"Chez Henri was so small that there was no room for tables inside—four tables were set up in the alley"by Wendell Steavenson / October 16, 2014 / Leave a comment
I went to Perpignan in the first week of September for the annual photojournalism festival. On the first morning I went to get eggs for breakfast. Perpignan is close to the Spanish border; Catalan and French, poor, ungentrified, overlapped with waves of exiles and immigrants—Jews escaping the Moors, gypsies settled since the Middle Ages, communists from the Spanish Civil War, Arabs from the Maghreb. They live in tiny rooms along mazy medieval alleys that are swept by the Tramontane wind that blows like a hairdryer.
Eggs. Bread. Newspapers. I was a little bleary. What did I see? Espadrilles, rag pickers market, Café Etoile de Tunis, halal butchers, sticky crusty palmiers on the other side of dusty window patisserie. I went to a fromagerie and asked: Eggs?
“Try the vegetable man across the way!” I passed a jamon shop with haunches of iberico swinging on hooks and a fishmonger who was opening oysters next to a box of small scuttling grey crabs.
“Eggs?” I asked the vegetable man. He shook his head and pointed past the spice shop. “Try the snail lady.” The snail lady around the corner had a trestle table set up on the street: three sizes of escargot, fat pink garlic, onions, lemons, bundles of bay and thyme and verveine and vine branches for making a barbecue. And eggs! In the middle of the alley was a bar and next to the bar was a shop front, with a hand painted sign that read “Chez Henri.”
The first day we went for lunch we were served a soft sludge of rice with cockles, shrimp, slivers of crunchy artichoke, asparagus, chunks of iberico ham. Why was it so good? Not quite paella, not quite risotto; unctuous, yummy; I sucked bitter funk out of the shrimp heads, discovered an unexpected hit of cardamom, wiped the plate clean with bread. Henri, big and ursine, sweating a little, beamed at us. “It is the cuisine between the sea and the mountain,” he said.
Chez Henri was so small that there was no room for tables inside—four tables were set up in the alley. Lunch was so good that we went back for dinner and brought two friends. We went back the next day for dinner and the next. Each evening more people turned up. Henri press ganged his wife as dishwasher and ferried saucepans from fire to table: sweet cockles with parsley and butter and paprika, a coil of Catalan sausage, pork cheeks braised with onions, splashed with single malt whisky and sherry, soft slippery ratatouille, confit of duck crisped in his rusty trusty toaster oven, sautéed girolles, fried rabbit with globs of wobbling aioli.
“You like melon?” he would ask and disappear to arrange a salad. Every one he made came out different: spinach or rocket, duck gizzards or duck breast, rough bits of sausage, blanched green beans or asparagus. He would stand over a plate, head cocked to one side. After due consideration he might add a quartered fig and a spritz of balsamic vinegar or sprinkle the melon slices with cinnamon.
I watched him lay out a row of mismatched plates and spoon three meatballs onto each. There were not enough meatballs; late comers would only get two. The meatballs were rich and liverish in a thick glossy gravy made with sherry and mushrooms and olives and spiked with birds’ eye chili. They were the best meatballs I have ever eaten.
“Why do you cook?” I asked him. “Because if you cook you can eat! So if the Germans ever come back I’ll be alright. You can’t eat an office job! Eh!” In a former life Henri had owned a company that made computer drawings of architectural plans. He was not a chef; he was a happy man with a restaurant. He brought out an unlabelled green bottle, the kind of homemade wine known as “wine of thirst.” It was green and grassy and went down as happily as sunshine. “Just don’t tell the taxman!” Henri told me he made it himself from a patch of steep vineyard in Rasiguères, the village of his birth.
Henri cooked one or two dishes a day. He cooked what he found in the market. He didn’t fuss, he bought prewashed bags of spinach at the supermarket, his shrimp was frozen.“Why do you cook?” I asked him again. He answered: “To do something different every day, like a challenge.” Another time, he answered: “To have a rapport with my customers.”
On our last evening we were 14 people crammed on apple crates and bar stools balancing plates on our laps. Pans of rice with calamari and cockles and charred green padrone peppers and Catalan sausage and hidden lumps of aioli one after another. A guitarist played ballads and Italian tourist songs. We talked we drank we ate and laughed and Henri came out and poured more green wine. “I am an anti conformist,” he answered this time. “I am an artisan, not a chef. The most important thing is that people like it.”