I had arrived too early in the season, so I spent a week or two hiking up Mont Le Revard, which towers over the village of Aix-les-Bains. Every day, I would hike up the mountain through the woods. Every evening, I would visit a Patisserie and eat my favorite things: apple tart made very simply—just on a crust made of pâte à tarte. I also enjoyed Baba au Rhum, which was made of a yeasty cake soaked in rum flavored sugar syrup, glazed with apricot jam and garnished with whipped cream. I was glorying in nature during the day and in the best of the French pastries in the evening.
One day, Mario finally arrived. He drove up to the hotel in a VW and he got out and walked into the kitchen of the hotel, wearing a cowboy hat and sporting sideburns. I think he was imitating Clint Eastwood in For a Few Dollars More.
Anyway, Mario was the stud. He had a girlfriend whom he screwed every afternoon and he was also betrothed to a nice young pied noir whose parents had left Algeria only a few years before. Already, Mario was following the male French pattern: wife and kids to keep up appearances while having “sky rockets in flight, afternoon delight” with the girlfriend.
The first few days that I was working with Mario, I was still hiking up the mountain. We were prepping the kitchen, but the hotel wasn’t yet open. One afternoon, on one of my excursions, I kept seeing small snails. I decided to pick them and bring them back to the hotel and ask Mario how to prep them.
Mario took one look at the snails in the bucket and he snorted, “Mais, ce ne sont que des petits gris!” “This are only the little grey ones!” He took a bottle of alcohol used for lighting the stove, poured it over them and lit. The bucket exploded in flame and the little grey snails exploded like popcorn and sizzling and hissing. I never did learn how to prepare snails.
Mario loved to tease. Mario taught me a lot. He had me buy two books used by young French cooks intent on earning their CAP or Certificat d’Aptitude Professionel. He would lecture me about all sorts of things and he had me try things.
One day, he had me sauté the Coq au Vin, a Bourgeois dish made of rooster (not chicken) marinated overnight in wine with vegetables. The marinade, being acidic, disintegrates collagen, the structural protein that causes toughness; de rigueur with roosters who spend their lives experiencing afternoon delight.
After full marination, you have to drain the meat, dry it, then sauté it in oil. Even if it’s dry, the meat spits. You have to use lots of oil so it holds the heat and browns the meat efficiently; this leads to geysers of potentially harmful hot fat.
I put on sunglasses (to protect my contacts), tied rags to my arms, and fried the coq. Of course, this provided fodder for his teasing machine. “Voila l’Americain. Ce n’est pas l’individu qui s’est posé sur la lune!” “Look at this American. He’s not the one who landed on the moon!”
In the very beginning of the season, before the crush of tourists had arrived, we did some fun things together. One day, M. Caille asked us to go pick cherries at his farm. This was up on the mountain opposite M. Revard, high up enough that we could see the top of Mont Blanc on the horizon. The grove of cherries was tended by an old man. We sat in the trees all day, picking cherries. One for the bucket. One for me… After stuffing ourselves to the point of falling out of the trees from shear lethargy, we descended our arboreal habitats and the old man extricated a dirt-encrusted wine bottle from under the floorboards of the tool shed. We sat around and the three of us drank a bottle of vin blanc, pétillant. Drier than a Vouvray, but perfect for the occasion.
On another occasion, we were in the kitchen. Mario brought me a large crepe, about 3/16 inch thick. He explained that it was far, a thick crepe made in Normandy. He said, “Eat it!” Of course, this aroused my suspicion. I cut into and found a string on the inside. A trick cooks like to play on apprentices.
Mario arranged for us to make 5 Saumon en Bellevue for a friend’s restaurant. This involved poaching five salmons, removing the skin, making an aspic, cutting vegetables prettily, then making pretty pictures out of vegetables on the surface of the salmon. These were sealed in place with an aspic. I suspect we did a good job, although I don’t rightly remember, as my memory was fogged by our payment—all the champagne that we could eat. How we made it back safely to Aix-les-Bains is a mystery, and possibly a miracle.
I had purchased a Mobylette or motorbike. So I was often sent to Hotel Astoria, which was only two blocks away to get something from their much larger kitchen. The Hotel Astoria was enormous. It had a grandiose entrance. During the years before WWI, it was the destination of potentates from the Middle East. They would arrive with their harems, pitch a tent inside their sumptuous headquarters, and light fires.
When I lived there, Aix-les-Bains reflected the much leaner economy, and most visitors were middle-class, getting mud plasters and body rubs—all on Social Security. Too bad we Americans squander our money on corporate welfare and gas wars rather than investing in our own people.
One day, I was sent to Hotel Astoria. Mario said, “Va me chercher une échelle pour monter les blancs d’oeuf; et aussi un cageot de patates.” (Get me a ladder to climb the egg whites; and also a crate of potatoes). Of course, I fully understood the double-entendre; so, I just repeated it to the chef at the Astoria for fun. Monter is one of those French verbs that has multiple meanings. It means to climb, it means to screw, it means to beat egg whites to a foam…