Mario, being young like me, was an optimist—sometimes to the point of making mistakes. One day, M. Caille brought a big, juicy steak and asked him to cook it for his lunch. “Bleu, s’il te plaît”. (Blue, please) Blue is less cooked than saignant (bleeding). Mario assigned me the task. I had never cooked a steak before. I knew how to cook bavette, which is skirt steak, the muscle that holds the inner diaphragm so the lungs function properly. This is the same cut that is used to make fajitas.
I cooked it the same way: put a little olive oil in the skillet, season the steak, cook on one side and flip. I knew at least some of the principles. At that time, I did not know about the two schools of thought in meat cookery. One school postulates that meat is essentially made of tiny balloons and that seasoning meat before cooking it causes osmosis and the loss of juices through the meat cells’ semipermeable membranes. The second school posits that meat should never be stabbed with a fork but manipulated only with tongs. Furthermore, because meat contains globular proteins, it is important to saisir la viande or “surprise it with heat”.
Unfortunately, on this occasion, I followed the third school, which is of the devil. I cooked the meat until it was dark brown and case-hardened on one side while barely kissing it with flame on the other. Of course, I presented the pretty side face up, but when M. Caille sank his knife into the steak and discovered the tough, desiccated underside, he flew into a rage.
“I do not pay you to farm out my lunch to that fucking American!” he stormed. Whereupon, he picked up a long ham-slicing knife and whipped it across the kitchen. It collided with a very expensive bottle of Moulin a Vent from M. Caille’s own winery. This resulted in a red explosion, wine splattering everywhere, along with shards of glass.
I don’t remember if this incident came before or after the wayward steak. Doesn’t matter. It couldn’t have been avoided.
The reason is, I’m an American. I was raised in an American home. In August, when they were ripe, my Mom would serve delicious cantaloupe complete with balls of vanilla ice cream nestled in their seedless cavities.
Not according to M. Caille. One glorious Sunday, during the peak of service, Mario said, “Va mettre des glaçons dans les melons”. (Put some ice cubes in the melons). OK, glaçon is not quite glace, and I missed the subtlety. Glaçon means ice cube. Glace means either ice cream, ice, or mirror.
So, being human, I searched my memory banks for the closest match. Why, of course! Vanilla ice cream. What else?
So I put vanilla ice cream in the Melons de Charentes, those gorgeous, perfectly spherical melons with their very subtle aromas and flavors. The waiter, one of the Moroccans, poured Grand Marnier on top of the vanilla ice cream balls nestled in their melon halves, and off it went to the dining room.
Wham! The door to the kitchen flew open. “Who is the moron who put vanilla ice cream in my melons?” Mario pointed at me. Monsieur Caille turned his beet red visage toward me. “Where do you come from? Planete des Sauvages?” he screamed. “Why would any sane person ruin the delicate flavor of these melons with the coarse flavors of vanilla ice cream??”