No Chef Is An Island
Sometimes the thing you most look forward to turns out to be the biggest disappointment. As I explained here, our ultimate destination on this trip was the Ile d’Oléron, and the restaurant called Le Grand Large, which is housed in a hotel of the same name.
It’s a very beautiful hotel, and we were given a lovely room
with a view out across the restaurant to the Atlantic.
An enticing path led from the hotel down to the beautiful beach,
and we didn’t hesitate to get right in the mood.
The sand was soft and golden,
and despite an amount of litter that was shocking to our Pacific Northwest sensibilities
the place was breathtakingly lovely. I remember now that I said to Shel “I’m so happy!”
Reluctantly we tore ourselves away from the beach to go in and dress up for dinner. We’d seen the gorgeous food on TV, the chef had said he’d cook in accordance with my dietary restrictions, and I was vibrating with anticipation. An hour later I was vibrating with fury, and I still haven’t entirely recovered.
I’d sent the chef, David Boyer, an excruciatingly detailed list of what I can and cannot eat, what any American restaurant would recognize as a strict low carb diet. They’d said he’d be glad accommodate me. So why was the amuse bouche based on carrots, after I’d said no carrots? Why was my first course a tartare of fish and green apples, after I’d said no fruit? And why was my main course fish on a bed of quinoa, after I’d said no starch? In an hour-long argument with the hotel manager, because the chef himself could not be bothered to apologize, I learned that a) he had apparently forgotten, and b) he was very tired, both physically and mentally, as it was the end of the season and they’d be closing in just six days, and c) they had a document that said diabetics can eat all those things, so my list of what I do and do not eat was not relevant. It was the most infuriating thing I’ve experienced since I became diabetic, and there was nothing to be done about it. We’d traveled 900 kilometres to eat at that restaurant because they’d said they would be glad to have me, and they’d totally blown it off.
In America I’m pretty sure that the chef would have come to the table, said something along the lines of “I am so terribly sorry, there was some miscommunication, let me make it up to you by giving you a fabulous dinner tomorrow” and although I would have been disappointed, he would have made it right. In this case, not only did none of that happen, but they still charged me 50 Euros for the dinner (about $70) and suggested that we eat in some other restaurant the following night.
So no, I do not suggest that you trek to the Ile d’Oléron to worship at the shrine of a chef that can’t be bothered. Instead, if you find yourself there, eat at Le Saint Pierre, as we did the second night, where you can really enjoy yourself, be treated like an honored guest, and eat whatever you like.
Or go to almost any good seafood place and eat mouclade, the local preparation of mussels in a cream sauce with just a touch of curry. It’s utterly delicious.
If you go, as we did, back to the continent from the island, you can go to Marennes, famous for its oysters and its low tides. Boats there are made specially to be beached, but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the sight
What we did in Marennes, and I definitely recommend that you do too if you get the chance, was to visit La Cité de l’Huitre, Oyster City. It’s kind of an oyster theme park, but the very best kind, full of opportunities to learn all about the life cycle of the oyster, and the history and techniques of local oyster cultivation.
We were able to have a guided visit with Yann, an ostreiculteur whose grandfather and father were also oyster farmers. Once again there were tons of kids on the visit, and Yann did a great job of getting them involved in his demonstrations. The French are really big on taking their kids to learn about all kinds of artisanal activities and food production, and we’re always struck by how seriously the kids take it, and how generally well-behaved they are. The visit ended cleverly, with a lesson on how to safely open oysters, and a tasting. The catch? Each adult got an oyster knife and two oysters; if you could open them you got to eat them. Luckily, Shel could open them but wouldn’t eat an oyster if his life depended on it, so I got to eat them all. Kind of like the visit to Cognac where he did the driving and I did the drinking. Not that I’m complaining!
That night we crossed back over the 3 kilometre long bridge to the Ile d’Oléron for a bittersweet end to our stay. I don’t think I’ve ever been so psyched about doing something, only to have it end so badly. We did manage to have an excellent time in spite of it all, but it was tough. Next time you’re in France, try to go somewhere where they’ll care about you. That would be almost anywhere but Le Grand Large.