If you'd told me in high school that the acne-ridden cooking apprentices with whom I took the bus every day would become the alpha males of my Parisian nightlife ten years later, I would most likely have burst out laughing. Firstly, because my personal interest in food—already negligible at the time—saw few miraculous developments during my four years of higher education, throughout which I survived exclusively on Cheetos, first-rate tarama, and Bolinos.
And secondly, because ten years back, the figure of the French chef—as broadcast by popular culture—was either Maïté, Jean-Pierre Coffe, or Joël Robuchon of French TV show Bon Appétit Bien Sûr. Its promise: the kind of cooking that was all sauces and butchery, as heavy-handed as the dirty jokes its heirs regaled in every morning on our school bus.
It's hard to explain how, in the hearts of girls, chefs finally took the spotlight away from the archetypal broke DJ or the sales guys at Colette. Is it because of Anthony Bourdain's badass TV shows? Is it a direct consequence of the food porn trend? Of the opening of Septime? Of Pierre Sang's performance in Top Chef? Do chefs owe their burgeoning sex appeal to Darwin, or to the anonymous genius behind Fais-moi une piperade, that avant-garde ode to good eats and pleasures of the flesh?
As I pen these words, the fantasy of the cheerful, sophisticated, creative, eco-conscious chef is only gaining traction, and has generated an impressive number of kitchen groupies. Sophie Marceau has succumbed to the sexy accent of a French TV chef. Grace Coddington is taking fan photos with David Chang. And R. Kelly is singing the joys of a 69 on induction cooktops and other nude feasts in the legendary In the Kitchen.
Very quickly, I got sucked into some kind of Rabelaisian tornado, inside of which swirled magnum bottles of grand cru wines, luxury deli meats, and nonstop dick jokes.
And then there's me, who, for six months, became infatuated with a guy who made Italian sandwiches so tasty that I might have killed for them. I went to his shop every day at lunch, watching him slice that prosciutto like it was live porn.
It was around this time, on a freezing February night, that the gastronomy gods had my chef and me cross paths outside some seedy bar. "You wanna see something funny?" he shot at me, by way of introduction. Soon he was pulling back the sleeves of his sweater, revealing the forearms of a Viking, as well as a majestic tattoo of his homeland's coat of arms. I immediately recognized the emblem—we were from the same region. A gin-and-tonic, two Ricards ,and five or so mystery shots later, I'd learned that he'd worked in some of the city's most reputable kitchens, that he'd never watched Game of Thrones (despite his striking resemblance to one of the show's manliest heroes), and most importantly, that he wanted to see me again.
This is how I eventually found myself, mid-rugby match, in the middle of a multi-generational mob of guys with flushed cheeks, southern accents, and a preference for calling me "the chick" rather than bothering to remember my name. Very quickly, I got sucked into some kind of Rabelaisian tornado, inside of which swirled magnum bottles of grand cru wines, luxury deli meats, and nonstop dick jokes. Cooking show judges, prize-winning chefs, their most promising prodigies ... I had, before my eyes, the darlings of French cuisine getting trashed, drinking beer out of motorcycle helmets, and attempting Jackass-inspired hijinks that only seem like a good idea when you've got eight grams of alcohol in your blood. I was stunned: No less than 500 miles away from my native Pays Basque, I had somehow managed to step foot inside a space-time vortex and land inside the never-ending hell of the Fêtes de Bayonne.
For four months, my evenings were essentially recreations of La Grande Bouffe, death wish included—only the whores were missing. They went something like: drink, eat, drink again, zigzag dangerously toward another spot, order everything on the tapas menu at a classy bar, gobble it up in eight minutes, go shake hands in the kitchen of another establishment, eat some more, walk out with shaved eyebrows, order another magnum, climb on top of the bar at a gastronomic bistro ,and pound on your chest. We'd show up without warning at an overbooked restaurant, get seated at the best table, and not even look at the menu. The chef greeted my new friends by whipping them with a kitchen towel, then sent over dozens of exquisitely refined plates that weren't even featured on the menu.
It's sad to say, but in the end, my chef and I never quite managed to exchange more than four sentences in a row. I quickly realized that food was his primary means of expression.
Unfortunately, this orgy of flavors was carried out within a complete intellectual vacuum. The conversations, though sometimes glazed with political considerations reeking of Front National ideology (think: "We'll see who's laughing in 2017!"), centered only on the world of food. In four months of dating, I was privy to all the juicy gossip, including the story about a certain oil magnate who reserved two floors of a Parisian palace, and hired a personal chef to work in the kitchen throughout his stay. Paranoid to the bone, legend has it that he only used products imported from the UAE—which consisted mostly of Panzani jars of Bolognese sauce, with the labels in Arabic. One time, a client asked that the kitchen stay open until he returned. Since he never came back, the magnate gave the employees who stayed up all night a tip equivalent to an entire month's worth of work.
Invariably, we'd always end up at their favorite "three floors—three DJs" club, where the raucous gang belted out Les Lacs du Connemara and knocked back Jägerbombs until they passed out.
It's sad to say, but in the end, my chef and I never quite managed to exchange more than four sentences in a row. I quickly realized that food was his primary means of expression. Grating a tennis ball-sized truffle on top of my eggs, feeding me foie gras till I dropped—that was his way of saying he liked me. Our relationship was a well-rehearsed bacchanal, which he canceled on whenever he was too hung over.
The night I saw him stagger into the middle of the street and smash his motorcycle helmet into the windshield of the car that had just honked at him, I decided it was time to go home. Reality had just caught up with my fantasies—the reality of an alienating universe, where the chief guardians of gastronomic excellence toil away inside prize-winning kitchens, 12 hours per day and six days per week, and with that, sacrifice their liver and their good manners in order to send out plates whose subtle flavors contrast sharply with the baseness of their condition.
And I can't thank them enough for that.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES France in February 2016.