While we were working on the Food Lover’s Guide to Houston at Houstonia Magazine, I fondly recalled my first purchases of Patricia Wells’ Food Lover’s Guide to Paris (1984), and Food Lover’s Guide to France (1987). Those two wildly successful guidebooks created a genre that inspired dozens of “Food Lover’s Guides” to various places in books and magazines.
I was a newbie food writer in 1993 when I called up Patricia Wells at her apartment in Paris and asked her to autograph my copy of the Food Lover’s Guide to France. She was very gracious, in fact, she invited me to come upstairs and have a glass of champagne and some olives she had cured herself at her summer home in Provence. I remember that it was February and her dining room was bedecked with forced tulips.
I got the book down off the shelf the other day, the binding is falling apart now, and I don’t think I will take it with me while traveling in France anymore. But I was somewhat astonished to see the inscriptions inside. I have never been much of an autograph seeker. For some reason, while I was traveling in France, I got the impulse to ask chefs to sign their names in the book.
It was a shock to see the autograph of Bernard Loiseau, the chef at Cote d’Or Restaurant in Burgundy who inspired the movie Ratatouille and tragically took his life when he lost one of his Michelin stars. One of the best chefs in the world, Loiseau was the mentor of Houston chef Olivier Ciesielski of L’Olivier restaurant on Westheimer.
A book review of La Mere Brazier in the Daily Beast got me thinking about a “type of kitchen peculiar to Lyon—that of the Grandes Mères and their cousins, Les Tantes.” In the late 1980s, I had a chance to eat dinner at Chez Tante Paulette, and persuaded Paulette Authely, to sign my book. I still follow her recipe for Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic that appears in the book on the page opposite her photo. “Places such as Chez Tante Paulette — where Paulette Authely reigned supreme with her chicken and garlic until five years ago — are no more,” wrote Patricia Wells of Tante Paulette in 1994.
Maurice Bernachon took over the small chocolate shop he renamed Bernachon on Rue Franklin Roosevelt in Lyon in 1953. He reigned as France’s King of Chocolate until his death in 1999. Bernachon allowed me to hang around while he roasted a bag of cacao beans and ground them to silky smoothness. He signed his name with brown ink. The shop is still in business, its run by his children and grandchildren–the two most famous names in the gastronomy of Lyons, the Bernachon and Bocuse families, are intermarried and running a culinary dynasty.
There are many other autographs in the book. Chef Georges Blanc drew a little chicken beside his name after his speciality, poulet de Bresse; Robert Husser at Hostellerie du Cerf in Marlenheim wrote a long note after serving me the greatest platter of choucrote I have ever eaten; and Marc Haeberlin wished me “Best Regards” in the 28th of June 1996 after whipping up a wild game dinner at Auberge de L’ill in Alsace. There are also receipts for cave tours in Reims, currency exchange chits, and other memorabilia folded into the pages of this old tome.
Twenty or thirty years ago, these autographs were a silly tourist impulse, a lame attempt by my younger self to prove that I had really been to those places. That the chefs might pass away or the restaurants disappear never occurred to me.
Today, as a sentimental alter kocker, I touch the pages and treasure the memories.