half stars.)

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Even though it carries consumer ratings to great extremes, Yelp, it is said, has great power. A Harvard Business School study argued that a change in the number of stars given to a business affects its business volume by five to seven percent.

How can it be then that virtually no restaurateur – even those with the thinnest of skins – pays any attention whatever to Yelp. Most don’t bother to look at it.

Some have had bad experiences.   Some Yelpers, restaurant owners believe, use the threat of bad reviews to get favors. Some restaurateurs have been publically critical, even rebellious about Yelp. But most just ignore it.

One colleague told me, “I check Open Table almost hourly and check Trip Advisor at least weekly. I don’t regularly check Yelp as I can’t stand the pukes that actually “review” restaurants…”

Another:   “I don’t pay much attention to Yelp. Yelp is for people who have never stepped foot in a restaurant and yet they write about it. If someone walks into the restaurant and can’t get a table, they rate you zero.”

Some believe that Yelp biases its reviews based on who advertises on its site and who doesn’t. One said, “I really never looked at Yelp because it is falsified by competitors and by restaurants themselves who pay people to write good reviews for them. Plus if you do advertise with them they will keep the reviews with five stars stay on.”

Yelp vice president of corporate communications, Vince Solitto, firmly denied to public radio the accusations of extortion:   “…there is no amount of money that anyone can pay to manipulate Yelp reviews or move their placement. Yelp reviews are written by real consumers about real businesses, and they serve as a helpful resource for more than 50 million consumers each month.”

I believe that is true. Yet Yelp called me the other day. That’s not unusual. The company calls restaurateurs all the time to solicit advertising. This time I made notes during the call:

“Eun is not here,” I said, “she went to a meeting. This is Mark Furstenberg. May I help you?”

“I called to go over your options for advertising.”

“I’m sorry. We don’t advertise.”

“Well Eun said that she was interested and I want to discuss the various options.”

“No,” I said, “I don’t think Eun told you that. I appreciate your calling but we aren’t interested in advertising.”

“Why not?”
“We just don’t do it.”

“So you don’t want to build your business and do better in the winter months because you could if you advertise.” We have many programs…” On and on.

“Thank you for calling but we’re not going to advertise.”

“You realize Yelp is giving you a lot of free advertising by reporting what your customers say about you. And in the last week alone we have given location information and directions to 68 people.”

“And I appreciate that but we are not going to advertise.”

“You don’t want to be on Yelp?”

“Are you telling me that if we don’t advertise we’ll drop off Yelp”?

“We’re giving you a lot of free advertising by letting people see who you are and where you are.”

“And I appreciate that. But I just don’t advertise. I haven’t ever advertised.”

“Are you saying that you don’t want to be on Yelp”?

“Again, you’re telling me that if we don’t advertise you’re going to drop us from Yelp?”

“I don’t even know who you are. I called to speak to Eun.”

“Then you ought to do some homework before calling.   Now, I want to get off the phone and go back to work.”

He hung up.

I was almost from birth a sucker for the hard sell. I bought atomic rings advertised on the radio.  I saved cereal boxtops to get secret codes advertised on radio.  I remember listening on the radio to the creator of Charles Antell Formula No. 9, also the creator of the thirty-minute commercial. He pitched lanolin, “Did you ever see a bald sheep?”

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I dutifully sent my money through the mail although I can’t imagine now why in 1949, at the age of eleven, I was concerned about baldness.

Perhaps that is why since the age of eleven the hard sell has been unpleasant to me and I always rebeI against it. But perhaps it is effective for Yelp whose its name alone is unpleasant to me although it certainly does justify the hard sell.

But I have other issues to raise in this essay.

If chefs and restaurateurs don’t respect Yelp where do we get our information about our customers’ experiences? Those who use Open Table, the service that allows diners to reserve tables on its on-line site and also carries reviews, is respected. “These are the people who actually dine here,” a friend said to me, “They are sharing their experiences.”

Many of my colleagues pay attention to Trip Advisor. For all of us, what are most powerful are oral comments, letters and emails.   When a customer bothers to complain about food or service I – and I think everyone else in the food business – pay attention. We know that it takes a certain amount of courage to complain directly and in person. We know that it takes a certain amount of industry to write a letter, even an email. And we learn from complaints.

Our responses to them depend on how thin-skinned we are and how firmly we feel about the issue being complained about. I mean that if a customers says to me that our coffee is not hot enough when it’s served, I want to know that and correct it. If they say that they don’t like our coffee I pay attention to the number of people who say that. If they say that our coffee is too strong, I am interested but believe I should be the final voice.

There are now so many voices and if food criticism has been democratized it has also become amateurized. That is not a bad thing but it means I must rely on my own taste.   If I try to respond to every customer complaint by making changes I get lost. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant but truthfully if I didn’t trust my taste I would not make foods.

It is nonetheless a good thing that customers have so many ways to express their opinions.   It is really wonderful that customers are paying so much attention to what they eat and are so knowledgeable about food and interested in it. But because the Internet has increased so much the volume of customer comments we who make food have to be selective about which media we pay attention to.

Nearly all my friends in the food-making business do that and virtually all of them exclude Yelp from their attentions.

 

 

 

 

Traumatized in Toulouse

Here are a few sentences you will never hear in a French restaurant:

“Hi, my name is Emile and I will be your waiter for this evening.”

“Have you dined with us before?

“May I explain our menu to you?”

“How are you guys doing?”

“Are you still enjoying that?”

“Is there anything else I can get for you?”

“Here is your check – when you’re ready…”

The French waiter/waitress is a professional. He is such a well-known character that when one dines in a French restaurant, he (or she) becomes an important part of the experience.

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http://www.wsj.com/articles/in-defense-of-the-notoriously-arrogant-french-waiter-1424371178

Whether haughty or cool or professional or negligent, the French waiter is never like an American server and that’s how I became traumatized in Toulouse.

Someone I trust a lot, a colleague here told me that Christian Constant had opened a restaurant on the Place du Capitole in Toulouse; so when I checked into my hotel, nearly on the grand place itself, I took a walk in the city and inevitably found myself near the restaurant – somewhat too early for dinner in Europe but not too early for a drink.

Christian Constant is an admirable person, a transformational person on the French culinary scene. He was the chef of the magnificent Crillion Hotel on the Place de la Concorde where he trained a generation of chefs who went on to reestablish a simple, ingredient-based, seasonal cuisine. It borrows from other cultures but is thoroughly grounded in French cooking.

One of his protégés, Yves Camdeborde has gone on to great glory in his restaurant, Le Comptoir and his hotel, Le Relais Saint Germain; and another Tierry Breton is the chef/owner of Chez Michel, another restaurant I like a lot.

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I had no thought that Le Bibent in Toulouse would be anything other than wonderful and when I arrived at the restaurant I was sure it would be. I intended to sit outside on the soft evening facing the stunning Place but when I saw the inside, I couldn’t stay outside as wonderful as that would have been. The interior was too magnificent.

Baroque, Art Nouveau, this restaurant goes back to 1882; and that it had been taken over by a chef I admire so much made me happy to be there. I wanted to be in that room. I wanted to watch the food pass on its way to other tables. I wanted to see the service.

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I wanted simply to stare. I wanted to have a pastis and drink it and drink in the sights, the ornate walls and ceiling. That’s permissible in a French restaurant. Unlike American restaurants no one ever rushes French diners. I had been eating alone during my stay in Bordeaux and in Auch and my dinners had been tranquil evenings of two and half hours and more.

An attractive young server arrived at my table and I smiled. She didn’t. “Avez-vous choisi?” she asked.

I was surprised and I told her that I didn’t have a menu. She brought one.

It was 7:50 PM, an unfashionably early hour for dinner in Europe and only two other tables were occupied. Nevertheless, after three minutes, the waitress returned. “Avez-vous choisi,” she asked again?

Now I was irritated. I told her that I wanted an aperitif. Even before it arrived she returned and asked a third time whether I was ready.

I was – for her. I told her that when I was ready I would let her know. I ordered a second pastis just to spite her – and calm myself.

My appetizer was delivered to my table almost immediately after I ordered it and my main course came just as quickly. I was given my check before I asked for it.

There I was – on the main square of Toulouse on a beautiful summer night, my one dinner in that city – and I might have been at Mon Ami Gabi in a northern Virginia shopping mall. The restaurant was still largely empty. My dinner – even with the delays I had imposed – was 75 minutes long.

Capitole of Toulouse, and the square of the same name with the Occitan cross designed by Raymond Moretti on the ground.

Restaurant service in France has rarely been warm but it has always been proper. I was getting in this beautiful restaurant in Toulouse, the restaurant of a great contemporary chef, service that would have embarrassed him.

It made me think about what is happening to food in France.

My son Philippe pointed me to a study by the French Union of Hotel Skills and Industries that claims 85 percent of the restaurants of France, without telling their customers, use frozen, vacuum-packed, partially, even foods wholly cooked in advance somewhere else.

Some unsuspecting diner (like me) could order tête de veau (prepared in a factory) followed by steak au poivre (cooked in a sous vide factory) accompanied by sauce bernaise (packaged in plastic bags by a factory), frozen vegetables, desserts made by a big supplier, and so on.

Eighty-five percent seems like a very high number but whether it’s literally 85 percent or not those practices have been adopted widely by French restaurants whose customers have no suspicions that they are eating food factory-made.

At the beginning of this year a new law gave restaurants that make food on premises permission to advertise that. Can you imagine? French restaurants having to advertise that they make their food?

Many, many years ago I did a stage in a little bakery in Paris. It was/is a wonderful bakery that makes huge loaves of crusty, mixed grain bread. I worked through the nights there learning the rustic pastries of that bakery. I had hoped as well to learn by working there more about Viennoisserie. But I didn’t.

As it turned out the bakery bought frozen croissants from a big manufacturer of frozen pastries. We removed from the freezer the number needed for the next day, let them defrost and proof and then we brushed them with egg and baked them.

The owner of the bakery told me as we worked that he could offer a better, more consistent croissant by buying than he could by making his own. I believed him but it seemed wrong.

How naïve I was! How persnickety I was!   The croissants my friend made (didn’t make) were good, really good even though they weren’t fait maison. The croissants I saw in France last month were nothing like those of my friend. They were pretty shocking.

What’s going on? What is happening my beloved French food?

Some people say labor laws make impossible the kind of intense work that French restaurants always did when they made their own food.

Others say that Common Market standardization has doomed some of the food-making practices that were followed for ages.

Still others say that the industrialization of food that in the U.S. has been the norm for 70 years is now coming to dominate France too.

But none of that accounts for the service in that beautiful restaurant in Toulouse.

France has lots of treasures: Paris, Mont Saint Michel, Provence, the Louvre, countless treasures. But certainly no treasure has been more important in France – and to France – than its cuisine and dining culture. In variety and quality, no cuisine other than Chinese has been that good (in my opinion). In service no food culture has been as good.

What happens to all of us if they are now in decline?

A Caper on the Road in the Dordogne

I didn’t know exactly where I was, somewhere between Agen and Perigueux  and I was enjoying not knowing. I was meandering the little roads back and forth between Dordogne and Cahors, avoiding the “N” roads staying on “D” roads, passing fields of sunflowers bending in union away from the hot sun as if in prayer.

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I had begun in March to plan this trip to Southwest France and Corsica and in my fantasy planning I would go into the Aquitaine, Dorgogne, to Garonne and Gascony, and just drive, knowing where I would end each day but not knowing how I would get there.

Following my plan, I was hungry; it was 1:30 pm.

I passed a handwritten sign: “Dejuner, 30E. 100 mètres à la droite.” I faintly saw it, drove on, and then I said to myself, “What am I doing? That’s just what I want to do.”

And so I turned around and drove off onto a dirt road and after a hundred yards I arrived at a dirt parking lot with deep ruts. Just up a hill I saw an unprepossessing building and an improbable number of occupied plastic tables and chairs.

I was greeted warmly (in the French way) and led to a table. The menu of the day was appealing enough but I saw a display of fois gras around the counter in the rear and that’s what I wanted.

Pretty soon I was served a salad that reminded me of every good salad I have ever eaten in France.

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Just good greens, three wedges of ripe tomato, sweet onions, red pepper, olives, herbs of Provence, cubes of feta, and capers all very lightly dressed.   It was perfect.

The feta cubes were small and uniform.   The red pepper nicely roasted and onions carefully minced. And the capers were fat, begging to be noticed.

My little carafe of rosé arrived.

I looked at it and the farmland below, the scenery and the others on the terrace. I was on vacation.

People who spend most of their waking moments thinking about food ought to savor it, not snort it. I eat too quickly. I am an oxymoron, a food lover who eats far too fast, and most people in the food business eat too fast. I don’t admire them for that; I don’t admire myself for it.

I go to dinner frequently with my friends David, Michael, and Saied. We find cheap restaurants, usually in the suburbs, the kind much valued by some food critics who far more frequently than I find food virtues in the suburbs of Washington.

A few months ago, we went to dinner at the Panda Gourmet, a truly seedy restaurant, not suburban, at the seedy intersection of New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road. (It could have been suburban.)

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As usual, we ordered a large number of dishes so that we could try a lot; and in spite of our entreats to the contrary, all the dishes were brought to us at the same time – six or seven different foods – soup, noodles, vegetables, pork, this and that.

In the large and frenetic dining room we ploughed through the dinner like horses and the dinner was so unrewarding that in the parking lot I told my friends that I wouldn’t do that again.

I was reminded of that evening as I started to eat my little salad, one caper at a time, with bread from the green plastic basket with a paper napkin liner.

There I was with no appointments, nowhere to go surrounded by people who had no appointments, nowhere to go.

I felt on vacation and I fletcherized every little bite of the salad before moving on to the foie gras and eating that very slowly too. I put the fork on the plate after taking each bite. I sliced the foie gras into ever smaller cubes. I kept thinking: Why can’t I slow down at home too?

A few tables away from me were two women who were already seated there when I arrived.   A waitress put in front of them a dessert, a slice of cake I think, covered with cotton candy, a child’s dessert, a plate both modern and old-fashioned.

Both women squealed softly.

I decided to practice being on vacation. The experience was great and I decided I would do it again the next day. I spent that night in Toulouse in an old and beautifully modernized hotel just off the Place du Capitole.

Again driving aimlessly the following day, again hungry at 1:30 I found myself near Renneville in the Midi-Pyrénées on my route to Carcassonne, the medieval fortified city.

I saw a lunch sign on the road again:  “Cassoulet.”

Cassoulet! I was just outside Toulouse. Could I pass up that opportunity even in the summer heat? When will I ever again be able to eat cassoulet in Toulouse?

Cassoulet restaurant

Again a little salad, this time with a few slices of preserved duck. And then cassoulet.

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And so I practiced eating slowly – “mindful eating” as people like to call it – giving up my self-imposed and irrational deadline to arrive at Carcassonne. And I stayed with my cassoulet until the dining room had nearly emptied – before driving to join the 60,000 or so others who also decided to go to Carcassonne late in that hot summer afternoon.