Trip to Paris
We opened our first small Cora restaurant on May 27, 1987, the very day of my 40th birthday. Life up until then had been difficult and much later, I would realize that this birthday would mark a dramatic break, like a door separating two worlds. “A revolving door” I would say to myself later, which in one strong turn swept away a sense of bleak resignation and replaced it with bright hope. On that May 27, 1987, when I opened the small diner with my name on the front, my kids and I were a thousand miles away from knowing it, but we were in fact celebrating the burial of our previous unhappy lives. Year ONE of our reconstruction began when we greeted our first customer. The rest of the story you’ve come to gradually know in these Sunday morning letters. And perhaps some of you who visited us at the time may have noticed to what lengths we went to delight our clientele and how much we truly cherished them. I confess today that I and the kids were the ones starving. In the kitchen or behind the counter, we were the ones who needed love, who were slowly learning to accept tenderness and affection. Working hard, we were so desperate to have normal lives that a small compliment felt as if we were being handed a gold bar. It’s perhaps because of this deep-felt gratitude towards our customers that I can still remember today these large chunks of life floating in my mind like glaciers making their way out to sea.
The first time that the kids forced me to take a break from the diner’s kitchen was to take a weeklong all-inclusive to Paris.
“A room with a view of the Eiffel Tower and a $300 traveller’s cheque for spending money,” they added with sincerity.
I had been working 14 months solid, 7 days a week, with not one day off. I was anxious about leaving my baby, anxious that a customer might swallow a chicken bone, anxious that a violent wind would take out a window. And especially anxious that, if I were not there, it would all go awry and customers wouldn’t be properly served. “Afraid that the world would stop turning,” remarked my daughter.
They went ahead regardless and bought the airplane ticket and chose Paris because they had overheard me say to the plumber that it was my dream to visit one day. Just the thought of leaving the following Saturday kept me awake for 4 nights in a row.
- “Trust me, Mom. The tickets are not refundable, you have to go.”
I went and slept for 3 days straight in the small room with a view of the Eiffel Tower. The rest of the time, I walked the streets like an unplugged robot. I suppose that Paris is splendid when one’s eyes are able to contemplate its beauty, but mine were directed at the malevolent crows flying over my little diner.
How was I going to convince myself to let go?
- “Mom, take a week’s vacation to relax and enjoy life. Don’t worry, we bought the package with money that our older brother gave us. So relax and enjoy yourself. We love you and we’re going to take care of your baby.”
How could my poor little chicks understand that it wasn’t the diner that needed me but I who needed it? How to tell them that even in my sleep I flipped eggs on the grill? How to explain to them that I was a part of the diner’s furniture? That what nourished me was to see customers come through the doors.
From the window of the jet plane that brought me back I saw the world wrapped in cotton. I couldn’t wait to touch down, to see the kids, to put my apron back on and cook a French-style cream of pumpkin soup. In the baggage hold, my suitcase was packed with new recipe books for extra-thin crêpes extravagantly garnished and folded. I was so excited to tell the kids about the delicious fruit coulis I had tasted, the mocha coffee and the extraordinary flavour of the pure butter used in pastries.
At 5:45 p.m. local time in Montreal, the huge metal bird touched the ground and everyone aboard applauded. I was hoping to be greeted by the kids, but it was Guillaume the dishwasher who was waiting at the arrivals gate. His white jacket, splattered with egg yolk and ketchup, stood out clearly from the crowd that was waiting with arms outstretched.
- “Let me take your suitcase, Boss. I came straight from the restaurant.”
- “Did something happen? Where are the kids?”
- “Don’t worry, Boss, I just finished the dishes. Everything is running well.”
Our dishwasher confirmed that the world had not stopped while I was away. Business was brisk, and as strong as ever, according to the beautiful Gigi.
The next morning, I briefly had the impression of entering a movie that had already started. Everything was humming. Gigi was at the grill, the youngest was transferring the crêpe batter and Marie was heading towards the large round table at the front carrying three large plates of food in her diminutive hands.
Yoo-hoo!!! I’m back, I wanted to shout out. But I held it in. I made my way across the busy diner like a tiny mouse on a big cheese platter, trying to make as little noise as possible. I went downstairs and sitting on an upside-down margarine pail, I released the ocean of sadness flooding my heart.
- “Everything is running well,” I told myself again.
My little chicks no longer needed me to place bits of food in their beaks. They had grown up; they were right. I was no longer as indispensable as I had thought.
And suddenly I heard my daughter cry out MOM!
- “Mom, the meat guy wants to talk to you about a new cut of ham. Are you interested?”
Everything in the kitchen interested me, and especially everything related to our morning specialty.
The very next morning, we started to practise all the wonderful ideas that I had brought back from the City of Light, and the world began to spin just like it had before Paris. The only change was my new habit of leaving the diner earlier just after the lunch service. No one objected.
It was only then that I started to realize that our breakfast specialty was quickly eclipsing our small diner, gaining its independence from the hungry cook at the grill. And with that miraculous epiphany, I started to criss-cross the city looking for a new location.
I found more than 150 across Canada.
So many that I have never thought about returning to Paris.
I will one day, I promise, just as soon as this horrible pandemic is dead and buried.