I was 27, and I was crazy.
Two years of imprisonment in the ivy halls of law school begged for an adventure. So off to the Netherlands I went for a change of scene, under the pretense of studying law in the Dutchmen’s ivy halls. Don’t tell anyone, but I was really there to travel and eat.
Despite the fact that British Airlines lost half my luggage on the way over (never recovered, and never recompensed, by the way), my first purchase upon arrival was not underwear or a jacket or a bicycle. I bought a copy of Michelin’s Main Cities of Europe guide and a Eurail pass.
Using Leiden as my base and Schipol as my portal, I embarked on the greatest eating escapade of my life.
Orchestrating my own culinary coming of age, in the span of one semester, I explored the tables of Ireland, Turkey, Sweden, Finland, Luxembourg, Germany, Belgium, France, Spain, Norway, Austria, Poland, and all over the Dutch countryside. And I did it all on a shoestring budget.
Don’t believe me? I’ll tell you the craziest thing I did for food.
* * *
* * *
Based on a brief, two-sentence description of Jean Klein’s food in my dog-eared Michelin guide, I set my sights on his three-starred restaurant l’Arnsbourg, high in the Vosges mountains of Alsace, near the German border.
I did my research. I could fly to Strasbourg and take a train north to Niederbronn-les-Bains. From there, it got tricky. I could call a taxi to take me that last 15 kilometers to the restaurant. But that round trip ride would cost me nearly double the price of my meal there (as would a two-day car rental). That made no financial sense to me at the time, nor was it in my budget.
Or, I could bike it. Fifteen kilometers is barely ten miles. I could do that.
But, upon arriving in Strasbourg, I realized that this was a foolish and impractical idea. First, it was December. It was freezing.
Second, Niederbronn-les-Bains was a summer resort for bathers, so the train service to that little town was severely reduced in wintertime. Staying overnight in the Vosges was out of the question, so, due to the limited train schedule, dinner at l’Arnsbourg would not be an option. I’d have to go for lunch, which meant catching the 6 a.m. train out.
Lastly, where would I find a bike? And even if I found a bike, what would guarantee that I could peddle the mountainous terrain?
What if it snowed? Or iced?
Better to enjoy Strasbourg and its festive chriskindlmarkts instead, I convinced myself. After all, Strasbourg was the universally crowned capital of Christmas. And it was gorgeous, a yuletide postcard decked like no other.
But then, I found an advert for bike rentals. Out of curiosity, I stopped by the shop.
Due to the high rate of bike theft in the city, they didn’t allow overnight rentals. And they didn’t open until 9 in the morning, making my 6 a.m. departure an impossibility. As I turned to leave, the girl at the counter grabbed my arm. She wanted to know why I needed the bike overnight. I told her. She told me I was crazy, but that she would help me. She had never heard of l’Arsnbourg (or Michelin, for that matter), but, she was fascinated by my obsession. She asked for a handsome deposit, told me to sleep with the bike locked to my ankle in my hostel that night, and insisted that I return it the next day before they closed, so the owner wouldn’t find out. Sworn to secrecy, I handed over my money and thanked her.
The train left me on the platform at Niederbronn-les-Bains at 7 a.m. The summer resort having been vacated by the locals, I was alone, with a map that I hadn’t studied.
The sun hadn’t arrived yet. And even if it had, there wouldn’t have been much light. The sky was thick. It was snowing.
Should I wait for the next train and turn back?
But, in that moment of doubt, there appeared a station attendant out of nowhere. He spoke no English, so we proceeded in French, mine more American, his more German. I told him I needed to get to Baerenthal, the town closest to the restaurant, where, surely, I could kill time at a café until my noon reservation. He pointed to a small bus parked in the dark distance and told me to talk to the driver.
A bus? I was overjoyed.
It didn’t go to Baerenthal, but the driver was happy to take me as far as Philippsbourg, about half the distance. As I later realized, to my great luck, it was the steepest part of the road to l’Arnsbourg.
Philippsbourg looked more like an intersection than a town. The bus driver pointed down one road and told me to follow it for 6 kilometers, and I’d find Baerenthal.
To my astonishment, Philippsbourg had a city hall that doubled as its bureau of tourism. I pinched myself.
The lights were on, so I rang the bell. A young man answered. He welcomed me inside.
I don’t know which one of us surprised the other more in that remote corner of the world that morning: me, the culturally misplaced Asian in a puffy down jacket and a ski cap on a bike with a basket (I looked ridiculous), or he, the city’s mayor, post master general, and head of tourism, who spoke pitch-perfect American English (it reminded me of that episode of “I Love Lucy” where the small town city hall was run by one man, who changed his hat according to his job and task). We marveled at each other for a moment, as I told him my story and he told me his. After studying for years in America, he had returned to his birthplace to take care of family business, and to run the town, apparently. He told me that I wasn’t far from the restaurant, and that I’d surely find a café in Baerenthal where I could rest until my reservation. And the best news: the road would remain relatively level for the rest of my journey.
* * *
* * *
Baerenthal was somewhere between Niederbronn-les-Bains and Philippsbourg in size, but seemed just as abandoned.
I found a butchery that was open. The woman behind the counter, thrice my size, was hammering away at a carcass with a cleaver when I walked in. Without looking up, she grunted, a signal to her husband, who soon appeared from the back, a grizzly bear in a singlet, hair everywhere. They both looked annoyed. I asked them if there was a café in town where I could get a something warm to drink. He told me to walk around the corner and I’d find a bakery. I didn’t need to ask twice.
When I turned the corner, I realized why the rest of the town was so quiet – everyone was at the bakery, getting their bread for the day. Daniel and Carine Fellrath’s place was more than a bakery, though. There was a small market inside, with sundry pantry items and a refrigerated dairy case. And, on that icy morning, it was paradise to me, a far-flung traveler chased by frostbite.
Carine noticed me (well, they all did), of course, because I was the only one in the place she didn’t know. Bright and cheery, with sparkly blue eyes and a glossy smile, she was like technicolor in a world of grey. Through eye signals, we somehow mutually agreed to let the crowd clear. After the last baguette walked out, she waved me up to the counter. I asked if they served coffee. They didn’t, but she asked me to wait. She called to her husband in the back, and for a moment, I had a flashback to the butcher counter around the corner. A big burly man, also in a singlet, Daniel didn’t look so happy to see me. He disappeared for a moment, and then reappeared in the kitchen door with a cup of steaming coffee and motioned me to follow him. Carine nodded, pushing me with her eyes.
The blazing warmth of a hearth awaited me. And next to it, a table and chairs, where I would spend the next two hours getting to know the Fellraths. Their morning bread having been sold, shades drawn, door locked, the bakery was closed until lunchtime. And so, they took the luxury of hosting a stranger in a strange land. Actually, they did so with such care that it was almost as if they had adopted me for the morning. Like parents, Daniel congratulated me and Carine chided me for my foolish and crazy bid.
They spoke little English – actually, Carine spoke and understood none – and I spoke no German. So, we met in French, mine clunky and awkward, theirs gutteral and gruff. And yet I don’t recall any wrinkles in our conversation at all, smoothed over by time and memory. We talked about l’Arnsbourg (It turns out that Carine was a childhood friend of Kathy Klein’s, chef Jean Klein’s sister, and the proprietress of the restaurant), and family (The Fellrath’s have a son, Cedric, a gangly teen at the time, who was apprenticing in a bakery two towns over. He came down to say hello before leaving for the day), and America, where the two hoped to visit soon.
It was two weeks to Christmas, and Daniel was rushed with cake orders, including a number of bûches de noël. He asked me if I’d help him. More than happy to lend a hand, I rolled up my sleeves and followed him about the kitchen, more an observer than a helper really, until it was time for me to go.
We exchanged contact information and promised to keep in touch. On my way out, Carine gave me two large brioche loaves for the road. Against my protest, she insisted that I take them – in case I got lost, which they both assured me wouldn’t happen. I put them in my basket, next to my backpack with my change of clothes, and thanked them both for saving my life.
I’ll never forget that ride between Baerenthal and l’Arnsbourg, a breathtaking stretch of pavement winding its way through the Vosges. I was alone, and all was silent and still, save a babbling brook that ran alongside of me, keeping me company as the clouds parted and sunlight filtering through the pine trees, casting streamers of light across the snow, as if to congratulate me on my luck. And, at a bend, a herd of cattle lowed by the roadside, as if cheering me on at the final stretch. I stopped to marvel at them, doe-eyed and beautiful, and to thank them for their support.
* * *
* * *
A caravan of luxury cars rolled past me as I turned that last corner before arriving at the bright, pink house I had seen on the restaurant’s website. They parked. I parked. With two brioche buns in my basket, I’m sure they thought I was the bread boy, making my delivery late that day. A stream of tailored suits and mink coats filed into the restaurant, and I followed behind, at a distance, with my backpack, feeling unexpectedly confident.
Surprisingly, the hostess didn’t bat a lash when I told her I had a reservation. She found me in her book immediately. But when she asked me how I got to the restaurant, and I told her that I had biked, her jaw dropped. I pointed to my ride outside the window. From where? Niederbronn-les-Bains, more or less, I told her, though really from Philippsbourg. It didn’t matter, she became hysterical, insisting on calling a doctor and having me lay down in their lounge. I reassured her that I needed no medical attention, asking only for the restroom, where I might freshen up a bit and change my clothes.
When I came out, a bit wrinkly, but groomed, the entire front of the house lined the hall from the reception to the dining room, staring at me. I’m sure that the hostess had told them I had biked from China.
They sent their only Japanese staff member, a young woman, to greet me in Japanese. When they discovered that I spoke neither Japanese nor Germany, we all agreed on French, since no one on their staff spoke English or Chinese.
I won’t recount the entire meal (I can name almost every dish by memory, especially a warm chestnut soup that was generously shaved with white truffles. It was so pungent that I smelled it halfway across the dining room, as it made its way to me. Here are the photos – hold your nose, these were taken before my DSLR days.), but suffice it to say, my incredulous adventure was not for naught. Imaginative, whimsical, beautiful, and delicious, Jean Klein’s food that day was a paragon of Michelin three-starred dining – it was “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” This meal was no less memorable than the journey that got me there.
Kathy Klein came out to say hello, with her brother, Jean, beside her. She had heard that I had come a long distance, and with a special effort, to l’Arnsbourg, and she and the chef wanted to thank me in person. I passed along the Fellraths’s greetings, pausing to explain my meeting with them that morning.
As I left, Ms. Klein showered me with bags of chocolate truffles and Jean Klein’s sunflower seeds, “sucré et salé,” which they sold in their lounge at great cost. Against my protest, she insisted – echoing Carine, she wanted me to take them in case I got lost, but reassured me that I would not. Pressing them into my hands, she told me to share them with my friends.
I took a different road back to Niederbronn-les-Bains, this one shorter, but with one large hill in between. I had to make the 6 o’clock train, so that I could return the bike before the rental shop closed at 8. With more than an hour, everyone on staff at l’Arnsbourg said that I’d have plenty of time (getting me back to Strasbourg had become a team effort).
I peddled my little heart out, working up enough heat to keep me warm.
The hill seemed insurmountable at first. There was no way I could conquer it on a one-speed bike. So I got off and walked. What time I lost going up, I gained back on the way down, coasting at break-neck speed down to Niederbronn-les-Bains, which looked no different at sunset than at sunrise: quiet, still, empty.
* * *
* * *
The girl at the shop nearly jumped out of her chair when I walked through the door. She wanted to know everything. She was so excited, that she pulled her co-workers out of the back to hear my story, no longer interested in discretion. So, I told them, with their eyes bugging, mouths agape, and showed them photos of the food on my camera. They had never imagined that anything like that existed. At the end, she turned to them and declared with a smile, “I knew he was crazy the moment he walked through that door!” And we all had a good laugh.
She returned my deposit, and in exchange, I presented her with the bags of truffles and sunflower seeds that Kathy Klein had given me. I’ll never forget the sight of them on that counter in that dingy rental shop that night, how they glowed likes bags of ambrosia dropped from Mount Olympus, ingots from another world, shiny and gilded. I told them that they were gifts from the Kleins, to be shared with my friends. They were theirs to enjoy, an insufficient thanks for their help, without which none of it would have been possible. The sight of their faces at that moment, alone, made every risk, every doubt, every freezing minute of that day worthwhile.
I took Carine’s two frozen brioche loaves with me, thawed them out, and shared them with the other kids in my hostel that night.
I awoke the next morning convinced it was all a dream. But in my backpack, I found the menu from the day before, and in my camera, evidence of my adventure.
I shudder to think how many things could have gone wrong that day. But, even though I was undeserving and reckless, the universe conspired to help make l’Arnsbourg happen for me. And it was a magical and unforgettable journey, epic and lovely all at once.
* * *
* * *
In January of last year (2011), I returned to l’Arnsbourg, this time with a slightly longer shoestring, and with more responsible conduct and carriage. Retracing my steps, I found that intersection in Philippsbourg, where I turned left, not right. I dropped by the bakery to say hello to the Fellraths, with whom I had kept in touch over the six years in between. Cedric, now a baker too, was engaged, living on his own, not far from his parents. But otherwise, the Fellraths, and all three blocks of Baerenthal, for that matter, seemed untouched, just as I remembered it.
And that team of cattle was right where I left it, lowing at the bend, cheering me to the end. I stopped to thank them once again.
After lunch at l’Arnsbourg, I had dinner with the Fellraths before returning to Strasbourg.
Carine’s entire clan – siblings and parents – live on the same street. So, it wasn’t hard to gather them all for a tarte flambée party, a true Alsatian treat.
That night, as they raised their glasses to toast my return, I marveled at the scene before me, proof that food is a universal language. The Fellraths and I are the most unlikely friends, divided by culture and language, and so much more. And yet, we met because of my crazy quest for food. Despite our many differences, they understood and appreciated my insanity and welcomed me back with open arms. This, I reminded myself, is why I do the crazy things I do, and, above all, why I love to eat.
I can’t wait to go back.
* * *
Photos: Tarte flambée in the oven at the Fellraths’, Baerenthal, France; my trusty “Main Cities of Europe” Michelin Guide from 2005; Daniel Fellrath’s bakery, Baerenthal, France; L’Arnsbourg, near Baerenthal, France; a stream at the woods’ edge behind l’Arnsbourg, near Baerenthal, France; Baerenthal, France; a toast by Carine Fellrath’s family, Baerenthal, France.