I think you know that you changed my life, but I’m not sure if you know just how much. Yes, you bought me good shoes, taught me how to operate in the kitchen, but there is so much I appreciate about my life now that I might have missed if not for your presence in it so long ago. You saw something in me and stuck by me, you invested your time and your patience. You and Suzanne were amazing humans and the epitome of what hospitality is; thank you so much.
Remember when we just opened Le Bouchon? We were crazy busy beyond all expectations and the pressure to perform was jacked up nightly. One day, during the morning prep hours you put a whole salmon on my oz board and asked me to cut it into 7oz portions. You told me that I should get approximately 14 portions out of this size of fish. I was still pretty green at this point, and at my last job at the Ritz I had only cut fish a handful of times and generally the salmon was already fileted. So to say I was shitting myself is an understatement. I am looking at this fish and it’s looking right back at me, mocking me to completely fuck it up, that motherfucking dead fish could smell my fear and so could you. But you didn’t flinch. You calmly came over with a cigarette dangling from your lips and said in your thick-ass French accent:
"Joshua, watch me, every time you cut this fish you will do it this exact same way, ok? Do not deviate from what I show you, ever. You are not here to reinvent the wheel, you are here to cook the way we have been cooking for hundreds of years, you are not one to come along and change it until you can master the basics. Once you know how to cook you can do what you want, until that day, you do exactly as I do. "
Then you cut the fish, just like that.
From that day on and for two years after, I did exactly as you taught me, and for those skills and so many other things about life that you taught me, I am and will be eternally thankful. I have shared what you taught me to as many people as I could, preaching the gospel of proper method and technique.. You were the best Mentor I could have asked for, and exactly what I needed when I needed it. And even though you paid me shit, I am forever grateful for the two years I spent at Le Bouchon.
I am so grateful for my particular set of skills.
Believe it or not, I have honed great interviewing skills; some would call it a good line of bullshit, but you can call it what you will. I have the gift of gab and I can hold an engaging conversation with just about anyone who is sane. I am sure there are some people who will say that the reason my eyes are brown is because I am so full of shit, and I use my gift for more evil than good, but that's ok with me. In my mind I am the Mayor of Camptown, The King of All I Survey. This confidence I have came from working alongside you. I carry myself with the confidence you taught me, the confidence I gained because I never doubted that you believed in me.
I am thankful for my knife skills, as I rarely cut myself anymore; this wasn't always the case, as you know. I’m sure you remember that I was not the most coordinated person, and had the tendency to get distracted pretty easily. My habit of running into light poles continued for years after I left the job at your place, and I have the scars to prove it. I don’t do it as much now, but still, no one would ever accuse me of being poetry in motion. I’m sure you remember that like most aspiring chefs, my hands and arms looked like they were run through a garbage disposal that splattered hot balls of grease on my exposed forearms. I had at least one cut on every finger of my left hand, it is a wonder that I stuck with it without major damage.
But, you would be proud, because I have so few accidents these days I can even remember the last time I cut myself badly. It was, fittingly, in a moment when I was attempting to pass on some of the skills I learned from you, and I might have gotten a little too confident in the lesson.
I was teaching at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago and showing my students how to cut an onion and I started showing off. Under his breath I heard one of my smart ass students (Joe Pesci) say "Watch, I bet Chef cuts himself today" And sure as shit I shaved the skin off three knuckles on my left hand slicing onion.
So you know what I did? I stabbed that motherfucker at his graduation, right in front of his parents.
Just kidding. He's alive and well, I communicate with him often. He is one of my favorite students. I told you I could be full of shit.
More than anything, I am thankful that I am able to communicate through my craft; say I love you without saying a word. There is no greater expression of emotion in the world than food IMO, ok, maybe music but I am biased. I try to tell my wife I love her every time I cook for her. You were such a great role model in this; to taste love in food, and also, almost anything else. There is a reason, I discovered, why a majority of cooks don't last in the professional kitchen. I have tasted their ambivalence, and tasted, “I don't want to be here today”. And cooking like that will get you fired, or at least demoted to Chili's. Countless times I have tasted sub par from a disgruntled cook....
Believe it or not, I think of you every time I go to the barber. Unlike you, I would look scary AF bald. That was one thing I admired about you. You had that bald French guy vibe that people just ate up. I, unfortunately, do not. When I sit in that chair and the barber asks me what I want, I tell them that I am just grateful to be there and to not make me ugly. Bravo, Gary, or whomever my barber is at the time, job well done, and I still have enough hair left to come back in three weeks and do it all over again.
You would not believe the beauty in the place I get to live. The place I am lucky enough to call home.
I get to call heaven home. Skagit Valley, or, to be more specific, Mount Vernon. I live where other people take their vacations.. Sometimes, like in the picture l above, the valley looks like a living watercolor painting, forever dynamic and never finished through the artist's brush. It is a place where people get away from it all and be one with nature. This, believe it or not, is my adopted home town and every day I make it a point to stop and take it all in. Not like the Chicago you and I knew, not at all, and while that had its own kind of beauty, it’s nothing compared to what I get to experience now.
The natural beauty is painful at times, but in a good way. It is overwhelming, it works all of your senses and heightens them all at once, it changes daily and with the seasons. There is a beautiful rhythm here that cannot be quantified by words. Right now, the squadrons of trumpeter swans are returning. It is the most beautiful signal that we are in the beginning of the rainy season, and damn is it raining this year. The swans have a call that envelops the valley and must be heard and seen to be believed. I watch them soaring in formation barking all the while to each other and I wonder what they are saying;
"Watch out Vern, there's a bogey (crow) at one o'clock!"
They leave every spring to the same fanfare as if they alone were ushering in the Tulip Festival, which then heralds in summer and the explosions of smells and tastes of flowers and beautiful delicious things growing all around, not to mention the biggest bluest sky you've ever seen. I think you would have loved this place too, Jean Claude.
Finally, I want to thank you for introducing me to an industry that has given me so much. My life has been so rich because of the people with whom I have had the great fortune to work.
I am proud to say that the very first person I hired is still in my life, albeit through social media exclusively, but I know if I called on him, he would be there, no questions asked…. as long as he was not high or drunk. That's the kind of people this industry breeds, loyal, hard working people that would give you the shirt off their back. It’s the kind of person you were, the role model I needed exactly when I needed it.
My many Thanksgivings in this industry have been transformative for so many reasons, mostly because of my multiple brigades that have trudged through every Thanksgiving with me, from Humberto to Angel, every single one of them is a hero and a reason for me to feel thankful. I hope that I inspired the same feelings in you when I worked for you; you always made me feel like I had. My mind does drift back in delight to all of my staff, in every place I have ever served a turkey every year around this time, cooking for the masses when I am finally, thankfully sitting on my asses. Admittedly, I still get panic attacks thinking about having to make gravy on the fly after we went through 30 gallons, I swear that should have been enough. For that experience I am thankful for poultry base and buerre manie.
I know that I was supposed to go see and have dinner at Le Bouchon and introduce you to my wife the day you died on the fucking Eisenhower of all places. How very French of you. How painfully dramatic.
I am so grateful I talked with you earlier that week. You answered the phone and I immediately smiled at your accent:
"Hello, Mr. Young, how are you doing? "
I was shocked and so pleased you knew it was me before I said anything, I asked:
"How did you know it was me?"
"Come on Joshua, caller ID, it says your name when you call!"
We both had a good laugh and caught up, thinking we'd see each other on Saturday.
So I guess this is the only letter I can write to you now, to let you know how grateful I am for you and sorry that I missed you that day.
I know you and Suzanne are together somewhere, drinking wine, smoking and laughing. Because that's how I remember you two together.
Here's to better days ahead for all of us.
Until next time keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars,