Back in the late ’90s I worked for the Coppolas. Yes, the Francis Coppolas. Nice, nice family. One afternoon, Francis and Eleanor wanted to get some of their favorite foie gras for a dinner party. And when you’re Francis and Eleanor Coppola, you simply call up your friend Andrew Sutton, Executive Chef at the world-class restaurant, Auberge du Soleil, and ask him to make you some. And you have your lady servant, Lisa, go pick it up.
I arrived at Auberge du Soleil early that same evening, sliding my bitchin’ 1993 240sx into a parking space between a jaguar and Mercedes. When I approached the front desk, the hostess looked at me like I had an alien protruding from my chest. I imagine she thought I was lost. But once I mentioned Francis and Eleanor Coppola, Andrew was immediately in front of me with a big smile and handshake.
Though I’m no pushover for celebrity-type nonsense, I thought it was really cool (or, potentially a health code violation) that Andrew was leading me through his kitchen at Auberge. Yes, in Napa we referred to the five-star resort as Auberge only. It was one of our rights as Napans. I had never been there before, I only knew that the rich folks wined and dined there and people with money to blow would stay there and get exclusive massages and what not. While walking through the kitchen, the staff were eye-balling me—they must’ve figured I was some kind of honcho, so they smiled, but I knew they were secretly telling me to “Bite It” in their heads.
Andrew made interesting small talk and acted as if we were old friends. He didn’t think I had an alien protruding from my chest. But one of the prep cooks must have; he made me nervous with his fake corner smile and twitchy stink eye. He kept that stink eye on me as Andrew took the freshly prepared foie gras from the large refrigerator.
Now, I realize most foodies would give their left pepper mill to have this opportunity. Don’t get me wrong, I was soaking in the soleil all throughout the beautiful restaurant , kitchen and grounds. It was a pleasure meeting and talking with Andrew. I knew it would be awhile (if ever) before I could afford to come back to this famous Napa Valley resort just 15 minutes from my own house. It was an exclusive experience that budding chefs would die for. But very quickly, I was wishing that what Francis had really requested was Alaskan king crab legs or chocolate mousse torte.
Instead, the foie gras was presented in a nice to-go container and Andrew wanted to be sure I saw the goods before I took them back to Francis. In fact, he wanted me to taste the foie gras before he packaged it up, kinda like a drug dealer who makes sure his clients take a hit of the good stuff before they exchange money and brown bags. I began to sweat. I mean, it was … duck liver. Maybe goose liver .. I couldn’t be sure. Andrew was persistent and wouldn’t take no for an answer. And why would he … an exceptional chef who had prepared an incredible, highly desired gourmet treat. You have no idea how much I wanted what was in that container to be anything else on the glorious Auberge menu, instead of foie gras.
Oh, I did politely refuse, a few times. I should’ve said “I’m too full,” or “I’m allergic to duck innards,” or “I’m frightened,” but in any case, he was handing me that tiny fork with that a big hunk of smushy pâté and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. Now, you all know I am a discriminating eater, and you would be correct to assume I do NOT care for liver, therefore I do not care for foie gras. It doesn’t matter how fancy, how lovingly prepared by how famous a chef … I did not want to get it anywhere near my mouth, let alone eat it. But I was trapped. It was an honor – thrilling for most people — and I couldn’t deny this kind culinary master. Smiling, Andrew looked adoringly at his special foie gras prepared for the Coppolas, and at me as he anticipated the joy I would experience once the delicacy reached my palette. So, I tried to get it over as quickly as possible. I shoved the fork in my mouth. I breathed through my nose while Andrew awaited my reaction. I smiled and shook my head up and down. Then, like a miracle, Andrew turned away, while at the same time I saw a garbage can to my left. I was THIS close to hawking that mouthful into the garbage—until Twitchy Prep Cook moved closer and raised his eyebrows. Son of a BITCH. Yeah, I swallowed it. And I have never wanted to barf so much as I did at that moment saying good-bye and thank you in the kitchen of Auberge du Soleil to the friendly, renowned chef, Andrew Sutton.