When you go to a new place, isn’t it a blast to learn something new and do it in a way that the locals do? For my birthday this year, I had a chance to spend a day learning to cook like a chef at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris .
First, they brought us into a classroom where Chef Olivier Guyon, who has cooked at Maxim’s in Paris and Daniel’s in New York, prepared two demonstration meals: potato gnocci with asparagus, oven-dried tomatoes and fried black olives; then, Landes yellow chicken fricassee with lemon verbena and preserved lemon, young broad beans, and fondant potatoes with fennel.
He delivered the instructions, plus a lot of tips and history about French cuisine, all in French. But a very speedy translator with a lovely voice helped us keep up.
It was like watching an intricately timed and choreographed dance, to see him bring all of the dishes to readiness. I think this is the most impressive aspect of any meal (although the flavors and aromas are important, too!). Having done a few dinners where the Brussel sprouts became lukewarm while waiting for the fish to be done baking, timing is always the major challenge for me. Toward the end of the morning, as chicken was coming out of the oven, potatoes were tested and were ready to be drained, asparagus was at peak flavor, and pasta was perfect al dente, Chef Olivier had some help from two assistant chefs. Next time I do a dinner party, I want that.
The chef showed us, over a period of three and a half hours, how to prepare and plate these dishes, and gave us tasting samples of the meals we’d seen created. Unbelievably good.
Then, it was our turn. We had a long afternoon in the same kitchen that the full-time Cordon Bleu students use, each of us with our own oven, range, chopping surfaces, etc. I learned a dozen tricks for cutting foods properly, creating potatoes fondant that were all the same size so that they would all be done cooking at the same time, and adding seasonings so that the dishes tasted superb.
And they did! It was a meal for humming over (even moaning about!) as we ate it afterward. I cannot lie, though: it didn’t taste as good as what Chef Olivier made.
I think it’s a little bit like a beginner pianist, listening and watching the London Symphony Orchestra and then trying to replicate what she just heard. She’s missing those ten thousand hours of practice.
But the meal was sensational and about twelve levels above what I usually put on the table. But it took about nine hours, of learning then doing, and my question is: will I ever do it this way again?
Okay, yes, I do question whether a moment on a trip on a ship qualifies as a ‘road’ snack. But in the broader sense of being ‘on the road’, I think it does. It’s not road trip with a car or other vehicle with wheels, but we did drive a car into the parking lot in Hamburg where we boarded the Queen Mary 2 and we got into a taxi when we arrived nine days later in New York, so . . .
Is it correct to call a ship or a boat a ‘vehicle’? Yes, using the dictionary definition “means of transportation”. This ship is the crown jewel of the Cunard line, of Titanic fame. I have a few nervous moments, thinking about being so far away from shore, out in the middle of the ocean for the first time, but I swallow my concern and stay focused on the delights of the voyage: the incredible food; the music and other entertainment; the view of the blue water and the horizon; the leisurely, uninterrupted days for reading, writing, and thinking; the friendly people; the gorgeous surroundings.
For example, the grand lobby. The ceiling soars above me, and I can see shops, restaurants, cafés, and pubs all waiting to be surveyed. A grand piano and a huge floral arrangement add to the glamor, and a staircase like the one in the movie where Jack and Rose met several times is the centerpiece.
There’s no self-consciousness about the Titanic sinking, by the way. The bookstore and the library are full of books about that history and one of the entertainers makes the movie theme song a central part of his act.
My Irish and my Russian grandfathers both crossed the Atlantic as teenagers on their own, in search of a future in a new country. It’s a thrill to be given an opportunity to have my own experience in the same part of the world. David’s father was here as a young man in World War II, serving in the Canadian Navy on corvettes, escorting convoys to and from England.
And here’s my question: where would we all be today if those young people hadn’t made that decision to go?
My first glimpse of this secret, and very cool Paris picnic comes when we are sitting at a café outside our hotel about 6 in the evening. I like to take note of changes in fashion, and I point out to David that I’m noticing a lot of people wearing white this spring. He points out that perhaps I am noticing because I’m in white jeans and a white-and-red striped shirt. But after we see five men in white shirts, pants, and shorts, we start to count. When we get up to eighteen, it’s becoming a little weird.
They are arriving in pairs, in groups, and solo, carrying folding chairs and baskets. They pass us and disappear around the corner. After a while, David can’t stand the mystery any longer and goes in search of answers. In about five minutes, he returns and says I have to come around the corner with him now, so that he can prove to the people he’s just met that I, too, am wearing white.
My clothing color is by accident, though—not on purpose, as all these party-goers tell us theirs are. Pierre and Marc explain that it is “Le dîner en blanc”, a very special and secret event. You become a member, then sign up to receive an email telling you, with less than a day’s notice, the date and location of this year’s event. You pack a special meal, with your best china, crystal, and table linens, you dress up in white, you bring your own table and chairs, and are taken to the location of this year’s al fresco dinner. About 10,000 people will show up.It starts around 8 p.m. and ends at midnight. They use the word ‘elegant’ over and over. In the past, it’s been held on the plaza of Notre Dame Cathedral, at the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville de Paris, at Place Vendôme, and on the banks of the Seine.
It all started more than 30 years ago, in Paris, when a group of friends and friends of friends were invited to a summer evening picnic in the Bois de Boulogne, a large public park in Paris. “Dress in white” was the answer to the question “how do we recognize each other?” It became an annual event in Paris, then spread to more than 70 cities. There are now websites and a registered trademark involved. There are waiting lists, and in some places, even the waiting lists are full and closed, with tens of thousands waiting for a chance to become a member.
It amazes me (for a second or two) that I’ve never heard of this before. But the older I get, the more I realize that I don’t know much. We can’t join in because we don’t have an invitation (and no food, china, silver, crystal or linen tablecloth either), but it makes for a delightful conversation with these Parisians. By this time, hundreds of members have gathered at this rallying point, and they head off, to the location of this year’s dîner, which will be announced only at the last possible minute.
My question is: how do you get so many people to go along with so many rules? Would you want to go?
This little hotel in the historic district core of Brussels, Belgium is the most unusual I've ever seen. I've stayed in plenty of chain hotels; they are predictable and reliable. Sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes that's a bad thing.
If you're looking for something to surprise you and not to hit you too hard in the wallet ($96USD), this is it.
This is not one of the chain of Welcome Hotels in Europe, by the way. It is a one-off, a unique hotel, and you find it online at www.hotelwelcome.com. The owners traveled all over the world, collecting items for their rooms, and decided to name each one, rather than number it. You have Japan, Zanzibar, Tibet, Thailand, Egypt, Congo -- 15 in total.
When I picked up the door key, the desk clerk told me I was going to India.
The place is not new and the lift (elevator) is pretty creaky. It's more fun to take the stairs anyway, with little treats around every corner: a row of 16 or 17 pith helmets mounted on the wall near the ceiling; posters about travel; quotes about travel.
The India room has pillows, draperies and bed linens in sumptuous fabrics and colors. The furniture is intricately carved, with references to one of the country's great pieces of literature depicted on the armoire door. Sculptures sit in alcoves over the desk and under the TV.
At first I don't see a bathroom and I wonder if I've stumbled into a place where we'll all be sharing the one down the hall. But no, there it is, tucked away behind floor-to-ceiling wooden doors that make me feel like I'm going through the magic portal to Narnia in C.S. Lewis's book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe every time I need to use the toilet.
The hotel is on a square with a medieval church at one end and about a dozen cafes and fountains gracing the middle. It's about a 10-minute walk to the Grand Place (it depends how long you linger in the Belgian chocolate shops). The Grand Place, the central square, is just jaw-dropping.
The Welcome Hotel is also walking distance to the Christmas market, if you happen to be there at that time of year, and to Square Jacques Brel, who may have been "Alive and Well and Living in Paris" in the Sixties when the musical revue was written, but was born in Brussels.
After publishing two travel books, Rumble Strip Canada 150 and Rumble Strip USA Off the Interstate, I'm well into the 'muddy middle' of a third, Rumble Strip Europe. I love the writing, the production process and the publishing cycle, but it's very time-intensive. I'm finding that I'm impatient for a faster turnaround. About ten years ago, I was posting regularly to an online travel blog called "Time Crunch Travel" and it feels like it's time to return to that medium again. "Road Snacks" will be short, photo- or description-focused posts about a place, an experience, a thought, a recommendation, a tip or a tasty moment. Content will be different from the books -- much less organized and much more seat-of-the-pants.