Chef Tales… Our Julia Becomes My Julia

As a kid who cooked, I fell for Julia. The French Chef I watched on television so long ago. She had me at “bon appétit.” It was a love that blossomed over a lifetime.

I was 13 years old when my mother gave me my first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  We brought home a whole chicken from Ralph’s Supermarket in Pasadena, and using the illustrations from the book, I quickly set about teaching myself how to truss that pretty bird. It took awhile.

Flash forward to Paris.  Rungis, the largest outdoor wholesale food market in the world.  Rungis is a veritable little city – actually it’s the size of Monaco.  A humming hive of activity centered on beautiful food and tended by an army of workers.  Located in a Paris suburb, each day restaurateurs, chefs and business retailers make the pilgrimage to Rungis to shop and haggle with the merchants.  Entry to Rungis is a prized ticket – it’s not open to the public, and you need an “in.” Our “in” was the 1995 IACP conference held that year in Paris. Wild with excitement, my pal Alison Reich and I scooped up two spots for a rare tour of Rungis.

It was a bone chilling, icy October morning in Paris. Alison and I, up at 3:30 am after a night of food and wine “research” in Paris, showed up at the Hotel Lutecia in Saint-Germain-de-Prés. Waiting to board the van that would take us to Rungis, and desperately in need of caffeine, we were hanging out in the hotel lobby when we heard the voice – that unmistakable voice.  “Julia’s here!” Alison whispered. Suddenly awake with astonishment, we followed Julia through the lobby, if only to bask in her Julia-ness.  While we kept ourselves within earshot of the voice, someone announced it was time to board the van. Heaven bless the world, Julia fell into line right behind us.  A handful of six die hard foodies. Shoulder to shoulder, kitchen comrades on a quest. Together, we settled into the warm comfort of our ride and headed west.

Rungis is a series of “pavilions,” or airplane hanger-type buildings, each one devoted to a particular food or ingredient. Poisson, or seafood, is the first pavilion to open each morning, and the first to close.  Walking inside, we were met with a maze of enormous wooden bins filled with ice and laden with just-plucked-from-the-water fish and shellfish.  From freshwater eels to Dublin Bay prawns, to skate and periwinkles, pristine Atlantic salmon and petit rouget, our eyes feasted.  With ice spilling onto the slippery cement floor, we picked our way along, each of us vying for the chance to dote over Julia. Before we knew it, she had darted off in a different direction to talk with the young French fishmongers. With Julia animated and brimming with curious questions, they exchanged a repartee en Francais. As Julia moved on to the next bin, I heard one young man remark to another, Elle est passionné.”  Translated, it meant “I don’t know who she is but she is passionate!”  At the very back of the pavilion, our hosts gifted us with a surprise – oysters, still on the shell, from the coast off Provence.  Giddy with pleasure, we slurped down oyster after briny oyster.  Julia loved oysters.

Still early morning, by 9:00 we were famished.  In the heart of Rungis is a small café with red curtains in the windows. Inside is a smattering of tables, to which we were invited with a warm welcome from the owner, Monsieur Guillot. Against the bitter cold outside, the mood inside the café drew us close, like the oldest of friends. Julia sat next to me, and we tucked into bowls of soul warming French onion soup with melted Gruyere cheese on a big, toasted crouton. Washing it down with glasses of young red wine poured from white porcelain pitchers, we dined and talked about food, our childhoods, grafting avocado trees, many things French, and life.  At that moment, the world’s Julia became my Julia.

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