Cafe Society

French Twist

A few months ago, I got an e-mail from Sean -- one of my original commandoes, a hired gun whose long and noble service to the cause dated back to my first days here. An ex-chef and patissier, Sean was one of the first guys to eat with me professionally in Denver, to drink with me recreationally, to cause trouble with me just for the pure, sick thrill of it. He was there as my backup when I took apart Dave Query’s Rhumba in Boulder, suffering with me through five awful courses and then, I think, going home with one of the waitresses -- if for no other reason than just to wash the terrible memory of that dinner out of his brain with a little bit of casual sex. He did Mel’s with me, was my go-to guy for questions of pastry and obscure French technique; was also in attendance for an epic, bankrupting meal at Opal, back when Opal was, briefly, the greatest restaurant in Denver.

And then he vanished.

(A quick digression: While looking for that original Opal review , I found myself drawn into reading it again. To be honest, I hadn’t looked at the thing since I wrote it five years ago; remembered it only by certain lines, by a vague recollection of sea urchin brulee and milky, unfiltered sake and a bill that topped $400 and was well on its way to five before we were done. But for those of you with an interest in Denver’s dining history, I humbly suggest hitting that link and having a read because, though those halcyon days are long gone now, there was a moment when Opal formed the hot, bright, dense center of Denver’s burgeoning restaurant scene; a transitory, flaring moment when it boasted more concentrated talent on the books than any three other restaurants. Bucky Parker from Radex; Jay Chadrom back when he was still new to the restaurant world and not yet jaded; Miki Hashimoto of Japon; Duy Pham, fresh from making his bones at Tante Louise and just beginning to come into his own; Jimmy Tajima from Nobu in Vegas and Rebecca Weitzman, then just recently ex of Mizuna, standing in as Pham’s chef de cuisine? Come on…that’s the kind of all-star lineup that kitchen geeks can only dream about -- like knowing that Gordon Ramsey once stood at the right hand of Marco Pierre White in London or knowing that a very young Mario Batali once did the same, as an apprentice fresh out of Le Cordon Bleu.)

Where was I? Right, Sean. Anyway, Sean vanished about three years ago. And I mean seriously vanished -- here one day, gone the next. Months passed, then years. I would get occasional e-mails, even a phone call once. He was surfing with crocodiles in Argentina, involved in some kind of weird passport-and-liquor-license scam in Costa Rica, negotiating at gunpoint on the docks for fish that he would then use to stock the iceboxes at a private resort in Tamarindo where he was cooking. He got involved in the publishing business in South America, was living in a shack on the beach, suffering through malaria, dengue fever, sleeping with supermodels -- you know, the usual antics that ex-chefs get into when freed from the constraints of the industry which, for many of us, represented the final bastion of rules and responsibility that kept us all from going off the deep-end and becoming South American crime lords, beach bums or corpses.

Anyway, a few months ago, I got another long-distance speed letter from Sean -- filled with the usual panoply of threats and curses because I never write back to him fast enough (or at all) and the usual offer of sanctuary should Laura and I ever feel the need to quit El Norte and start putting in some serious beach time.

Eventually, he settled into the body of his message which had primarily to do with (no surprise here) food. He’d met a girl, see? And he was in love. The complication, though, was that the girl was French and, as I discuss in this week’s review of Tibet’s Restaurant, and have discussed elsewhere, ad nauseum, there are some chefs who will never get past their complicated, love/hate relationship with the French -- the instinctive need to rebel against the rigid strictures of the brigade system, the canon, the beautiful, perfect and deep architecture of cuisine which the French have spent hundreds of years developing and which represents both the straightjacket and the salvation of the classically trained chef.

He wrote about how, soon after meeting her, he tried to cook for her. Something simple and, because of his culinary upbringing, something French. A soufflé, I think it was. And the French girl? She mocked him viciously, made fun of him for his concentration, his care with the whisk, his insistence on having the thing made properly in a copper-jacketed pot, with the proper ingredients, the proper measures.

And then, when she was done laughing at my boy, she took it all away from him; made her own soufflé in half the time, with whatever was knocking around in the kitchen. And it was, of course, a perfect soufflé because, to her, it was like grilling a steak or folding up a taco out of leftovers. It was just food and, to her, came with no baggage of propriety or technique.

To Sean, this was revelatory -- that a cuisine to which he, like me, had dedicated his life’s labors and the lion’s share of his youth, could possibly just be food, could just be lunch. He followed her to France and, with her, roamed the markets and the farmhouse kitchens, eating food which, to him, was replete with all the inscrutability and mysticism of deep religion but, to her, was simply a taste of home and youth’s comfort. A little pate, a pot of cassoulet, some bread and cheese straight from the source, the headwater of all mystery. It was liberating, he said. To see these foods, this prep—to which had always been ascribed such seriousness and cultural baggage in his past—treated now with the dismissiveness of unexceptional surfeit was mind-blowing. Changed his life, he said. Cured him on the spot.

I’ve had similar conversations with other chef friends. Ian Kleinman at O’s was classically trained like me, struggles daily with finding the point of equipoise between art and commerce, between the newfangled molecular gastronomy he practices and the rigid rules of the French canon that he has been immersed in since the day he picked up his first chef’s knife. I remember talking with Sean Kelly back when he was still cooking at Claire de Lune and having this long, looping conversation about the balance one must strike between one’s obsessions and the solid realities of doing business with people who might not share them. Mel and Jane Master (who may have been the ones who put this notion in Kelly’s head since he, like everyone else, my buddy Sean included, had done time in the Master’s kitchen) have insisted for years that I need to get off my ass and go to France myself -- to Lyon or the Languedoc, forgetting Paris entirely -- because a month or two among the chateaus and les marches would have me cured of my Catholic-style Frog-guilt forever.

But the truth? I’m not so sure I want to be cured. I am a cynical man, a jaded man, a miserable sonofabitch to be around a lot of the time. I have no religion, little faith in anything that does not involve the pan, the toque or the knife, and relish the mysteries of La Cuisine the way a bible-thumper does the miracle of transubstantiation. More than that, these days I have come to relish the mysteries of all cuisines; take comfort in the strands of interconnection and correlation (most of them forged by war and occupation, tragically) that seem to link peoples and cultures and hundreds of years of history across a million different dinner tables; thrill at the little things (like Tibetan wheat flour noodles, the little pulled wheat proto-dumplings in the thenthuk at Tibet’s) that link appetites together across thousands of miles.

The French chefs who trained me? They weren’t a lot different from the Vietnamese cooks referenced in my Tibet’s review, than Uttam and the Sherpas. They, too, were just homesick and trying to get a little taste of home, using the rigidity of the canon as a way of making good and goddamned sure that us weak, punk American cooks would someday, maybe, cut a fish the way Careme had or cook a soufflé as good as their sainted grandmothers once did. And now, it is mystery and obsession and a near-religious adoration of technique that has made this world of food endlessly fascinating to me. Would I understand French food (or Tibetan food) better were I to spend a year or two wandering the countryside (or the Himalayas) arm-in-arm with a French underwear model (or the Dali Lama)? Absolutely. But true understanding is never what I have been after. I want the magic of discovery, the revelatory joy of throwing myself face-first into something that I most assuredly do not understand. To have the allure of the soufflé taken away from me, to be robbed of the idiosyncrasy of cassoulet or the alien glamour of tikka masala would be like finding out the truth about Santa Claus all over again—that the guy at the mall is just some gin-drunk pedophile in a fake beard and rented suit, that Christmas morning is predicated on what was on sale at Gold Circle on Christmas Eve.

No thanks. I’ll take the occasional pain of stupid, blind loyalty to a system that is always most noticeable in its absence because with it comes my own connection, on back through the generations, to the thousands of cooks and chefs who came before me—all of us chasing the mystery, all of us searching through the kitchen for something larger than ourselves. – Jason Sheehan

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun