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I don’t feel responsible for what happened. Yes, I was young and eager, and ambitious, and may not have thought things through sufficiently but, in the end, he brought it upon himself. Where, and who, and what I am today – the Pulitzer and so forth – has nothing to do with Gaston Picard.
I have always wondered why he chose me. Although we were about the same age, late twenties, he was already a legend. Sure, I was writing the occasional influential review for Gulp!, the hip foodie journal of the day, but don’t forget, this was the ’80s and yet he was already doing things with ingredients that would make today’s molecular gastrochefs weep with envy.
So, when the call came, late one winter night, I knew my future was in the balance. I just could not have dreamed which way and how profoundly the scales would tip.
“Mr Carson, this is Antoine Sorel.” The voice was clipped, with just a hint of accent. I recognised the name. Sorel was the fearsome Maitre d’ of Master Chef Gaston Picard. Half-asleep, and not a little drunk from an evening at the new Groucho Club, I cleared my throat and stammered a reply.
“M … Monsieur Sorel – why are you – um … what can I do for you?”
“Chef Picard has instructed me to invite you to meet him. As you know, Chef never gives interviews. For you, he may make an exception. You will see Chef at work and, if Chef finds you sympa‘, he may wish you to write about him.”
The carefully modulated tones were a veneer, I could tell. The man was almost as incredulous as I that the beloved Chef he protected so carefully from the world had chosen anyone, let alone me, to see him at work and, perhaps, write about it. As I tried to formulate a response that encompassed professionalism, worldliness and savoir faire, he continued. I realized it must be almost 3am his time, so I simply listened to instructions about dates and planes and cars, holding the phone with both trembling hands. He concluded with a brisk “Is that acceptable to you?”
All pretence at cool indifference was gone. “My God, of course, that’s fantastic – please, tell Chef Picard that I am so very thrilled, that I can’t wait to –”
The click and buzz of an empty line mercifully cut short my rambling gratitude.
It’s hard to believe, now, that many people have never even heard of Gaston Picard. How can I convey to you how important he was? Actually, there is a way – the only way. You must read for yourself the article that rocked the gastronomic world to its foundations and reversed our fortunes irrevocably. Only then can you judge whether I was right or wrong, to do what I did.
ALL THAT GLITTERS By Adrian Carson
It is a fact universally acknowledged that Gaston Picard is the alchemist of food. His tiny restaurant, Le Poisson d’Or, on the market square of Vachel, a small village south of Lyon, is spoken of in hallowed terms by gastronomes. You must reserve one of its ten tables up to 18 months ahead, despite it being open every day of the year except Chef Picard’s birthday, the first of April. “I am a poisson d’avril,” he gulps with a nervous smile – an April fool. Few would agree with that, and certainly not the critics. At the end of his first professional year, Michelin took the unprecedented step of awarding this self-effacing, greasy-haired, gaunt young man three coveted stars.
A glimpse into his kitchen offers just a taste of Chef Picard’s creative genius. The still point of a whirling storm of white-uniformed chefs, he is totally absorbed in the act of cooking, refining, creating. His mind works so fast that, sometimes, the dish you have read on the menu (there is no choice – all ten courses are chosen for you by Chef) will have evolved by the time it is set before you. The ‘declination of langoustines with a coxcomb velouté, hazelnut praline and a breath of salicorne’ may have seen the samphire breathe its last, but acquired instead (the waiter will murmur this almost apologetically as he lays a culinary work of art on the white linen cloth) ‘a teardrop of oyster jus suspended in a salt-caramel clam shell’. And it will be faultless. Faultless. You will never have tasted its like, and the flavours will linger with you until the day you die. Rumour has it that President Mitterrand has secured a commitment from Chef to cook his last meal for him. Rumour also has it that the Fates have agreed to waive the usual random nature of life and death to permit this.
Watch him in action. He moves purposefully amongst his chefs, or bends over his own dishes – sampling, tasting, just a drop here, a dab there. He has a mass of tiny caviar spoons in a zip-lock bag, made of bone that will not affect or taint the flavour of the food. The spoon, once used, is flung aside. A junior follows him to pick them up. Later they will be autoclaved to purify them for re-use. You can see the chef under scrutiny hold his breath. Surely Chef must like this? Yes, Chef smiles, and pats his subordinate on the back: “Bravo Jean-Marc – c’est magnifique!” But if you look very, very closely, you will see just the faintest shadow of disgust move across his face. Not only for Jean-Marc’s food, but for his own as well. Chef is never satisfied – that is the mark of genius, surely?
No-one knows what Chef does when he is not cooking. To be honest, there is not much of that time available. He is single, has no family that anyone can trace, and lives, it is said, a monk-like existence above the restaurant – not that many have actually seen his accommodation. Bonjour! magazine once planned to print some grainy shots taken by a diner who ‘got lost’ on her way to the loo … There were rumours of teetering stacks of rare cookbooks, including a copy of Escoffier’s privately printed Culinaire Profonde, of which only two known copies exist. Walls lined with shelves of tiny bottles labelled with the names of herbs, spices, essences and decoctions. On a chipped enamel corner table, a tiny spirit-lamp stove and dozens of small, tarnished copper pans. At their side, a stoneware mustard jar of those signature bone spoons. And, amid all, a simple iron bedstead. That’s what insiders said of these elusive shots. Chef himself remained silent on the subject – there was no angry threat to sue for invasion of privacy – but, one by one, important advertisers began to talk of withdrawing their business, and the pictures never made it to the presses.
By 1.30am, the team has, at last, gone home. Gaston Picard is wiping down surfaces yet again – steel workstations that already gleam dully under the kitchen’s carefully chosen natural-light illumination. It has been a successful evening, as always. A Gault-Millau inspector was in, as was Gérard Depardieu and his party. The new ‘dream of foie gras nestled in a coverlet of wild mushroom feathers and Calvados-cream pillows’ was ecstatically received by everyone. He looks around and nods. Done. Chef Picard has left the kitchen.
But what happens when the lights are switched off? Not what you might imagine.
Behind the restaurant, a car is waiting. Not Chef’s silver-grey Aston Martin, but a shabby, dented, Citroën 2CV in beige and brown. In 15 minutes, Chef is in a down-at-heel suburb of Lyon. He pulls the car up at the back of an ugly red-brick building. The neon lights are all at the front. Here, it is dark and anonymous. No one will see him. A door opens and a woman is silhouetted against the sudden shaft of light. She bustles over to him, wrapped up against the cold, bringing forbidden treasures under her coat. She takes him in her arms. “Cheri, you are so thin – you work too hard!” She kisses his cheek, and there will be a scarlet lip-print left behind. Then, suddenly, in his hands, is what he needs.
He opens his mouth as wide as he can, and sinks his teeth into the crumbling, sagging, grease-dripping burger that his mother has smuggled out of the fast-food joint for him. Chef Picard is satisfied – at last!
Gulp!, 15 April 1985
It finished him, of course. Why did I not realise that it would? Would I have written a different piece, full of effusive praise? No, I did what had to be done. I exposed the fraud.
Yet we had got along so well, from the moment we met. When we left the kitchen that night I had made my way up to my room in a daze of admiration and respect. I was far too energized to sleep, and was calming myself with a cigarette, leaning from my window exhaling Gitane smoke into the crisp night air, when I heard footsteps crunching on the gravel. I saw Picard heading for the old Citroën and it had to be, I thought, that he was on his way to meet an illicit supplier of something rare or prohibited – truffles, ortolans, or the like. Excited and intrigued, I had grabbed my coat and followed, creeping to my hire car and trailing his rear lights with my own headlamps unlit. We were both, it seems, heedless of danger that night, on separate missions that blinded both of us to every risk.
Now, I wish I had gone straight to bed. That way, I would never have known.
The next day we met to talk, as we had previously agreed, but my thoughts were all on getting back to London with this incredible, unbelievable story. I must have seemed distracted but Picard appeared not to notice, and was animated and effusive, boyish, if you like, showing me his most precious tool – a Japanese chef’s knife, one of a pair forged for him in a secret crater of Mount Fuji by a master Samurai swordsmith. It shimmered like satin in his hands, catching brilliant slivers of firelight on its terrifying blade. I smiled and nodded as I took notes, then went home, wrote my piece, and changed lives.
The day the article was published, the world’s press descended on Vachel’s little square, forcing through the stalls, sending stacks of melons rolling like aristocratic heads below the guillotine, microphone booms and cameras craning to see – what? A frontage shuttered like a corpse’s eyes and, in the centre of the door, a copy of my article fluttering in the chilly April breeze, pinned to the woodwork by a deeply-plunged, perfect, Samurai-forged chef’s knife.
They say, if you know who to ask, or if you are simply very lucky, that you may find your way to a little chalet-bistrot in a high alpine hamlet where, on shabby wooden tables and with mismatched plates and cutlery, you will eat the best meal of your life, served with impeccable aplomb. But I can never seek it out. Noma and The Fat Duck will have to suffice for me. Chef, after all, still has that other knife.
Fay Franklin is a seasoned travel guidebook editor and writer. However, she regularly strays away from the world of nonfiction as a participant in the weekly Show Me Your Lits literary flash fiction writing challenge. Her work has been published by The Legendary, HazardCat, Fiction365 and Cuento.