Michel reminisces about life as an chef apprentice under Maître Pâtissier Hellegouarch in Paris during the festive season, when working all night was de rigueur and sleep was a rare treat.
As apprentices, we were only allowed to work ten hours a day, although that was severely stretched during the busy times of the year, especially before holidays and religious festivals – Epiphany, Easter, All Saints’ Day, Remembrance Day, Christmas and New Year. Each occasion had its own specialities. At Christmas we made everything and anything, but one special item was the Bûche de Noël, the traditional Christmas log. We’d start making them some time in October and freeze the bases, then start taking them out on December 22nd to finish off and decorate to order. The classic Bûche was made with butter cream and fairly rich, but we also made lighter, more modern versions with different types of mousse, and others containing ice cream or sorbet. Then there were all the petits fours and cakes. It was an unbelievable amount of work.
I remember working on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The shop opened on Christmas morning, of course, for people to come and buy their Christmas desserts. On Christmas Day we finished work at around 11am or lunchtime, cleaned down and off we went to celebrate. The two Christmases I was in Paris, I went to my Uncle Jean and Aunt Danielle for a late lunch. My maternal grandmother, Jacqueline, was there with Emile and there were family reunions with our other cousins as well. I was particularly fond of my Aunt Danielle and Uncle Jean, who was the sweetest man. When I was doing my apprenticeship in Paris between the ages of 16 and 18, I saw a lot of them. They were very kind and hospitable to me and one of my most precious memories is the time when later on in my life I was able to repay their kindness by inviting them to an old brasserie in Paris called L’Ami Louis. It still exists and it’s in the Latin Quarter. I don’t think the walls have been painted since the 1950s, so they’re all nicotine stained. It’s a small room in a quaint street. I still go there occasionally and even the taxi drivers sometimes get lost. The menu hasn’t changed since day one. The service is almost brusque. The food is plonked onto the table. But you just can’t fault it. Very, very expensive, but the best quality ingredients, cooked in the best possible way.
It used to have a Michelin star. My aunt and uncle had heard of it, but they’d never been there. I remember getting a very expensive bottle of wine as well and the look of happiness on Jean’s face is something I’ll never forget. I remember exactly what we ate. Foie gras to begin with. At L’Ami Louis they bring the terrine to the table and you help yourself and eat it with a toasted baguette. I had a pigeon and Jean had a kidney, roasted in its fat – a whole kidney brought to the table. I remember we had a whole sliced potato cake cooked in duck fat, and a confit de canard – it was half a duck. We’re going back at least 25 years, but I can still remember the exact taste of every single dish.
The hours were even longer in my second year of apprenticeship. We would be there at six in the morning and finish whenever our work was completed in the evening.
I’ll never forget it. We would work incredibly hard in the weeks leading up to Christmas, getting in at four in the morning and working until late in the evening. But that Christmas Eve, we finished work around 10 in the evening and Henri Hellegouarch came in and said, “Look lads, I’ve prepared a dinner for you. Let’s all sit down and have a glass of wine.” So the whole team – front of house and back of house – sat down together at a huge marble table and he got out the bottles of wine. I still remember it now: he’d prepared roast beef with various trimmings and we ate like kings for an hour or so.
Then he suddenly got up, looked at his watch and said, “Right, see you in an hour.” And so we started again, at midnight on Christmas morning, and worked through the night. I had a room about five minutes away, so I went back there, crashed out for 20 minutes and then got up again. The others who lived maybe 20 or 30 miles away, just went to the café next door, had a couple of coffees and came back. But there was not a word of complaint from anyone, nothing. It was normal.
And he was there as well, all night long. For me it was a learning curve, something that will stay in my memory forever. I remember being so shattered and then finishing work around noon and going home for a quick shower before having Christmas lunch with my family. I could just about keep my eyes open for the meal. And then on Boxing Day it was back to work again.