By Michael Alexander Regalado Becerra
Have you ever seen that Disney film Ratatouille? Basically, it’s the heartwarming tale of a rat who becomes the best chef in Paris and the plot is sort of an allegory on how contemporary French culture is basically garbage but luckily, every so often some unbelievable talent crawls out from the third-world to incite fervor in an otherwise stagnant sect of society. In effect, the film and its not-so-subtle geopolitical commentary anticipated how rather than instilling a sense of altruism in its inhabitants, urbanization in France has led to isolation and jingoism largely due to nationalistic rhetoric and policies put in place by Emmanuel Macron I’m just kidding I have no idea if any of those words that you just read made sense in the order with which I wrote them.
I vacationed in Paris for the first time in August 2018, with my girlfriend Kay. She had just turned 30 and this would be the first time either of us had ever traveled outside of North, South or Central America. Typically, we stay comfortably within the confines of our small community, though we do this thing once a year where we take a big chunk of our respective paychecks and blow the whole metaphorical pile of cash on one really expensive, really good meal. And I mean a really good meal from a really chic restaurant; the kind of place whose thin menu often includes species of bird, strains of bacteria and names of countries that seem almost made-up to me. These meals are a huge deal for us two people who during the workweek subsist mainly on oatmeal, tuna fish and garbanzo beans. I had microwave soup for lunch today. Needless to say, our vacation in Europe was booked in the hopes that it would act, for the both of us, as some dramatic palate widener, emotional or otherwise.
Before I get ahead of myself, and at the risk of sounding too much like a typical millennial, I want to pause for a moment to champion social media. Thinking back now, our entire conception of Paris, its topography and shape was facilitated almost entirely by strangers on the internet, through your Yelps, your Foursquares, your Instagrams and TripAdvisors. These platforms were helpful if not essential in our successful navigation of the country, though I can already hear the dull sound of some hypothetical naysayer arguing that we robbed ourselves of a more *authentic*, windswept version of the whole French experience. A woman once asked me what kind of life I’d lead if I didn’t have the curation of online restaurant reviews to constantly fall back on. “It would be just like yours,” I answered, “too short and unfulfilled.” She was not amused. I find it strange how people can take issue with our culture’s immediate albeit seemingly novel preoccupations. If you don’t like this new thing so much, then just don’t use it for crying out loud! Is the fear of death so heavy that you must look down on your own children?! My great-grandfather scorned the advent of the refrigerator for its disruption of his way of life, for its imposing of ice and unspoiled milk on an already fully functioning, agriculturally-minded society. I am of course, speaking hyperbolically here.
Of all the things we ate in Paris, macaroons, good rosé, fancy chocolates, aspirin, the big meal, the coup de grâce as it were, was had in a cozy cafe nestled in a residential district not far from the Eiffel Tower but far enough that the surrounding apartments kept the tower’s spire just out of view. Kay wore a dress. I had on a collared shirt and a pair of tight jeans that would become unbuttoned by the end of the night. The restaurant was called Chez L’ami Jean.
The first person we met from the restaurant was the hostess, who was roughly the same age as Kay and I: rail-thin, bespectacled and with a shaved head. She wore almost the exact same outfit as me, though her clothes fit better. We didn’t have reservations which initially seemed like a huge provocation and so Kay and I had to stand outside in the cold, staring into the restaurant like 18th-century orphans until a table became available, though our hostess tried to make up for this by translating the menu into English for us and acting out words she didn’t know off-hand. Even though it was late and the sun had already gone down, our hostess had so much wiry energy that she seemed almost mystical, her loose shirt flapping in the night like wings or a cape. She was really selling Kay and I on the hors d’oeuvres. After much deliberation, the three of us settled on a pâté to start with. The hearty meat cake of undisclosed protein was charred on top so that the dish had some competing textures and each fatty slice was sprinkled with herbs that had been burned into ash. Our hostess assured us that this would create an “explosion of flavor” in our mouths and she mimed a bomb going off in front of her face. The pâté was served on a slab of stone set over a makeshift table of fiberglass that was fastened to two stumps of wood. She brought us candles, sparkling water and a ceramic jar full of baby pickles. Then she introduced us to the sommelier, referring to him as a genius. “He is genius,” she said, her inflection suggesting that she meant this as his title and not his description.
Our wine genius was a man just on the cusp of middle-age, with a neat beard and glasses. He spoke zero English and so picking a wine was incredibly stressful. When the sommelier finally brought out a bottle and poured me the first sip, he turned his head in order to give me some privacy. Such generosity. The wine was good, though off the top of my head I couldn’t tell you anything about it, its flavor profile or aftertaste. It was red, this I know for sure. After a ceremonial nod to one another, the sommelier poured Kay and I a glass, left the bottle and then he went back inside.
Another thing worth mentioning before I get into the meat of our meal at L’ami Jean are some my prejudices. France was nothing like I’d been led to believe, primarily through cartoons and by word-of-mouth from people who had never even been to the country before. Save for a few choice instances, everyone we met in Paris was extremely accommodating and this was especially the case for the younger Parisians. Almost everyone under 40 was willing to answer our questions, to give us directions or exchange some French words for English. I learned that a bottle opener is sometimes called a bochon tirez: a “plug pull.” It was as if the French youth were actively trying to disabuse the world of its familiar stereotypes. I felt embarrassed for assuming that everyone would be blowing cigarette smoke in my face while wearing berets and waving white flags. One morning, I absentmindedly stood in one of the city’s bike lanes. “Monsieur, pardon moi,” a man on a speedy bicycle shouted in a calm, even tone, almost apologetic. If this were New York or Los Angeles, I probably would have caused a crash and then been called an idiot.
After wine and pâté, we were finally given a table inside the restaurant, where it was warm and very busy. The whole room held maybe fifty people split into either small groups or sitting together along one communal table, everyone on top of each other. Aside from the personal space, we also shared a view into the kitchen from our tables and the constant stream of food and French expletives coming from the head chef was amusing. And this is when we met our waiter: a man also on the cusp of middle-age with a big, round head that was balding so dramatically it looked like tidal forces were pulling his hair away from its skull. He also had one of the driest personalities I had met in a long time. Kay asked him if he spoke English. “Nobody speaks English in France,” he said while looking away from her for maximum effect. I’d hear him repeat the joke all night to the other American and British parties.
Our first course had in the restaurant was a bowl of golden mushrooms, meaty, and bursting with the flavor of tomato and onion. Kay and I went back and forth, remarking how the mushrooms tasted much like fideo, a soup of tomato paste and pasta frequently made by our respective grandmothers. Each forkful of mushroom brought childhood memories rocketing back into consciousness which is overly sentimental and annoying because that is exactly what happens in the climax of that Ratatouille movie. Woe to the creative reach of corporate cinema. Goddamn, Disney.
The next thing we ate was a beefsteak tomato heart that I initially misheard as a “beef heart.” Our waiter presented an open fist to approximate the size of the dish.
“Perfect,” I answered almost immediately, “I love beef.”
“It’s not beef,” he replied. “It’s tomato.”
“Perfect,” I said, my face now bright red. “I love tomato.” In all honesty, we probably could have done without the giant fruit, though it was delicious and also quite large: practically the size of our waiter’s head.
Our main course was a huge chunk of beef shoulder, slow-cooked for 16 hours then served with potatoes, carrots, peas and jellied meat on the side. The dish was garnished with a sage-like branch that was then lit with a match so that the whole room smelled like a fire had gone off in some Christian Science gift shop, much to everyone’s delight. When the plate was brought to our table, I think our waiter said something witty, but I couldn’t hear much over the sound of my increasingly heavy breathing. Don’t worry I don’t die in Paris.
One last part of the trip that I think is important to know occurred in the Champ De Mars, just below the Eiffel. Instead of keeping a daily travelogue, I had opted instead to sketch various buildings in a small notebook, which was a convenient distraction from my native vocabulary which was so spectacularly failing me in this foreign country. Occasionally I would do things like mix up the different honorifics from the various Latin-based languages: calling someone Signore instead Monsieur and this would lead to long stretches of self-imposed silence. This also had the effect of procuring a kind of private quiet between Kay and I, where we often communicated in gestures. We’d point out landmarks and wave off beggars without muttering a word to one another. On the walk from the Eiffel to the Seine, a man came right up to me, grabbed my arm and tried to slide a tasseled ring onto my finger. This is one of those scams that TripAdvisor says to look out for. I always read think-pieces and hear arguments about how physical contact has been lessened by the internet and this was made severely apparent in this instance. I recoiled with so much force at the stranger’s touch and in such an intense reflexive manor that it felt as if my little life were suddenly in danger. In no more than a millisecond, I concluded that I wanted to hit this man in order to somehow protect myself and he seemed to be aware of this fact. Fight or flight. The vendor promptly dropped his arms, turned around and calmly walked in the other direction. Later at dinner, as the smoky beef shoulder was delivered to our table, I accidentally elbowed my fork onto the ground. Before I could even get a finger to the floor, our waiter grabbed my hand with the same intensity that the vendor had in the park earlier that day. “Non, monsieur,” our waiter said, caringly and with a subtle shake of his enormous head. He picked the utensil from the ground, brought me a clean one and – no joke -- this is when I knew I was having the best meal of my life.
The strength of hyperbole, by my estimation, is its built-in disposability, its rhetorical nature that allows -- if only temporarily -- for sincerity to dress itself up as honest-to-god truth. THIS IS THE BEST BOWL OF PUDDING I HAVE EVER HAD IN MY ENTIRE LIFE. For dessert at Chez L’ami Jean, Kay and I split a gargantuan bowl of rice pudding, another peasant dish done-up in extravagance and charm. The pudding was so viscous that it had to be peeled into our dishes with a wooden spoon. I ate three servings, despite not having any more room in my stomach and also having been born without the proper enzymes in my lower intestine to digest lactose. This is when the button on my pants came off, under the table without anyone knowing. And the server in charge of desserts, a handsome man with a youthful face and silver hair told us that the rice pudding was good because of its texture. “It is soft,” he said in broken English, “like my brain.”
“No, no,” I tried to say reassuringly. “That’s not true.” He laughed.
“Yes. It is true.” A huge grin grew on the handsome server’s face, seemingly ecstatic at this successful derision of himself. Both Kay and I laughed and then the server was whisked away by shouting from the head chef. Then our hostess returned to us like a callback to the first act of a play, carrying two cups of espresso and a dish of chocolate covered almonds.
“You put them in your mouth,” she said. “They are good. Take them with you. Take all of them.” I ate a few in support of her recommendation, practically ready to throw-up, but in a good way.
There’s a lot from this dinner that I’ve left out: the way the head chef looked (you can Google him), what the other guests ordered, or even the stereotypically-American family across from us who gave the waiter a really hard time, say nothing of the way most of our meal even tasted. When we were finally given the check, our waiter asked us how everything was. To the best of my memory, this was our conversation verbatim, had while my credit card information was being transmitted via radio waves over the Atlantic.
“So, how was it?”
“Delicious.” I replied. “Perfect. Everything was incredible.”
“Good. That will be one million dollars.”
“It was certainly worth a million dollars.”
“Okay, so pay me one million dollars.”
“Hehe. I wish I could.”
“I wish somebody would give me one million dollars.”
“Me too,” I replied.”
“Then I wouldn’t have to work. I hate working. This is not at all what I wanted to do with my life.”
“Whelp, thanks for everything.”
“Life: it’s not meant for working.” Our waiter went from silly to morose in less than fifteen seconds, and while I badly wanted the transaction to clear so I could get out of the awkwardness, the sudden, unexpected intimacy of our conversation made me like him, the meal and the whole country even more. And then he was gone, out of our lives forever no hug, nothing.
We were one of the last groups to leave the restaurant and on the way to the door, I turned back to the head chef and yelled “MERCI!” this being my big gesture of thanks to the entire staff, but instead of saying MONSIEUR, I loudly called the chef SEÑOR. He waved and gave a gracious half-bow. I doubt he could even really hear me.
After dinner, Kay and I had plans to visit the Eiffel, to see the structure lit up under the night sky. This did not happen. Instead, we went back to the hotel, threw on our loosest fitting clothes and promptly fell asleep. I also used le cuvette des toilette quite a bit.
Today more than ever, the opium of the people is not just religion or music or even opium, its everything. Many of us exercise an unprecedented amount of choice in our daily lives and miraculously these preoccupations, these hobbies, these pastimes these meals don’t solve the perennial questions of who am I and what I am even doing here? Though not everyone has the time, money or capacity to wait in long lines for the opportunity to sample the latest dynamic offering from a cutting-edge restaurant, we are all -- spiritually speaking -- waiting for that next good or great meal. But what is a good meal anyway? I recall once eating a grilled cheese sandwich for breakfast from a diner not far from my hometown. After the first bite, a tear came out of my eye and it folded me over into an involuntary laugh and then a smile that lasted through the morning.