Life-Lessons from Monsieur LeGrand

French cookingMentors can come in the most unlikely forms.

I used to believe I could cook. From the age of four, when I was finally able to look over the top of the stove and made the firm decision to teach myself how to make lasagna, I've spent countless hours in kitchens, learning how to make meals of almost every ethnic variety. My culinary activities had been a source of creative output, artistic expression, and --well-- just plain sustenance. But then I met someone who would turn my assumptions upside-down and give them a firm shake. "You don't know how to cook," he stated flatly. It turned out he was right.

At first, I didn't know what to think of this scrawny French civil servant. A mere wisp of a greying middle-aged man, his surname of "LeGrand" seemed rather ironic, and I couldn't understand why this soft-spoken pencil-pusher in my adult English immersion class could consider himself a chef, beyond the stereotypical French habit of snobbishly overestimating one's own culinary skills. Still, I egged him on a bit (it was my job to make them all speak English, after all), and found out from another class member that he was indeed a master-class Parisian chef. He regularly travelled north to Paris to win competitions, and refused to work in a restaurant because he felt it would sully his art. (I know artists who would never work as illustrators for the same reason.)

We struck a deal: during weekends, and some weeknights, I would teach him English, and he would teach me French cooking. I was not prepared for what this demanded.

I had grown dozens of varieties of herbs in our family business (a garden nursery) for several years, and considered myself somewhat knowledgeable in the identification of herbs by sight and smell. Mr. LeGrand would not let me into his kitchen until I was able to identify over a hundred different herbs, both fresh and dry, visually and by smell, and for what foods and seasoning blends they were typically used. It took three weeks of long study and trial before I passed his blindfold test.

I wasn't allowed touch a pot until I spent two weeks learning the various types of pots and utensils, and for what use each one was specifically meant. I still dream of the dazzling array hanging in his kitchen, an intimidating selection of cast iron, stainless steel, copper, and hitherto unknown alloys, in a litany of sizes, shapes, weights, thicknesses, and treatments. It was another week before I learned about various sorts of knives, and even then, he insisted that I purchase my own chef's knife (for which I spent two days working on his friend's farm, lugging large squash for the market).

His bi-weekly Saturday dinner party was the first time I cooked alongside him. We started preparing the sauces at six in the morning, just as the sun rose. Fresh herbs had to be gathered at a local farm, and we spent an hour at the marketplace, where he publicly chastised me for picking out the wrong type of tomato. He carefully showed me how to use a gas stove, and how to regulate the heat to make a proper demi-glace (the first batch of which he hurled out of the window in disgust). Some of the hors d'oeuvres took a half-hour of crafting per piece. Borage flowers and mint were introduced into tiny salads with strawberries and cress. Small vegetables were carefully carved into blossoms, cheese was put into small containers with thermometers to guard over them, and we sampled six types of wine before we (or rather, he) found the perfect one. Prime cuts of beef were delicately sliced and grilled over an open fire in the yard, and the marble-size potatoes were seasoned and roasted and adorned with rosemary sprigs. All the time, M. LeGrand stood over my shoulder and instructed me, cursed me, cajoled me, pushed me.

When I knew I had done something right, I waited for praise. There was none. He didn't believe in it. He said that creating a successful dish should be a reward in itself.

Then the time came for the meal. After I was briefly introduced to the guests, who were all members of a local gourmet cooking club, I was ushered into the kitchen to make the final preparations. M. LeGrand remained with the guests, and I --without the benefit of a safety net-- reached untold levels of panic while I sauteed, sliced, baked, and served. From time to time, he would appear to the kitchen with a little cart to fetch food (usually artistically arranging it as he went), and brought the dishes back to the table.

Three hours and seven courses later, the guests had left. M. LeGrand walked in through the door, fitfully rubbing his hands in a bright blue napkin. He stood quietly surveying the empty pots and pans, muttering, and then drained a half-glass of wine. I waited for him to say something. He didn't.

"Well," I asked, "did they like it?"

"Does it matter if they did, or if they didn't?"

I wanted to say yes, dammit, it does, but then I caught myself. I realised I needed some sort of vindication for my efforts, some sort of approval. He packed some cheese into wax paper, and hoisted it into a cupboard, not even looking me in the face. I caught a glimpse of a stern impression, and I understood that the evening had not gone well.

"They will return in two weeks, and we will be better prepared," he said. "Next time, we will choose a better wine."

And that was that.

Two weeks later we prepared another meal, one far more arduous and risky. The next, we opted for traditional dishes with a modern flair. The next, quail and clockwork pie. And so on.

After three months, the aftermath of one grueling two-day session had left me reeling with exhaustion. The guests had left, and M. LeGrand again strolled into the kitchen, pushing his cart and polishing his wine. After six dinner parties, I had not yet heard any signs of approval, and I asked him, point-blank, what the problem was.

"There is no problem this time," he said. "And that is why you should be content."

I'm sure the tiredness and confusion showed in my eyes.

"My friend, why are you not filled with accomplishment? Why do you need them to say anything? Did you learn nothing?"

"I learned a lot," I said.

He nodded, a slight smile lingering on his lips as he packed away the cheese once more. "Next week," he said, "we will try an older Camembert from a little dairy outside Rennes, and perhaps a drier bread...."

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We're all coming up on the Red Eye...


.. is it you are anyway?

(I'm right behind you, ShutterCat!)

Northwest Territories

Look way, way north, towards the Arctic. Dress warmly, or the -40 degree weather might curb your enthusiasm for any sort of culinary endeavour.

There's no red-eye, but it's a scant 20-odd hour drive north of Edmonton, Alberta, and you'll probably have to drive across a frozen river or two. I'd suggest a good set of snow tires and a decent Arctic survival kit, because you'd wouldn't want to get stuck among the bison herds in the middle of nowhere. Then again, they are good sources of protein, albeit ones you wouldn't want to tackle with your bare hands. (Over six feet tall, and solid muscle.) Sled dogs are another viable option....

If you make it up here, the hot cocoa's on me. ;-)

all my best,

French Fries...

English immersion... *shudder* Our French master was an elderly, Polish gentleman, who insisted we spoke whichever language he was teaching at the time. I digress...

I would say Monsieur LeGrand was and possibly still is an excellent mentor. If we except that knowledge can only exist in the minds of humans, dolphins and the odd evil robot, then the best way to expand that knowledge is through mentorship rather than non-expert opinion. I remember attending a charity bash, and some awful old harpy - no doubt escaped from an HR meeting or possibly an itinerant shoe seller - started telling me that Champagne is overrated and Australia sparkling wine is far sweeter.... Assuming it was a joke (she had made a point of telling me what a wonderful sense of humour she possessed) I teased her about the amount of 'bitter' Champagne she was obviously forcing down. I learnt two very important lessons that night. The first was the difference between common sense and expert opinion; the second, and in a way far more important, never make fun of anyone in high heels, especially if they are close enough to jump on one's feet... :O

BTW what wine shall we bring? ;)