Whetting My Appetite

The soul of a restaurant lies in its menu. The Union League’s is a concise list, with one dish for every requisite taste. “Escalopine de sauman sauvage”: salmon dish, always popular. “Filet de boeuf ˆ la mo’lle”: beef dish, also very popular. “Poulet aux olives vertes”: chicken dish, for the unadventurous. “Casserole de legumes d’hiver”: vegetarian and seemingly low-fat alternative. Every dish has an origin and a purpose. No dish will ever be served without the entire staff first tasting and approving it. All new recipes are recorded in a blue binder that rests on top of the kitchen’s raucous ice machine. They must have personality — sometimes spicy, sometimes sour, sometimes sweet. But when the bite goes down, the dish must be, above all, delicious. The taste after the dinner is long done is the most important.

The Aroma

The waiters at the Union League Cafe are young and old. Some are rowdy and some are quiet. Some complain as they enter the kitchen and confuse the bartender with ambiguous orders. But everyone knows what is expected of him or her, and in a moment in their weekly staff meeting that makes every waiter and waitress nod in agreement, one waiter declares, “We are not here to amuse the customer. We are here to serve.”

Indeed, this is how Jean-Michel, the restaurant manager, has trained them.

“We are here to serve,” he says, with his hands in his pockets and his graying brows leaning inwards. “We will have a fellow that will say, ‘We will have a red wine and we will have a risotto.’ Even if you know they should go with white, you should go with the best you can find.”

Jean-Michel has the poetic smoothness of a true Frenchman, and often speaks about cooking as “biblical” and “Messianic.” He has a tendency to step into linguistic pirouettes, capturing life’s flavors in a single word or phrase that would almost seem preposterous if it weren’t for the handsome man and the ruffled lips who uttered it. He is l’Emotion behind the restaurant, and one gets the feeling that he lives his life only to tell the story of it later.

“He contributes so much, so much: his sense of art, oh my Lord,” effuses Robin, Jean-Pierre’s American wife and a long-time friend of Jean-Michel. “His attention to detail, his enthusiasm, his artistic approach to things, while not always realistic — he’s a person who likes to think, he has a lot of ideas, he knows a lot about a lot of things. He is very well-read and well-educated. He’s just an interesting person, he offers so much.”

The Bite

Robin has known Jean-Michel — the artist, the enthusiast, the attendant to detail — for more than 20 years. He was friends with her mother, who owned the restaurant before it was the Union League Cafe and was instead a hard-lined, dress-code-enforced French restaurant named after her father, Robert Henry. And although Robin comes in only two nights a week, she is treated like the lady of the household, drinking wine and eating early meals while her husband is preparing for the night’s dinner rush. Because of her husband’s demanding work schedule, Robin barely gets to see the man she fell in love with when he was a 28-year-old French chef working at her mother’s restaurant.

Does she miss him, when she is at home in the pastoral Americana that is Madison, Connecticut? When he is at the Union League Cafe accepting packages at 10:30 in the morning and wiping down the kitchen counters at 1:30 at night?

“No, never.”

She changes her order.

“I shouldn’t say never. Sometimes I miss him. I wish — when I walk down the streets in Madison, and I’m seeing a husband and wife in the bookstore, having coffee, having lunch — that — I could do that.” She stops and tastes her words. “But in this business you have to understand that that’s what it takes, and that’s what it is. And I have a very independent life.”

Robin has very consciously detached herself from the Union League Cafe — through her own hobbies, through her irregular visiting hours, and through her steadfast adherence to the American “J.” That is, J-J-J-Jean-Pierre, J-J-J-Jean-Michel, J-J-J-Jacques.

She is the Drive on the menu.

The Order

Jacques is the restaurant’s maitre’d and joins Jean-Pierre and Jean-Michel in their amour for fine food and wine.

Occasionally, the waitstaff will get tested on serving protocol, foods, wines, foods that go with wines, and wines that go with food. Jacques and Jean-Michel lead the staff meetings, and while Jean-Michel may say that a certain wine tastes “like chlorophyll, minty, peachy,” or “This has all the characteristics of a great wine. It is a perfect circle,” Jacques tends to keep more grounded. He would never speak in erratic rhythms like Jean-Michel. (“What I like about it? I like the nose. What is that? Raspberry.”) Like Jean-Michel, Jacques speaks to be heard, but Jacques uses more humbled words and will say that a wine is “not too sugary, not too sweet” and will explain, “it is with acidity that a wine carries age.” To this, the waitstaff nods in agreement. He is la Precision.

Originally from Nancy, France, Jacques was working as a wine seller in Belgium when he saw the ad for the Union League Cafe, all the way across an ocean in a petite city on the east coast. He lives in downtown New Haven. He is not married. He likes sports, biking and yoga (“it’s very interesting”). Though he is un tres petit homme, he paces around the restaurant with a pungent, Napoleonic assertiveness, and he is the only one who peeks at my notes while I sit in the restaurant. While Jean-Michel calls his relationship with Jean-Pierre a “friendship story,” Jacques says his relationship is that of an employee. Every restaurant must have a maitre’d.

The Presentation

On really busy nights, like New Year’s or any other holiday, the Union League Cafe offers a special, abbreviated menu. To the customers, it’s the best of the best at a prix fixe of $39.75 for three courses. To the kitchen, the menu is a way to keep focused on a few orders it can pump out fast.

This is how it is on Parents’ Weekend. Not only is it a Friday, regularly a busy night for the restaurant, but on this special night New Haven is filled with parents wanting to treat their work-worn children to a night of French dining.

When I enter the kitchen, Jean-Pierre shhhhs me. He reads out orders, puts on garnishes, and makes sure that the product going out from the kitchen complies with his culinary vision. He yells in a warm, tickling voice that lacks the booming quality one would expect from an executive chef. He is an awkwardly graceful man who can sidestep across the narrow galley, peeking underneath the shelving between the main walkway and the grill and sautZ side. This is even more remarkable because Jean-Pierre wears clogs that are unquestionably too small. His heels extend an inch or so past the sole, so that Jean-Pierre is effectively floating over his kitchen on his three-inch heel clogs. He doesn’t want me distracting the cooks. I sit down on my regular stool, and I find myself more of a menace on this night — just some knees blocking the galley, a head blocking the extension of the refrigerator door, and a body adding to the kitchen’s heat. Just before I come in, a garde-manger cook shakes his head, “Hello young lady, you picked the wrong night to come.”

Two hundred and fifty people are being served tonight.

On the far end of the kitchen are the pastry counter and pantry, or garde-manger. This side might be the most peculiar section of the kitchen. On the pastry side is Abigail, a tall and slender beauty with delicate features and fingers. On the other side are Erek and Adam, two boyish-looking men with spiky hair and slightly scruffy faces. They are like college boys — one nourished on beer, and the other malnourished from studying. They move around with a cocky swagger, while Abigail moves as if she were drunk, or at least disoriented from the fine work she must do: scooping eyeball-sized spheres of ice cream and applying chocolate tuiles to the chocolate mousse at the most appealing jaunty slant.

Erek is in the walkway into the kitchen scattering walnuts inside a circular mold and placing them carefully on the outside. He does this to at least 50 plates and they are stacked on top of each other, mold on plate on mold on plate. It’s a culinary tower of garnish.

But even more telling on this hectic night is the butter. Oh the butter, sweet beurre. I hadn’t seen the butter that other Wednesday, but perhaps I really hadn’t seen the essence of the kitchen until I had seen the butter. The sticks are orgiastic. They are slightly melted onto each other and squeezed into a container that is way too small for their calorie count.

Also here tonight is Cedric, Jean-Pierre’s sous-chef, the second-in-command. Cedric has the face of a moody movie star. He has dark hair, pursed lips, and an elitist ‘tude. But on second sip, Cedric goes down a little easier. He has a goofy smile and will hunch his shoulders and wag his head oafishly. He slips his shoes off when he is talking to Jean-Pierre. His socks are white. Jean-Pierre’s are black with fine gray webbing. The other day Jean-Pierre’s socks were olive with little nubbles. But Cedric is a fine side dish.

Erek is getting tired and shakes his head and adjusts his collar like a cool guy adjusting his varsity jacket. His hand is covered with herbs.

What is most popular tonight? Salmon, lobster, beef and lamb. The lamb is very popular.

Jean-Pierre doesn’t talk to me until the first seating is done at 7:45 p.m. He has brown spots on an interrupted line from shoulder blade to shoulder blade. His left sleeve is rolled up neatly to his elbow, and his right sleeve is rolled up once, in one crooked, sweeping fold. He drinks a glass of red wine. Slowly.

The Tummy-ache

The kitchen is much smaller than what you’d expect. In fact, restaurant kitchens in general are smaller than what you’d expect. And so for a man like Jean-Pierre, who grew up in the crisp open expanses of the French Alps, the inside of a smoky steel kitchen can get the best of him.

“My husband loves what he does,” Robin says to me, eyes focused and head nodding. “But he internalizes a tremendous amount of pressure that I don’t experience, see, or know about, because I’m not a chef — and I’m not here.”

She is a strong drink and will often speak of the restaurant “business” and the “industry.” Since leaving the restaurant industry, her mother has entered another type of high-stakes hospitality business as chief of protocol for Connecticut Governor John G. Rowland. Robin is one part worker, one part wife and one part hobbyist, engaging in activities miles away from the sensuous performing of the kitchen. A Connecticut native all her life, Robin teaches classes at Gateway Community College. She also shows dogs. And while she and her husband are in their late 40’s, they do not have kids. I love animals, she says. She doesn’t regret it.

In fact, out of Jean-Michel, Jacques and Jean-Pierre, none of them have children. The restaurant is their baby, the reason they get up early in the morning and the reason they go to bed late at night. This group, though they produce so much and work so hard, is granted the most ephemeral satisfaction — a ghost-child of a burp, or a groan, or a mmm-mmm. This group that produces so much food and pours so much wine also produces no children.

It’s a non-issue to Jean-Pierre, this lack of children. In our very first conversation, Jean-Pierre told me, “It’s hard to combine family — It just didn’t happen — I guess if I had children, I would have changed schedules. We never really wanted it that badly.” Sometimes he spends more time with his cook staff than he does with his own wife. But the restaurant is his spawn, and the Union League Cafe is his l’Existence.

The After-Dinner Mint

But besides the restaurant, Robin has her dogs. Jacques, he has his yoga. Jean-Michel, well, Jean-Michel goes into a whole story when I ask him what he does for fun.

“Can I tell you? Mushrooming, gym, testing wine, cooking with my friends, and visit farm, support farm. You know I’m very close with Jacques Pepin.”

Well yes, there’s also Jacques Pepin. He’d be the crowning star of the group, the tour de force de cette petite brasserie. Pepin is one of the most influential chefs in America, a man who used to have a cooking show with Julia Child and was the personal chef of Charles de Gaulle. Pepin’s daughter, Claudine, even had her wedding reception at the restaurant, where a fine wedding cake and a fine wedding cake assembler were sent to the restaurant from California.

Jean-Michel regards Pepin as a second father. In France, he and Pepin lived a one-hour drive away from each other — he in Grenoble, and Pepin in Bourg-en-Bresse, both towns an hour or so away from Lyon. Together, they mushroom, pick rosehips for jam and support local farms in danger of urbanization. Jean-Pierre is also friends with Pepin — they live five minutes away from each other — and the three of them play petanque, or boules, a French version of bocci ball. The object of the game is to get the boules as close as one can to the “but” or “cochonnet,” a small wooden ball. Miles away from the frenetic vibrations of the kitchen, petanque is a welcome recreation for these men–a very French one, at that.

It’s a little funny, this expatriate group of Frenchmen playing petanque and drinking wine in The Constitution State. Jean-Michel seldom returns to France and says, “I feel more and more integrated here and less and less in France.” He makes a face at France, even though the country is irrevocably whisked into his artistic soul.

And Jacques, who packed up his things for a French ad sent from America, says, “I’m fine here. Maybe one day I will go back to France, but right now I’m staying here.”

And Jean-Pierre, he feels the same way. Oddly enough, the restaurant is modeled on the French brasserie, what Jean-Pierre describes as a large-scale bistro found in large cities. But he will quickly bemoan the sad fact, even to a journalist, that France is not what it used to be.

“In France, they stand still. They don’t evaluate as much,” Jean-Pierre says in his whispered voice. “Here, the people are more open to the world.”

And Jacques Pepin? Well, it’s hard to say. On one hand, he is an ambassador of French cuisine in a foreign and often hostile land of French fries and French toast, but no French class. Then again, in his culinary career, Pepin chose to go from New York’s famous Le Pavillon restaurant to the all-American celebrity of television cooking.

And like Jean-Pierre, Pepin married an American woman. Although his daughter Claudine pronounces papa like une vrai fille, she does not even know how to cook! This conflict between generation to generation, France to America, served as the concept for two television shows, “Jacques Pepin’s Kitchen: Cooking with Claudine,” and “Jacques Pepin’s Kitchen: Encore with Claudine.” Pepin recalls that when the producers told him they didn’t want to edit the tape too much, he had no choice but to push his own daughter away and say, “Here, let me show you how it’s done.” Despite her best intentions, the young American can only say: okay.

Et Voila, The Review

Multi-faceted. No, that’s not the word. Complex. Is that regret I taste? Disillusionment — no, couldn’t be. Maybe it’s capers. The flavors, there are many. As if I had tasted a whole world of flavors. A whole world of desires and wants and loves and poems and pictures. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just a sauce — simmered, pureed, and sieved into a flashing streak on my plate.

I came for a meal, but I indulged a little.

A little Jean-Michel, Jacques, Robin, Jean-Pierre. The meal, it is delicious. But at this point, it doesn’t matter. Robin, another out-of-place American woman who fell headfirst into a French enclave, said it herself: “You’re only as successful as the people working around you.”

The tastes, the sounds, the personalities, the meal itself — it was all on the chef, Jean-Pierre. Since over time I had become a little more friend and a little less journalist, all I paid was the tip.

Is that against the rules?

Mais non.

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