I can state that with authority having just eaten the best food of my life at the restaurant Arpège, here in Paris. Our lunch lasted too long—four hours plus—and contained too many courses—nine, all told—including three deserts.
More than this stomach can handle.
But forget that for a moment. The delicacy of each selection from the “surprise” menu—the menu the chef chooses for that day—made it seem for the first two or three courses that I was eating dollhouse food: tiny tarts, barely as big as a thumbnail, filled with sharply contrasting bits of vegetable or fruit; a small wedge of spinach, green as grass (how do they cook it without darkening it?) covered with a sauce so light and thin it might have been made of rainbows—but with a tantalizingly smoky taste; three potatoes, little-fingernail-sized, doused with a strange, oyster tasting sauce; a flat, thin fillet of sole—and now it began to be too much, the magical sauce more than my taste buds could identify. Then on to chicken, a slice so white and pure it looked like marble, under a perfectly browned piece of skin that lifted off, whole, no fat, no dryness—and this chicken was paraded around the tables, beforehand, whole, golden-brown in a bed of hay (yes, hay), looking so pretty I could hardly bare to see it cut.
By then I could only nibble at the three deserts: strawberries refreshingly not sweet, and a whole platter of seed-sized cakes, tarts and cookies, with a wrapped house-made caramel candy on the side.
Dazzling as this food was (and there is never a mention of farm to table; it seems at least at Arpège everything is from the chef’s own farm), it was not as impressive as the army of back-suited, beautiful young men and women who flew between the tables, bringing plates, bearing away plates, explaining each dish in either French or English. They were so much better looking, and so much more smartly dressed than most of the people seated at the tables, and their nearly silent, beautifully choreographed service seemed the work of a magician.
How does this chef/owner inspire this small army, thirty-seven at lunch and doubtless more at dinner? They must arrive at six a.m. to begin prep and baking, serve throughout the four-hour lunches, then begin immediately to prep for dinner, which means they do not leave work until midnight. French unions are powerful, and probably these young men and women are compensated adequately, especially as they move up through the hierarchy, but money alone can’t explain the extreme diligence, the almost religious reverence they have for their work—feeding sometimes uncomfortable-looking tourists in jeans and sneakers, bending their slender, black-jacketed forms over guests like me who know next to nothing about food.
We don’t have these ingredients. We don’t have these wines—the ethereal Riesling, the sun-drenched Cotes-de-Rhone. Useless to go as I do every Saturday to stock up at the Farmers Market; the produce there is fresh but it is grown in inferior soil with chlorinated water, under a harsh sun. The leeks that here are served cut into tiny rounds are thick, long and tough at home—no one would be willing to wrench the babies, almost at birth, out of the hard ground.
I nearly forgot to mention the first course, buried under what followed, but still my favorite: a small egg, in its shell in an egg cup (when did they disappear from the land?), the top of the shell extracted and inside, by some sleight of hand, a cream sauce replacing the egg white and under it, a small, perfectly poached yolk.
The whole feast could be summed up in that eggshell.
The mass of plates of all sizes, the army of cutlery and glasses, three for each place, whisked off the table at exactly the right moment and replaced, spoons and forks placed face down to be ready to be seized and used, seemed to mandate an enormous kitchen with ranks of dishwashers. But when we were allowed a peek in, we saw a kitchen smaller than mine at home, not a single plate, cup or fork on the shining metal counters, not a sound—and this is where up to forty workers cook, assemble, disassemble, scape, rinse and wash a mountain of dishes and cutlery and glasses, this work going on all during the meals themselves but somehow soundlessly and leaving no reminders behind.
Could a gifted chef create a version of Arpège in the U.S.?
I doubt it. Not only because of our inferior ingredients, surely improved by Farmers’ Markets but still the produce of hostile conditions, but because we do not honor a tradition of service.
Can you imagine the outcry if educated middle-class young people went to work for these hours, and under the rule of what must be a mighty disciplinarian or an inspired inspirer?
For us, such work seems servitude, and so we delegate it to darker-skinned people we barely tolerate although they do all the jobs we are not able or willing to do ourselves.
Service as a kind of religious ceremony—only that can inspire a restaurant like Arpège.
I was spared seeing the bill. My son Barry was the host. Doubtless it would have horrified me. After all, there are homeless people parked here and there on church steps, and just after our lunch, a madman attacked a policeman with a hammer in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
I walk there every morning.
Perhaps if Arpège-type training was offered to all the outsiders who wish us harm, if they could be somehow inducted into the tradition of service, their anger could be drained off into the creation of a perfect egg.
Totally unrealistic, I know. But as we read of more and more attacks by British-born young men whose parents came here from what were once the colonies looking for something, it seems worth considering that “something”—whether achieved or not—is usually only material, and the religious and social rituals left behind in the homeland have never been replaced by another system of ideals.
The ideal—and the self-sacrifice—demanded by French food at its highest, and best, and most unreasonable.
Perhaps we could at least suspend wearing our jeans and sneakers when dining at that alter.