Mario paused in front of the organic-greens section of Healthy Living Market & Café, the Dorset Street natural-foods supermarket, eyeing the produce like a groom on his wedding night beholding his negligéed bride. He picked up one variety after another — fondling and smelling each glistening specimen — before settling on a particularly felicitous butterhead.
“I want to bring something to prepare for Rémy when I arrive,” he told me as we meandered over to the cheese department.
Mario had just flown in from Los Angeles — aka the City of Angels, though to me that’s always come across as more ironic than laudatory. He was in Vermont for an informal, two-week training session with Rémy LaConte, a renowned local baker who has worked for some two decades out of his home and attached bakery in northern Vermont.
Rémy’s bread has acquired a cultlike following, his reputation no doubt boosted by the limited quantity he produces. Each loaf is fashioned by hand and baked in a stone oven that wouldn’t have been out of place in a 15th-century French kitchen. I had been driving Rémy back and forth to physical therapy at Fanny Allen for a couple of months; he had told Mario to call me for transportation out to his place.
Mario was quite tall, lanky and overflowing with enthusiasm. For a few years he had been the chef-owner of a small restaurant in Alhambra, Calif., with a following, he said, within the film community. “Ed Asner showed up like clockwork, two or three times a week,” Mario told me. He had recently sold the place, having become “totally burnt out,” and was now cooking for another LA eatery. Though a self-described “accomplished cook,” he was counting on Rémy to teach him how to bake — a very different culinary discipline.
“So tell me about Rémy,” Mario said as we drove northeast on Route 15. “I never actually met him. We only spoke over the phone.”
The question made me smile. Rémy was not easily describable in the course of a half-hour taxi ride. And truth be told, I felt somewhat protective of his privacy. In the time I’d been driving Rémy, our conversations had ranged far and wide. I’d developed considerable affection for the man and didn’t want to betray any confidences he’d shared with me. But he had accepted Mario as an apprentice — a coveted position with a waiting list — so I figured a little biographical information was in order.
“I can tell you this,” I began. “Rémy is one amazing dude. His list of accomplishments is hard to fathom. Growing up in postwar France, he studied bread making as a young man, but went on to become a competitive downhill ski racer and world-trekking mountain climber. He managed the racing team for a big ski company before going on to run its North American operation.
“When Rémy retired in the early ’90s,” I went on, “he could have bought a yacht and docked in some Côte d’Azur bay to spend his days running around with starlets.”
I paused to chuckle at the imagery I had conjured. “Well, that’s my fantasy, anyway,” I admitted. “Instead, he’s devoted the past 20 years to perfecting his baking technique — literally working all night, five days a week, entirely on his own. I swear, he’s like a monk. Rémy seems to approach his craft with a Zen-like devotion and equanimity. If the guy has a shred of ego, I’ve yet to witness it, I’ll tell ya.”
“Wow, that is amazing,” Mario said. “I can’t wait to get started. I brought him a loaf of bread I baked for his critical appraisal.”
Three days later found me on Rémy’s road — essentially the long driveway leading to his home — for a morning pickup. A few years ago, the town named the road after him, a mighty tribute in its own right.
Rémy was waiting outside for me, his two black Labradors, Max and Jacques, bouncing around him. The dogs engaged in a boisterous, if not hysterical, parting or greeting ceremony whenever their master left or returned. A lot of dogs, I’ve observed, appear to display the psychological makeup of toddler-age humans; a three-hour separation from their beloved might as well be three years.
“Hallo, hallo,” Rémy greeted me as he approached the passenger door, fending off the Labs. The man is spry and eager, though his posture is bent and he walks with a pronounced limp — the residual effects of a 2004 stroke.
“Bonjour, Rémy,” I called back as I jumped out to assist him into the cab. (He’s made clear that he’d rather I wouldn’t, but I can’t help myself.) He first put in the old ski pole he used as a cane, and then swung deftly into the shotgun seat.
“So how is your apprentice working out?” I asked as we got under way, fully expecting a glowing report.
“It’s a disaster,” Rémy said. “Perhaps he will cut short the visit.”
“My goodness,” I said. “He seemed like a friendly guy when I drove him.”
“He’s too friendly,” Rémy explained. “In the bakery, I will talk, but only about technique, about the business. He want to talk about everything. Plus, while he can cook, he has not even the basic skill for baking. He did not even know how to open the bag of flour. And, most important, I do not see a desire to learn.”
“What about his bread that he brought with him?”
“Awchh, the bread,” Rémy said with a groan. “From the outside it look beautiful. I mean, just perfect. But when I slice it and try a bite, it was terrible.”
I said, “Rémy, isn’t that a perfect metaphor for Los Angeles? It’s like those movie towns where everything looks real on the surface, but, behind the walls, there’s nothing there.”
My customer chuckled. “This is why I don’t go to the West Coast, why I live here. In Vermont — how do you say? — what you see is what you get. The people are authentic. I tell you, this is the last time I bring in a student without meeting him face-to-face before I decide. This guy talk me into it in a phone call, but never again!”
We pulled up to Fanny Allen, and Rémy said, “Time to face my tormentor once more. This physical therapist is excellent, but, awchh, she push me so hard.”
“How about this, Rémy? Just think of her as your dominatrix.”
Rémy laughed and said, “I don’t know if that will help, Jernigan. I let you know when you pick me up later.”
?“Hackie” is a biweekly column. To reach Jernigan Pontiac, email firstname.lastname@example.org.