When I started this post yesterday I had no idea how fast the day would get away from me. Not because of work. Not because of play. I heard news of someone dear to me passed away. And I hit a wall. I could not put two thoughts together without having memories rush through my head.
I know we all experience the loss of someone dear many times in our lives and I certainly don’t write about all the sad stuff here. I try the opposite actually. But I want to tell you about Francoise. I must. You see, without Francoise, this blog would not be exactly what it is today.
A lot of us today have a pinch in our hearts knowing that Francoise is gone. She was, along with her husband Peter, the owner of Mistral, a French restaurant here in town which closed last year. To visitors she was a favorite cousin you see on vacation once a year. To her staff she was a surrogate mom, a favorite auntie and a royal pain in the butt too and we would not have changed that for the moon.
She gave me my first position as Pastry Chef. She hired me one day I was looking at a very small offering of dessert choices. Finally I put the menu down and said "Such a shame! Baking is so much fun!". I was working the line at another establishment at the time and she said "quit there! Come work for me! The guys don’t have time to make desserts. You’ve been baking all this stuff since you were a kid. You’re French! Me too! Let’s try!"
And that’s how I got the job. Really. We said we would try for a month. I stayed there five years. Just like many restaurant kitchens around the world, there were some pretty hard moments, some words that flew across the halls a little faster than they should have. There were long nights, tired feet and broken backs. But there was also that extremely exhilarating moment of 4 chefs starring at each other after a long New Year’s Eve of cooking and plating knowing that they had done it. And done it well. And they had passion pouring out of their tired hands. And they were ready to do it all over again.
The core people at Mistral did it day in and day out but few worked as hard as Peter and Francoise who were there seven days a week, fourteen hours a day. They had our backs and we had theirs. Francoise did not give second chances. She gave thirds and fourths. I can’t tell you how many waiters and cooks left and came back. Not because there wasn’t better in town. There wasn’t better in town to make you feel at home. Mistral was like the mafia. Once you were in, you were in.
Francoise was like my favorite auntie. She made me smile, she worked me hard, she never let anything be second grade and she was driving me up the wall at times. Trust me, she was taking no nonsense for an answer and boy was she hard at negotiating with but once you were in the family, your family and the family of your family was in too. That’s hard to find. Oh man. The church for her funeral on Tuesday is going to be packed. As it should be.
Bill and I had our first drink together there on the first day we met. We had our wedding rehearsal there too. Our first anniversary. Bill and his band played there for 20 years. Way before we met. Way before we knew each other existed. For the first 10 years we were married, we never had a date on a Friday or a Saturday because he was at Mistral playing music. I’d go sit at the bar from time to time. I liked New Years Eve the best though. Bill and the band at the front of the house and me in the kitchen with the guys. Midnight would come around and they would push me toward the front to get kissed. And then they would cuss me back in to finish my shift.
Francoise is so instrumental to this blog it’s incredible now that I let all the words come out of me. She helped me get my credentials as a chef. She listened to my ideas. She taught me how to put value and worth to everything I did. I remember one day she asked for an estimate on a side gig and when I handed her the figures, she looked at me and said "great, now multiply that by 3. That’s what you’re worth." Every time a photo client asks me for a quote now, I can hear her say "and multiply that by 3"! She was tough. I am glad she shared some of that with me.
Speaking of photo, she’d let me take polaroids of my desserts all the time. She knew I wanted to keep some sort of record of the things I was creating. I think she saw I was getting that in my blood but I did not know what to do with it. She did not want me to do anything with it. I was her pastry chef. She had little use for a photographer!
Of course, it was not all rosy and wonderful. Gosh there were days my eyes would be glued to the back of my head from rolling so much! But anyone masochistic enough to work restaurant kitchens or photography would tell you that’s what we do. That’s what we know to do and what we are passionate about. It takes a good bit of forgetting about oneself to be able to do what Peter and Francoise achieved for so long. To be a pillar of the Charleston restaurant scene for over 20 years is no small affair. They gave and sacrificed more than the general person would for their business. That’s what they knew.
I remember asking Francoise one day she looked tired and restless if they could close for a few days and go somewhere to relax. She looked at me and said in her thick French accent "Oh…sweeeeettieee!"
That was Francoise. Rest came too fast to those who love her. She gave us all she was until she could not anymore. She gave Bill and myself some of the best memories of our private, social and professional lives. She is missed. Damn Franny…
The dessert that comes with this post is actually a take on the first special she let me run at the restaurant. I had made nougatine cups (like these) and filled them with a mascarpone and white chocolate mousse. It was served with a few cocoa nib shortbread cookies to offset the rich mousse. She loved it so that she asked me to make it again for my first New Year’s Eve at the restaurant. Except it’s Charleston and it was unpredictably hot and humid that day. I literally stood over the nougatine cups with a blow dryer set on cool to prevent them from melting away. And thus came about the first of many eye rolls in my career there.
White chocolate Mascarpone Mousse and Cocoa Nib Shortbread Cookies:
For the mousse:
1 cup white chocolate chips
4 oz mascarpone (can sub cream cheese)
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
For the cocoa nib shortbreads:
1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 egg yolks
1 cup millet flour
1/4 cup potato starch
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/3 cup cocoa nibs
Prepare the mousse:
In a large bowl set over a pan of simmering water, melt the white chocolate and mascarpone together. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.
Once cooled enough, whip the heavy cream to medium stiff peaks. Carefully incorporate the heavy cream into the white chocolate mixture. Try to go fast or the white chocolate will have greater chances to seize on you and become grainy. I don’t add any extra sugar to this as the white chocolate is already pretty sweet to my liking but feel free to add up to 1/4 granulated sugar to the heavy cream as you whip it.
Pipe or spoon the mousse into glasses or ramekins.
For the cookies:
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed. Add the yolks, one at a time and scrape the sides of the bowl if necessary to make sure everything is well blended. Turn the speed to low and add the millet flour, potao starch, cocoa and cocoa nibs and mix just until incorporated. Gather the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour.
On a well floured surface or between two sheets of parchment paper, roll the dough to 1/4-inch thin and cut out cookies with your preferred cookie cutter. Bake for 8-10 minutes on parchment lined baking sheets. Let cool in the baking sheet or on wire racks.