- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

By Michael S. Sanders
Harper Collins, $24.95, 322 pages

Fluent in French, a lover of good food and with a well received nonfiction book under his belt, Michael Sanders talked himself two years ago into a dream assignment. He proposed to spend a year in southwestern France following the fortunes of a French chefand to write a book about it. The result, "From Here, You Can't See Paris," is a clear-eyed look behind the scenes at La Recreation, a good-but-not-too-expensive restaurant in an abandoned schoolhouse in the French countryside.
Nice work if you can get it. But chefs and restaurants having become chic in the United States over the last few years, others have already covered some of this ground. Two years ago chef Anthony Bourdain dished a wicked, witty account of the drugs, the drinking and other naughty goings-on between courses in "Kitchen Confidential," a tell-all memoir of various American kitchens where he had worked.
In "A Goose in Toulouse" Mort Rosenblum, a former editor of the International Herald Tribune, reported with grace and humor on the state of French cuisine in the age of McDonald's and genetically-modified foods. Among other Gallic gastronomic goodies, Mr. Rosenblum devoted whole chapters to the agony and ecstasy of truffle hunting, the making of foie gras, and the still-influential Guide Michelin as does Mr. Sanders, who also has a good deal to say about the details of his life in France.
To observe chef Jacques Ratier and his wife Noelle up close, Mr. Sanders moved to the tiny village of Les Arques with his wife, Amy, their six-year-old daughter, Lily, and their black Labrador. The village (population 169) is situated in the Lot, "France's Mississippi," according to Mr. Sanders, and one of the poorest departments in the country. In telling the story of La Recreation, Mr. Sanders also tells the story of the village and its residents, meditating along the way on the agricultural changes going on throughout rural France and Europe as a whole.
Besides the restaurant, the village also has a church and a small museum honoring Ossip Zadkine, a Russian sculptor who had a weekend home there. But there are no shops, no bakery, no post office, nowhere to buy a newspaper. The nearest village with shops is Cazals, four miles away, where the Sunday morning open-air market becomes the highlight of the family's week. Here they find farm-raised chickens, duck and boar sausages, cheeses, seasonal fruits and vegetables "of a freshness and flavor that make even the best American supermarket products seem pale imitations."
The market, a feast for the senses, is also their introduction to "how the French live, eat and socialize." It's true that a good deal of socializing goes on at markets like this one where many of the wares are sold by their producers. But Mr. Sanders and his wife receive few invitations to mingle with French people in their homes and, apart from shopping for food and cooking it, they find there's not much to do except go for long walks.
What keeps him going is his "simple desire to explore the secret life of a restaurant," even after he discovers that this restaurant's secret life consists of damned hard work from morning to night. Owners Jacques and Noelle Ratier a likeable pair opened the place ten years ago and against all odds have made it a success; it's not just the only restaurant in the area, but the only business of any kind and a focal point for the village it helped save.
Mr. Sanders follows the Ratiers' routine diligently, turning bright and early to record their day from morning prep chores to the barely controlled chaos of dinnertime. He shares in the adrenaline high that builds with the kitchen's heat, the shouted orders, the smoke and flames from the stove-top, as the staff fly from stove to fridge to prep table or sail into the dining room balancing armfuls of plates. Occasionally he puts down his notebook and lends a hand a smart move because he's otherwise in the way.
Finding that the chef alone isn't enough to carry a book-length narrative, the writer widens his focus to include long digressions on the suppliers who make the restaurant possible: the farmer who supplies it with fruit and vegetables, the local truffle dealers, the foie gras producers. Mr. Sanders tells readers perhaps more than they want to know about the force-feeding of geese and ducks prior to the bloody slaughter he witnesses one gloomy morning. You may want to skip foie gras after reading his graphic account of the ghastly scene; his clothes and notebook splashed with blood, he regrets turning down the farmer's offer of an apron and a pair of rubber boots.
The dream assignment isn't so dreamy any more. July and August are blisteringly hot and the family suffers through invasions of ants and flies, wasps and bats. The fire department zaps the wasps' nest with a hose but Mr. Sanders wonders, "How could a culture that had given us so much, from Moliere to Proust, Pasteur to foie gras, have somehow missed the invention of the window screen?" To this cri de coeur, one can only respond that screens would prevent the opening and closing of the ubiquitous shutters the French use to keep out heat and insects.
When September rolls around, village life changes. The tourists and vacation homeowners depart, leaving behind a mostly elderly, mostly poor population. The weather turns cold and rainy. Wife Amy, content to keep to herself, becomes known as "the woman who walks with the dog," while sociable Lily manages to surmount her initial problems of lack of French and friends. Indeed her French improves to the point that she can and does swear at her father. (Readers may want to do the same on occasion. Dad is an earnest fellow indeed and his book would benefit from some cuts.)
The family's year in the Lot has little in common with "A Year in Provence" certainly it doesn't sound as much fun but that hasn't deterred them from going back. They have already returned to France, where Mr. Sanders has begun researching a book about winemaking.

Lorna Williams lives in Washington and the South of France.

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