Saturday, June 30, 2007

Chef Francoise, Part II


Continuing the adventures begun in "Me O My O," below.

So it was 1986 or -7 or something like that, and my friend Bob Norton (I think it was Bob Norton) said, "You should check out the Cajun restaurant on south Louisiana. It's like nothing you've ever seen."
So where have I heard this before?
(I should point out that in this particular instance south Louisiana is a street, not a large swampy district of the U.S.)
So I go into the Courtyard Kitchen and there's this Waiter who resembles Fernando Rey, and every so often he stops everything to make a surreal announcement or do eccentric standup, and this is all beginning to seem very familiar. There are lots of old photos and whatnot on the walls, so I check them out and there are many pictures of Captain Greene chowing down at the Cafe le Cabotin, so now I know that my favorite restaurant from the Windward Islands has magically transplanted itself to Albuquerque.
Now how weird is that?
The menus change every day and are hand-written. On the bottom are instructions for paying. "Put your money in the cash box. Make your own change." (It has to be said, however, that the cash box is a looong way from the front door, and that the Baron regularly empties out all the large bills.)
There are no salt or pepper shakers on the tables. The menus inform us that "Your food is perfectly seasoned already."
There is, however, one salt and one pepper shaker on a table at the far side of the room. But again, it's a loooong walk, the whole time under the Waiter's disapproving eye.
(This eventually becomes a problem, because I often eat after having spent a sweaty hour at the karate school, and I'm dehydrated and craving salt, so everything tastes undersalted to me. It's a problem I never solve.)
So I have a cup of black roux gumbo, which is about the most perfect thing I've ever tasted in my life, and follow it with one of the lunch items, which is also damned fine.
They don't do vegetarian. They don't serve children. Sometimes you get complimentary wine. (Not a glass, a whole bottle.)
A day or two later I come back, and I bring the waiter a copy of the privateer book that I'd dedicated to Cafe le Cabotin, and the Waiter looks at it and says, "Why, that's us!" It takes him a while to understand that I'm not just some guy, I'm the person who wrote the book.
"I don't remember you," he says. I explain that, in person, I'm not all that memorable.
Eventually I dedicated the second Maijstral book to them, too.
The Courtyard is open five days a week for lunch, and Friday and Saturday night for dinner. For the dinners, the Waiter gives you the full-court press. He gives you your drink or whatever, and then he announces that this dinner is actually taking place at the Port de Cassis in France in 1923, and that we're now going to have a cocktail party. At the Courtyard Kitchen, what you do at cocktail parties is walk up to total strangers and kiss them on both cheeks while saying, "Ooh la la! Ooh la la!" And this goes on for five whole minutes.
We do this. Time after time.
So then you get the first course, which is usually black roux gumbo but may include another kind of soup, and then the Waiter announces it's time for the news. So you troop into one of the dining rooms where there's a TV set, and the Baron gets into this little studio he has in the back, and he reads you the news. It's the same news every week. (The Waiter doesn't do topical humor.) It's funny the first time. After a while you get so you can recite the news along with the Waiter. This does not matter.
Then you get your choice of beef filet in brown sauce or veal in Creole mustard sauce, unless you're one of Francoise's favorites (like me), in which case you get one of each. Then there's more standup, and dessert, which is usually bread pudding in whisky sauce. Oh my.
Then at some point you make the long trek to the cash drawer to pay, and then you go home, happy as an oyster Rockefeller.
How to describe the Waiter's style? Best let him introduce himself. Here's one of his rants from a hand-written menu that I carefully preserved. It's headlined "Day 982."
"This is not a good situation. Yesterday, 20 minutes after we opened we had 100 people in here. I had to put up the 'NO MORE FOOD' sign at 11:55. Francoise got 80 orders in 15 minutes. There is no way everybody is going to get served in 15 minutes or in 30 minutes. If is not the number of people, it's everybody coming at once. Somebody needs to figure a way out of this mess. I have put up signs. I have yelled at people. I tell people to go away. I 'hollar' and I curse but nothing seems to work for more than a day.
"So if it is real crowded in here and you have to eat in a hurry, it is probably best to go somewhere else where they serve food that comes out of a can. OR GO TO THE BAR and get some wine on me and drink it. DON'T worry about being late for work, you probably would be better off without your job anyway.
"At the CLUB 21 in New York, They serve approximately the same number of people in the same Length of Time we do. They have seven people in the kitchen cooking. Here there is one person in the kitchen cooking. Their food is good, but not nearly as gutsy and complex as what Francoise is doing. That is probably why Gable + Grey, Publishers, call the Courtyard Kitchen 'one of the 50 BEST PLACES in the world to have lunch.' Thank you."
Here's another, from the next week:
"[A HINT. If you walk in any restaurant in the world and it has a heat lamp OR salt and pepper shakers on the tables OR doesn't write their menu every day, you are not in a good restaurant. Don't care where it's located. A free tip from the waiter.]
"But I stray from my purpose.
"Anyway, last Friday, Francoise cooked and prepared 109 lunches in 75 minutes, which means that for 60 minutes she averaged, by herself, a lunch every 33 SECONDS. Even with that speed, SOMEBODY is going to have to wait 45 minutes.
"So The Waiter came uyp with the idea of a menu that just said 'FOOD' and then Francoise could serve whatever she wanted. But she rejected that idea with the words, 'I don't manufacture food.'
"Then the idea of two seatings of 50 came up. But by the time we institute that, it would probably get worse. So we are just going to let things go. That's why it's called 'WHITE WATER SERVICE.'
"As far as today goes, The Waiter's Gumbo Boy fell overboard last Friday in the middle of lunch and so The Waiter is alone today. So is the Chef, except for 'Zoom-Zoom Hill' who delivers her plates. So please don't bother him, but get ready when you see him coming.
"By the way, when you see '5 Star Service' or '3 Star Service' or whatever on the menu--- that doesn't have anything to do with what The Waiter does, he seems to do whatever he wants anyway. That has always referred to what the customer is supposed to do. I thought everyone knew this.
"The Waiter has also raised the prices. I could tell you that he did this to 'thin out' the customers, but he actually did it because he is an evil and greedy man and needs the extra money to bribe the Chef with the flowers and the customers with wine and champagne.
"One can always apply for the Dissatisfied Customer of the Week Award."
The Courtyard Kitchen was a successful restaurant, and Francoise could have afforded sous-chefs if she'd wanted them. But that might mean hiring someone who might compromise the food, and that would be wrong. So she did it all herself.
I took all my friends to the Courtyard Kitchen and they all became regulars, too. I took my editor, Beth Meacham, and she adored the place and came for the final dinner and had her picture taken with Chef Francoise. I took dates, but the women all fell in love with the Waiter instead of me. Except for one woman who hated the place and only said her dinner was worth ten bucks at most, and I dropped her like a ticking bomb.
I can see this reminiscence is going to require Part III: Legends of the Waiter. So stand by.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Walter ---

Have you ever given serious thought to writing about food for a living? You'd get travel and dining out, all on someone else's dime.

There's an audience out there.

Oh, and by the way Tastespotting.

10:21 PM  
Anonymous Tarl Neustaedter said...

So, why do Francoise and the Baron keep moving around?

11:30 PM  
Anonymous jw johnson said...

*sigh*
You have a great life WJW

12:25 AM  
Anonymous Lucky American said...

I seriously enjoy reading your posts.

4:12 AM  
Blogger dubjay said...

JW, I will try to remember your wistful envy next time I'm under the tractor with oil dripping in my face.

I only deal with the highlights here. Not covered are the hours spent in doctors' waiting rooms, or in tourist-class seats too narrow for my butt, or time spent in losing a life-and-death struggle with adverbs.

Tastespotting in pretty nifty. I'm not sure who to approach about writing about food for a living. I've thought about writing about travel, but the sort of travel one reads about in the New York Times or wherever is a good deal more upmarket than I can afford.

1:42 PM  
Blogger mdmnm said...

I fondly remember the Courtyard Kitchen, though I was only there for lunch. Great restaurant and very good gumbo. Especially nice to hear stories of the inner doings and background of the folks that made it happen. Thanks!

Re: House of Shards- I eagerly await the day when someone puts out an omnibus of the Maijstral novels and, even better, pays you to write another.

12:28 PM  

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