For my first dinner for Renaud and Odette, whom I’d met a week earlier, I chose to make something French. Why not? Rather than fall back on Italian, which is my custom (and which I would later find is something the French love being served, since they’re not great at cooking it), I decided to prepare un plat français.
I could have made a simple roast chicken, but I wanted to do a little more – to show my brand-new French friends that I was meeting them on their turf, culinarily speaking.
I had a couple of ideas, but I couldn’t find any cookbooks in the apartment on the Rue Brézin – the apartment I’d swapped for mine in New York. This apartment had, to be kind, an impoverished graduate-student décor – rickety furniture, a Soviet-era television and piles of bulging folders weighing down flimsy Ikea shelving – and it was hard enough to find a comfortable chair let alone a book of recipes. The kitchen was big enough, especially by Parisian standards, but had no useful pots and pans.
Eventually I’d found online a recipe for blanquette de veau, a veal stew. Rather than make do with my hosts’ pathetic battérie de cuisine, I bought a sturdy Le Creuset stewpot, or “une cocotte” at a little housewares store on the nearby Avenue du General Leclerc. And then I set out shopping.
Blanquette de veau is a straightforward dish. And veal is easy to find at every supermarket in France and, of course, at one of the many butchers still in business in France. Butcher or supermarket? Since ordering from a butcher involved actually speaking French, I decided I’d talk (or try to talk) to a butcher. I wasn’t in Paris to avoid Parisians, but to engage with them à la quotidienne.
Actually speaking to the butcher was a bit of a stretch for me at that point. I had a feeling I’d throw out a word or two I’d have memorized (veau, blanquette, quatre personnes) and hope for the best. It would still be better than taking timid refuge in the relative impersonality of a supermarket, even the well-stocked Monoprix around the corner.
An unpretentious neighborhood butcher lay cattycorner to my apartment. But I chose instead Hugo Desnoyer, which happens to be one of the top butchers in France. (I later learned that it supplies the Palais de l’Élysée, the official residence of the President.) The local Hugo Desnoyer was not five minutes’ walk from me, on the Rue Boulard, which intersects Rue Brézin.
I recall the butchers from my childhood, and even the rare butcher still operating in Manhattan, having a certain clinical atmosphere, as if to ensure customers the meat of slaughtered animals was sold from the abattoir.
The French are less squeamish about how meat gets to the table. And yet the Hugo Desnoyer on the Rue Boulard looked like a chic boutique for discerning carnivores. The store windows, or vitrines, had plump trussed roasts, golden heirloom birds, fat coils of sausage and various unidentifiable cuts of meat arranged as if they were priceless ornaments to be savored rather than worn.
Inside, the butchers were, to a man, remarkably handsome. I wondered if Monsieur Desnoyer had hired them as much for their looks as for their prowess with a boning knife. About five or six were working there the day I entered, and while I waited my turn, I saw how each counseled his particular client on exactly what it was she or he wanted, how many people were being served and as far as my rudimentary French could make out, for how long to cook the steak or roast or chicken.
And suddenly, the manager – or was it Hugo Desnoyer himself? – would ask in a lilting voice, “On dit quoi?” – what do we say? – and all of the butchers would pause in their pounding or slicing or trussing and respond in unison by shouting a hearty singsong, “Merci!” Or, “Meerrrr-ci!!” As if they were in a chorus from “Les Bouchers de Paris, the Musical.” This happened every 10 minutes or so, an aria da capo of customer service and good humor.
And of course my halting French was easily understood by the Greek god who served me. I have no idea what the price of the veal was for my blanquette de veau pour quatre personnes, but it didn’t matter: I’d paid for a spectacle and had been roundly entertained.