Do you ever google people just for fun? I google The Sabbatical Chef sometimes just to see if anyone has linked it to another blog or made any comments. I also want to make sure no one else has taken my domain name in case I do ever get THE BOOK finished or sell my beautiful lavender notecards. The blog hasn't hit the top 25 list yet, unfortunately. Pioneer Woman I'm not. But the other night I was playing around with my iPad (the Ex-Ex was cruising from football game to random football game and I get bored with that real fast) and I decided to google Chef Érick. Érick Vedel. "My" chef. The chef who helped me become The Sabbatical Chef. I found a lot of sites I expected to find- links to my blog, links to his websites, articles and blog posts about him. Then I stumbled upon something that took me by surprise. Not the website itself. But the content. Experience Plus is a company that plans bike tours. And Érick does cooking classes that are arranged by companies such as this one. I helped with some of them when I was his assistant. That's not the surprise. The surprise came when I looked at the webpage and found an interview with Érick-- in English. After spending 8 months and 2 weeks with him I know that he doesn't speak much English. It took me a while to even figure out that he understands quite a bit more English than he lets on. But this interview makes it sound as if he speaks English quite well. I know that this is done all the time- interviews are translated, but it just seemed so strange to read. It is very well written and photographed. The interviewer certainly captured the essence of Érick and his work. I loved reading it and even wished that I had written it. It is from March 2011. (To read the article, click on the link.)
So, I started thinking about Érick and Arles. I know that I visited Arles in 1987 because I have a postcard that I sent home from that trip as proof. I know that I even spent a night in Arles, but I have no recollection of it. It was during a student trip, the first one I ever planned and led. One week touring Provence and one week in Nice. Ahhh. Pas mal, hein? In 2005, I submitted a proposal for summer grant money to travel to Arles. Two things drew me to this place- Vincent Van Gogh
and taking a cooking class to learn more about Provence cuisine. Oh, and the chance to practice my French and to escape for a vacation totally alone. I think there is a good chance I was running away from my life here. The Ex-Ex and I had separated the previous fall. I decided to follow in Vincent's footsteps. I signed up and off I went in July of 2005.
I translated for the group, learned a lot about cooking and eating, and found a place where I felt as if I belonged. A beautiful working class town that was once a major player in the Roman Empire. Why does anyone ever feel connected to a place? Can it be put into words? Not really. I think that Arles and that blue door is just what I needed.
I stayed in the yellow room.
It has a big beautiful bath tub that I used as a swimming pool that first summer. It was so hot and by the time we got back after a morning of visits all around the area and a picnic lunch, I needed cool water to restore me before hitting the kitchen at 5:00 pm for an evening of cooking. The best moment came when Érick brought out the wine and Napoléon III glasses!
Always a nicely chilled local white. (Yes, the photo is from a couple of summers down the line, but the ritual was the same!)
It was a life-changing week.
I came home and carried on and on about the week of cooking stages, the visits all around Provence, the amazing food and wine, etc etc etc. Arles Lucy talked me into offering a week for adults. The Arles 6 was born.
We picked up the guy in red, Professor Rich, in Arles. He had signed up for the cooking class, too, and we adopted him. We had Chef Érick all to ourselves for the week. That is when I first suspected that he understood English. We would talk about some place we wanted to visit and the next thing we knew, we were on the road again, headed for the famed lavender fields and another amazing picnic. Arles Lucy and I were roommates in the blue room. This room mysteriously smells like lavender all the time.
We found a mysterious likeness to Victor Hugo-Leonardo di Vinci (depending upon whether you ask her or me) in the shower. After I attempted to relay this story to Érick in French, he headed up the stairs (no elevator here) to check it out for himself.
Either he saw what we did or he faked it. He had painted the shower himself when he did the renovation. (I came back the next summer to find a painted frame around the likeness so he must have believed us...)
That summer I played translator again for the group. A role I absolutely loved. No one expected my French to be perfect. I sounded like an American, but for once I didn't feel insecure or judged. I felt even more connected to this town. Barbara was Érick's trusty assistant.
The next fall, I got an email from Chef Érick's wife asking me if I would consider coming to work for the summer of 2007. No pay involved, just room and board and a summer in Provence. It didn't take me long to say Oui. My boys were growing up and spending most of their time in summer camps and at their dad's house instead of my apartment. As summer approached, I decided to hand over the keys to the apartment to the BFF and make plans to be away for two months. In May, I received a postcard from Érick letting me know that he was looking forward to having me as his assistant for the summer. That made me less anxious. I hadn't been there long before I discovered that work was beginning on the 5th bedroom and that I would be the lunch cook. Seriously?? What on God's green earth was I going to make for the first lunch, all on my own, for this team of eaters?
I ended up buying roasted chickens and potatoes from the market (it was a Wednesday). I bought haricots verts and attempted to cook them properly. My green beans were hardly touched. I had not cooked them enough and they were too raw. I discovered later that the French are not big on eating raw vegetables. They should have been steamed and then cooked in olive oil. I have perfected that recipe now.
I became a member of the family. Érick's wife had bought a house near Avignon, on Ile de la Barthelasse, and she wasn't around very much. I lived in the "loft" bedroom on the family side of the house. Climbing the stairs to the very top of the house several times a day, as well as going up and down on the bed and breakfast side, kept me in great shape.
His two boys and their friends were around on weekends. It was fun to watch him with the children.
I am an early riser, so getting up in time to get breakfast on the table didn't bother me. I loved opening the window in the early morning, setting out the flower boxes, and watering them.
I took great pride in setting the table with Provençale handmade cups and plates.
Érick made his own apricot and strawberry jam. We made fresh crêpes every morning. I finally had to learn to do it on my own when Érick had to be at an early morning meeting at the bank and there were two adorable Scottish boys expecting crêpes for breakfast. Unfortunately for me, Érick's bank meeting didn't take very long and he was looking over my shoulder before I knew it. It all worked out, though, and I also perfected that recipe and now pass it on to my French students.
It was a lovely summer. I met Érick's very best friend, Richard, who lives near Le Vigan, and his wife and daughter.
The BFF and Mo came to visit halfway through the summer. I met them in Paris and then brought them down to Arles to show them "my" town and introduce them to my new world.
Here they are, thanking him for the viennoiseries, lovely little pastries he bought them for breakfast. He also taught the BFF to make tarte tatin, upside apple pie, a recipe she has perfected. He took us to Chateauneuf-du-Pape to taste wine. I love this photo-- note the Durham Bulls t-shirt!
Mo won the wine-tasting hands down. The girl has an amazing sense of taste and smell. I had a wonderful summer and learned more than I ever thought possible about what food should taste like, as well as kitchen vocabulary. I came closer than I ever imagined to feeling French. I had friends and I felt as if I belonged.
I more or less knew my way around a French kitchen that had once been a stable for lambs.
August came, though, and I returned home and to teaching. In 2007, I started taking my students to Arles during our March trip. I wanted them to meet Chef Érick, see the kitchen, and learn from him. And yes, I needed an Arles fix, too. The girls and I stayed in the B&B rooms and the boys and other chaperone stayed in a nearby hotel.
By this time, I had asked for the annual faculty sabbatical at my school. And I had been granted a semester away from my teaching duties. I was not enrolled in a formal, traditional graduate program, but for me, the chance to live in France for six months was better than anything I could ever have done. I decided to give up the lease on my apartment, pack up all my worldly belongings and store them in a friend's garage, leave my car for Son #2 who would be getting his license soon, and leave my French classes for a substitute. The Arles 6 reunited in southwest France, a new adventure for me.
Then to work. Clients from June until late October. Cooking classes most every night of the week. Lots of dishes, sheets, and towels to wash (no dishwasher or clothes dryer), bathrooms to clean, rooms to book, emails to answer. But I belonged. I turned 50 and my friends came to a surprise dinner Érick hosted for me.
He made a millefeuille cake for me.
I knew who to buy eggs and mussels from. I bought flowers from the guy who told me that I had a accent délicieux. I learned to accept that as a compliment. I met the BFF and Mo in Italy this time, halfway through my six month stint.
I met the most wonderful people who came through the cooking school and B&B.
Filou, the family dog, became my companion on early morning and late evening walks. A sure way to look as if you belong in France is to be on the other end of a leash.
I fell in love with goats. (And goat cheese!)
Érick charmed many clients. And signed copies of a cookbook that has many of his recipes.
In early November, I went north to spend time with my very good friend, Mme M, and the Ex-Ex accepted my invitation to join me in Paris. The Eiffel Tower turned blue.
I left in December, returned to my "normal" life, and knew that I had been a very lucky woman. I've now taken several student groups to cook with Chef Érick. The crêpes are always a big hit. He is always prepared for my Nutella-loving kiddies.
Think she enjoyed this?
Life moves on. I have now have an exchange program with a school in Villeneuve-lez-Avignon so we no longer spend time in Arles. No cooking classes with Chef Érick. He and his wife divorced. She and the boys are now in Michigan starting up a goat farm and fromagerie called Idyll Farms. My life in Durham is wonderful. My boys are thriving. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen. I have pan envy according to the BFF. I continue to dream about living there again.
This summer, I went back to Arles for a morning with my BFF group. The B&B has been sold to an Italian. (I met him. He's nice. I'm sad anyway.) He's named it La Porte Bleue. We had a lovely visit, though, around town and I revisited "my" kitchen. Érick still owns the kitchen and still gives cooking lessons. I am happy to see him back behind the lens of a camera, though, as in the top photo for this post. I think photography is probably his first love.
Merci, Chef Érick, mon cher ami.
Bon appétit! Some seafood risotto next time I am in town? S'il te plaît?
The BFF prefers your riz cantonais, of course. Nope, not a Provençale speciality, but she was really hungry that first night when we arrived in Arles in 2007.