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What’s on your Bucket List?

Our French Laundry Adventure

On Sunday June 13, my husband Cecil and I found ourselves on a narrow street in the Yountville California home of The French Laundry. We were searching for a “handicapped” parking area. You see, we’re both octogenarians and not as spry as we were a couple years ago. We were, in fact, celebrating my 82nd year upon this planet. 

Being the masculine man that he is, Cecil pulled into the two-car parking lot in the rear of the restaurant.  I could see that both places were occupied by a BMW and another vehicle, and instinctively knew that these were exclusive VIP parking places—most probably belonging to the owner.

“You can’t park here Cecil,” I cautioned, “there are only two places, and neither is marked handicapped.”

“Nonsense,” came his reply as he continued into the driveway, essentially blocking the two vehicles from exiting the small lot. “I’ll just park next to this hedge. They’ll have room to get out.”

“This isn’t even the entrance,” I said. 

“Well, we can get there from here,” he replied.

“I’m not getting out here. You’re not leaving enough space for those two cars to get out.  I saw a couple of places across the street where we can park.”

“But that’s too far,” said my beloved, while backing his car into the street. He never lets me drive his “Mighty Honda Element,” as he thinks I’ll do something to harm it—such as drive at the posted speed limit instead of his accustomed ten or more degrees below it. 

We drove to the end of the street, U-turned and parked across the street as I’d suggested.  Exiting the car, Cecil noticed a group of four walking toward the main  entrance around the corner.

“Let’s hurry,” he said, “or they’ll get a better table than us!”

I was already ahead of him crossing the street toward the rear entrance. A neatly suited, well-groomed young woman walking nearby paused, asking if she could help us.

“Yes,” I replied, “we have reservations and wonder if we can enter the restaurant from here. We’re a bit early as our reservations were for 4:15, and it’s 3:45 now.”

“No worries, this is the entrance to the kitchen, but I can lead you into the restaurant from here. Besides, It’s hot out here.”

She led us past several outdoor tables, eloquently decorated with tablecloths and place settings with the signature French Laundry napkins—each captured by a wooden clothespin—at the ready. 

A dark-suited young man greeted us at the door and, after introductions, the two immediately escorted us to our table. The woman pulled the chair out from the table inviting me to sit.  She then instructed me to pull out a small shelf, conveniently built into the chair, on which to place my purse. 

Awaiting the champagne

To my left on an extended windowsill, sat a lovely bouquet of fresh flowers, dominated by calla lilies. On the adjacent wall,  a lamp accentuating the lighted candle on the table added yet another bit of verve to this romantic setting. As we were being seated, the empty room began filling up with other patrons, including the group we’d observed outside. Menus were then provided. 

Not to be ignored, jazz music drifted softly from discreetly placed speakers, and Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Doris Day interjected familiar lyrics to old favorites between instrumental standards by the likes of Myles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Coltrane.  But where was my uncle Charles Mingus?  Just a thought here. 

It was fascinating to watch the slender, agile, young and articulate wait staff perform their duties. All were dressed in form fitting dark suits. The women wore pants suits, their hair pulled severely back into buns. A stairwell leading to an upstairs dining area and restrooms provided yet another bit of fascination: the staff seemingly orchestrated by an invisible choreographer, climbed the stairs in unison—usually a quartet—each bearing a different item for the upstairs guests.  

Our eight-course meal began with flawless precision and elegant presentation. Just after selecting our courses, we ordered two glasses of champagne and followed the server’s recommendation of Gonet-Medeville, “Tradition,” 1 ER Cru Brut. The bubbly was so good that Cecil ordered a second glass, which mandated that I—not to be outdone—do the same.

The first course, “Oysters and Pearls” was “Sabayan” a sauce of egg yolks, wine, and savory seasonings with Island Creek Oysters and Regiis Ova Caviar was quickly devoured by Cecil. Not a fan of oysters or caviar, I surrendered my serving of the tiny creatures to my companion who found them “absolutely delicious.”

Course number two, Brandywine Tomato Soup, was a chilled dish seasoned with Nicosia Olives, Garden Cutting Celery and Armando Manni’s Olive Oil.  Exquisite and not sharable! The soup was accompanied by Bread and Butter, a Parker House Roll and Diane St. Clair’s Animal Farm Butter.

Dungeness crab “En Gelee” comprised of Sweet Potato Puree, English Peas, Garden Turnips and Tomato Water Gelee was the third course. This was followed by Applewood Smoked Japanese Mackerel,  Bantam Hen Egg “Terrine,” La Ratte Potato Puree, Sunflower Sprouts and Cucumber “Vierge”. Both courses conveyed outstanding artistic chef skills in presentation and flavor. 

About this time a tall, slender man appeared and began visiting each table. Clad in white with a floor length apron, he cut quite a handsome figure. He slowly made his way around the room, chatting with guests. Impressed by the three stars imprinted near the hem of his apron, I took advantage of a rare photo op when he stopped at the adjacent table. When he stopped at our table, I chirped:

“Compliments to the chef! The food is excellent!”

“Thank you, I’m Thomas Keller.”

“You’re the Thomas Keller,” came my genuinely surprised response.

“Yes,” he replied. Cecil then took up the conversation revealing that he’d dined there many years ago when the restaurant belonged to the previous owners. Keller said he’d taken over the place in 1994, and confirmed Cecil’s observation that because he’d added a new kitchen the place was now larger than when owned by his predecessors.  

Thomas Keller in his Michelin three star apron

The fifth course followed our encounter with Chef Keller. Devil’s Gulch Rabbit “Mortadella” Crispy Chickpea “Panisse,” Marinated Garden Squash, Zucchini “Pistou” and Spanish Caper “Gastrique” did not appeal to either of our palates.  So we both chose the option which was Black Truffle and Ricotta “Agnolotti” Cheese Rind “Consomme” and Shaved Australian Black Winter TrufflesWhat Cecil did not seem to realize was that the “option” would add to the cost of an already costly meal.  He later stated that I was worth the extra and it was, after all, my birthday and a “bucket list” occasion. In retrospect, the truffle removed from the box of truffles displayed by our server and skillfully shaved into the consommé by him was well worth the price. 

“Chateaubriand” Of March Farms Veal Cornbread “Pain Perdu,” Brentwood Corn Salad, Wilted Arrowleaf Spinach and “Beurre Colbert” was my main course

choice, while Cecil elected the option of “Charcoal Grilled Japanese Wagyu  Caramelized Savoy cabbage, Nantes Carrots and Preserved Cabbage “bouillon”.  He was fully aware of the extra cost for the option here. 

Chateaubriand of March Farms Veal

Course number seven, “Gougere” Andante Dairy “Etude” and Australian Black Winter Truffle “Fondue” was “a musical medley,” informed our server. 

The edible concert was followed by a stunningly beautiful birthday tribute.  A large sparkling candle next to a cake on an oblong plate was brought to our table. The candle was reminiscent of those sparklers my mother used to give us kids on the Fourth of July.  Regrettably, I was so surprised by this occurrence that I failed to capture it on camera.

“It’s not often that celebrants enjoy our cuisine on their actual birthdays or anniversaries,” said our server. The presentation dazzled the guests at nearby tables. 

The meal ended with an Assortment of Desserts, consisting of Fruit, Ice Cream, Chocolate and Candies.

But my special day did not end with dessert.  Affirming our desire to visit the kitchen, we were escorted into a huge kitchen dominated by stainless steel.  Our attentions were captured by what seemed a multitude of chefs providing yet another visual feast. Masked and totally engrossed in preparing their specialties, they seemed unaware of our presence.

On leaving the restaurant through its front entrance, I was again surprised to see several people seated at the outside tables enjoying the ambience of the French Laundry from a different perspective.  

Yes, I highly recommend The French Laundry for that singular once-in-a-lifetime adventure. So what if I forfeited an opportunity to fly to Paris?  I’d already been there twice. The authentic French cuisine, unique ambiance and impeccable service  provided at this iconic restaurant was worth it!

Kudos to Thomas Keller and his three-star Michelin restaurant. Thank you for an evening of elegance and enchantment.

With sincere gratitude,

Alicia Hugg Cutting

In the kitchen, chefs and suited server engrossed in their roles;

Alicia & Cecil simply intrigued 

…and the icing on the cake…

My birthday menu autographed by Himself!

Note from Fine Dining Lovers website:

The Michelin stars rating systems is not based on customer reviews, but on undercover food experts or inspectors that assign to restaurants one star if it is ‘high quality quality cooking’, two star when it’s excellent cooking ‘worth a detour and three star when the restaurant demonstrates exceptional cuisine that is worth ‘a special journey.’

There are 14, 3-star restaurants in the U.S in 2020. Seven in California, five in New York State, one in Illinois and one in Washington D.C. 

Thomas Kelleris the only chef on the list to have two restaurants with three stars, The French Laundry in California and Per Se in New York, both serve French cuisine. 

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Freedom: Elusive, illusive for Blacks

Above my husband, who is white, participating in a peaceful demonstration in our city

Nearly two decades have passed since I ended my “career” as a Sunday Op Ed columnist for The (Stockton) Record, a Gannet-owned daily newspaper with a 60K circulation at the time. To illustrate the decline of daily newspapers, today’s Record circulation is a whopping 28K. In reviewing those 450 columns–written between 1991 and 2000, I’ve observed that much of their content continues relevant. Starting today, I’m re-printing some of my columns as suggested long ago by my editor, the late Richard Marsh. I will add notes in italic when needed to compare or expand upon certain points. The following is my very first column, published October 2, 1991:

It has often been brought home to me that each of us has a unique perspective because of being permanently locked inside our own vessels and forced to witness life from within its confines. Genetics significantly influence not only how we relate to life from inside this vessel, but how we’re seen by others.

As a Black woman who came of age in the searing 60s, I witnessed societal gains by my people that made us begin to feel good about ourselves. It is the losses, however, that continue to concern me and serve as convincing markers that those gains which so inspired us over the ensuing decades have not kept pace with those enjoyed by the superstructure that is our current world. The freedom that we so diligently labored for in those heated times remains as illusive today as it was in the days of my youth.

Freedom. From the time I began to get a sense of what being Black was about, I knew that I had an inner yearning to be free. The word “freedom” conjured up beautiful Technicolor images in my mind’s eye–images of birds in flight, of endless blue sky, golden meadows, valleys lush with verdant growth of evergreen and I, floating unencumbered through all of this loveliness, lovely and loved and protected.

While we have achieved some of the outer trappings that signify a free society, inside our skins the chains of racism continue to chafe our very souls. The specters resurrect each time we witness the vacant stare of a “cracked-up” brother or sister pushing a grocery cart laden with all of her/his worldly goods through the streets. And as long as this travesty exists, there can be no freedom. As long as there is one in chains–physical or emotional–we will all wear them.

Racial intolerance is being seen with increasing frequency in today’s “enlightened” society. Recently an acquaintance experienced a cross-burning on her front lawn in north Stockton. A similar incident of cross-burning occurred in Modesto. We suffer negative press in increasing numbers via the media–print and visual. When there are drug busts, the perpetrators are more often than not Black. Add theft, shootings, murders, gang wars and other violent acts of crime to this list. Strangely enough, Blacks seldom seen to commit “white-collar” crimes. Semantics–a powerful tool that when cleverly used by the media can wreak verbal havoc upon a gullible public.

The attitude of some of today’s youth frightens and deeply concerns those of us who have witnessed a great evolution of the racial state of being in America. As the mother of a 14-year-old girl, I am intimidated by certain messages being sent through much of the rap music that is so appealing to the young. While some are positive and caution youngsters against drugs and gangs, many seem to glamorize violence and sex.

As distasteful as it is for parents whose musical roots stem from another generation, it is imperative that we listen to and maintain some control over what our children are listening to. Ours is a drug culture, hard drugs, soft drugs–drugs. They are allowed to flow into our country in order to soothe, placate and render mindless those Blacks and other susceptible minorities.

This, coupled with muzzling certain potentially authentic leaders–educators, community activists, attorneys–while giving favorable press to certain others–self serving ministers, politicians, entertainers, sports figures (charismatic as some of them may be, they are the icons that white society uses to limit the movement/progress), is an effective means of stifling the movement and a major factor in today’s lack of progress toward racial parity. In a word divisiveness.

We are brutalized on every front while the carrots of liberty continue to be dangled in our faces–just outside of our collective reach. Those in the forefront of the struggle today basically agree on one thing: We as a people must bring about the changes, if changes are to come. We must examine and confront the issues of investing in our children, our families, our communities, our nation. We must continue the quest for freedom. We must VOTE!

The new racism: Where are leaders to fight it?

Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric on Pexels.com

Today Black Lives Matter has fostered a world-wide movement for an end to racial injustice. The death of George Lloyd illuminated the fact of institutionalized racism in the U.S. The difference is that the movement is not going away. Journey back with me into the 90s, when the nation was accustomed to looking the other way. The following column, my second, was published October 13, 1991.

A friend warned me of an ominous local sighting of a pickup truck with the letters “KKK” painted boldly on its doors, a testament to the recent acceleration of hate crimes. These crimes are not limited to Blacks. Other minorities have also been targeted. But the primary target of what is being termed by some as the “new racism” is the African-American.

Some politically astute individuals see these acts as a direct result of the laissez-faire attitude of the Bush administration toward domestic disasters occurring in the wake of its economic policies. Affirmative action programs benefitting certain Black professionals and students are being criticized as “giveaway programs.” What is not publicized is that many Blacks, myself included, attended college when affirmative action programs were in effect without benefit from such assistance programs.

In this month’s issue of Ebony magazine, Dr. Charles Moody, vice provost of minority affairs at the University of Michigan, asserts that we must dispel the notion that affirmative action is a badge of dishonor, adding “We must also let it be known that not every student of color is a special admit, and not every white student has a 4.00 grade-point average and 1600 (score) on the SAT.”

Can 400 years of racism be wiped away by 20 years ‘ affirmative action? The comparatively small percentage of minorities who benefit from such programs have no more impact upon the total picture of education and employment in this country than does a gnat to a fly.

Some feel that our participation in external affairs, e.g. Iran, in deference to those occurring on the domestic front are diversions created to forestall progress with issues such as education, unemployment, housing, AIDS and drugs.

During the early days of the civil rights movement, I was proud to be among those who marched, prayed and sang “We shall overcome.” We figured we were in it for the count, youthful spirits full of youthful enthusiasm and vigor. We had no inkling that the count would last our lifetimes. We cried,” Freedom now!” with the impatience life reserves for its young, and envisioned a nation that wold finally live up to its promise of “liberty and justice for all.” A nation wherein we could partake equally of its wealth–a wealth that was largely amassed at the expense of our own enslaved ancestors.

Those times passed, but the bitter reality of racism continued. There were real leaders then, unlike today’s paper tigers that surface to temporarily appease us when we cross that invisible, but palpable line, or the egocentric glory seekers, those inept souls that would be King. The real leaders were souls of substance. I remember some of them–how they inspired and empowered us. We sure could use another Malcolm, a Martin Luther King, Je. Where are you Angela?

When one comes so close to the realization of a dream too long deferred, one fights hard to choke down the bitterness. It’s no wonder we are a schizophrenic society that must, as poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar wrote “wear the mask that grins and lies.”

The Ku Klux Klan resurrects bitter memories of innumerable atrocities that remained cloaked in secrecy until that fateful day when a nation was virtually forced to view its undersides in the stark, unforgiving light of day. The movement which has slowed to a snail’s pace despite the 1954 Supreme Court edict to promote school integration “with all deliberate speed,” gained an inestimable boost that year when Jet Magazine, a national black publication, printed pictures of the badly bloated and mutilated corpse of a Black teen named Emmett Till for the world to see. Till had been lynched by a white vigilante group for making a flirtation remark to a white female

Historians instruct that we must examine our roots to avoid repeating past errors. Lest we forget what wrath vigilante groups like the KKK have wrought upon our land, we must seek, support, and encourage strong leadership that will eradicate groups that promote hatred.