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Falling in love Chez Gu et Fils

French Cassoulet
French Cassoulet, Shutterstock

It was August of our first year in France. Summer break was nearly over and the vacation I’d been promised never materialized. I was a disgruntled thirteen year-old, plucked from the Midwest for yet another of my mother‘s grand adventures.

Aix-en-Provence, France - Google Images
Aix-en-Provence, France - Google Images

My former classmates had been envious when I’d told them we were moving to Europe mid-semester. They couldn’t understand my lack of enthusiasm. For me, it was another move, like dozens before.

I’d spent the past several months adjusting to six-day school weeks in a foreign language and solo navigating the intricate Parisian metro system, all while longing for my old life in America.

Instead of a lazy afternoons on the lake, bonfires, or sleepovers, I was serving as my mother’s unofficial road manager on the jazz festival circuit. The schedule was grueling. Forced small talk, late nights and early mornings had worn me thin.

We’d arrived in Aix-en-Provence well after lunch. The train ride had been crowded and the dining car’s offerings were meager. I was pitiful with hunger.

The heavy scent of lavender sweetened the stultifying heat as we trudged over the cobblestones of Aix’s narrow, ancient streets. The promoter, whose name was either Jean-Pierre or Jean-Georges, nattered on about the Romans and Paul Cézanne, interrupted only by the cathedral bell’s clanging.

“The proprietor was very kind to keep open the restaurant for us. He loves the jazz.” Jean-whatever smiled at my mother. “Johnny Hallyday is one of his biggest fans!”

Johnny Hallyday in concert by Fotopersbureau De Boer
Johnny Hallyday, Fotopersbureau De Boer, NL

“Oh, I just love him!” My mother cooed.

I wasn’t sure who Johnny was, but clearly he warranted reverence. We rounded the corner to an unremarkable entrance and slipped inside the door into a dim, cool dining room.

“Bienvenue! Je m’appelle Gu.” The gregarious chef’s curled mustache lifted with his beaming smile.

We settled in at a table while Gu listed mysterious dishes. As they fawned over my mother, I examined the menu and resigned myself to another overwrought meal.

“Et vous mademoiselle?”

It was my turn to order. I didn’t recognize most of the offerings, nor their ingredients, but there was a special with beans that seemed a safe option. I mustered my best accent, recalling how appalled my French teacher had been during my language assessment. In Michigan we’d been taught Québecois, which was wholly unacceptable.

“Le Cassoulet, s’il vous plait, monsieur.”

The chef nodded in approval.

After what felt like an interminable time, a casserole dish was set before me. It was filled with beans, a thick slab of pork, sausage and a duck leg. It wasn’t beautiful, but it smelled good and I was desperate. The chef joined our table and the conversation with my mother and Jean-Whomever.

I was left to feast in peace.

This was nothing like the Sunday night beef stroganoff my grandmother simmered in her pressure cooker. Though I pleaded for that dish regularly. There were hidden discoveries unlike anything I’d ever known.

The first mouthful was a revelation. Smoky, tender pork belly. Buttery beans with the perfect amount of salt. The second bite was spiritual. Crisp duck skin flecked with herbs that tasted like sunshine. Sausages savory with garlic and thyme. Every bite was better than the previous. Each morsel was a homecoming.

I don’t know that I looked up until the entire dish was finished. My belly felt pleasurably full and I was embarrassed finding the chef’s eyes on me as I lay my fork in the empty stoneware.

“Pour une petite vous aviez un faim formidable!” The chef chuckled.

I suppose it was surprising to witness a beanpole of a girl single-handedly putting away a dish that could fuel a bricklayer, as the chef once had been.

Years later, whenever asked my favorite meal, without hesitation I respond…the cassoulet of Gu et Fils.

It was the start of my love affair with food and France, which for many years I called and consider home.

The rustic dish is the incarnation of everything I yearned for, but could never verbalize. The convergence of simplicity and honesty. It requires skill and patience. It honors tradition, but allows for improvisation.

It’s a lot like jazz.

LA Times - Looking Beyond the Stars in France
LA Times - Looking Beyond the Stars in France
Spago of the Old Country
Spago of the Old Country

110 views3 comments


Jun 28

This is fabulous! At 8:45am I am suddenly hungry for dinner!! Gorgeous essay


Jun 27

What a terrific story! The reader is right there with you tasting that amazing dish!


Jun 27

Lovely writing about a beautiful meal… I could taste the words.

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