The following is an excerpt from “32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line” (Random House, 2016).
by Eric Ripert
Two things happened the year I turned 11: My father died and I became friends with my first professional chef, a guy named Jacques.
My mother, distressed at my sadness over the loss of my father, tried to cure it with the one thing she knew I still loved: an extraordinary meal. One day, after she closed her shop, she announced that we wouldn’t be going home to have dinner with her new husband, Hugo, and my baby sister. Instead we were going to the restaurant in the same complex of shops as her own, Chez Jacques.
“It is almost impossible to get a table,” my mother said, smiling conspiratorially. “But why don’t you and I go, just the two of us?”
I smiled for the first time in weeks. A night out alone with my mother? At an exclusive restaurant? It was like Christmas had come early.
As we approached Chez Jacques, my mother whispered, “Let me do the talking. They say the chef is a lunatic.”
We were greeted at the door by Mercedes Quillacq, a voluptuous blond Spanish woman in her mid-40s. I had never met her, but she greeted my mother as if they were old friends, and she seated us with a flourish that implied we were honored guests. The restaurant was rustic and simple. I would later learn that Jacques had built the entire establishment himself and that the dining room was actually the first floor of the family home. There were maybe 20 seats and an open-plan kitchen, which was unusual for the time. There was no menu, just a set meal for the night. You ate what Jacques prepared, and you paid a hefty price for the pleasure.
From my seat at the table I could see Jacques at work in the kitchen: Short and muscular, he wore a white chef’s jacket with short sleeves and sweated with the force of a man who was all at once chef, sous-chef and dishwasher. In one pot, he cooked pasta. In another, he made green beans. The industrial oven churned out culinary masterpieces, seemingly on its own. Now there’s a platter of caramel pork. Look, there’s a camembert en chemise (a version of brie en croute). And is that a roast duck? Watching Jacques cook for an entire restaurant, alone and happy in his kitchen, was like going to the circus and watching a master juggler spin a hundred plates. I was mesmerized.
I quickly learned that while the food was indeed legendary, part of what kept Chez Jacques packed was the show he put on. You did not choose to eat at Chez Jacques. Jacques chose you.
Ten minutes after we sat down, the door opened. A well-dressed man walked in and greeted Jacques, whose eyes immediately narrowed.
“Get out!” he snarled.
The man was understandably startled and tried to politely introduce himself. “Uh, je suis Monsieur Veysette. ...”
“Who sent you?”
“Uh . . . .”
“Get out!” Jacques yelled, and so the man did as he asked and left.
My mother and I sat in silence, watching the drama unfold with both amusement and awe. My pleasure in being there grew, just knowing that we had been lucky to be let in the front door.
A few minutes later, another couple arrived.
“Who sent you?” Jacques barked.
“No one. We saw . . . .”
“Welcome, welcome,” Jacques said, suddenly switching to the warm tone of a mâitre’d in a famed Parisian bistro. “Mer-cedes, please see to it that they get the best table!”
My mother whispered to me, “Chef Jacques is known for kicking even the most elite residents of Andorra out of his restaurant. He takes great pleasure in telling the richest people in town to go screw themselves, but the food is so good, they always come back.” She went on to explain that Jacques was ex-French Legion, and he wasn’t impressed with power. He’d survived the Battle of Dien Bien Phu; he didn’t care about the vice president of the local hydroelectric company or a retired British footballer. Naturally, the spectacle only made Chez Jacques more of a destination. “Whatever you do,” my mother warned, “don’t ask for salt.”
When the dishes arrived, it was clear that we were being presented with more than a meal: This was a gift. The salad was composed as if Jacques had spent the afternoon in the garden, picking each green leaf himself. The coq au vin was so rich and satisfying that I had to resist the urge to lick the plate when I was done. When the meal was over, Jacques sent over not two small bowls of chocolate mousse, but nearly a tub of the stuff. My eyes widened at the heft of it; then I quickly and happily polished off the whole dish.
Jacques walked over to the table just as I was shoveling the last heaping spoon of mousse into my mouth. He looked pleased.
“The young man has a good appetite,” he said, winking at me.
“C’est trop, Monsieur Jacques,” I replied, respectfully. And it was — the very best meal I’d ever had.
“Do you want a tour of the factory?” Jacques asked, gesturing for me to follow him to the kitchen.
My mother nodded her permission, and I eagerly followed Jacques back to the kitchen and propped myself onto a barstool for a better view. I pointed at the salads Jacques was making.
“How did you get the vinaigrette so creamy?” I asked.
He smiled at the question. “That’s a secret,” he said. “Come back one day and I’ll show you.”
The next day after school, instead of heading to the stockroom above my mother’s boutique, I went to Chez Jacques. I sat on the same barstool, eating bowl after bowl of baba au rhum, and listened as he told me stories about his years in the military.
Jacques was what was called a titi Parisien, a kind of scrappy, working-class guy who grew up on the not-fancy streets of Paris, like Robert De Niro in New York. He spent his career as a parachutist with the French army and had done tours of duty in Vietnam, Egypt and Algeria. I learned more about history from him than I did from any schoolbook.
“You’ve read about the coalition between Germany, France and Great Britain against Egypt when they tried to nationalize the Suez Canal?” he asked as he rubbed a leg of lamb with salt for that evening’s meal.
I had never heard of the Suez Canal, but I nodded my head vigorously in the hopes that he’d keep talking and serving me sweets.
“Alors. Each country had their own black market of goods,” Jacques explained. “Crates of everything from caviar to licorice. Well, one day, we heard that the British had gotten hold of some fresh vegetables, so we traded with them — a crate of whiskey for a crate of arugula, endives and romaine. They just wanted to get drunk! But we said, ‘The French must eat the way God intended man to eat!’ ”
He laughed so hard at the memory that he had to brace himself on the counter. “Can you imagine? Trading whiskey for some greens? But that is war, young man. That is what war is really about: going after the thing you didn’t value until you were in the position to lose it.”
I was only a kid but I thought I understood what he meant, because I had, that afternoon, spent one of the happiest days in recent memory. The school year loomed ahead, and I was sure that nothing would top the few hours I had spent watching Jacques cook and listening to his stories about parachuting out of planes and conducting secret maneuvers in foreign lands.
My mother worked six days a week at her boutique, but she cooked like a Michelin-starred chef every single night. The table was always set with fresh flowers and a beautiful tablecloth. She shopped every day at the markets. We began each meal with a delicious starter: maybe an onion soup or a big rustic salad made of blanched and raw vegetables, apple, avocado, radishes, potato, haricots verts, corn — all from a roadside market, not the grocery store. For the main course, there would be something cooked à la minute, like a pepper steak, or something she’d prepped since the morning, like a roast shoulder of lamb. There was always dessert, too: a fruit dish, like pears in red wine, on the weekdays and something more elaborate, like a flan or a mixed berry tart, on her day off. It was a badge of honor for my mother that at a time when women were asking if they could have it all, she did.
That evening when she came to collect me, her eyes went straight to the dirty dessert bowl sitting next to me. She knew me well enough to know that there was no way I had eaten just one serving. I could tell she was annoyed at what was certain to be an enormous bill and at my rudeness in ruining my appetite for the dinner she’d prepared at home.
But when my mother asked Jacques for the bill, throwing me an impatient glare, he just waved her off.
“No charge, madame,” he said. “The boy has been washing dishes all day. It is I who should pay him.” Then he winked at me and smiled.
This was, needless to say, a lie for my protection, and the pure tenderness of the gesture almost made me cry.
“Come back anytime,” Jacques said. I wondered if he meant it or if he was just being polite.
“Tomorrow?” I asked, shyly.
“Why not?” he answered.
“Will there be chocolate mousse the next time?” I asked, feeling bolder.
Jacques laughed, a full-bodied laugh that I would get to know well. And my mother, who in those days did not laugh very often, laughed too.
“There is always chocolate mousse at Chez Jacques,” he said.
Proust had his madeleine, and because of Jacques, I have my mousse. Every time I dig into a bowl of that chocolate velvet, I am a kid again, running to Chez Jacques after school. It is the taste of friendship. It is the taste of belly laughs, and war stories, and the memory of a man who could jump out of planes and make a leg of lamb with equal amounts of skill and ardor. But more than anything, chocolate mousse is the taste of being welcomed; of Chez Jacques, where for me, the door was always open.
Ripert, chef and co-owner of New York restaurant Le Bernardin, will talk about his memoir with Sally Swift on Friday, May 20, at 7 p.m. at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.