The Country is Provinical

From Here You Can’t See Paris:
Seasons of a French Village and its Restaurant

Michal S. Sanders

fromhereNo less a personage than Honore´ de Balzac made the claim set forth in this post’s title, going on to dis the hinterlands when its inhabitants insist on aping the ways of the French metropole.

The residents of Les Arques, all 159 of them, are never going to be the objects of Balzac’s scorn. A remote town in Southwest France, Les Arques was at one time in danger of evaporating from the map like so many other rural towns–in France and, based on the US experience, probably elsewhere. It was saved by that typically French combination: the quest for beauty and the love of a good meal. Its residents happily accommodate those hankerings without giving up one ounce of their heritage.

This tale of rural salvation through metropolitan avocation is told in close-up and personal fashion by Michael S. Sanders, an American writer who decamped to Les Arques with his wife and 6-year old daughter for a year-long stay. His goal: “capture the life of a restaurant through the wax and wane of the seasons.” He had a few other requrements: the restaurant must be chef-owned, which is understandable, and it must be located in southwest France, which is less so.

Those limits brought Sanders to a hilltop town  in the department of the Lot. While I have never been to that part of France in some ways it’s best described as where it is not. Although the river Lot runs to Bordeaux, the department itself is too far east to be part of the oenophile orbit. Located on the western flank of the Massif Central, it’s far from the better know, Rhone valley. It’s neither Gascogny, although the heartier foodstuffs are the same, nor is it anywhere near Provence although the next-best thing, the Languedoc, also tips into the Massif Central. Summed up simply, Les Arques is in the middle of nowhere.

Ossip Zadkine

Ossip Zadkine
July 14, 1890 – November 25, 1967

Enter Ossip Zadkine, a Russian emigre who at one time enjoyed billing as  France’s greatest living sculptor. Billed by Sanders (or his editor) as the dead sculptor, Zadkine saved Les Arques simply by adopting it as his rural residence. Salvation did not come in his lifetime, of course, the artist cannot be disturbed in his work. But in death the locals recognized a potential source of funding when they saw one. Thus was hatched the idea of creating an artist in residence program that would bring working artists to the town and reinvigorate the local economy. Of course, the feeding and fueling of these artistic personalities required a restaurant.

Behold le Rec as the locals refer to La Récréation, a restaurant housed in the town’s former school building and named after every school kid’s favorite period: recess The restaurant is its own tale of municipal entrepreneurship. Americans may blanch at that seeming oxymoron but it’s a peculiarly American viewpoint that presumes entrepreneurial activity is limited to the private sector.  The restaurant saw a couple of failed starts including a period of communal operation. After those attempts failed  the mayor of Les Arques went on regional TV and offered a sweetheart deal to any chef willing to make the place work.

Which brings us to our hero: Jacques Ratier. Ratier is a chef’s chef which is my own terminology. It’s an all-purpose tool I use to distinguish between people dedicated to their craft and people in pursuit of other things: celebrity, money, influence. It works equally well for chefs, writers and even marketers.

ratierRatier is committed to his craft and ruminates philosophically on it. Why, he wonders, should he “bust his ass” for a summer crowd be believes would eat anything he puts in front of them at whatever price. “Because that’s what makes it a good restaurant,” he answers himself.

His ambivalence extends to what is supposed to be every French chef’s holy grail: a Michelin star. He knows what it would take to earn one. He knows what it would mean to his business. And he understands the costs. His life would be subsumed by that achievement and he likes his life. “La cuisine is how I earn a living. I love it absolutely. But after I live…”

He gives Sanders a battered copy of an old magazine that tells the story of the Michelin guide in which Ratier has underlined what I think is sage advice for anyone in any craft profession,  not just chefs: “Be yourself. Make what pleases your clients Above all, never cook with a guidebook in mind.” If it sounds like I went looking for life and career advice I assure you,  I didn’t; it just found me.

The book is arranged to follow the months of the year and is filled with anecdotes and portraits of the locals. I am often not a fan of what I call ‘the human zoo’ form of travel writing. Sanders, more than most, manages to temper the worst tendencies of that approach. It’s an enjoyable expenditure of your time and you’ll meet some real and enjoyable people. Take the trip.

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