Monday, 16 August 2010

welcome to the club

one of the delights for me of trips to paris are meals in the classic brasseries. i love the style, the elegance, the old-fashioned decor, the menus stuffed with old favourites and the sheer professionalism of the service.

and one of my regular haunts is wepler, a seafood classic on place de clichy, a traditional magnet for artists but now a little ragged at the edges thanks to the relentless down market pull of porte de clichy a few hundred yards up the road - a working class enclave resolutely resisting gentrification.

but wepler remains a classic and, for sunday lunch, a prime haunt for the monied of the old school - aged parents being treated by young stockbroker children, old couples dressed up for the occasion and so on. and me, of course, installed on the comfortable banquette seating and wondering whether to go all out on a giant shellfish platter or stick to a half dozen oysters followed by skate wing in brown butter and caper sauce. a delicious dilemma!

and then the table opposite me fills up, clearly for one of those french 'let's get well acquainted before we do business' lunches. clearly the head of a french company and his stylish wife who both speak only french, a 40-something female executive and a 60-year old male executive who are both bilingual and a mousy mid-westerner who clearly doesn't possess a single word of french. an analysis of the situation suggests he's been flown over to sign a deal with the french company, accompanied by the male executive who's based in the us and looked after on the trip by the female executive.

what he also clearly does not understand is the importance of the sunday lunch, the french style of business or the significance of the location - one, apparently, of the best 350 restaurants in france.

he's introduced to the french couple, mumbles in english and, before he's even sat down and been handed a menu, says he wants a club sandwich and a diet coke.

you can hear the gasps of disbelief across the whole restaurant. this is not how it works. this is not comme il faut - the french look at each other, eyebrows raised as they try and understand whether this is deliberate rudeness or just american ignorance. it seems they choose the latter explanation and his escort explains quietly about how the lunch is likely to progress. it's sunday lunch - a sacred time and two or three hours for the occasion is normal. this is a restaurant well known for french classics, so let's at least look at the menu.

from that moment on, the american was like a petulant child. you'd think, with two translators at hand, that he'd have tried to engage his host: how old is this place? tell me about the food? i love the style!

but nothing...

eventually he consented to try duck as a starter . the french host did his best for a while to draw him into conversation but merely got grunts in return. most of us, at this point, would have pulled the plug on the meeting but the french are desperately polite and struggled on, whilst our transatlantic hick dragged out his starter for 45 minutes, some 30 minutes after everyone else had finished and were waiting for their main course!

i think the hoped for business relationship is unlikely to happen!

but why would someone be so rude? so insensitive to the very clear dynamics around the table? so uninterested in great food in a historic location?

yeah, some people don't deserve any better than club sandwiches and diet soda...

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