Remembering Richard

by Kermit Lynch, October 2002

Richard Olney, circa 1983 @ Gail Skoff

Some readers might recall that Richard Olney influenced me quite a bit at the beginning of my career. Or is that bragging? Now that he is gone, I miss him even while I work, because sometimes I used to select the wines I import with the thought in the back of my mind: would I pour this for Richard?

A native of the Midwest, Richard went to France in the 1950s and stayed. He became a respected culinary expert and wrote for France’s most prestigious culinary publications. He authored several books, some of which we stock, some of which like Yquem and Romanée-Conti, are out of print. Too bad.

He was famous for being ornery. His criticisms could be devastating. Plus, he was always right. I am never always right. If Richard was not cocksure, he would not offer an opinion. As you can imagine, it is a hell of a thing to argue with a friend who is always right.

Here is a Richard story I have wanted to tell you for a long time because of the way it reveals Richard’s personality and the perils of restaurant dining in France, but I have hesitated because it seemed to catch Richard in error, of all things.

A few years ago, I invited Lulu Peyraud and Richard to spend a weekend with my family and me on the island of Porquerolles near Toulon. Our hotel had a Michelin-rated, one-star restaurant, and we learned that we had to pay for at least one meal a day there. Imposed meals, always a bad sign. The restaurant was a client of Domaine Tempier, so Lulu was interested in making a good impression.

The first course arrived and we all stared down at it as if some obscene violation had taken place. There on our plates was the little sea creature native to local waters called a vioulet. I’d better explain what a vioulet is because you may never encounter one. It is a coquillage, or shellfish, but its “shell” looks like a rock, feels like a rock, and cutting one open is knife destroying. Yet some of us consider them a rare delicacy, including all of us there at table. Normally you cut them in half, revealing the beast within, which is vividly colored: shocking neon lemon yellow, sometimes with greenish or violet tints. With your thumb you force one out of the half “shell” and you eat them raw. Most people look at a vioulet and refuse to try one. Of those who try, many will spit it right out because nothing they have eaten has such a texture. Almost rubbery. Alive and rubbery. Or they resist the incredibly potent flavor of the sea the French call iodé. But then there are those who have an almost religious appreciation of them.

What we saw on our plates was sacrilegious. The one-star chef had chopped the beasts into raw hash with chunks of celery on a lettuce leaf! There was incredulous muttering from Richard, astonishment on Lulu’s face. And I’m the kind of guy who thinks that even an oyster has only one valid destination: raw and chilled on the half shell. I have seen oyster terrines, oysters baked, oysters ground into paste. If you have good oysters, serve them raw; if not, don’t serve them. And if that is arguably true of an oyster, it is a thousand times more true of a vioulet. And of a radish, by the way.

We each took a nibble. Richard dropped his fork in disgust.

After a while the maître d’ (let’s call him Gaston) arrived to ask if anything was wrong. Of course something’s wrong, I thought. Get these plates out of sight and shut up.

Out of deference to Lulu’s position as a wine supplier, Richard managed to say something innocent and uncritical, but Gaston noticed his American accent.

“Oh, that’s it, you Americans are squeamish about raw food.”

Uh-oh. If you knew Richard, you would know that he would not like being referred to as “you Americans.” And besides, Richard is the one who introduced me to vioulets in the first place, with a bottle of 1974 Morey-Saint-Denis blanc. Richard enjoyed eating kidneys and lungs, testicles and brains. Not squeamish.

He and Gaston began to bicker and as they did so, diners at nearby tables turned to listen.

Gaston could not accept that an American knew anything about the local vioulet or anything about food at all. Finally Richard began to let it all hang out and told Gaston that at least he might change the menu to get the spelling of vioulet corrected. Gaston looked like he’d swallowed a porcupine. On the menu it was spelled violet. After a couple of yes-it-is and no-it-isn’ts, he told Richard that he was certain it was violet because it was spelled that way on his fisherman’s delivery van. He saw it every morning. Richard looked down, straightened a few bread crumbs for a beat or two, then settled his eyes on Gaston. “Maybe you would be better off with a dictionary.” I don’t know about you, but I found that remark rather scathing.

By now, the entire restaurant watched the show, because, given the volume, it could not be ignored.

Richard explained that vioulets are to be served pristinely, accompanied by bread and butter and a dry white wine.

Gaston stood as tall as he could. “Monsieur (all this took place in French), you are not in some bar on the port. Don’t you understand? This is a one-star restaurant and people come here for haute cuisine.”

Richard exploded. “Ce n’est pas de la haute cuisine, c’est de la merde!

The plates were removed. Our main course followed: a filet of sole and slices of zucchini wrapped together (!) in aluminum foil and baked in the oven. How about that? A one-star TV dinner. Haute cuisine, indeed.

However, when I first sat down to write this story, a source in France assured me that vioulet is spelled violet. My French dictionary did not help. But Richard, wrong? It ruined the character revelation, ruined the anecdote.

Then, the other day at lunch in Burgundy with Aubert de Villaine, I told him the story. A few days later I found a fax from him, a page from his dictionary with the spelling vioulet, explaining that the word is of Provençal origin. As is the critter.

“So you see,” Aubert noted, “Richard was right again after all.”

Leave a Reply