First, Dessert: Chocolate Mousse
Two things happened the year I turned eleven: my father died and I became friends with my first professional chef, a guy named Jacques.
My mother, distressed at my sadness over the loss of my father, tried to cure it with the one thing she knew I still loved: an extraordinary meal. One day, after she closed her shop, she announced that we wouldn't be going home to have dinner with her new husband, Hugo, and my baby sister. Instead we were going to the restaurant in the same complex of shops as her own, Chez Jacques.
"It is almost impossible to get a table," my mother said, smiling conspiratorially. "But why don't you and I go, just the two of us?"
I smiled for the first time in weeks. A night out alone with my mother? At an exclusive restaurant? It was like Christmas had come early.
As we approached Chez Jacques, my mother whispered, "Let me do the talking. They say the chef is a lunatic."
We were greeted at the door by Mercedes Quillacq, a voluptuous blond Spanish woman in her midforties. I had never met her but she greeted my mother as if they were old friends, and she seated us with a flourish that implied we were honored guests. The restaurant was rustic and simple. I would later learn that Jacques had built the entire establishment himself and that the dining room was actually the first floor of the family home. There were maybe twenty seats and an open plan kitchen, which was unusual for the time. There was no menu, just a set meal for the night. You ate what Jacques prepared, and you paid a hefty price for the pleasure.
From my seat at the table I could see Jacques at work in the kitchen: short and muscular, he wore a white chef's jacket with short sleeves and sweated with the force of a man who was all at once chef, sous-chef, and dishwasher. In one pot, he cooked pasta. In another, he made green beans. The industrial oven churned out culinary masterpieces, seemingly on its own. Now there's a platter of caramel pork. Look, there's a camembert en chemise (a version of brie en croute). And is that a roast duck? Watching Jacques cook for an entire restaurant, alone and happy in his kitchen, was like going to the circus and watching a master juggler spin a hundred plates. I was mesmerized.
I quickly learned that while the food was indeed legendary, part of what kept Chez Jacques packed was the show he put on. You did not choose to eat at Chez Jacques. Jacques chose you.
Ten minutes after we sat down, the door opened. A well-dressed man walked in and greeted Jacques, whose eyes immediately narrowed.
"Get out!" he snarled.
The man was understandably startled and tried to politely introduce himself. "Uh, je suis Monsieur Veysette.?.?.?."
"Who sent you?"
"Get out!" Jacques yelled, and so the man did as he asked and left.
My mother and I sat in silence, watching the drama unfold with both amusement and awe. My pleasure in being there grew, just knowing that we had been lucky to be let in the front door.
A few minutes later, another couple arrived.
"Who sent you?" Jacques barked.
"No one. We saw .?.?."
"Welcome, welcome," Jacques said, suddenly switching to the warm tone of a mâitre'd in a famed Parisian bistro. "Mercedes, please see to it that they get the best table!"
My mother whispered to me, "Chef Jacques is known for kicking even the most elite residents of Andorra out of his restaurant. He takes great pleasure in telling the richest people in town to go screw themselves, but the food is so good, they always come back." She went on to explain that Jacques was ex–French Legion and he wasn't impressed with power. He'd survived the Battle of Dien Bien Phu; he didn't care about the vice-president of the local hydroelectric company or a retired British footballer. Naturally, the spectacle only made Chez Jacques more of a destination. "Whatever you do," my mother warned, "don't ask for salt."
When the dishes arrived, it was clear that we were being presented with more than a meal: this was a gift. The salad was composed as if Jacques had spent the afternoon in the garden, picking each green leaf himself. The coq au vin was so rich and satisfying that I had to resist the urge to lick the plate when I was done. When the meal was over, Jacques sent over not two small bowls of chocolate mousse, but nearly a tub of the stuff. My eyes widened at the heft of it; then I quickly and happily polished off the whole dish.
Jacques walked over to the table just as I was shoveling the last heaping spoon of mousse into my mouth. He looked pleased.
"The young man has a good appetite," he said, winking at me.
"C'est trop, Monsieur Jacques," I replied, respectfully. And it was—the very best meal I'd ever had.
"Do you want a tour of the factory?" Jacques asked, gesturing for me to follow him to the kitchen.
My mother nodded her permission and I eagerly followed Jacques back to the kitchen and propped myself onto a barstool for a better view. I pointed at the salads Jacques was making.
"How did you get the vinaigrette so creamy?" I asked.
He smiled at the question. "That's a secret," he said. "Come back one day and I'll show you."
The next day after school, instead of heading to the stockroom above my mother's boutique, I went to Chez Jacques. I sat on the same barstool, eating bowl after bowl of baba au rhum, and listened as he told me stories about his years in the military.
Jacques was what was called a titi Parisien, a kind of scrappy, working-class guy who grew up on the not-fancy streets of Paris, like Robert De Niro in New York. He spent his career as a parachutist with the French army and had done tours of duty in Vietnam, Egypt, and Algeria. I learned more about history from him than I did from any schoolbook.
"You've read about the coalition between Germany, France, and Great Britain against Egypt when they tried to nationalize the Suez Canal?" he asked as he rubbed a leg of lamb with salt for that evening's meal.
I had never heard of the Suez Canal, but I nodded my head vigorously in the hopes that he'd keep talking and serving me sweets.
"Alors. Each country had their own black market of goods," Jacques explained. "Crates of everything from caviar to licorice. Well, one day, we heard that the British had gotten ahold of some fresh vegetables, so we traded with them—a crate of whiskey for a crate of arugula, endives, and romaine. They just wanted to get drunk! But we said, 'The French must eat the way God intended man to eat!'?"
He laughed so hard at the memory that he had to brace himself on the counter. "Can you imagine? Trading whiskey for some greens? But that is war, young man. That is what war is really about: going after the thing you didn't value until you were in the position to lose it."
I was only a kid but I thought I understood what he meant, because I had, that afternoon, spent one of the happiest days in recent memory. The school year loomed ahead, and I was sure that nothing would top the few hours I had spent watching Jacques cook and listening to his stories about parachuting out of planes and conducting secret maneuvers in foreign lands.
My mother worked six days a week at her boutique, but she cooked like a Michelin-starred chef every single night. The table was always set with fresh flowers and a beautiful tablecloth. She shopped every day at the markets. We began each meal with a delicious starter: maybe an onion soup or a big rustic salad made of blanched and raw vegetables, apple, avocado, radishes, potato, haricots verts, corn—all from a roadside market, not the grocery store. For the main course, there would be something cooked à la minute, like a pepper steak, or something she'd prepped since the morning, like a roast shoulder of lamb. There was always dessert too: a fruit dish, like pears in red wine, on the weekdays and something more elaborate, like a flan or a raspberry/strawberry/pear tart, on her day off. It was a badge of honor for my mother that at a time when women were asking if they could have it all, she did.
That evening when she came to collect me, her eyes went straight to the dirty dessert bowl sitting next to me. She knew me well enough to know that there was no way I had eaten just one serving. I could tell she was annoyed at what was certain to be an enormous bill and at my rudeness in ruining my appetite for the dinner she'd prepared at home.
But when my mother asked Jacques for the bill, throwing me an impatient glare, he just waved her off.
"No charge, madame," he said. "The boy has been washing dishes all day. It is I who should pay him." Then he winked at me and smiled.
This was, needless to say, a lie for my protection, and the pure tenderness of the gesture almost made me cry.
"Come back anytime," Jacques said. I wondered if he meant it or if he was just being polite.
"Tomorrow?" I asked, shyly.
"Why not?" he answered.
"Will there be chocolate mousse the next time?" I asked, feeling bolder.
Jacques laughed, a full-bodied laugh that I would get to know well. And my mother, who in those days did not laugh very often, laughed too.
"There is always chocolate mousse at Chez Jacques," he said.
Proust had his madeleine and because of Jacques, I have my mousse. Every time I dig into a bowl of that chocolate velvet, I am a kid again, running to Chez Jacques after school. It is the taste of friendship. It is the taste of belly laughs, and war stories, and the memory of a man who could jump out of planes and make a leg of lamb with equal amounts of skill and ardor. But more than anything, chocolate mousse is the taste of being welcomed; of Chez Jacques, where for me, the door was always open.
My Father's Castle
In 1961, Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier came to Paris to make a movie about jazz, love, and possibility. In the film, Paul Newman plays a jazz musician who sees the most beautiful girl, played by Diahann Carroll, while walking down the street. She's not interested in him, but she takes a liking to his friend, Sidney Poitier, and it just so happens that her pal, Joanne Woodward, thinks Paul Newman is kind of cute. So the pairs switch around and go about the business of falling in love, but in the end, each of the men and each of the women must go off on their own path. There is no happily ever after for these couples, only happy to have met you.
Not too long after that movie debuted, my parents met in the south of France. In time, they would do their own switching around of partners and falling in and out of love. But where the lovers in Paris Blues had only themselves to worry about, my parents' choices affected me too, and I felt shuffled and tossed about by all of the changes. Despite all that would come afterward, the first five years of my life were so happy and bright that decades cannot diminish the sunshine and warmth that I feel when I look back at that time. My parents' greatest gift to me was this: a model of love that was so big, it felt like the stuff of movies and songs. It wasn't an endless love, but it was a gift all the same.
This is where it began: on a road lined with olive trees, on a bright summer day in Cagnes-sur-Mer, the largest suburb of the city of Nice. My mother, Monique, was waiting for the No. 44 bus. She had golden brown skin, the skin of a girl who has spent her whole life in sunny places—Morocco and the south of France. She was tall and thin, with hair as black as a raven that hit her back at an alluring spot. Her eyes were rimmed with kohl; her lips were a deep ruby red. My mother was just an eighteen-year-old shopgirl, but she had mastered the look of the jet set. She carried herself with confidence—even a slight arrogance—that men found irresistible. She was a prize, and she knew it.
My father, André, was ten years her senior. He was handsome and he knew it, the golden boy and oldest son of a farming family in Nîmes. He was born at the dawn of the Second World War. Like many in France, his family suffered greatly through the wars and he was determined to make a success of himself. He never wanted to feel hunger or deprivation again.
My father saw my mother standing by the bus stop wearing a miniskirt that showed off her long legs, and he was taken with her immediately. He was driving in his most prized possession, a red Peugeot convertible.
"Hello, beautiful," he said. "Where are you off to?"
My mother explained that she was going into town to meet a friend, to see a movie.
My father dismissed this suggestion out of hand. "You are going to sit in a dark room with a group of strangers on this gorgeous day? That's madness."
"What else do you have in mind?" my mother asked.
"Let's stroll the coast together," he said.
She gladly canceled her plans and he took her to Monaco.
My father was charming. My mother was daring. And that's how it all began.
My father was the pride of his family. He had worked his way through the ranks of the Banque Nationale de Paris, and had done so well that he was named president of the Cagnes-sur-Mer branch before his thirtieth birthday. He was married once, in his early twenties, to a girl from back home, but the marriage ended before they had children. He was single and well-off on the French Riviera, and my father enjoyed playing the role of a bad boy.
He took my mother to all of the most fabulous parties. The people they rubbed elbows with are like a who's who of France in the 1960s: Over there is the actor Alain Delon, famed for his recent turn as Ripley in Purple Noon, the French movie adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. Here comes Brigitte Bardot, all blond hair and bosom, talking animatedly about animal rights. Mingling with them are high-ranking government officials who have traveled to the south to take part in the fun and sun.