Helen Rosner has perfectly summed up the week between Christmas and New Years as the Sunday afternoon of the year. It’s a great time to hang around watching TV, cook something, and dread going back to work. And like many Sunday afternoons, I procrastinated working on the newsletter until the last minute. That’s why I’m currently in a Lisbon Starbucks, dashing off some quick thoughts before my computer battery dies.
Since I am in Europe visiting my sister for the holidays, I didn’t put together any end-of-year content (I opted instead to eat cheese and drink several gallons of vin chaud). However, I was thrilled to be a guest on the TASTE podcast (hello, new subscribers!). I think our conversation covered most of the thoughts I might have put into a 2018 recap. I talked with TASTE editor Anna Hezel about some of my favorite food stories of the year, why I don’t think there will be a replacement for Anthony Bourdain or J. Gold, and what trends I’m hoping to see more of in 2019. I am mortified that I got the date of the death of Jitlada chef Suthiporn “Tui” Sungkamee wrong, but my point that the food at Jitlada rocks still stands. Also, I got an email critiquing my “uptalk” from a random stranger so my march to becoming a real live media influencer continues. Please do give the podcast a listen, share with your friends, and subscribe. Matt and Anna are doing fantastic work.
Speaking of Europe and my sister, she wrote me an amazing essay that I am honored to share with you. Long-time readers will know that she works at a fancy wine distributor (négociant) in Bordeaux, France. It’s both a foreign, nth-generation family company and her first office job. Often my gchats from her are, “Is this a normal office thing or just French?” While many things are very normal, the lunch situation is so weird I begged her to write more about it. Enjoy.
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What to eat for lunch is an unending question for office workers, but at my current job, it’s one I rarely have to ask.
My office a 30-minute bus ride from Bordeaux. The ride runs parallel to the Garonne River, taking you past suburbs, the industrial port of the city, past a grain refinery, until finally you arrive in the countryside. Needless to say, the food options are limited. The nearest village (15-minutes away) has a small supermarket and a surprisingly decent pizzeria. Mostly, everyone eats at la cantine.
Cantine translates to “cafeteria,” but it’s nothing like the dorm or corporate meal you are imagining. It’s closer to a restaurant family meal than anything else. There are three courses, served family-style: a cold, usually vegetable-based salad, a hot main dish, and dessert. The dessert is often homemade, but in summer there are always ice cream bars. In addition to dessert, there is always fruit, puddings, yogurts, and a cheese plate. Of course there is always wine from the company winery, plus leftovers from whatever tastings we’ve done that week. It’s a good deal-- each lunch costs roughly 4 euros and is deducted from your paycheck each month.
On Monday, you get a red and white checked napkin. You’ll use that for the entire week. In between meals, you keep it in a cubby labeled with your name. Yes, just like in kindergarten.
This all sounds charming and French. And it is. It also instantly reverts everyone at the company to horrible, gossipy high-schoolers. Myself extremely included.
Lunch has two settings: 12:00 and 1:15. You can’t chose, but are assigned one or the other. My branch of the company eats at 1:15. DO NOT BE LATE. It does not matter if you are on the phone with a customer, in the middle of a complex spreadsheet, or not hungry. Being late will get you scolded by the chef, and even worse, increase the risk you get a bad seat.
Seating is essential to the happiness of your lunch break. Each table (either four or six seats) is its own unit. These are your ride or die. The main dish is served family style and split between the people in your unit. You can’t get up and clear the table until everyone is done eating. You converse with the people at the table, even turning your back to the person on your right when there are two tables pushed together. If you arrive late, you risk sitting at a table where you don’t know anyone. I once had a very awkward lunch sitting with only our CFO, with whom I had never spoken.
In the past year, people have begun saving seats. This has caused Major Drama, as it’s split the office on whether or not it’s rude. Once, our videographer threw a fit when he tried to sit at a seat that was saved. He stormed out of the room, refusing to eat.
There are no choices; you eat what is served. The main dish is always meat, usually with a vegetable or a starch. The food is usually pretty good, sometimes outstanding. Now and then, it’s gross. Last summer, during a heat wave, the main dish was a cold pasta salad with cubes of ham, cubes of cheese, chopped hard boiled eggs, and chopped pickles. It was served with a giant bowl of mayonnaise on the side. Nothing whets the appetite on a 95-degree day like a heaping bowl of mayonnaise.
The menu is never posted in advance, so it’s always a surprise, with two exceptions. Monday is always steak-frites. The smell of hot oil starts to wafts up the stairs around 11:30 in the morning, and lasts in the office for the rest of the day (also in the hallways, in your hair, and on your clothes). The meat is always bloody rare, nearly raw. You can get it plus cuit (more cooked), but it will be a grey piece of shoe leather. I’ve learned to eat it rare, with lot of mustard. The french fry condiment of choice is, obviously, mayonnaise.
Friday is always fish (Catholic traditions die hard), and it’s always cooked well. Friday is my favorite day to eat at the cantine.
The chef is inventive, and likes to try new things. We recently had a vegan lunch. Breaking the rule, it was announced a week in advance (so that people could pack their own lunch if needed). Water cooler discussions in the lead-up were intense. Several of my French colleagues were dismayed when I explained that vegan also meant no cheese. The starter was a buffet of tapenade, hummus, artichoke dip, and cherry tomatoes. The main dish was plain frozen veggie patties with green beans. Reviews were decidedly mixed.
Admittedly it is not the most relaxing break. It’s hard to have to make smalltalk for an hour when you’re having a crappy day,. It can be draining to spend the entire work day non-stop with the same people. Worse, I’ve had arguments with coworkers and then had to sit next to them at the cantine.
Personally, it’s a challenge language-wise, too. I have trouble following a conversation when there are four people talking at once, especially when two have their mouths full. It’s easier during sports season-- watching the weekend soccer games gives you a common subject to talk about on Monday. The World Cup was great.
Naturally we talk about work. Depending on whom you sit with, you can also get high-quality work gossip. I know that after the monthly executive board meeting, I should come early to sit next to our comptroller. More often than not, though, we talk about other things. I know a lot more about kids, grandkids, home improvement projects, and vacations than I would otherwise. It’s a good opportunity to talk to people outside of your office bubble. I never work with our sister company’s export director, but I love eating lunch with him.
Of course, this being France, there are also unspoken etiquette rules. Women serve themselves first. This gets complicated when there are two women at either end of the table and the hot dish has to be carefully and awkwardly passed back and forth. It’s polite not to take too much from the main dish before everyone is served. You should always ask the table before taking seconds. Clearing the table is a shared job: one person takes the empty main dish, another gathers the silverware and plates, and a third gets coffee cups. People whisper about those who never help with clearing the table and their lack of manners.
You can bring your own lunch from home, and many do. But if you do, you can’t sit at the cantine, or even use it at off times. These people eat at their desk, sit together in an empty conference room, or use the outdoor picnic tables in between the parking lot and the cow pasture. It’s pretty much acceptable to bring your own lunch, but I have heard it mentioned as a sign of antisocial behavior. So, it’s good to show your face once and a while at the cantine.
We are currently building new offices in the center of Bordeaux in the brand new business district. There will be no more cantine. The chef will stay on and keep cooking lunch, but only for the upper management. (Did I mention that management has a separate dining room, with nicer china, better plating, and sometimes fancier food? That they also have a small bell they ring when they’re done?)
I am looking forward to having more flexibility with my lunch hour, and the chance to decide what I eat for myself. I look forward to the first Pret à Manger that arrives in Bordeaux. But I’ll miss the weird classicism, the comradery, and even the mayonnaise.
Sample Week’s Menu
Sliced tomatoes with vinaigrette
Grated carrot salad with raisins and chopped bacon
Pork with a curry pineapple sauce
Hard-boiled eggs topped with tuna salad
Roasted duck breast with buttered noodles
Half an avocado with vinaigrette
Chicken tenders in a mushroom cream sauce
Peel on shrimp with mayonnaise
Baked cod with lemon