By: Dan O’Neill
“How would you like to have lunch at the best restaurant in the world ?”
That was the question I put to my old friend, Colleen Moran. We had been friends in high school and attended the University of Chicago together The last time I had seen her was at her second marriage to a Frenchman,Jean,four years earlier.
She had been my beard, before I came out. Before I told her I was gay, she actually had a crush on me. I told her if I were straight,we would already be married.I knew we certainly would have a lot of laughs.
Since,I was now successful tv sitcom writer (two Emmys and a Writers Guild award), and had just received an insurance payment from my brother, Nick’s, accidental skiing death in Vail.I felt i should pamper myself and the people close to me.
I decided to dine at the three star restaurants of Paris with assorted friends,
colleagues and lovers . So,after hitting:Jamin,Taillevent, Lucas Carton LaTour d Argent and staying at the Ritz.(the concierge at the Ritz helped me to get into Taillevent,since they had a quota on foreign visitors)it was off to Crissier ,Switzerland and the restaurant Girardet,which most critics thought was the best restaurant in the world
I knew it was an indulgence,all this feasting,but I figured I might as well do what I loved while I could.I was a true blue hedonist,who believed you should treat every day as if it was your last.
That’s why I flew from Paris to Geneva and took a train from Geneva to Lausanne to meet Colleen.
From the letters and phone calls since the seperation.I knew she had been very depressed about the divorce.Since she was still a practicing Catholic(a toxic religion I had wisely abandoned)another floparoo at the altar( her mother’s acid description, after forcing her daughter to endure an exhausting annulment so she could get married in the church for the second time),was the stuff of major league depression.I wasn’t sure she’d be in the the mood for celebrating at a restaurant,even if it was fabulous .I knew she was into food in a big way.Once skinny,she now described herself as a full figure girl,who went to bed every night with a quart of Haagen Dazs chocolate,chocolate chip ice cream.I was
curious how her low mood affected her job as a tour guide.If I felt the way she did,I wouldn’t want to get up in front of a group of people and tell them about the glories of anything.The one big thing we did have in common was men.Sometimes,I think her taste in that area,was even worse than mine.
Coleen and I used to love to gossip.Maybe she liked me because I didn’t say things just to try and get her to go to bed with me.As a couple we were now as Cand P dispensing the latest nastiest dish.I was the P,Paul Riley.
When I told people in Paris I was going to dine at Girardet,they nodded politely and sniffed “I’ve heard of it”.I didn’t, mention it was supposed to be the best restaurant in the world ,figuring it was an insult to their national pride,to suggest a restaurant in another country was superior to their haute havens .Colleen and I had dined in fancy restaurants before,but nothing to approach this shrine .
When I arrived at the train station in Lausanne,it was pouring rain.She was standing in a black rain coat,with an extra large puce umbrella,in her right hand.She was searching for me,squinting as usual,(no doubt having trouble with her contact lenses again.)The first thing I noticed about her was that her face was more puffy.She was definitely developing a double chin.She had a wistful,weary look,that suggested the comediene Totie Fields,after a bad set on stage.For the first time,she looked to me like a woman in her mid thirties . I wondered if I looked like I was in my mid thirties too.It was something I fought every day at the gym.I still thought of myself as a seventeen year old high school track star.Just the other day a teenager had called me sir and I thought I was going to have a heart attack .
That night we talked about her bitter
divorce, lack of a current sex life and my recent adventures in Paris .
I told her I thought Jamin had the most innovative food,but I’d probably give the overall nod to Taillevent because of the atmosphere (an elegant townhouse with chandeliers)and the fantastic service.
“The cute waiter,even flirted with me,I said,he made me special crepes.And, when Robby told the owner I had come all the way from the United States to dine at his restaurant,he replied that he hoped I hadn’t been disappointed and offered to buy us cognacs “.
“I know what you mean,” said Colleen ,”for our first anniversary ,Jean took me to the La Tour d Argent . It
Was so romantic with the view of Notre Dame and the Seine .I told Jean it reminded me of one of my favorite movies “,Charade”.I especially liked the scene with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn on the dinner boat,when they realize they’re falling in love .Just then, one of those boats came by and it seemed to be such a magical moment it had to be a good omen.Unfortunately,things went downhill after that”.
That was one of Colleen’,s biggest weaknesses ,she had to overcome.She was just too damned romantic.
” So how was the Ritz,?”she asked as we both drank her famous pink squirrel cocktails.
“Very good,but not exactly legendary.When I arrived an assistant manager took me up to the room,the luggage was already there.He asked of I wanted a tour out of the room.”
“You’re kidding”she said,”How big was the room,I mean did it entail time zones?”
“No,I guess it was bigger than your average hotel room,and it did have my favorite bed, a canopy.I loved having breakfast in it,the perfect cheese omellete.I think the price is because of the mystique .You know all the famous people who have stayed there , Coco Chanel,Proust,etc.They did tell me if there was anything I needed to just pull the cord in the corner.I never did .I figured the more I pulled it,the more it would cost me .I guess I have to learn to grow into a diva.To tell you the truth,the place kind of gave me the creeps.I always had the feeling someone was always watching me .If someone else is paying my way next time I’m Psris.I’ll go a a great hotel again But,if I’m paying,I rather stay in a good room in a good hotel and go to a great restaurant “.
“So how is Richard ?”she asked ,seemingly bored with my Ritz rant.
“Good,but he’s smoking again.
“Shit,with those two little kids!”
“Yeah,he claims it’s the traveling.
at least he tried to keep it down at the side of the table though.I don’t understand how the French have such reverence for food and damage their taste buds so severely with cigarettes’.
“Me it neither,Jean was always polluting the house with his fucking smoke.Even his clothes reeked of it.”
” In a way,I feel sorry for Richard,I said,”At that moment I don’t think he could have kept going without it.”
“Bull,said Coleen,”he could give it up if he wanted to.My father did.He just has a discipline problem and is lazy.It’s a typical right brain,left brain conflict That’s the excuse men give anyway.It’s as big a copout as the devil made me do it”
“He still speaks his mind ,though.He sent back a dish at Lucas Carton”.
“Yes, Alain Senderens,came flying out of the kitchen to see what the problem. was. I felt like the other diners were gasping ,appalled that were insulting this man in his own house .I had visions of him grabbing a table knife and going into a stabbing frenzy on Richard,for commiting such a culinary effrontery.”
“So what happened did Senderens throw a tantrum?”
“No ,he just tasted the dish and said It was one of his best efforts of the night.He did ,however,offer another dish and took price of the offending one off the bill No stopping by the table to chat,or complimentary .I had new respect for little Dickie,though.I ‘d never have the nerve to something like that.in a three star restaurant ,Even In a coffee shop, when I’m just getting waffles or pigs in a blanket,I don’t like to make drama So hows Sylvia?”
“Still teaching and writing,starting to date again We had lunch at Maxim’s.I gave her a lesson on flirting through my interaction with the waiters “.
“What about her ex?”
“You mean Charles?”
“Yes,that pretentious ass.”
” He went back to England to work at his brother’s publishing house”.
“I never could stand that guy”,said Colleen,Even for an Englishman he was Mr.freeze.Though,I should talk,with my French popsicle ‘
I sensed she was really ready to dump all over Jean the jerk ,but instead the conversation turned to the fact I had yet to find a French person ,who thought Jerry Lewis was a genius .I explained that in America he was considered a has been hack,known primarily for hosting a tacky yearly telethon.l .All the people I had met,including Coleen ,preferred the comedy of Woody Allen and thought the highly ridiculed French Lewis worship.was mostly from disturbed academics.
Coleen ,also had a recent revelation when she saw the TV show Dynasty in English.Then she realized that the Alexis character was English.Before,watching dubbed versions,she thought she was French.
“Of course,” she said,”the whole point of the character is that she’s an English bitch “.
She’s the only reason to watch the show,I said.”Just like people watch Dallas for Larry Hagman.The audience loves characters,who are: greedy,ambitious and do rotten things to get their way.That’s why they elected Regan twice.”
As we drove from Lausanne to Crissier ,a nearby town,the next afternoon,I learned this really was a unique restaurant.I had never been at a place requiring a $ 100 deposit by check to secure a reservation.,I asked Colleen,if it was an opulent,haughty place.
“No”,she said,”it’s really unpretentious.It’s like an uperclass neighborhood restaurant that just happens to serve the best food in the world.To give you an idea of how neighborly the restaurant is,my friend ,April ,accidentally hit and killed a rabbit on a road in Crissier ..She was just going to bury it.But,I told her to ask.Mr.Giardet how to prepare it properly.She thought a world famous chef,had better things to do than be the galloping gourmet to a mere translator.But ,she called him and sure enough he was like a kind uncle and gave her a great recipe,she used for a friend’s birthday dinner”.
When we pass a Kentucky Fried Chicken,I remark how ironic it is that while
we’re on the way to s temple of haute cuisine , we encounter one of the prime pushers of greasy fast good,with their slime in a bucket.
“Most people from America are very happy to see it.Their eyes light up,they chirp, Colonel’s,like they’ve found a long lost friend,”she said.
When we entered Crissier,it turned out to be a rustic town.I imagined I was in my own.version.of “The Twilight Zone”.Here was a quiet hamlet ,lots of people had passed through,never realizing they were missing one of the world’s greatest treasures When I told Colleen about about my thoughts, be she said.
” I remember watching “The Twilight Zone With my cousins when our parents were out. “She said,We’d turn all of the lights out in the house and it was scary as shit. I was really spooked by the little kid and the dead grandmother episode.The grandma had given the kid a toy telephone.After she passed,she started communicating with the boy through the telephone ,from the after life.My grandma had recently passed and we were really close “.
“I remember that episode”, I said “Billy Mumy played the kid.The one that really scared me was the William Shatner airplane episode.He was a man who had just had a nervous breakfown,and was now flying with his wife.He looks out the window during the flight and sees some kind of creatures ripping up the engine and starts to have another nervous breakdown.”
“I recall that. I felt really sad for the poor man”said Colleen, Then,at the end when he was being taken away to a hospital,it was disclosed someone was trying to sabatage the engine from outside the plane .”
“That’s why I never look out windows on planes”.I said, I ‘m afraid what I’ll see.”
“Trust me ,”said Colleen ,”on planes it’s best to close your eyes and sleep’.
It was a crisp fall day .Giardet was a modest looking building on the outside,and the same inside.No chandeliers or Aubusson carpets.A few paintings,the right linens, crystals and silverware,but you knew the emphasis was on the food.
The greeting was gracious,but homey.This was not a restaurant that was out to intimidate you.It was going to be a sensual experience .
Many of the other lunch patrons appeared to be business men.I never liked to do business in.a fine restaurant.I want to concentrate on the food,not figures,deals , body language or gamesmanship.
There was one extended family complete with grandparents,parents siblings,featuring a cute blonde haired boy of about five, He seemed to be drinking something that looked like wine ,but I figured he was sipping grape juice.Coleen thought the rug rat was probably swilling vino.
There were a twentyish man and woman ,two tables away from.us.They were feeding each other food,and kissing.
“Well”, huffed Coleen,”You can tell those two aren’t married.They’re still living in a fantasy world She’s not even that good looking to get someone like him.She was,in fact,a model type with long blonde hair resembling Catherine Deneuve,in her prime.If I was forced to have sex with a woman,I’d pick somebody like her.The man is tanned and in good shape,but he doesn’t float my boat .
To take Colleen’s mind off the lovers,I point to another table where a woman in her late 60’s,early 70’s ,who reminds me of Margaret Rutherford,and a stocky man in his twenties or thirties are toasting each other with champagne.
“So what’s the story with those two?”,I ask.”Grandma and grandson celebrating a birthday?A mom and her miracle baby?Or a May,December last tango?”
“Probably none of them. He looks like a chauffeur.It’s quite common over here for older women to dine with the help.”
“Maybe,”I said,”But suppose he’s the employer and she’s the chauffeur.Can’t you just see her,driving along,her cap pulled down low,chomping on a big ,fat cigar?”
Colleen,laughed out loud,drawing the attention of the other diners.
“Sometimes,Paul ,you’re so silly.I think it’s your best quality !”
,The waiter has come to the table and Colleen I order one of the set dinners .We start with frogs legs with mushrooms and estragon and then have Lotte with capers.Both dishes are superb. Freddie Giardet has a way of bringing out the essence of each dish.
Then comes or favorite course lobster with sauce Americaine.I’ve always had a thing for lobster .As a teenager it was my favorite food .Adults used to say then,it was too rich for them .Well,it’s a vice I haven’t given up yet.That and bacon.Eating is one of the most pleasureable experiences people can experience.So why deny,instead of celebrating it?
From the look of bliss on Colleen’s face,I can tell she’s really enjoying the meal.In a way,we are both making love to the food.I once heard a description of a great chef as someone who uses food the way an artist uses pigment;to communicate rapture .Freddy Giardet fit this discription.
Colleen asks if I’m going to our high school reunion.
“No.I’m just happy I survived a Catholic school in the midwest .I don’t want to relive it in any way.”
“Don’t you want to lord it over them that you’re a successful writer now?”
“In a way.But,what I’d really like to do is hire a couple of Chippendale look alike escorts and make out in front of them.I’d really like to shove my sexuality in their smug,fucking faces.”
” I know what you mean.All the nasty things they said behind your back or even to your face.Do you think many of them are more mature?Aren’t you the least bit curious about any of them?”
“The only one I ever think about is Reuben Castillo.He used to sit in front of me in Geometry.He was so fucking handsome;golden brown with a body built for speed and distance .He was the only dude I ever looked at in the shower after P.E.The only one I had sexual fantasies about. “
“I know all the girls were crazy about him.” ,she said ,The ones who slept with him said he was real big.”
“From my memories,he was hung.”
“So why don’t you go to the reunion and take a chance he’ll be there .Now that you’re a success you have leverage “.
“I doubt he’d show up.But ,if he did I doubt he’d be as hot as he was back then He might just be a Mexican with a beer belly and kids.Those pretty boys tend to fade fast .”
“Is that why you like them so young,so they don’t lose their bloom?How old was the last one twenty one?.
“Twenty-two.His name was Guillermo.He was a valet parker,who wanted to be a script writer We had a lot of fun together I guess I liked his enthusiasm about everything “
“What happened to him?”
“He went back to El Salvador”.
“Don’t they all?”What is it with you and these Latinos ?I know LA is crawling with them, But ,you used to date white guys.”
“White bread is so fucking boring.I ‘m,always getting into fights with yuppies.”
“Yeah,I know what you mean about boring I was expecting ooh la la.But ,all I got was blah,blah,blah.But ,why not a little closer to your age ?
“You act like it’s easy.They either want younger guys or they’re too neurotic. Or lousy in bed The last guy I dated who my age was into bondage.He told me it wouldn’t be too.painful.He would take me to another dimension,and he wasn’t using rope anymore,because that left marks .”
“That sounds dangerius.I hope you didn’t do anything with him.”
“No,I told him.I was beat up enough in my real life,I didn’t want it in my sex life too.I don’t understand that kind of pleasure.Then I dated a Satanist.I don’t think I told you about him.”
“Oh,God no, I think you’re losing it !”
He always wore all black ,which really pissed me off .I mean, I always try to bring some color to a drab world .But, he was anti religious and decent in bed,so I tolerated him.But,I became suspicious about his so called Satanism. I mean I was expecting pentagrams,black masses and demons parading through the house .Finally,I asked him straight out Do you believe in an actual living creature called Satan?He said no,he just didn’t believe in God.I ask you, what’s the world coming to when even the Satanists are fake?”
Coleen chuckled.But ,continue d”Seriously,I’m worried about you Paul.I don’t want to see you die young.”
“Neither do I .I may joke,but I’m very careful.I ‘ve become a neat freak germaphobe. They’ve taken the fun out of sex.”
“Are you talking to your parents again? “asked Colleen.
“Yes.Now that I’m the last surviving son.They’ve decided to tolerate my gayness We don’t talk about it ,though.My sister and half of the rest of the family don’t talk to me at all.Their family motto is we’re here for you,except when you need us!”
“Will you promise me to at least try to meet guys,who are white,at least thirty, and have a fighting chance of being a soul mate “.
“You sound like my analyst,the ice man,he says I’m avoiding real relationships and indulging in cultural paternalism”.
“Sometimes shrinks can be right you know”.
This last bit of wisdom was interrupted by the next course ,a breast of rabbit ,with basil sauce and polenta .I’d mostly eaten fried rabbit before this.This was so wonderful,I actually forgot for a few minutes Colleen’s rabbit getting hit story.But,I continued savoring the meat,because I thought if a rabbit had to go,it couldn’t have a better sendoff than being a dish by Freddie Girardet.I was wondering if it was a good idea to share my thoughts with Colleen,when a roll came flying across the room landing a few inches from.our table.It had been flung by the little boy at the family celebration,who sheepishly retrieved it ,apologizing
“Maybe you’re right and it is wine the kid is guzzling “,I said .
” Well,keep an eye on him”, said Colleen.”If he falls out of the chair or face forward into his food,I think we’ll have an answer “.
The next course was the cheese cart.I had always believed in the French maxim you should try everything at least once.So we sampled every cheese on the cart. We were especially fond of the St Marcelino and Combier cheeses .
As we were savoring the cheeses, I happened to glance over at the young lovers.They were still feeding each other.
Colleen was observing them too.
“It’s disgusting”, she snorted.”Don’t they ever stop.Why do they have to be such exhibitionists !I’ve surprised they don’t chew the food first and then pass it to each other .I wonder if he’s started cheating on her yet.If not he will.I believe what Jackie Kennedy said there is no such thing as a faithful husband .”
I had always wondered if adultery had taken place in the marriage,but didn’t want to ask.Now the act was seemingly being thrown in my face
“So he was cheating?”
“Yes,with one of his clients.A former circus performer,who’s now some kind of yoga instructor.”
” What a bastard!But ,at least you received a good settlement and the house in Lausanne.
“Yes.Thank God for that.I just feel foolish,I didn’t see what was going on.I kept asking and he kept denying.Until,he finally broke down and said he lied,because he didn’t want to hurt me.I said it’s a little late for that asshole.”
“They all say that,but they usually don’t give a fuck”.
“The worse part is.I wasn’t happy in the marriage.He was a pompous man.I always felt like I was on the stand and he was grilling me.He always looked like he was putting together a mental dossier on me.He was always critical about something.The biggest compliment he ever gave me was that my French could maybe pass for an average French Canadian”.
” I always thought he was one of those dreary pseudo intellectuals,who thought Erich Rohmer films were profound”,I said
“The most horrible thing I’ve never told anybody is that he made me get an abortion.He said it wasn’t the right time.If I had the baby he said he’d hate me and the kid forever.Can you imagine what my mother ,who still goes to mass every day,and my sisters and all their kids would think about me doing that?”
“Boy,you must have really loved him.But,you shouldn’t feel guilty.If you kept the baby,it would have been bad for everyone involved.”
Colleen went on and on about how she didn’t trust men anymore.She wasn’t looking for romance or love or even sex,just a baby.For a horrified minute, I thought she might be going to ask me to be a donor,but luckily the dessert cart came,before she could go any further.
Once again we decided to indulge in everything on the carts .We had: exquisite pineapple, and plum sorbets,astonishing nougat ice cream,magnificent lime and raspberry tarts,a spectacular gateau de creme Bordelaise, and the definitive Napoleon.It reminded me of family Thanksgivings ,when we were all talking to each other.
As if on cue,Freddie Giardet began to make his rounds of the restaurant’s tables to make sure the diners were satisfied .He was a handsome man ,but painfully shy You could tell he wasn’t turned on by this aspect of being a celebrity chef .He wasn’t Wolfgang Puck.Colleen told him I had come all the way to California to eat his food.Giardet smiled and said he hoped that my expectations were met.Thrn he signed my menu.
Before the check arrived we received a platter of pastries and candies.
‘Oh,God,I said.”This is too much.”
” Let’s take it home ,said Colleen,”so we have something to munch on later”.
“Ok, I said,”let’s ask that cute bus boy for a doggie bag”.
The idea of asking for something so commonplace at such an extraordinary place,appealed to my perversity.
“Oh,I can’t do that “,she said,”he’d probably be embarrassed.Just last week at the hotel an American in the dining room,asked for a glass of ice water.The bus boy became so flustered he ran into the kitchen,I told him just to get the item requested .They’re a nation of ice water drinkers”.
The reason I had asked for the doggie bag request was I like to play with guys and see if I can make them blush.
Colleen asked for the doggie bag in French,but the bus boy didn’t flinch or laugh.He just nodded his head and removed the plate with the sweet treats .
“What happened?”I said,”He didn’t seem the least bit disturbed.”
“Sorry,I didn’t satisfy your sadistic urge.I just asked him for a container we could use to take the pastries and candies home.”
“It’s just as well”,I said.”I would hate to have traumatized him for life “.
As the check arrived,I decided to pull a joke,I had been using lately, to get a laugh out of Colleen. I looked at the check,feigned shock and tossed it into the air
Colleen burst out laughing and even the bus boy was smiling ,
By now, most of the diners in the room had left .Including:the young lovers ,who may or may not have been married,the possible chauffeur and the old bat and the little boy ,who might have been blotto.
“Well,I said,”I think this feast calls for one of our good old school walks.”
“Yes,said Colleen,'”Not only good for the digestion,but for the soul “.