Marquel, TPVs NYTimes Foodie correspondent, was finally pleased to read: With Obama and Putin in France for Dinner, Hollande Leaves Room for Seconds. President François Hollande of France rushed to the presidential palace for a dinner with the Russian leader after hosting one with President Obama at a fancy restaurant in town.
“In 1804, Napoleon hosted England and Russia but dined with each separately. Later, with the Boer War at it’s height, France again hosted England and the South Africans. Separate 21 course dinners. In World War I, the French hosted the warring Americans and Germany. Wilson and the Kaiser dined separately. In Indochina, the mediating Americans and the Indochinese had separate dinners with the French. Later, in the Vietnam war, the battling Americans and North Vietnamese had separate dinners in a Paris suburb. “
Marquel, knowing the French so well and being a bit of a foodie himself, knew the real explanation but had to confirm it at the source. He went down to Bayard street where Mufi had him hold noodle dough while Midi twisted it around in a complicated ceremony until it turned into twenty pounds of exquisite noodles. They sat down to Szechuan noodles and frog, and didn’t speak until they’d both finished. Exquisite.
“Of course,” he answered. “The sous chef, Andre, is an old friend. And indebted to me for one particular recipe. He can tell you all you need to know. And you’ll eat well too. I’ll text him about you.”
I took a mototaxi, my editor insisted because it’s cheaper and she finds it far more “elegant and romantic” to show up on the back of a 1200 cc motorcycle, sort of how President Holland meets his paramours in the dead of night. Except he goes by motor scooter. What’s with the French?
At the gate I identified myself and said I wanted to speak to Andre in the kitchen with whom I had an appointment. The French, if you didn’t know it, are a bit officious when exercising their official duties, unlike the Americans who either take off for foreign climes with the entire world’s secrets, or wait in the desert for five years to be traded for five guys with beards.
The guard asked me which Andre I wanted.
“The one in the kitchen,” I said.
“Messieur,” he said with utmost patronization, “there are five Andres in the kitchen. Which one do you want (I am translating. He actually said ‘Wheech one do you want?’ ?)”
“I don’t know exactly his last name, but I might remember it if you tell me.” I said.
“Well, there is Andre Pascal, who washes the floor, Andre Gide, who sits around and does nothing but complain. There is Andre, simple Andre, no last name, he follows the other two, Andre Haut-Chapeau, and Andre Presque-Haut-Chapeau.”
“That’s him!” I exclaimed intuitively.
“Presque-Haut-Chapeau?” he questioned, looking at the appointment list, and then me, and then the list, me, list, me, list, me, list, me, until there was another visitor who had walked up behind me. So the guard just pointed his finger towards the only door around and shook it at me.
I passed a man with the highest hat in the world. We’re talking about a hat that would dwarf the Cat-In-The-Hat. I saw who must have been Andre, just Andre, help get his hat though a doorway. Following those two was certainly my Andre, who wore the second highest hat I have ever seen or imagined.. “Andre!” I exclaimed. All three turned, with Andre just Andre trying to keep Haut-Chapeau’s toque balanced. I put out my hand to Presque-Haut Chapeau, we shook and the others just gave me a Gallic expression and walked off, Andre just Andre twirling around to keep things in balance.
We walked to a tiny office that was also used to store potatoes, and made some small talk which is easy to do with my small French. Most of it concerned Mufi, Bayard Street, which Andre missed “beaucoup, beaucoup,” and noodles.
Finally I said, “what’s with the separate dinners for heads of state? I understand it’s almost a tradition here.”
“Tradition, it is the law,” said Andre.
“Since when?” I asked.
“Oh, I’d say 1810 or so. Napoleon himself wrote the text, and a commission finalized it. It gives the right to the French leader two separate dinners whenever visiting delegations are dined.”
“For what purpose?” I asked.
“It is complicated (translated from ‘eet ees complicated’)” he said.
“Can you give me the basics?” I asked.
“You want, as they say in your country, the God’s honest truth?” he asked.
“Yes, if you could.”
“There are two reasons, both recorded in the commission report. The first is, obviously, so that the French leader can have two delicious dinners. French dinners. There is nothing better.” he said.
“I would agree, although Mufi might fight you on that.”
“Yes, we have had many fights about that already,” said Andre.
“And the second reason?” I asked.
“The second is so that peace is not brought on…let us say…prematurely….” he said.
“That stumps me. When can peace be brought on prematurely?”
“Oh, that is defined in the statute. Premature peace is when we only have one set of separate dinners. A second set fulfills the statutory standard”
“Hold on,” I said, “you mean that when Napoleon sat with the English and the Russians, the first two dinners weren’t aimed at peace? They were essentially aimed at a second set of dinners?“
“Oh, yes, it is a small price to pay for cuisine, and an equally small price to pay for peace. One more dinner for each negotiator, two more dinners for the French leader.”
“Isn’t that kind of filling?” I asked.
“Yes, once again, it is the price of peace…and cuisine. Take this last one, Putin and Obama. For Obama, it was a restaurant. Obama had a nice veloute de lenttilles coraiil a la feta, a tartine saumon-oefs d’Alsace, foie de volaille caramalisee, a beautiful entremet Chocolate-Vanille, all 323 cheeses made in the Hexagon, and a gorgeous white and red from Romanee Conti. They ate light, obviously.”
“Obviously,” I said experiencing hunger and nausea simultaneously. “What did Putin get?”
“Well, a nice tourtiere vitalienne, basically abats de porc en gelee, some gnocchi maison sauce champignons, a nice tartare de saumon et endives, beautiful madeleines au poulet et curry avec les restes de poulet roti, some aubergines in a compote, oh, and of course the magnificent rognons de veau. Red and White From R-C and excellent Russian vodka.”
“I heard Putin eats pretty abstemiously. Did he consume all that?”
“He consumed all the vodka. Hollande and his girlfriend ate the rest. Plus the 323 cheeses again. Just a little of each.”
“I guess you couldn’t tell me what they talked about.” I said.
“Not in substance, but the first meal is always somewhat tense.” he said.
“Why is that” I asked. “I would think a meal like that would put someone in a more accessible mood.”
“But that is not the goal. The goal of the first meal is to keep them adversaries, but ready for a second meeting. That is part of the statute.”
“I can’t believe the French engage in this”
“The cuisine demands it, and so does the campaign politics. That is why our elections are so corrupt. Did you notice?”
“Why, yes,” I said, “I did.”
“With some much at stake, people drop a lot of money into the pot to get that food. Sometimes other people’s money as well, Usually other people’s.”
“Well, that answers a lot of my questions, although I still am a bit shocked.” I said. “I wish I could return the favor.”
“You can,” he said.
“How? Anything, Andre.” I said.
“Mufi’s noodle recipe” he said.
“Have you asked Mufi” I inquired.
“No, never. I could never admit that a Chinese dish was so good.”
“Well, I could try,” I said. I texted Mufi and asked what to do.
“Ha!’ he texted back, “the old bastard couldn’t ask me in person. Give him the whole recipe. Exactly what we do together. But don’t tell him about the betel nut juice rinse It will be fine but will lack that little oomph I give them. Someday when he asks me in person and admits the superiority of our cuisine, I will tell him that secret.”
So I gave Andre Presque-Haut-Chapeau the recipe, as I knew it, without the juice rinse It couldn’t make any difference at all.
We embraced, three kisses in place of the normal two, indicating our intimacy, and I was on my way.
On Reaching the City of the Large Apple, I went down to Bayard Street to thank Mufi. He was staring at his phone.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“He noticed. He says that recipe is incomplete. It lacks a certain ‘oomph.’ That’s my oomph.. I guess I have to tell him. I’ll tell him I never told you, so you’ll be good with him.”
“Thanks Mufi, you’re a lifesaver.”
“Sit down. Have some noodles.”