I recently told our son that we were thinking of moving across the Seine. His response: What about your favorite café? What about Twiggy, the cheesemonger? Juan, the caviste? Your neighbors? Your nearby friends, who'll come for dinner at a moment's notice?
And would you really move away from Yves Camdeborde?
Sure, I live in Paris, but in reality I live in the 6th arrondissement, in the small town of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, in the micro-village known as Odéon, on the stretch I think of as Camdebordeville.
Yves Camdeborde is the first person I see when I head out for croissants, and he's the last person (not counting my husband) I kiss good-night when I'm coming home from dinner. If my husband were the jealous sort, he'd have his sights on Yves, since I've had a crush on the guy for about 25 years. But then my husband is as crazy about M. Camdeborde as I am.
I think it started with the pâté. It wasn't that I'd never had pâté; it was that I'd never had it the way Yves served it at his first restaurant, La Régalade. He had just left the Michelin-starred kitchens of the Hôtel de Crillon, and the papers were filled with news about his defection and the idea that he was starting a revolution that they dubbed “bistronomy”—gastronomic bistro cooking. I wasn't sure what that meant, but I knew I wanted to taste it.
La Régalade was simple, crowded, and exciting. There was a hum as you pushed open the doors—not loud, not boisterous, but joyful. I remember wriggling into my chair, the wriggle a necessity because the tables were sardined together, and thinking, This is going to be fun. And then a server came over with our menus, that pâté packed into a long terrine, a knife stuck in its center, a basket of rough-cut dark bread, and a jar of pickles. I must have looked puzzled because she—Mme Camdeborde, as it turned out—said, "Eat what you'd like." And we did. We had some wine, we smeared pâté on bread, we decided on our dinner—unforgettable scallops roasted with salted butter in their big, gorgeous shells—and we were happy. If this was bistronomy, I was all for it.
I hadn't met him, but I already loved Camdeborde for his food. He was cooking star-quality meals at bistro prices for people like me who were comfiest eating elbows-on-the-table style. And he was a careful sourcer (I almost wrote sorcerer) and a committed locavore long before I'd even heard the term: His coffee was roasted one arrondissement away; there were lots of wines on the list made by small producers; he knew his growers and his cheesemonger; his bread was made by a friend, his charcuterie by his brother, and his pâté by himself, of course. Today we'd say La Régalade was Brooklyn before Brooklyn, but I say it was Paris before the Paris we love now.
I remember trying to tell Claudine Camdeborde how much I loved her husband's cooking and how we'd be back. She was charming but she was busy, and she'd heard it before. Except we meant it. We loved it and returned. Lots. And then sometime, although I can't remember when, I got to tell it all to Yves. That's when we went from handshake to bear hug, skipping the customary pecks on each cheek. But then I've never known him to be a guy who does anything by halves.
Yves, who looks like a cross between a Caravaggio and a rugby player (which is what he really wanted to be) doesn't walk but runs; he doesn't smile but beams; and, depending on when he's had his last haircut, he might have enough hair to fly behind him as he races off on his scooter or barrels between the three restaurants he now has—Le Comptoir, a bistro; L'Avant Comptoir, a stand-up bar for great wines and hors d'oeuvres you can make a meal of; and L'Avant Comptoir de la Mer, the seafood version of L'Avant Comptoir—all lined up side by side on the carrefour de l'Odéon. Because you can just about see little cartoon energy bolts surrounding him, it's only when he balances his glasses on the end of his nose that I realize he's a 51-year-old grown-up and not the 20-something kid I first met.
That kid had an exuberance, a crazy incandescence, and a passion—a word so overused but so right for Yves—and the grown-up still does. It's why I love spending time with him.
One evening, as I walked past one of his restaurants as the last guests were finishing up, Yves saw me, literally bounded out onto the street and pulled me in: “Try this!” It was a soup, and I was touched that he wanted to show it to me, but what stuck with me, as it always does, was the pure happiness I saw in his face when he handed me the dish. He's made thousands of dishes, but he's still in love with the craft, the creativity, and the joy of sharing what he makes.
I'm always taken by his food. I love that I have some of his recipes in my cookbooks, and love even more that when I asked him to give them to me, he said sure and then cooked them with me in his kitchen. When I return to America, what I dream about is the way it feels to have a meal chez Yves, that sense of anticipation, of pending delight, and how inspiring it is to be with him. I'm not surprised that so many chefs left their cushy three-star jobs to follow him into their own small bistros and cramped kitchens: He's got the kind of optimism, energy and bonhomie that are pied-piperishly contagious. I'd have followed him just about anywhere.
Happily, I don't have to follow him far these days: Yves's culinary fiefdom is only 500 steps from my apartment. In other words, I'm always five minutes away from a glass of wine, lively chatter, meet-ups with neighbors, serendipitous plate-sharing with new-found acquaintances, cold oysters with hot chipolata sausages, Basque ham croquettes, oeufs mayo with crab, and bear hugs.
Maybe I won't move.
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