September 18, 2018
by Bruce Neyers
We had guests for dinner last week — a neighbor of ours and her daughter, who recently joined the family’s winery. The daughter brought along her boyfriend, a young Frenchman who was raised in the Beaujolais region, near Lyon, and now works in the Napa Valley as a vineyard manager. His parents, he told me, were not in the wine business, but they raised him to enjoy wine and food; as a result, he decided to study Viticulture in college. I told him that I loved the Beaujolais region — its wines, food and people — and how much I had enjoyed traveling there twice a year during my almost thirty years with Kermit Lynch. He asked if I had ever made it to Lyon for a meal at Restaurant Paul Bocuse. I had – just once – and it was as memorable as any meal I’ve ever enjoyed, anywhere. But before his untimely death in January of this year, M. Bocuse played another far more important role in my life. I recalled the details.
I had finished my annual March trip to France for Kermit Lynch. My fifteen or so traveling companions and I were loading up our rental vans early on a Friday morning before leaving Chinon for Paris. After sixteen days on the back roads and highways – we had circumnavigated France from Nantes to Alsace to Marseilles, then back to Bordeaux – we’d driven to Chinon for a tasting on Thursday afternoon, followed by dinner in the nearby town. Everyone was particularly cheerful the next morning. The long days of tasting and travel were over, and we had an especially bright prospect ahead of us: a free afternoon in Paris on a beautiful spring day. After dropping the vans at Orly Airport, we taxied to our hotel in Central Paris. I asked everyone to meet me in the lobby at 7:00 that evening so we could leave for dinner together at one of my favorite Paris haunts. I had plans of my own for lunch that afternoon. I assembled a small group and we headed off to our lunch destination, Maison Prunier, one of Paris’ oldest and loveliest restaurants — located on Avenue Victor Hugo in the 16th Arrondisement, two blocks from the Arc de Triomphe. I had been there once before – earlier that year in January actually – at the suggestion of a restaurant friend. Our lunch group in January had been larger, and we’d been seated at a large table on the balcony overlooking the beautiful Belle Époque dining room. The meal was great that day, but the friend who had suggested the place later chastised me for not trying the turbot, the dish he claimed to be “the finest example of prepared seafood in the world.” We were returning to Maison Prunier in March so I could check-off an important block on my lifetime “to-do” list.
We were immediately shown to our table, a comfortable six-top next to the window overlooking busy Avenue Victor Hugo. We quickly ordered a bottle of Champagne from the extensive list. We then began our meal with two orders of the house specialty — Assiette de la Mer, an assortment of fresh clams, oysters, shrimp, crawfish, lobster, and a few shellfish whose names we could only speculate about. For the main course I intended to stick to my plan and order the turbot. After learning that it was prepared for two, I persuaded my friend Peter that he needed to share this “best in the world” experience with me. He agreed. We finished four bottles of Champagne with the shellfish, and then moved on to white wine, choosing a single vineyard Meursault from one of my favorite Burgundian suppliers. My turbot soon arrived, and it was expertly fileted tableside by our server. By this time, he had enthusiastically befriended our entire group. I finished off the last morsel of my portion, and turned to Peter to see his reaction. “Well,” he said, “it may indeed have been the best piece of fish I’ve ever had.” I thought so too.
Then we noticed some uncharacteristic bustle in the dining room. People began to stand up next to their chairs and look towards the balcony. Our server had come back to the table to check on us, and someone asked him what was happening. “Ah,” he said, “today we are honored to have Chef Paul Bocuse dine with us.” At that, I glanced to the top of the curved stairway that led down from the balcony where I had eaten earlier in the year. An elderly, elegant looking man appeared at the top of the steps. He was dressed in a suit and tie. At the bottom of the stairwell, a receiving line was being formed by the entire kitchen staff of the restaurant. As M. Bocuse began to descend the stairway, a ripple of polite applause broke out among the restaurant patrons. Even our server stopped to applaud the great man. Some of the diners began to leave their tables to take a position at the end of the line. The group of four seated next to us stood up and walked over to the reception line. My friend Peter looked at me and said, “Let’s go meet him.”
We stood up and, continuing to clap, moved over to join the line. M. Bocuse meanwhile had reached the bottom of the staircase, and begun to enthusiastically shake hands, smile and make brief comments to the chefs — each of them immaculately done up in their kitchen whites, replete with elaborate toque. He continued to greet each person while gradually working his way to the end of the line. When he reached me, I extended my right hand and he grabbed it with both of his. He had a powerful grip. He looked at me and said simply, “Merci, Monsieur.” I’ve don’t think I’ve ever before been so touched; a tear filled my eye. Here was one of the most gifted chefs in the history of French Cuisine, a man who in one way or another was responsible for most for the great meals I’d enjoyed in my life, and he was thanking me. When he reached the door, a young man helped him into the limousine waiting outside the restaurant entrance, and the car drove off.
Peter and I returned to our table, still in a mild state of shock. One of my colleagues looked at me, smiled and said, “That’s not something you get to do every day.” No, it sure wasn’t. Our server, returning to work, wheeled over the cheese trolley. He opened the cover, then, pointing to a beautifully ripe, white-rind cheese, he said that the Pont l’Évêque was especially good that day. We all agreed, and I picked up the wine list to find a red wine. On the way back to the hotel, Peter and I shared a taxi. At one point he asked, “Don’t you wish you had brought a bottle of Neyers wine to give to M. Bocuse?” The thought had never entered my mind. Later, at dinner, I told Peter that if I ever went back to Restaurant Paul Bocuse, I would take a bottle of our Chardonnay ‘El Novillero Vineyard’ to him as a gift. Of course, he didn’t need to try a Chardonnay from California – or any other place for that matter. The list in his Lyon restaurant was loaded with some of the great White Burgundies of France. After all these years of tasting many of them, though, I’d like to think Tadeo’s work would have intrigued him, if only a little. But then it might have also led to yet another remarkable impromptu moment like the one in Paris.