Our First Delivery
John Jamison - February 24th, 2014
Sukey and I were standing outside the kitchen door at Jean-Louis at the Watergate in downtown Washington, D.C., in the dark at 10 p.m. on a Friday night in May 1988. I had two whole lamb carcasses on my back, and Sukey had one on hers. Sukey knocked on the door with her one free hand. Within seconds, the door flew open. His hand still attached to the door, seemingly deciding whether to open or close it, the impeccably dressed maître d’ asked in a French accent, “May I help you?” His manner impressed me, as I figured he had just filled a glass of wine for Jackie Onassis and now was suavely trying to find out what these two people with three lamb carcasses were doing outside his kitchen door.
As I stumbled sideways through the door trying to negotiate my way into the kitchen, dodging waiters, cooks, and dishwashers, still balancing the two carcasses on my back, the sea of white jackets opened and someone said with a deep French accent, “Let me take it from you.” Taking one lamb off my shoulder was a tall character with a friendly air about him. He looked about my age. He was dressed in a chef’s jacket, Jordache jeans, and Reeboks. He motioned to someone, and another cook ran in and took the other lamb from me. He turned around, lamb in his arms, motioning to the staff to follow him. They circled around him as he carried the lamb to a stainless-steel worktable.
Sukey and I stayed back, partly out of respect and partly to be out of the line of fire, should there be a problem. All I could see was this tall chef with Brillo Pad hair and Tootsie glasses opening the paper and wildly waving his arms above his circled minions. What I could hear was a lot of Gallic expressions which meant nothing to me, emanating from his deep Gascon voice. I said to Sukey, “This is either very, very good or very, very bad.” He motioned for us to join him.
I noticed his eyes were teary. He said, “I am so happy to meet you. You have to excuse me because these lambs are so beautiful. They remind me of the ones I bought when I was an apprentice. These are a souvenir of my youth.” By this time, Sukey and I were speechless. He asked what we wanted to drink, and 30 seconds later our now new friend, the maître d’, brought in two demitasse cups of espresso on a silver tray with burgundy linen.
The chef then went on to tell me how old the lambs were. He was right within three days. He could tell by the color of the meat and the amount of kidney fat. I was spellbound; chefs weren’t supposed to know this stuff. The breeds were different from the sheep which are used in his part of France. But, as they are Dorset Crosses raised on our native grasses and legumes, the carcasses are similar.
He sensed our interest and curiosity. He then ripped off a piece of the butcher paper covering the lambs and drew a map of France. He explained that the two best types of lamb in France were in Pauliac in Bordeaux and in Sisteron in Provence. He told us that lamb tastes like whatever it eats and that the grasses and herbs in these areas produce the best tasting lamb in France. Since we had been strictly grass farmers for about 10 years by then, as impressed as I was with Jean-Louis, I thought I could at least put in my two cents. So I asked him, “Chef, what about the famous pré-salé lamb that grazes on the salt marshes of Normandy? I’ve heard it is wonderful.” He looked me straight in the face and, with that classic twinkle in his eye, he said, “Non, non, non. This is fine if you want the lamb that tastes like the fish.” Well, that was that.