Stars in my eyes: A food memoir by Ranelle Kirchner
Avignon, France: April, 2007.
Nearly 10 years have passed and yet I remember the day so vividly. I woke up in awe to the golden Virgin Mary statue. She stood proud, unadulterated, and poised at the top of the Palace where the Pope once lived. Although I’m not religious, I would admire it endlessly before and after sleep.
It was my second-to-last day working at Michelin-starred Christian Etienne. I would set-up the boucher, meat, station each morning upon arrival, while sipping espresso Fabien had made earlier.
If I showed up to work early enough (before the other chefs), Fabien would make me an extra shot.
This day, however, when I arrived early I did not have the luxury of an extra espresso. I was surprised to find both Masterchef Etienne and Pastry Chef Alain walking through the kitchen gathering ingredients. This was not their daily routine; most days they would arrive within an hour of one another, never at the same time, and would go straight to their upstairs office.
Rather than indulge in espresso, I instead went straight to my workstation to look through my prep list and organize for my day. Within minutes I was approached by Chef Etienne. He asked me something in French, but I could not decipher his question. He was a jolly, Provençal French Chef who often trailed in laughter while he spoke and always had the most intoxicating aura of black truffle essence. I felt embarrassed and didn’t ask to repeat the question. Instead, I simply said yes. Never would I say no to Chef. He was, and still is, a culinary genius and I knew I could trust whatever he had in store.
I changed out of my whites and into my jeans, only to discover Chef wanted to take me for a ride on his motorcycle… or so I thought.
Etienne drove north through the valleys and rolling hills. It was the first warm, sunny day in months and the Mistral was quiet. The helmets allowed for conversation, and Chef spoke of the beautiful landscape, including the gorge where all the locals brought their companions for romantic picnic luncheons and river walk stroll.
After an hour of breathtaking views, we came upon an old castle. He turned off the engine and told me we had arrived.
There were so many questions running through my head. Where were we? What is this place? What are we doing here? I was still so in awe of the beauty leading up to our destination and my senses felt overloaded.
Here I was, standing at an entrance to a castle with Chef when all of a sudden waves of Masterchefs, camera crews, journalists, and sommeliers started appearing as if from nowhere, including Pastry Chef Alain. Unbeknownst to me, he was following behind in a white van.
“Ranelle,” I heard my name.
I was in such a state of wonder.
Chef Alain called again: He needed help unloading the van.
Caught in the wave of passing faces, I made my way to Chef Alain and helped remove the contents within. It was at this point when Chef Alain smiled widely and asked if I knew where I was or what I was doing at this mysterious castle. I don’t recall how I responded, but he sensed my curiosity and explained. We were at a Michelin 2-star restaurant within a castle, he said, hosting some of the most influential French Masterchefs and culinary experts from around globe. Each Chef was to present and prepare their signature dish live on French television while sommeliers educated about grape varietals.
My eyes grew to the size of plums. My smile widened so much it hurt. I could not believe what I was hearing as I learned I was co-presenting a truffled asparage and aubergine hors d’oeuvre with Chef Etienne on television.
Could this be real?
It was all a blur. I vaguely remember explaining to a live audience, in my best French, how to prepare these bite-sized morsels of truffle delight.
It went like so: cheese crisp – truffle slice – asperge mousse – cheese crisp – truffle slice – aubergine – truffle slice…
Everyone had a good laugh as I struggled to pronounce each word, but I was able to win everyone over with my charm and smile.
Upon finishing my television debut, I strolled the grounds only to discover the endless tables of signature chef dishes, pastries, breads, charcuterie, wine, and cheese. Nothing was in short supply, and the food/drink flowed throughout the afternoon.
Some of the most memorable signature foods:
-spicy, marinated shrimp skewers with melon ball
-cured leg of lamb (the chef walked around and thinly sliced meat with his knife)
-sea urchin foam with chili and coffee
-truffle delights, mentioned above, obviously
-lamb sliders with olive and rosemary
Oh, and the wine! The ratio of wine to people was humorously 7:1 (it was likely more). I have never seen so many bottles of wine opened for consumption. And the most interesting part were the many varietals sampled from different months within the same vintage. It was absolutely fascinating to taste and pinpoint the flavor changes from grapes harvested at different times.
Sommeliers chimed in to explain each grape, and together we sipped fresh, zingy Sauvignon Blancs, well-cured leather Malbecs, gamey, vegetal, seductive Pinot Noirs, chocolate, fig Merlots…
Soon I was befriending everyone, including the Chefs, and we spoke of our passions, mostly food related, experiences and life. We laughed at each others stories while enjoying each others fare and drink.
Life was good, and I certainly did not want it to stop. But as the saying goes, all good things (must) come to an end. And so did this. I was left with the warm feeling of bliss and sunshine, a feeling I will never forget.
I close my eyes to reflect, to remember, recall. The sights and smells. The sounds of wine hitting crystal glasses. I’m left with stars in my eyes as they reopen.