SAINT-PERE-SOUS-VEZELAY, FRANCE -- One by one, like musicians in a courtly ensemble, the chefs advance to their places. Taking up their culinary instruments, they begin preparing the ingredients that maestro Marc Meneau will orchestrate into cuisine de re'sistance.
Among them, plucking wild ducks and seeming just a soupc on out of place, is Patricia Gail Littlefield. Like the others, she wears a starched white uniform and toque blanche. Unlike them, she is a woman, a Texan and a former U.S. Justice Department attorney. When she's finished plucking, she will prepare huitres en gelee au cresson -- jellied oysters crowned with watercress, a house specialty in a house of many specialties.
This is the kitchen of L'Espe'rance, an epicurean Eden in a medieval Burgundian village and a world away from the life Littlefield had lately led as a government lawyer in Washington. Fifteen years in the civil rights division at Justice had brought her a measure of acclaim and satisfaction -- she was a leading figure in the massive lawsuit that forced Texas to revamp its antiquated prison system -- but somewhere along the line it stopped being enough. Something was missing; she had lost her taste for the law.
"I don't know whether it was the fact that I was 39 about to turn 40 or the thought of doing the same thing for the next 40 years that was depressing," she said recently. "But I got irritated enough and said to myself, 'I don't want to do this anymore. But what will I do?'
"In the legal profession you don't necessarily make people happy. The professional chef gets a different kind of satisfaction that you don't get from practicing law. I really wanted a job that provides pleasure -- immediate pleasure. Something where you work creatively with your hands. Where you work in a team and you create something that you can look at and say this looks nice. This tastes good." A job like cooking, in a word. But it was no easy transition from Ronald Reagan's Justice Department to the restaurant Marc Meneau opened on a shoestring 18 years ago in a converted general store and christened L'Espe'rance -- Hope.
Littlefield resigned from the Justice Department on her 40th birthday -- it was Bastille Day, July 14, 1986 -- staging what she calls her "personal career revolution." She began packing for her sea change much earlier, however, with unpaid internships at several Washington restaurants -- including Le Gaulois and Le Pavillon -- while she was still with the Justice Department. Often, she found herself toiling over torts by day and tarts by night.
Bernard Baudrand, owner-chef of Le Gaulois, required more than a little persuading to allow Littlefield into his kitchen. "He was reluctant at first," Littlefield said. "His kitchen is small and to fit an extra person in was hard. He had never had a woman in his kitchen and always maintained that he wouldn't. But after a while he said I could fill in when chefs were away on vacation."
But Baudrand felt a restaurant like Le Pavillon was better suited for the kind of classical training and experience Littlefield was looking for, and he phoned Yannick Cam, the chef there, to arrange an internship for her. Littlefield says she never objected to working without pay at either restaurant. "The experience acquired in a top-class kitchen was my main concern. To me, it was a breakthrough into a mainly male domain."
Her job at Le Pavillon ended in June, 1986, and after leaving Justice a month later, she enrolled at l'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda where she continued to add to her culinary knowledge by day while applying it at night -- first at Suzanne's, later at the West End Cafe.
It was last spring that she resolved to make the quantum leap to the pinnacle of Gallic gastronomy and applied to the 35 top restaurants in Burgundy, including L'Espe'rance, to be a stagiaire -- an apprentice chef. All 35 had been awarded one, two or three stars in the Michelin Guide Rouge, the internationally renowned arbiter of dining excellence. L'Espe'rance is one of fewer than three dozen three-star restaurants in the country, making it one of the greatest in France, and thus one of the greatest in the world.
Landing a chef's apprentice position in France -- known in the trade as a stage -- is no easy task. Responses to Littlefield's applications ranged from polite and subtle excuses to outright refusal, one going so far as to tell her bluntly: "We do not hire girls for the kitchen." Littlefield has since dined at some of the restaurants she wrote to, taking the opportunity to seek more thorough explanations for why she was not accepted. "'Oh, we get so many letters,' was the standard one," she said.
She wrote to Meneau in May and got a positive reply in July. What made Meneau accept her?
"Since she had the courage and conviction of her culinary ability to come all the way to Vezelay, despite her lacking the very demanding criteria needed for apprenticeship in a three-star restaurant, I sensed her sincerity and made an exception," Meneau said. "I was impressed by the fact that at her age she wanted to change careers. It's hard to explain, but I knew she had the artistic makings of a chef."
What Meneau did not say was that he, like Littlefield, had also been trained for another career -- that of hotel administrator and accountant -- and had abandoned it for love of the kitchen. Or that when he turned his father's general store and saddlery into L'Espe'rance in 1970, he knew nothing of the grand possibilities of cuisine and had to rely on his own commitment and tireless energy to learn.
How does an American stagiaire compare one of France's finest kitchens with those of her native country?
"My legal training has made me very analytical, and I've thought about this a lot," Littlefield says. "I think you wouldn't find a group of people like Meneau's team that work this hard in the U.S. I think the French tradition in fine restaurants is long, hard work. This is not the case in the United States. There is just not that kind of devotion to gourmet cooking there." She noted, though, that the situation in America seems to be improving lately, "with continental and American chefs combining their skills to broaden the range of sophisticated dining."
At L'Espe'rance, the cooking staff does all the cleaning, including removing and scouring the vent hoods once a week. "This is the tradition in France," Littlefield says. "In America, this is done by the dishwashers. You could never get chefs in America to do this. An American chef would never get down and pick up the floor grate and dig out the junk from the drain. It took me quite a while to adjust to this age-old approach in French kitchens."
Littlefield says she finds the team concept of Meneau's kitchen quite unlike the one-on-one approach in legal work, or even of the managerial methods of American restaurants. "There is a hierarchy at L'Espe'rance, and the chain of command works very well. If something is going wrong, if it's not an immediate problem, Meneau will not reproach the assistant responsible. He will address the matter to his superior. Used as I was to the concept of direct reprimand in American kitchens, I find this approach to criticism far more productive."
She has learned much else from Meneau, including the critical importance of timing in preparing brilliant cuisine and presenting it to the expectant diner. To control this as much as possible, Littlefield says, Meneau "stands on a platform in the center of the kitchen directing the operation, in much the manner of a conductor. It's a very effective way to guarantee the perfection of a dish."
Littlefield says another big difference between top restaurants here and in America is the much wider variety of foods offered in France. There is a greater choice of game, for example, in part because in the United States it must be processed like beef or chicken, a costly procedure, and there is no question of field-to-kitchen preparation. And L'Espe'rance epitomizes the French tradition of turning absolutely every atom of food to tasty use. Nothing is wasted. "We even use the brains from the chickens and ducks to garnish certain dishes," she says. "Even shrimp heads are saved to make shrimp butter."
Meneau never misses an opportunity to inculcate this economy-minded attitude in his staff. Once, Littlefield recalled, he did a late-night spot check of garbage cans, pulled out some trimmings he felt could have been used and scolded the offender.
"Working for a world-renowned chef creates a special atmosphere," Littlefield says. "The chefs know that Meneau is something of a celebrity, and that is why most of them come here and accept an almost monastic existence to gain the training to pursue their careers. I accept these rigorous demands, because, like my French colleagues, I, too, would like to have my own starred restaurant someday."
What is it like being the only woman -- and an American one at that -- in a kitchen of 20 men? "My presence has made no difference whatsoever to the daily routine," she says. "I don't think my being a woman results in my being treated any differently. I don't get hassled and I don't get any sexist comments. I really feel I'm part of the team."