I first lived in France in 1991. I was struggling with fitting in at Reed — it was lonely being one of three members of the Reed Republicans — and I did not feel any kind of existential urgency to finish college.
I loved the idea of France because I had studied the language since grade school, and I had fallen in love with the sport of rugby. Although I was supposed to be in a French as a second language course in Rennes, I ended up spending the entire year in St. Étienne with my future business partner and his family. That year changed my life.
I had always worked in restaurants. I started washing dishes at Fat City Café in Multnomah Village when I was 15, and by 16 I was proud to be cooking burgers and cleaning the restaurant after school.
Four years later, in college, I started a company called Griffon Student Services that delivered birthday cakes and care packages. During orientation week, I copied the entire student mailing list that was posted outside the admissions office and sent my order form to every entering freshman and sophomore. I would bake cakes and cookies and deliver them to incredulous and annoyed students at 7 a.m. I even sang them an auctioneer’s version of “Happy Birthday.” Let’s just say it was neither an appreciated nor scalable business.
All of my restaurant work led me to develop a spastic passion for food. I loved throwing dinner parties and organizing big events where all of my friends could enjoy themselves. It was immensely gratifying in a way that studying the history of ideas was not. By the time I got to France, I knew I wanted to work with and around food.
France is an intimidating destination for Americans. We all know that the French are especially unimpressed with us.
Upon arriving, I was petrified to say my first word, and once I finally had to say something, the French lived up to their reputations as the masters of making you feel like a complete dickhead. They have an amazing way of communicating two things when you try to talk to them. First: “What the hell is coming out of your mouth right now?” And second: “Is there something wrong with your face?” For a self-conscious young person, this is a special moment of humiliation that, over time, you grow to respect and admire.
I traveled to St. Étienne and was immediately immersed in a culture of food that was intimate and intimidating.
I lived with a family of seven that was run more or less like a military base. Lunch was at noon, and every single kid and parent was expected to be seated at noon. Dinner was at seven, same rules. The special part about all of this is that my host mother, Marie-Thérèse, would lay down multi- course meals that left me speechless. There was an approximate two-week rotation of the dishes, which was perfect.My seminal French food moment came on Christmas Eve in 1990.
Like many French families, my hosts prepared a massive seafood feast. Philippe, the father, brought out a 1951 Bourgogne Aligoté —I can’t remember anything else about it — and it defied everything I had been taught about wine to that moment. It was a chardonnay that was 40 years old, and everything I knew about wine told me that it should not be any good. Yet it was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted in my life. Boom — mind blown. Simple as that.
Initially, the importance of that experience was how amazing it tasted. But thinking back on it, my memory focuses more on the relationship that Philippe and Marie-Thérèse had with the food and the wine they were sharing with their family. When Philippe brought out that bottle he told all of us that he had found it in his cellar and that, although it probably wasn’t going to be any good, it would be fun to see what it tasted like.
And, most importantly, at least in my memory, he said wasn’t it exciting that we all got to taste a 40-year-old white wine.
No pressure, no expectations, just letting the wine tell us what had happened after all of these years.In that moment, I finally learned that tradition and curiosity are not opposing forces. In the world of food and wine, in fact, they are the bedrock of excellence.
My instinct as a 20-year-old was to do things before understanding them. I think that is one of the wonders of the American spirit — we just figure things out. I suppose the life lesson I learned 25 years ago is that, sometimes, the French know better.
Kurt Huffman is the owner of ChefStable.