In August 2006, long before Julie and Julia renewed public interest in Julia Child, a small group of friends gathered to celebrate the anniversary of her birth. We knew we were slightly off a milestone (the 100th anniversary of her birth will come in 2012) but we all admired her, we love good food and almost any excuse for a party, and I'd recently found a battered and beloved copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and wanted to try it out. It's become a more-or-less annual event in my circle and each is its own story, but this one was something special and I've wanted to share it since the day I started writing Eat Here. I beg your indulgence for its length and hope you'll be rewarded by the stories nested within the little story of this party.
I am far too cowardly to host A Real Dinner Party. In fact I often wonder who IS brave enough to consider such a thing without a staff to clean and help cook? But I do love to cook, and I trust the affectionate indulgence of my friends and the fact that they love to cook, too. It was Katie's idea. We asked a tiny group because we can only seat about 8 people at our table, and you can't host people outdoors in the August of north Florida without risking the possibility of melting people into little puddles. So, a small, safe crowd. And then somehow we invited Claude and Giselle.
They are owners, and Claude chef de cuisine of one of St. Augustine's favorite restaurants, Le Pavillon, where European cooking has been done excellently for more than a generation. It seemed perfectly crazy and perfectly natural, in equal measure, because the points of intersection were so many, and so intriguing.
When Rodney was a teenager he delivered restaurant supplies to Le Pavillon; when I was younger I had many dinners with an extended circle of friends practically in the kitchen of the restaurant. Pablo and Sue had separate connections as writers, video producers and members of various national culinary and cultural organizations. Lon and Lis, known to most of our small community for their astonishing musical range and connections, were old friends of the restaurant and the dedicated family who'd owned and defined it. Claude had known the Cafe Alcazar as a fan and a customer and therefore loved its owner, Lorie. And when Rodney and I bought our place some years ago we discovered to our delight that Claude and Giselle were neighbors. The friendship was renewed, with much of the kindness coming from Claude's side of the fence. I don't know if that all hangs together for you, but the point is we live in a funny little old town, and the circles are small, small, small, my loves, and the losses are poignant.
So Claude and Giselle were invited. Giselle was working at the restaurant that night, but Claude dropped by before the party really started: Giselle had sent a quiche and he was charged with dropping it off; couldn't stay more than a moment, had to be off, oh, but he would LOVE to see Lis for a moment...perhaps he would stay for just a few minutes. Claude had one of those personalities that fill rooms, but not in the bad way. He filled a room so that you wanted to just squeeze in and get in on the fun, because people were generally either loud or laughing or both and there was something interesting going on, something with people and food at its middle, something you didn't want to miss. In all honesty, I think Tommy Willis told this part better than I ever could. He's a priest and he was talking at Claude's funeral, but his story was perfectly balanced and a terrific snapshot of Claude. I'll make you a deal: I'll tell you what Tommy said later, maybe in a Part II. Suffice it for now to say that Claude was a force of nature, perfectly suited to running a great kitchen with one hand (that hand probably belonging mostly to Giselle and her brother, their late, much-lamented business partner Fritz), and making every customer feel as though they lived in his kitchen with the other. And not just as though they lived in his kitchen, but as if they'd been made welcome at the king's kitchen table, had set up housekeeping and couldn't bear to think of leaving.
Claude made some early noises about leaving as we waited for people to gather. I said, "Claude, really, you've brought this lovely quiche and Giselle is at work, and anyway, you have to eat. How about a cocktail?" He tilted his head as he considered. "What do you have?" he asked, clearly not interested in the red wine that was more or less going around. "Vodka," I answered, which was pretty much all I had, since I'd assumed Julia Child revelers would all drink wine of one description of another, and most of them had kindly brought bottles.
"Perfect," he said, "but just one." He settled at the table with Pablo and Lon. It didn't last long, but here they are in a regrettably dark photo with Claude to the left, dressed in tennis whites, Pablo and Lon.
I had game hens or chicken roasting on the grill and when I brought them in, Claude stepped capably into the kitchen and cut them into serving-sized pieces and I made him a second drink. Katie's French onion soup was simmering on the stove and we shaved Gruyere and pretty soon we all were more or less in the kitchen together. I think this was when Claude realized that the point of the party was to celebrate Julia Child: her influence on us as people (watching her on TV) and cooks (reading her cookbooks and using her unflappable steadiness to brave French cooking). He shoved his glasses onto his forehead as he worked with the chicken, sipped his vodka martini and said, "Ah! Julia! I knew her, you know." So the tiny crowd drew in closer, excepting one or two who'd already heard the story, and Claude described his first meeting with Julia Child. He had been a sous chef at The Four Seasons, and she had just walked into the kitchen one day. Laughing, Claude put his hand out above his own head to indicate how tall she'd been and even imitated her voice, which was funny on Saturday Night Live but for various reasons even funnier when Claude did it, leavened by genuine respect and affection, and his persistent Swiss-German accent. Apparently she'd made more than one stop at the famed New York restaurant, and each of his recollections led him to another. We made stops via Claude's memory at the White House, where he once cooked, and finally ended back in St. Augustine.
In the late 70s, Jacques Cousteau was here, his famed ship Calypso undergoing work at one of the local shipyards. Claude shared his European sensibilities and taste in food with Cousteau, and it sounded as though Cousteau was quickly welcomed to the king's table I described above. Whether sitting in the kitchen at Le Pavillon or eating Claude's bouillabaisse aboard the vessel he was loathe to leave untended, an important friendship was apparently forged. More than 30 years later, our tiny circle welcomed these memories and warmed its collective hands as they were recollected. Claude stayed until the very end of that party, drinking and laughing and eating and telling stories. Giselle's quiche, it turned out, was a Quiche Lorraine, bound by a creamy cheese and egg flavor she claims is a snap but which I've never been able to replicate.
And though we've continued to celebrate this special (en Francais) anniversaire, its inaugural will stand in our memories forever. If you can see the delicate web of connections between us at which I have hinted, you'll understand why. There are many more stories beneath this surface, my loves, but they will have to come another night. Sooner or later, I'll tell you about the impact of Claude, Giselle and Fritz on the family of Tommy Willis and about some of the other connections we share. Thank you for keeping your drooping lids open with me for this recollection, for listening carefully to all that needed saying, all that didn't need saying, and all that lies between.
Credits: Photo by Rodney
Umm, I had no copy editor tonight, so any typos are completely the fault of Dylan. He does promise to proof for me tomorrow so stay tuned. :)