Behind a little green eye shadow and beneath her thick, auburn bangs, I spot a pair of piercing eyes. They belong to Béatrice, the pretty 61 year-old retiree who landed on my doorstep less than two hours ago with her cooking utensils in a small suitcase like a chef. She quietly set up shop in my kitchen while readjusting her glasses and began preparing a homemade chocolate fondant. Something in the oven is already smelling great and that's a good thing, because she's the one making us dinner tonight: I'm the first client of Lou Papé, a site that sends retirees who are passionate about food straight into your home, bringing grandma's cooking into the average kitchen.
On the dinner menu for four, which will cost us around 100 euros, we're far from the traditional, heavy dishes doused in sauce—think large veal stew—that are usually featured in my nana's Sunday lunches.
Tonight, things will be more refined and a little lighter: "I love cooking things that I make often—like chocolate, which one of my daughters is crazy about—and especially fish." And so we are getting an amuse-bouche of gruyère cheese gougères, an appetizer of green asparagus velouté soup, cod with fresh tomatoes for the main course, and chocolate fondant with strawberry tartare I've been salivating over since her arrival for dessert.
While she sifts flour over a work surface in my small kitchen I ask her questions about her journey. I'm wondering how she made the leap, and which steps eventually led her to my front door. She explains that she took a buyout three years ago after the tech company she worked for was acquired by another firm and went into pre-retirement with a small sum that she immediately put towards her passion for cooking. She attended a six-week training course in culinary development at the prestigious Bocuse Institute in Lyon, which was taught at a pace designed for full-time students. "You learn techniques rather than recipes, and I was the oldest. The youngest student was 23," she says. Her culinary project was already well defined. She immediately proceeded to launch a food blog, one "more lively than the site I had had for eight years" she explains (yes, some grandmothers do know how to use the internet), where she shares recipes, tips, tricks, and good places to eat. Her latest concerns are the photos: "I see blogs with gorgeous photos and the dishes look delicious. I would love to do the same but I only have a little Lumix camera. I need to learn!"
Towards the end of 2013, she signed up for Seniors at Your Service (a platform that matches individuals with retirees who need small gigs to make ends meet) where she offered her culinary services for the first time: "I was already giving lessons to my friends, to my daughters, and their boyfriends, and I found it interesting to share my interests and desire to cook with people who never make food." This is when she got spotted by Lou Papé. Béatrice remembers what made all the difference: "Alizée, the founder of Lou Papé, was looking for seniors with specific expertise. For me, that's fish. People often like fish but don't know which to pick or how to cook it; it's a product that scares them a little."
As far back as she can remember, Béatrice has always loved to cook, but she didn't inherit this passion from her own grandmothers. "When we were little we lived in Tunisia, so all we ate was zucchini, tomatoes, peppers... So when we went back to Auvergne to see my grandparents, it was a bit of a purge: cooked carrots, green beans…"
Naturally, the pension supplement supplied by Lou Papé allows her to "better enjoy the holidays," but Béatrice seems sincere when she asserts that her primary motivation stems from a deep-rooted need to share her hobby. She cannot help herself. Throughout our discussion—and this is perhaps because she can tell that I'm interested—she pauses at regular intervals to comment on what she's doing and to give me tips. "Do you know how to make a sauce vierge? No? I'll show you; it's easy! And the fish, you need to put it between two paper towels to absorb the moisture—I learned that in a Japanese restaurant," she tells me as she handles the pearly fillets of cod. I feel like I have second mom (one, of course, that addresses me with a certain level of formality). When I ask her if it ever feels weird to cook at someone else's house, she continues to bring up the pedagogical aspect: "No, that's what I like, passing on knowledge and giving lots of advice." On Lou Papé, though, people pay for domestic chefs, not lessons. What happens if her next clients leave her alone in the kitchen while they have pre-dinner drinks with their guests? "It's true that my philosophy is more about setting up a workshop for the client, rather than just making food for people. It would be a shame not to share this moment," she likes to tell herself.
While Béatrice prepares the strawberry tartare (with lemon zest and mint), she voices some concerns about today's youth. According to her, they are becoming less and less interested in cooking. In response, I bring up TV shows like Top Chef, the astronomical number of food blogs out there, the food porn phenomenon on Instagram and the fact that our infatuation with food is alive and well, at every level of society. "But it's anything and everything—dishes with flowers in them, mini-portions...It's not always easy to replicate that at home. Cooking is part of our heritage; it would be a shame if it's lost," she counters without backing down. So that I can learn by doing, she takes my hand and shows me how to fashion gougères with two soup spoons instead of a piping bag. She gives her secret to success: never open the oven while they're rising, not even to check their color. "I don't just want to teach young people. One day I gave a lesson to a forty-something woman who knew absolutely nothing about cooking. For dinner, she'd put a sausage inside a piece of baguette and her kids ate that in front of the TV with a yogurt for dessert. As a result, they often went to eat at friends' houses."
At 8:30 PM, it's dinnertime. I pour a glass of red for Béatrice, who just brought over the gougères and she quietly slips back into the kitchen. Since we don't have an open kitchen, I wonder if she's a bit bored—that would certainly make for a more convivial atmosphere, though it's probably for the best considering the dirty jokes that slip into our conversation from time to time. I kind of feel like I'm leaving my mom in the kitchen while my friends and I go off to stuff our faces. The dishes are simple, tasty, and no-frills, which is typically what I like to cook. One of my dinner companions wishes there was more done to the cod (it's perfectly cooked) with tomatoes and zucchini tagliatelle, which he finds a bit bland, despite having reveled in the asparagus velouté soup just moments before. "Let's just say that for 35 euros a head, I was expecting a little something extra," he whispers to me. But the contract is fulfilled: It's good grub, it's fresh, and the portions are generous.
At 10 PM, Béatrice motions to me discreetly from the hallway. The dishes are done, the kitchen is spotless, and the fondant is laid out, ready to serve whenever we're ready in between two last glasses of wine. She hands over all her recipes in a transparent folder, which I put away carefully alongside my mother's. I even have leftovers in the fridge. Béatrice, I shall think of you when I follow your advice this winter and use frozen zucchini to bind my soups instead of potatoes. You were a Number One Grandma for a night. And if you're reading this, my thanks to you.