When Mel and I moved to Provence in 1969, not only was our love of food expanded ten-fold but we also befriended some of the top chefs in France. One of them was the great Paul Bocuse, in Lyon, who had just acquired his third star (the highest accolade) from the Michelin guide. We had gone there for lunch in 1967 for the first time and Paul took a shine to my orange eyes and long chestnut hair! Mel loved the Beaujolais wines Paul was pouring under his own label and suggested to Paul that he sell them in the USA.
“Alors, il faut voir mon ami Georges,” Paul replied.
Georges turned out to be Georges Duboeuf, a brilliant young Beaujolais wine broker in Romanche Thorins, just north of Lyon. We arranged to go and visit him with Paul the next day.
Duboeuf was good looking, charming and smart and we took a liking to him at once. His business was pretty small then but his reputation was already growing fast. Parked outside his small office we saw what looked like a large milk truck which we discovered was George’s home bottling machine. Georges lugged it around to all the best growers in the Beaujolais and offered to bottle their wines at their actual property. This enabled them, therefore, to offer them as ‘estate bottled’ wines even though none of them had in-house bottling plants. For his own brand, he chose only the top wines from the best of the small producers throughout the region. He monitored the vinification and then sold the wines to many of the best restaurants throughout France. He had already attracted the attention of the American wine importer and Bordeaux chateau owner, our old friend Alexis Lichine. Alexis sold wines made by Georges under his own Lichine label in the USA. Georges did not want to upset Alexis in any way but also wanted to please the great Bocuse and so he agreed to allow us to sell his very best domaine wines in America under a new ‘Paul Bocuse’ label. It was the beginning of a long and wonderful friendship with both men.
To launch Paul’s line of wines, Mel took the great chef to America. Bocuse didn’t speak any English (not because he couldn’t but because he wouldn’t!) but Mel was certain that, despite this, he could make the American press excited about this great chef and his wines.
On their first three week trip, Paul brought a huge bag of fresh black truffles with him to cook at private houses, restaurants and on the television shows arranged by Mel. He glibly told the custom’s officers they were black chocolates. Their heady truffle aroma permeated the suitcase and wafted into the hotel bedrooms as they traveled from town to town, becoming more and more pungent as the days passed by. For that reason, Mel and Paul took it in turns to sleep with the truffles.
One evening, after a wine dinner in Los Angeles, Paul disappeared to his room with an attractive blonde journalist and Mel went to his room to sleep! After a while, Mel was awakened by a persistent knocking at his hotel bedroom door. He sleepily padded over to open it and was confronted by Bocuse in his underwear.
“Melween, il faut changer les chambres, je ne peux pas faire l’amour avec le parfum des truffes!”
The exotic scent of the black truffles had denied him the ability to make love and rooms would need to be changed. Mel generously complied and Paul tiptoed into Mel’s room with his nightly conquest as Mel fell into Paul’s bed surrounded by the heavy aroma of ripe fungi.
Mel was always with him during interviews or demonstrations, translating for him as well as promoting his wines. On many occasions Bocuse would answer questions with a twinkle in his eye.
“What kind of pots do you use in your kitchen, Mr. Bocuse?” A glamorous young woman asked on a TV show.
“If you give me the keys to your bedroom I’ll tell you,” replied Paul in French.
“Chef always uses copper lined casseroles,” translated Mel.
“What do you think of women chefs to-day?”
Answer: “Women belong in the bedroom!”
“Some of the best chefs in Lyon are women,” translated Mel.
On television, he would tell risqué jokes and Mel would have to change the punch line quickly to avoid litigation from the station. People were always writing in asking about this terrible translator whom they believed didn’t know the French language properly. It was all hugely entertaining for Paul.
As Mel was now selling over twenty-five thousand cases of Paul’s wines a year I was allowed to do a stint in his fabulous kitchen in Lyon. This was unusual for two reasons. Firstly, I was just a home cook. Secondly, I was a woman. I checked in to a boarding-house a mile or two from the restaurant and nervously prepared for work. I woke up early each morning to accompany Paul to the markets in Lyon. He knew the names of every producer and stall owner there. He also knew every ‘girl of the night’ there by name. “Salut, cheri!” chirped the ‘pouts’ as they finished their cognacs following their own professional evening work. The truck drivers shouted “Bon jour, Paul!” as they finished their deliveries and tucked into vast plates of stew and red wine at the end of their all-night journeys to the central market. “’Allo, collegue!” beamed the merchants as they saw Paul striding toward them through the stalls. Everyone had their best produce ready for him to inspect for his restaurant. He was fondly known as L’Empereur de Gastronomie and deserved the title.
After his purchases for the day, we’d drink our espressos alongside the drivers, call-girls and merchants in his favorite café. Then it was back to the restaurant to don rubber waders and go to the outside pantry to skin and gut fish on the marble slabs in the freezing pre-dawn air with an assortment of young ‘commies’ or ‘stagers’ (unpaid apprentices). There were forty-eight staff members for the sixty-five seat emporium of gastronomy.
Paul had famously declared that women only belonged in the bedroom and I was out to prove him wrong! As the only woman in his kitchen, I got myself up at four-thirty every morning and slaved away in the January damp and freezing air of his outdoor pantry. It was tough work, even for sturdy Scottish lass, like me. First, I was to scale and gut thirty salmon, then return to the boiler-room atmosphere of the kitchen to clean and crack two hundred pounds of fresh boiled crayfish. I don’t know which hurt more – the pain of the heat or the prickly shells shredding the skin of my bleeding fingers. After a few days, I was allowed to clean vegetables and fillet the fish. The first time I skinned and filleted a salmon, Bocuse gathered all the chefs around and showed them my work. With immense pride I stood like a soldier with my chest out and my bosom straining against the tight cotton chef’s coat. He demanded silence and then proclaimed loudly, “This is the perfect example of how NOT to fillet a salmon.” He lifted up my handiwork and showed it to all forty chefs. I was mortified and vowed from then on to show him that I could do it better and faster than anyone else in the world. I never achieved his high standards in my short time there but I did learn a huge lesson. Doing a simple task perfectly every day for twenty years is more demanding than creating something new each day. All the dishes have to be perfectly prepared, perfectly cooked and perfectly arranged every single time. The sweaty young chefs labored mightily to achieve this hundreds and thousands of times a year. Michelin three-star status demands such perfection.
I would get two hours off every afternoon between three and five when I would lie prostrate on my bed in the boarding-house with my sore feet up on the wall above my throbbing head. After what only seemed to be a few merciful minutes of reprieve, I would head back to the kitchen where all the staff would join up for endless lively discussions over the evening staff meal of blanquette de veau or pigs trotters or heady wine stews with freshly made noodles. We would discuss food, food and more food and then the dinner service would begin. Around eleven p.m., I’d rush back to the tiny hotel to change into my finery and Bocuse would pick me up with his date (never his wife: the beautiful Raymonde spent every meal ensconced behind a mahogany desk taking the money and stashing the proceeds). Paul would drive his Citroen DS at breakneck speed either to a bar or to a friend’s apartment in Lyon. We would drink champagne and talk food again until after midnight. I don’t think I got more than three hours sleep any night – even on weekends!
Poached eggs Paul Bocuse
The first time I saw Paul do this dish was in a motel room in New Orleans. No I was not alone with him! Mel had asked all the local news media in New Orleans to come to the hotel and meet the famous Paul Bocuse. There just happened to be a small kitchenette in the room with a stove with two burners. Paul insisted that he show them a trick or two using his wines and thus in a mere few minutes produced the most delicious egg dish I have ever eaten. The dozen press friends who had been squeezed into the room were blown away!
4 tbs unsalted butter
6 minced shallots or 1 small onion chopped finely
1 bottle Beaujolais
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bouquet garni: 1 celery stalk
1 small trimmed leek
1 sprig thyme
Melt 2 tbs butter in large, heavy saucepan and add the onions. Cook over low heat until translucent. Add the Beaujolais, garlic, bouquet garni and freshly ground black pepper. Increase the heat to medium and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat again and simmer uncovered, for 20 mins. Strain through fine sieve and pour into clean saucepan.
Cut slices of bread into triangles, brush with melted butter and the cut side of a clove of garlic. Place on baking sheet and toast in oven 350F until golden brown (about 10 – 15 mins). Remove and place on paper towel in warming oven.
To poach eggs. Bring wine sauce to simmer, break a room-temperature egg into a cup and slide it gently into the pot. Cook 4 mins for runny or 6 mins for soft centers. Remove with slotted spoon and place on warm dish while you cook the others. Then melt the remaining 2 tbs butter in small saucepan. Add 2 tbs flour and cook until it foams. Pour in wine sauce beating with a whisk until it thickens. Adjust seasoning and add salt and black pepper to taste.
To serve: place 1 or 2 eggs into a cereal bowl or pasta bowl and spoon over sauce. Serve with toast triangles.
You can use anchovy paste instead of salt to add flavor.