Restaurateuring

Auberge de Pomme

One of Baptiste’s loyal customers is the owner and head chef of Auberge de Pomme, William Boquelet, who has agreed to give me a rare glimpse into the kitchen of his Michelin starred restaurant.

The kitchen is made entirely of stainless steel, and there are three sous chefs quietly milling about. It’s much calmer than I had anticipated; nothing like the stress of Top Chef. On a small single burner simmers a pot of beurre blanc: butter, white wine, and shallots. Forget the caloric nightmare, I just want a straw… tout de suite.

William gives Baptiste and me a tour of the wine cave and his wineglass collection. The glasses are jumbo sized, and could easily accommodate a third of a bottle each. I’ve added a set of them to my growing list of “things-I-can’t-fit-in-my-suitcase-but-must-buy-before-my-visa-expires.”

We head back into the kitchen for William to prepare the bread for his guests. He rolls out the dough and cuts it into perfect uniform squares, then rolls them into mini baguettes as if his hands were battery operated. William also shows me a machine that makes ice cream from fresh fruit and vegetables (for example, a ball of cucumber sorbet floating in a bowl of gazpacho) in two minutes. This little gadget also made my list.

As we enjoy our amuse bouche outside on the terrace, William asks if I would like a glass of champagne and if lobster would be all right for my entrée. Why, yes, and…yes.

After we toast the chef, William shows us a few books in which he’s recently been featured; he explains that he received his Michelin star in 2002, but that it’s very difficult to keep. He and Baptiste have been joking with one another all night, but he says once the guests arrive and the service begins, everything must be très serious. Michelin inspectors will arrive unannounced, and everything, -- service, déco, bathrooms, the greeting, and, of course, the food and drink -- must be absolutely perfect. The attention to detail required to excel in all these categories, every night, for every guest, is enough to make William reach for another cigarette (though to maintain his focus, he won’t enjoy a glass of Champagne with us).

Our dinner is presented, and, as promised, I am the beneficiary of beaucoup de lobster. It’s arranged as two separate dishes, one with raw lobster pieces, and the other in a bowl with a salty cappuccino flavored broth, topped with milk foam. We are then served white fish accompanied by a tangy raspberry sauce and a “carrot.” It looks like a carrot, it tastes like a carrot and it is a carrot, but it has been diced, heated, buttered, seasoned, pureed, and finally piped back on the plate to look just like a carrot plucked fresh from the earth. This is French gastronomy at its finest.

The Casbah

Susan Loomis has arranged another, yet very different, restaurant experience for me. I will assist her friend Cherifa with both the cooking and service at her North African restaurant, The Casbah, which she has run out of her home for the last eight years. Cherifa's special dish is couscous. I’m taking detailed mental notes on how to recreate perfect couscous, but after she rinses and steams the couscous for the third time, I decide that if a couscous craving strikes, I’ll have to find a North African restaurant in the states.

Cherifa has one reservation for lunch; six cyclists who have taken a special bike tour just for her couscous. But within thirty minutes, we have six tables and twenty guests. Cherifa is a one-woman show and is accustomed to handling everything herself (her 18-year-old son is still asleep after partying the night before) -- cooking, taking orders, pouring drinks, clearing tables -- and she does it all with a smile.

While the guests mull over the menu, we serve them small bowls of green olives and chickpeas in African spices. Most will order the chicken and beef skewers marinated in cilantro, onions, and spices, or lamb meatballs with couscous. We’ve also prepared three antique silver teapots with Maghrebi mint tea (similar to Moroccan mint); dried green tea, a handful of fresh mint stalks, a huge spoonful of sugar, and boiling water poured over top.

When the lunch service gets hectic, Cherifa shoves a bottle of wine in my hand and says, “…faire un goûter?” Do a taste? I can’t understand why she wants me to taste the bottle of wine her customers have ordered. This is awkward. She nods and smiles to reassure me I’m doing the right thing, but I feel uncomfortable having a sip of their bottle while I’m standing at their table. Just as I’m about to enjoy a taste myself, she laughs and clarifies that I am to pour a taste for the guests, not do a taste for myself. Good catch, Cherifa. I’m honored she’s even allowing me to serve her guests.

Cherifa explains that the majority of her customers are locals; her restaurant is too far off the grid for tourists. She targets an out-the-door cost of about 30 € per head -- which might cover your cheese course at Auberge de Pomme -- because she wants her guests to come back, and not feel like her restaurant is only for special occasions. She seems content with keeping guests happy without the pressure of maintaining a Michelin-star reputation. Without that pressure, she has the flexibility to adjust the restaurant’s hours, amend dishes, and make business decisions, based on her personal preference.

Just as we wrap up the lunch service and put the last dish in the dishwasher, Cherifa's son emerges in basketball shorts and slippers. Smart kid. Impeccable timing.