Raucous laughter. The young Frenchman sighed unhappily, his eye
twitching with each insistent click of the patron’s fingers. His Gallic
blood was coming to the boil. Admittedly, the temperature would perhaps
be best suited to the delicate braising of Provence beef with a light
brush of balsamic marinade and seasoning. Indeed, his ire had not been
significantly raised to the level of the hard boiling of the finest
quality free-range eggs for that most underrated of dishes, salad
nicoise, lettuce and tomatoes - mais bien
sur! - from one’s own back garden,
accompanied by mouth watering delectable portions of tuna caught that
morning by his father.
As he walked hesitantly toward the table, Anatole sighed deeply. His Master, Monsieur Bonin, nicknamed Porthos by some of his more ungrateful students (of whom Anatole did not number) for his corpulent waistline, had warned him this would be his most difficult task to date and his portentous words had proved true. Serving omelette after omelette to ungrateful and often drunk English servicemen was certainly not Anatole’s idea of fine dining, Liberators or no!
And yet Monsieur Bonin got results. He was known throughout France in the world of cuisine as its finest purveyor. One leading Nazi general during the recent dark days of occupation had even declared his flambé to be a greater work of art than da Vinci’s Last Supper, stating that if this were to be his final meal then he would die a happy man. Rumours surrounded Bonin like the plain white flour that would rise up around him as he worked. Some said he was a descendant of a long line of Royal Chefs, and that his origins could be traced back to the inner circle of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Others said he had been abandoned as a baby outside a Bretagne monastery, raised by the pious yet nutritionally enlightened monks as a cooking machine, only learning to speak at the age of ten despite his capacity at this age to single-handedly prepare an exquisite four course meal for thirty people.
Whatever the truth was, there was no doubting Bonin’s calibre. Anatole himself had left his parents sleepy village in the early 1930’s, desperate to learn the art of nouvelle cuisine from the Master. The Master Chef, painfully aware of his lack of heir, had seen his potential straight away, and immediately taken him into his tutelage. Anatole had discovered many things. He had studied the mechanics and science of food, the primitive almost alchemic mysteries of spice and flavouring and various other methods and techniques mere mortal chefs could not have even conceived of. Every step of the way, the young man had been vigorously tested and examined, and had passed each with flying colours. And now, Bonin had decided, he was ready for his toughest test to date. “It is only when you have experienced vulgarity in its lowest form,” the old man had said sadly patting his young apprentice on the head, “that you can appreciate art’s true beauty.” With that, he had detailed Anatole’s latest assignment.
The Second World War had been hard on France. Fortunately, however, as the French hero Napoleon had once stated, an army marches on its stomach. Regardless of whom was in power, Bonin’s services were required and he was held in high esteem by both French and German masters. It should be noted at this point that, true patriot as he was, he reserved his finest accomplishments for de Gaulle and his new government, contenting himself with serving the Germans what he regarded as his weaker dishes. A ‘weaker dish’, one must remember, for Bonin was still far beyond the reach of mere mortals. Regardless however, the war had made things harder on the old Chef. Supplies were difficult to come by and Anatole’s training had halted. The boy avoided subscription to the army at Bonin’s say-so, and in his influential capacity the request had been granted. It was only once France had been liberated, however, and the British and American forces marched victoriously through the jubilant streets of Paris, that Anatole was able to resume.
He had been given his own small restaurant temporarily to manage, something that made his chest swell with pride, in a dingy back alley in a district of the city centre that had not been badly hit by the war. He was to be the only employee – both waiter, chef and owner – his first glimpse of real life cooking. His prices were high, but fair, and thus the Parisian populace on the whole did not flock to him, despite the quality of his food. Instead his main clientele consisted of American and British soldiers, for they were much more affluent than the French.
Anatole had swiftly come to understand what his master had implied. Aside from the little or no French that the men often spoke, their taste was often limited and pedestrian. And if he was asked for a cheese omelette one more time in that ludicrously slow, patronising manner the English always spoke to foreigners with he swore he would scream…
Things did not look good.
There were four men gathered around the small wooden dining table he had erected outside his restaurant. Like many Parisian backstreets, although not that pleasant to look at, the area benefited greatly from the magnificent sight of the sun setting over the famous skyline in the evening, as it was doing now. All four of the men wore their uniforms, and judging from their badges appeared to be sergeants. Three were quite drunk, one in particular swaying on his chair as he attempted to pour the house red into his glass. The fourth, however, sat quietly, taking in the setting with a dreamy look upon his face. Anatole was quite taken aback by him, for he did not seem to be the usual upper-class-twit Sergeant type he so often associated with the Brits. The man had a pleasant face and gentle eyes that were only partially concealed by small round rimmed glasses. His hands were clasped on the table in front of him. The fingers were thin and nimble – Anatole wondered if he played the piano. As he watched him, the man refused the offer of wine from the drunken man – a decision he received mockery for, all of which he took in good spirit. He had broad shoulders and chest, and could no doubt handle himself in the hurly burly of modern life – and yet something in his demeanour suggested…
“I say old boy.” Anatole was broken from his thoughts by one of the other soldiers. He did his best to suppress a glare. “Parlay vooz Angles? I said that right didn’t I? Anyway. Three plain omelettes please – did you get that? THREE PLAIN OMM-A-LET silver play. What are you having old chap?” His question was directed at his quiet companion and did not illicit a response. “I say Pennyworth, I’m bally well trying to order and we need to know what you want.”
With an apologetic nod, the man known only as Pennyworth turned to his waiter and smiled.
“My apologies.” He said, in perfect French. Anatole’s jaw nearly dropped, but politely maintained passive. The other three men had no such concerns and gaped. “Je voudrais Emincé de Volaille sauce Roquefort et Pommes de terre sautées,” he said, handing Anatole the menu, “s’il vous plait” he said, with a knowing wink.
Anatole was in shock. So were the others. Thinly sliced fillet of chicken with Roquefort sauce and Sautéed potatoes! He could have kissed Pennyworth. He dashed back inside, hearing the man’s amazed colleagues asking him where he had learnt to speak French like that. “In school…” he humbly replied. The accent, the grammar, the pronunciation – it had been exquisite. The pain of cooking three more omelettes was completely forgotten! Anatole set about making the best damn meal he had ever prepared. He was so grateful! A break from the mundanity!
He fried the chicken and crushed the Roquefort with a joy he had not known in some time flooding his heart. He sautéed potatoes as if for the King of France! God bless that Pennyworth! He could have sang – he certainly could not keep the beaming grin from his face. Now he understood what Bonin meant – he and Pennyworth were roses amongst thorns – philanthropists amongst philistines. Here was a man who truly appreciated art!
Soon the food was ready, cooked to perfection. Setting down the dish in front of Pennyworth – and throwing down the omelettes to those other stupid men – Anatole bowed, grinning hugely. “Bon appetit.” He said. He returned inside. Much of him wanted to stay outside and witness first hand the explosion of joy as the food entered Pennyworth’s noble mouth. He fought this instinct. No. Manners were of the utmost import and would often be the difference between a grand review or a mediocre one. He hopped from foot to foot. At last! A chance to truly express himself culinarily!
Half an hour later, at the sound of cutlery being clattered onto plates, Anatole stopped and calmed himself. He grinned. He swept it from his face. No. We must remain dignified.
He stepped nonchalantly outside. The most drunk of the men had fallen off his chair now, much to the other two’s amusement. Pennyworth, however, ignored them, contemplating his empty plate – Anatole flushed inside; not a scrap left! – with cutlery delicately placed together in the centre.
“Jolly good grub garcon.” One of the others said, pulling a handful of francs from his pocket. He slapped them down on the table. “Will this cover it?” There was a considerable amount of money there, but before Anatole could protest the man was off to join his colleagues, skipping down the road, the most drunk man stumbling and falling flat on his face on the cobbles. Pennyworth had stood genteelly, and was tucking in his chair. Anatole could not help himself.
“How was your food, monsieur?” He blurted out. He was glad Bonin was not here to see such a childish error. Pennyworth smiled at him.
“Delicious, Monsieur. You are an exquisite Chef.” Anatole flushed with pride. He wanted to shout from the roof tops – to crow like the cockerel as he – “If I were to make one suggestion – and I do hope you don’t find me impertinent when I say this – green beans make an excellent accompaniment to such a dish. Furthermore, you clearly use the finest Roquefort – it adds so much to meal, I try and use it wherever possible when I am cooking. Might I also recommend however Barkham blue cheese, a marvellous subject with delightful texture from Berkshire in England? I find that when one mingles the two together the effect is quite heavenly. I must thank you once more Monsieur for your exquisite cooking – this is truly the best meal I have had since I landed in Normandy. Bon soir.”
As Pennyworth gently jogged after the others, Anatole’s jaw fell open, this time unrestricted. The compliment had been greatly appreciated, but the advice had left him non-plussed. He was speechless. The Englishman had tried to give him culinary advice. Him?! Anatole?! Who had been trained by Bonin?! An inferior Chef to that, that… Limey! The thought was unpalatable.
He dismissed it immediately, choosing instead to bask in the glory of the praise of a fellow food enthusiast – if anything, the man had been that. And that was all. Certainly not a better Chef.
The sun had almost completely set now. Darkness was closing in. Tomorrow, he would return to Bonin, his lesson very much learnt.
He regarded the retreating Englishman from a distance, a wry smile upon his lips. One day, Monsier, he thought, I hope we shall have the opportunity to test your implicit claim.