Sunday, July 01, 2007
Continued from the posts "Me O My O" and "Chef Francoise, Part II"
Baron le Vison had been a legendary character long before I met him. I kept hearing stories about him, some from the Baron himself, some from others. Consider these to be Unconfirmed Rumors.
He is, according to one account, a genuine French baron, albeit one from Mississippi. He told me that he was expelled from Notre Dame for heresy, and finished his college education at a Jesuit school in the South. ("They didn't care what I believed.") When he ran for class president, he bombed the school with leaflets from his airplane, and won. He later became the first class president to be impeached.
Because the Courtyard Kitchen was near Kirtland AFB and Sandia Labs, a lot of military and scientist types became regulars. (Gulf War I, which produced increased security at the base and prevented people from leaving for lunch, killed the Cajun restaurant that occupied the Kitchen's former building.) Some of the scientists were involved in the Tethered Satellite project (TSS). So impressed were they by the cooking that they named the TSS "Francoise," and presented to the restaurant an artist's rendering of the satellite with Francoise's name written on the exterior. I don't know if TSS-1 actually bore Francoise's name when it was eventually deployed from Atlantis a couple years after the restaurant closed, but I hope so.
The restaurant featured art by the Cajun artist George Rodrigue. This was during his "black oak period," when he painted portraits and group portraits of people standing before a massive Louisiana oak, and before he got into his kitschier (and incredibly successful) "blue dog period," creating hundreds of paintings and silkscreens featuring a rather anxious-looking spaniel. Eventually Rodrigue painted Francoise, standing in her chef's uniform before the black oak, and carrying a saute pan. There was a huge dinner party to unveil the portrait, and of course I went. I met Rodrigue, but he did not offer to paint my portrait. Rodrigue told the Baron, "You weren't a success until you decided to become a Cajun."
At one point the Waiter decided that all his customers should contribute a piece of literature to a collection that he would put together and print. Mine was an incredibly sophisticated re-rendering of Marcel Proust, with black roux gumbo substituting for the madeleine. The Waiter threw all that away and put on a play instead, a sort of melodrama set on a Louisiana plantation. Local actor and playwright Jeff Hudson adopted an authentic Cajun accent he'd learned from watching Justin Wilson on PBS. It was amusing, but it wasn't Proust.
Every so often, when I came in for lunch, the Baron would pull a bottle of fine champagne from the fridge and drop it on my table. I don't drink at midday, usually, since it affects my work, but I felt I ought, since--- you know--- there it was. Drinking a bottle of champagne by oneself turns out to be a lot of work. Eventually I got used to leaving the restaurant carrying a chilled, unopened bottle of champagne, which I'd open and drink later, after I'd finished work for the day.
The Waiter and the Chef ended up in Albuquerque by accident. They'd closed their restaurant in Washington,D.C., and were on a motor trip through the southwest. They saw a restaurant for rent and investigated. A few weeks later the Courtyard Kitchen opened.
The restaurant closed, with great ceremony, in September of 1990. Francoise had burned herself out by holding herself to her own exacting standards. If she'd been able to bring herself to deal with sous-chefs the place might still be open. The last dinners were sellouts. Free videos and cookbooks and prints of the Rodrigue portrait were handed out. Beth Meacham got her picture taken with Francoise. We all kissed and said our last "Ooh la las." The Waiter handed me a bottle of champagne, which I carried home.
Somebody named Marcello from New Orleans kept calling and demanding a table for himself and his associates, and the Waiter kept telling him that the place was full. "Wow," I thought, "the Waiter's taking on the guy who killed Kennedy!"
Francoise retired. The Baron started a business as a restaurant consultant, and ran for the head of the restaurant association. (He lost.) Every so often I'd run into him at another Creole restaurant, Arthur's and the Dot, but the restaurant got closed when the city tore up the street in front and left it that way for nine months.
Some time later I did a web search for "Baron le Vison" and discovered that he and Francoise were running a motel called Uncle Bill's Place, on the Street of the Little Motels in Page, AZ. ("Street of the Little Motels" has that unmistakable le Vison mixture of fantasy and practicality.) We stayed there in summer of 2003, where I took the pictures that accompany this memoir. The Baron had started a newspaper called PAGE USA in which he regularly blasted the city administration and the Park Service. In the last actual communication I've received from the Baron, he sent me a package of underwear I'd left in a drawer.
A check on the Uncle Bill web site reveals that Baron and Francoise have now retired from the motel business. Maybe it's time I got in touch.
Further adventures surely await.