From A Year in Provence, by Peter Mayle (Pan Books Ltd., 1990)*

* * *

An old man emerged from the kitchen and was peering at us, screwing up his eyes against the light coming through the door. We told him we'd made a reservation for lunch.

'Sit down, then. You can't eat standing up.' He waved airily at the empty tables. We sat down obediently, and waited while he came slowly over with two menus. He sat down with us.

'American? German?'


'Good,' he said, 'I was with the English in the war.'

We felt that we had passed the first test. One more correct answer and we might be allowed to see the menus which the old man was keeping to himself. I asked him what he would recommend.

'Everything,' he said. 'My wife cooks everything well.'

He dealt the menus out and left us to greet another couple, and we dithered enjoyably between lamb stuffed with herbs, daube, veal with truffles and an unexplained dish called the fantaisie du chef. The old man came back and sat down, listened to the order and nodded.

'It's always the same,' he said. 'It's the men who like the fantaisie.'

I asked for a half-bottle of white wine to go with the first course, and some red to follow.

'No,' he said, 'you're wrong.' He told us what to drink, and it was a red Côtes du Rhône from Visan. Good wine and good women come from Visan, he said. He got up and fetched a bottle from a vast dark cupboard.

'There. You'll like that.' (Later, we noticed that everybody had the same wine on their table.)

He went off to the kitchen, the oldest head waiter in the world, to pass our order to perhaps the oldest practicing chef in France. We thought we heard a third voice from the kitchen, but there were no other waiters, and we wondered how two people with a combined age of over 160 managed to cope with the long hours and hard work. And yet, as the restaurant became busier, there were no delays, no neglected tables. In his unhurried and stately way, the old man made his rounds, sitting down from time to time for a chat with his clients. When an order was ready, Madame would clang a bell in the kitchen and her husband would raise his eyebrows in pretended irritation. If he continued talking, the bell would clang again, more insistently, and off he would go, muttering, 'j'arrive, j'arrive.'

The food was everything the Gault-Millau guide had promised, and the old man had been right about the wine. We did like it. And, by the time he served the tiny rounds of goats' cheese marinated in herbs and olive oil, we had finished it. I asked for another half-bottle, and he looked at me disapprovingly. 'Who's driving?'

'My wife.'

He went again to the dark cupboard. 'There are no half-bottles,' he said, 'you can drink as far as here.' He drew an imaginary line with his finger half way down the new bottle.

The kitchen bell had stopped clanging and Madame came out, smiling and rosy-faced from the heat of the ovens, to ask us if we had eaten well. She looked like a woman of sixty. The two of them stood together, his hand on her shoulder, while she talked about the antique furniture, which had been her dowry, and he interrupted. They were happy with each other and they loved their work, and we left the restaurant feeling that old age might not be so bad after all.

* Copyright 1990 by Peter Mayle. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf Inc.

Love and Growth

In a survey of the founders and chief executive officers of the Inc. 500, our annual listing of the fastest-growing private companies in America, more than one-third of the respondents reported that they work in the business with their spouses.