This past summer, I met the parents of my French girlfriend, Pauline. Residing in the small village of Mazangé, near the town of Vendôme (a two hour drive from Paris), they live in an old house that boasts a garden, orchard, chicken and duck coop, as well as a rabbit hutch. When we arrived at their home, the gates opened up to this vast garden and patio space.
There was a practical kitchen garden as well as flowers and plants of all varieties.
I was greeted by her father Dany who was in the middle of tinkering with an old French car. He runs the operations of the village and its upkeep. A former welder, he and Pauline’s mother, Maryline, were very into motorcycles and had even taken a road trip down Route 66 a few years before. Upon my arrival, we moved to an outdoor table, and had a small aperitif of a rose thorn alcohol that Dany had made. Once her mother came home, we drove to the grocery store so as to collect things for that evening’s dinner. I had been bold enough to offer my culinary skills for the evening since I’d spent the last year working with my brother Elliot, the chef at Theo’s in Fayetteville. However, I hadn’t imagined how hard on my nerves it would prove to be. For one thing, I knew I wanted to prepare fish since it was summertime, and Pauline had told me that her family tends to eat light meals. However, when we arrived at the fish market, I recognized only a few of the fish there. As I stood there undecided, I began to wonder if I could even pull it off. Finally, after much discussion about which fish were similar to those that I knew, Maryline (who had accompanied us) and I decided upon a fish together. I had never heard of it before, and still to this day cannot recall the name. It looked similar to turbot though, a thin white flaky fish that takes only a few minutes to cook. It was either going to make me or break me in the eyes of her parents (or so I thought). We arrived back at the house, and I immediately took control of the kitchen and began frantically trying to get myself together. Meanwhile, Pauline’s parents and sister did some gardening and Pauline picked radishes and arugula for my anticipated dish.
Pauline tried reassuring me that whatever I was going to do would be fine, but I was losing my mind at this point. My nerves were shot, and the pressure was on in my mind. I wanted to make a great first impression of myself to her family. After sautéing and mounting a medley of carrots, zucchini, and radishes in butter, I made an arugula pesto out of the arugula from the garden. Then came the most frightening part…the fish! I took a few deep breathes and reassured myself that I had done this enough times and in even more stressful circumstances. I told Pauline to gather everyone at the table and that I’d be only a few minutes more. I began with what I knew and seasoned the fish on both sides. I got my pan hot with oil in it and began laying the fish down. At first I wasn’t sure, but soon enough I realized that it was all going to work out just fine. I seared my fish off and began to plate: arugula pesto on the bottom, vegetables next, and the fish on top with a squeeze of lemon and a little more pesto. I then looked out of the kitchen window to see if all was ready, but my heart sank. No one was at the table! I rushed to Pauline and asked why nobody was gathered. She explained that this was normal and that it usually took a while before everyone finished up what they were doing. Though she persisted on how casual things were at her parent’s house, I spent the next few minutes painfully stressing about whether my food would stay hot. Finally, everyone gathered around the iron garden table, and we began eating. They were thrilled with the result, and to my relief, even hailed it worthy of a gastronomic restaurant. I’d done it! I’d succeeded in impressing the French with what culinary skills I had.