A lesson I learned from my parents a long time ago is to always learn something from everyone you encounter in your life. This is exactly what happened the night I met a wonderful friend, Delphine, in Chicago. I always find myself meeting incredibly interesting people, with connections that result in life changing experiences. I guess it is a talent of mine. I was standing outside of a club one night, waiting to go inside, when I heard a beautiful french accent behind me. Hearing this accent got me very excited, since I was leaving for Europe in a few weeks. I turned around and decided why not spark a conversation. Who knows where it will lead. I asked her where she was from and when she said France, I told her I was going to be spending a few weeks in France very soon, before I head to Noma in Copenhagen to start my new job. Not thinking anything of it, I asked her if her family is still in France, and the answer was yes. It turns out that this woman, Delphine, is a novelist, who married a man from Chicago, and is currently living in the windy city. We exchanged contact information since I asked her if she would mind giving me some suggestions of places to visit while in France. After various emails back and forth, she surprised me with a message stating that she has a friend, Catherine, who lives in Bordeaux, that I can stay with if I would like, in return for working on the vineyard that she lives on. Yes, that is right, a vineyard in Bordeaux. I knew I had to make this happen! I then emailed Catherine, and she is just as wonderful of a person as Delphine is. We made arrangements that after I spent some time in San Sebastian, I would travel to Bordeaux and stay on the vineyard for four or five days, working, tasting wine, and learning as much as possible about the entire process, ranging from harvest, to fermentation, to bottling, to selling. It could not be a more perfect experience. There is no school out there that will present the students with the quality of knowledge and information I have been engulfed in the past few days. After my week in San Sebastian, it was time to go to the vineyard. Luckily, San Sebastian is relatively close to Bordeaux, about a two and half hour train ride. The journey started with a train from San Sebastian to a small city just over the border of France, by the name of Hendaye. It was mind blowing noticing the difference between the two cities, which are 15 minutes apart from one another. In just 15 minutes, everything changes from Spanish to French, which made things quite interesting. I do not speak a lick of French. Because of this, I could not figure out how to work the ticket machine to get my train ticket to Bordeaux, which led to me missing my train. The next train was not for another three hours. I was just about blowing steam from my nose and ears, like in the cartoons. After a long three hour date with a beautiful, sexy, espresso cup, with shots of extraordinary expresso being added one after the other, with the same level of quality throughout, it was time for the journey to Bordeaux.
My undesirable luck continued on the ride to Bordeaux. I was assigned a seat, on a very full ride, meaning there was no chance of changing. I turned out to be sitting next to a man with a scent of B.O. that I have never gotten the displeasure of experiencing. It was not the typical scent of B.O. that you would expect from a grungy looking lad; if that were the case, I would have thought things could definitely be worse. This was different. Unique. It was a cross between hard boiled eggs, fish heads, and a large fermenting bucket of old compost collected by a group of hippies. It was putrid. And I had no choice but to learn to like the smell. There was no alternative. I would not be able to just ignore the scent. It was that bad. I had to adapt and evolve, Darwin style, and train myself to enjoy the scent of this man, for three long stressful hours. Some may call this technique absurd, but it was the only way. Almost like having to accept the fact that you have to piss on yourself after getting bitten by a jellyfish. Its the only way for immediate relief. Life...it's a crazy thing.
The arrival of Bordeaux brought upon joy. I stood in the aisle for the last thirty minutes, giving my sense of smell a long needed break. My train to Medoc was in thirty minutes, and then I would finally arrive at the vineyard. I was greeted by Catherine at the small train station, last on the line, which was easy to determine after realizing I was the only one left on the train. We drove back to the house, which has a beautiful entrance, with a long windy driveway through the vast fields of vines, just finished being picked for harvest. I immediately knew as soon as I saw the property I was in for a very special educational adventure...yet again.
Standing outside the house was the wine master himself, Phillipe. At first I was very intimidated, since my education level on the subject of wine is not as good as it should be. I was not sure if he expected me to know how to do things or what, but I just went with it. After spending a week on the vineyard, I now consider Phillipe one of the more generous, warm, brilliant close friends I have. The amount of knowledge he has on wine and the entire process is truly remarkable. I immediately starting forming many questions that I have always wanted answers to, regarding wine from the region, the process, wine from other regions, and anything else he had to share to a knowledge seeking young chef. After talking for a good hour, it was time to go to sleep, after all, I had to wake up at 7:00 in the next morning for work. This was going to be the real deal.
The first morning consisted of a very strong coffee, followed by some grapes I found still on the vine from one of the areas that was not used for harvest. I believe they were the Merlot variety. Wonderful way to start the day, especially when you find fresh figs on the way back on a large tree in the backyard. I was falling in love more and more every minute with this place. I thought about putting a hunk of Parm in my back pocket as well as a small bottle of old balsamic, for all of the edibles I find growing along the way. Figs, pears, grapes, mmmmmmm.
I was given a long tour of the entire property, taking many pictures along the way. It was remarkable to see the size of everything, the enormous tanks, the wide pumps that are used, the heavy machinery, everything was on a large scale.
I had no idea if I was abut to drive a forklift or if I was going to be stomping on some grapes from a special grape variety. I was finally brought into the laboratory, where there were about ten glasses lined up, ready to taste. Everything had to be recorded, the PH level, the sugar content, the alcohol content, color, every detail you can think of. It was very cool being a part of this, and contributing my eager desire to learn, making things easier for the others working. There are plenty of books out there on how wine is made, but its not easy to come by an experience like this one. Every day of this entire journey I thought to myself how lucky I truly am to be in these situations.
With many questions being answered in regards to just about everything dealing with wine, I started to feel like I actually knew a very good amount on the subject. I was very happy with my progress in understanding how everything works, as well as how important such small fascist are when it comes to the overall quality of the final product. I have always loved drinking Bordeaux, but I have never fully understood what makes it so delicious.
Wine has been produced in Bordeaux since the 1st century A.D. Philippe made a point in repeating the fact that centuries of blending mastery combined with a unique terrain and climate give birth to wines of refinement and equilibrium. Everything has a balance. The grape varieties associated with Bordeaux wine are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. When he was talking about balance, he was trying to get me to understand that the distinctiveness, richness, and elegance of Bordeaux wines are the result of the subtle blending of these individual grape varieties, in proportions determined by each individual winemaker. The blending of different superior grape varieties ensures that each wine has a unique flavor and bouquet. I learned many great lessons from Philipe over the week spending time by his side. When asked what he thinks about his wine, he says it is good but not the best. There are plenty of vineyards who will say their wine is the best. Philipe thinks this is a horrible philosophy to have. If you have the best wine, then nothing can improve. There is always room for improvement according to Philipe. This is a mentality that I believe in very strongly. He believes there are always new subtle combinations of the grape varieties to potentially make a better tasting wine. This is the beauty of Bordeaux wines. It is a collaboration of what the noble grape varieties have to offer. Merlot gives color and the richness of alcohol, making the wine round. It has aromas of ripe plum, strawberries, red currant-violet, and truffle. Cabernet Sauvignon provides the tannic backbone or structure. It is very aromatic in young wines and aromas of blackcurrant, red berries, and licorice. Cabernet Sauvignon also allows the wine to gain great complexity with age. Cabernet Franc has aromas that are often complimented with aromas of vanilla, coffee, cocoa, and toast, which is given during the barrel aging process.
I had a lot of fun walking through the large rooms filled with barrels of different varieties and vintages. All waiting to be consumed, some in days, some in months, some in years.
Other than asking questions and getting an in depth week long lesson on wine and the process involved, I had the pleasure of doing some good old labor. I was responsible for moving about 10,000 bottles of wine from one cellar to the next, the very first day. This included driving a forklift to pick the palates up, place them on an enormous truck, drive to the other cellar, take the palates off the truck with a manual lift, then finally park the palates in place, very carefully with an electronic forklift. It was very hard work to say the least. I was first given the job of waiting on the truck with the manual lift, where I would have to place the machine under the palate, crank the lever upwards, the same as lifting a car up with a jack when changing a tire. I then had to push this palate with 600 bottles of wine, into the correct place on the truck. It may sound easy since I am pushing something with wheels, but let me tell you it was nothing close to being easy. Half of the truck runs downhill so if you are standing in the wrong position, the palate can roll towards the wall, leaving no alternative but to pin you to the wall. Just about impossible to get out without the help from another person. Yes, this happened to me. Twice. Both times brought upon a great deal of laughter from Philipe. He quickly jumped out of the electric forklift, climbed into the back of the truck, and released me from the squished position against the wall. Ouch. After about six palates, I started to get the hang of things. Moving the 600 bottles at a time was getting easier. Before I knew it, four blisters later, it was time to drive the truckload to the other cellar.
Once at the other cellar, it was the same process to get the palates off the truck. Only this time, I had to push the palates once on the manual lift slightly uphill which made things very difficult. I was only able to manage half of the palates alone, and Philipe had to help me with the rest. The fact that he made it look beyond easy every time he took control did not help with my self esteem. Once the truck was unloaded, we had to go back to the main cellar, and fill the truck up, TWO MORE TIMES. I was very excited for a glass of wine after this hard days work. I was truly getting the full circle experience.
It is very important to always keep in mind where the food you are about to eat came from. The story of the animal, the journey it took from its home to the market. The dreadful day the bullet entered its body, ending whatever life it had. Even though I have been cooking in restaurants for many years, and food is my largest passion in life, I have never been hunting. The closest I have been is tearing the claws off lobsters that are still alive, trying anything possible to escape the madness they are about to endure. I guess I have some experience killing innocent animals if you count the times my brothers and I would dig for large earth worms after a long afternoon rain shower, tie them around M-80 fireworks, and watch them blow into many pieces. Very sick, very sad, but there are worse things I could have been doing while growing up with two older brothers. Everyone goes through a weird stage, don't they? I began to think about the entire situation in a new light. Thus far in my professional career as a chef, I have acted like the head boss in a Mafia crew, ordering up death over the phone, or with a nod or a glance. When I would need meat at a restaurant, I would make a call, or I would nod to fish monger the exact fish I want him to take out of the water. Every time I have picked up the phone or ticked off an item on an order sheet, I have basically caused a living thing to die. When the food arrives at the restaurant, however, it is not the bleeding, still-warm body of my victim, eyes open, giving me a very dirty and angry look. I don't see that part when working in a kitchen. I had never in my life gotten the opportunity, until arriving at the vineyard in Bordeaux, to go hunting.
When I was asked if I wanted to take part in a morning rabbit hunting adventure, I did not think twice, I had to shoot a gun. I woke up around 7:00 in the morning, had my strong cup of coffee, and I started to search for the much needed focus that would be needed to shoot a small fast jumping rabbit, with a large shotgun. Since I have never shot a gun before, I thought it would be a good idea to shoot it a few times before we went off on the hunt. A target was set up, and my cherry was popped. The kickback took me off guard, I was not expecting it to be that strong. After my third shot, I was having a blast experiencing the feeling of shooting a powerful weapon. It was invigorating, in a weird way.
Philipe, his head cellar manager, and my myself took off into the vast vineyard. We had the pleasure of being able to hunt in the actual vineyard, now that harvest was over. It was a beautiful sight. Philipe started out with the gun, but had no success in finding a single hare. I was next, walking slowly along the vineyard path, Philipe suddenly motioned to me that there was a large hare to the left. I quietly, yet quickly, squatted down to take aim without being discovered. The shotgun that I was using was shooting cartridges that would release about 25 metal pellets in various directions once shot. After learning this, I thought my chances of shooting one were much higher. I waited a strong ten seconds before I decided it was time. I pulled the trigger, thinking I had missed. Philipe jumped up and down in excitement when he saw that I had hit the hare, killing it. In a matter of seconds, a live animal turns into dinner. It was a very exciting feeling, with a layer of sadness somewhere in the picture.
Thinking about the fact that I would have to butcher this animal, and then cook it for 10 people distracted my mind from the sadness of killing the actual thing. I had to figure out how I would transform this dead hare into a delicious dinner for some of the best wine makers in all of Bordeaux. This dinner would be for the big timers. These people have chefs cook for them almost every night of the week. Most have a permeant chef, cooking food specifically tailored to their taste. These were the type of people that go to the best restaurants in the world for free, simply because they produce some of the best wine in the world. Here I am, with a shotgun in hand, preparing myself to cook them all a wonderful dinner, without the ability to go to Whole Foods, or Sunset in Highland Park. I had a dead rabbit, a small food market in town, and a beautiful herb garden to work with. This would be one hell of a top chef challenge!
A very famous dish in the area is a Civet, which is more or less a rabbit stew. I have seen many french chefs do their own renditions of this dish. The last thing I wanted to do was try to create a famous French dish for a bunch of hardcore French people. I wanted to have similar flavor profiles but I wanted it to be my own. I wanted them to eat a meal they have never experienced.
Before I could begin to think of my own Civet rendition, I had to tackle to feat of gutting and skinning this hare, as well as dismembering the head. With the help of Philipe, the gutting took place, followed by some burning of the fur. The skin was then peeled off like a tube sock coming off a leg and foot at the end of a long day of walking. It was a beautiful sight. I carried the hare in one hand, and the shotgun in the other, back to the house where I would begin preparation for the big dinner.
Something that I could not stop thinking about was the caliber of wine that I would soon be consuming. These dinners are always paired with some of the very best bottles in the world. It only makes sense for big time wine makers to save the very best for themselves, and when would a better time be to enjoy the delicious varieties than at a table with a collection of the very best producers of the region. I felt like I was in a dream at various moments, especially when I would think back to Philipe's main private cellars, with bottles from the 1950's, 60's, 70's, 80's, and 90's. He instructed me to go down when I was ready and to choose any four bottles I wanted. I did not know where to begin.