The auction opened and bidding commenced. The lots included a massive white truffle (that is, a massive Italian white truffle), which was only marginally smaller than young Frederick's extraordinarily large head, and which Hamilton secured with a flamboyant oh-let's-put-an-end-to-this-nonsense bid of $10,000, whereupon everyone at our table, plus a few friends met en route to the exit, were invited to her apartment on Sunday for lunch.
"I have been thinking about your plan," Hamilton told me when I showed up, "and I have a gift for you." She gave me a copy of her school's textbook, The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Cuisine.
I found a chair in the corner. The book was impressively ponderous, 496 big landscape pages of double columns and how-to pictures. I opened it and landed on "Theory: General Information About Fish Mousseline." I flipped. Ten pages were dedicated to making a sauce from an egg. The philosophy of a fricassee got three. My life had been a happy one, not quite knowing what a fricassee was. What person would I have to become to master half of this?
Hamilton sent one of the guests, Dan Barber, over to me. Barber ran two restaurants, both called Blue Hill, one in Manhattan and the other on a farm. I knew him and liked his cooking. It was ferociously local and uncompromisingly flavor-dedicated. I once ate a carrot at a Barber restaurant: by itself, pulled from the earth thirty minutes before, rinsed gently but not skinned, suspended on a carved wood pedestal, and served with several grains of good salt and a drop of perfect Italian olive oil. Barber is thin, with the nervous chest of a long-distance runner, and is wiry, like his hair, and is bookish and articulate. He asked about "my French project," but before I could answer he interrupted me.
"French training," he declared. "Nothing more important."
The statement was unequivocal. It was also refreshing. At the time, the charisma of France was at a low point. People weren't going there to learn how to cook. They went to extreme outposts of the Iberian peninsula, or isolated valleys in Sweden during the winter.
"Americans think they can do without French training," Barber said, "but they don't know what they are missing. I quickly spot cooks who haven't been to France. Their food is always"—he hesitated, looking for the right word—"well, compromised." He paused so that I would appreciate the implications.
"You should work for Rostang. Michel Rostang," he said. The tone was imperious. It was an instruction.
"Rostang?" I knew the name. Paris, one of the fancy guys—linen tablecloths, art on the walls.
"Learn the classics. Rostang."
I nodded, took out a notebook, and wrote: "Rostang." "But why Rostang?"
"Because"—Barber leaned in close—"he is the one I trained with."
"You worked in Paris!" This came out as a loud blurt. Barber looked over his shoulder, as if embarrassed. I hadn't meant to blurt. I was just surprised.
"Yes, I worked in Paris. And in Provence. And..." The tone was: Duh? "I am French-trained."
Barber was remarkably tall, which I hadn't noticed until now, maybe because he is so thin and uses less space than a normal tall person. I also hadn't noticed that he was wearing a beret.
"You speak French?" I asked. Blue Hill had been the name of Barber's grandmother's farm and was important to how he presented himself: Grandma's kitchen on Saturdays, the down-to-earth Americana of it all. Barber sits on panels in Washington and knew about the chromosome constitution of Hudson Valley garlic root. The Frenchness was confusing. "Do people know this about you?"
He stepped closer. "You can't get the skills anywhere else."
We reached the Chesapeake, its vast brackish sea, America's largest estuary.
France would be six hours ahead, a Saturday evening, the dinner service about to start. I tried to imagine a bistro in Paris, a bar with stools, a low-ceilinged room with a hearth, a city, a village, and couldn't. I'd lived in England for twenty years. There it had been easy to imagine France. It was a ferry away. You could drive there. A flight was an hour.
Our train was scattering ducks, their colors blue and orange, when I spotted, on the glass of my window, the reflection of a computer screen, a bright movement. It appeared to be a slide show of French food.