6 months into my relationship with Catherine (now my wife), I found myself on a plane from Heathrow to Clermont-Ferrand to meet the in-laws for the first time. Catherine and I met at the Counnaught hotel in London where I worked in the kitchen and she in reception. The trip didn’t get off to a good start as we arrived and my suitcase didn’t. Michel, Catherine’s father, was less than thrilled of having a little shit like me staying in his household for the next week, especially being English.
A few days passed with no luck in striking up a conversation with Michel, it was as if I didn’t even exist. Ok, so there is a language barrier, but what was his problem!? He seemed sure pissed about having a foreigner in his house.
I came to the conclusion that the only way I was going to get any sort of reaction was if I cooked for her parents. I left for the market that morning to compile a menu, hoping that things would change. I had to get it right!
The mood changed as course by course was served. Michel was probably thinking: how the fuck can an Englishman cook like this? Or at least I was hoping. Shortly I was summoned to the dinning room. It was time for cheese as the wine was poured and we were asked to be seated. Things were certainly different now, Michel was gleaming as I had found his heart through his stomach. Finally I had his attention as he smiled friendly at me bearing a gold crown which sparkled from the reflection of the flames from the fire place.
He rambled at me in French, as I helplessly turned to Catherine for translation. “He says tomorrow, he is going to cook for you” as her face lit up with a big smile.
As promised, Michel would cook lunch and everything had been arranged over breakfast as I caught up on the conversation over coffee. The ladies shortly disappeared to the village for more food, as I was left alone for the first time with Michel.
He summoned me to the dinning room where he opened the fireplace doors to find that the fire had already been prepped ready to go. Alongside, was a grill attached to a pivot that was able to swing in and out of the fireplace. Neat! I think I got it as Michel continued to explain himself in French. Then I heard the words: Côte de Boeuf.
The ladies shortly returned from the village and Michel was handed a package carefully wrapped in wax paper. He proudly unveiled the most beautiful piece of French Charolais Beef that I have ever seen. Well marbled, with one thick bone, weighing in well over 2 pounds. He returned to the fireplace, meticulously selecting each log in order to prepare for the perfect braise. “The embers would cook the Côte to perfection” he said.
The prolonged aperitif was served as Michel kept one eye on his fireplace and one on his glass. After some time, he abruptly announced it was time to cook his prize. The beautiful piece of meat was placed over the golden embers and left to cook.
We sat at the dinning room table as the Côte was served and the wine was poured. I felt as if my glass never seemed to be empty! He had nailed it to perfection as I nervously witnessed the first slice being cut after it had been well rested. I had never tasted anything like it!
The Côte was followed by salad, cheese and fruit, and my wine glass kept being topped up. My head started to spin and apparently my French had now improved. All of a sudden I felt a sudden rush of heat and felt slightly disoriented.
The next thing I knew was that I had fallen off my chair and passed out on the floor with a big smile on my face. I could hear the chuckles of laughter in the distance as I lay there in a deep trance.
I had finally been accepted.
To this day, the Côte de boeuf remains a tradition in our family as new friends are told this story over every time we make it. I still feel that same pressure to get it right as the first slice is carved. And when it’s perfect, there is silence.
Food Story - Chef Nigel Didcock