During my lesson this morning, among French phrases such as ‘chaque heure, ca change’ and ‘l’amour propre’, I scrawled the words ‘Les Halles Paul Bocuse’ and underneath, a few keywords in English: ‘gastronomy guarantees supremacy’ and ‘father’s father’.
I didn’t know until I lived in France that it was possible that my father’s name, Loi, was not Vietnamese. I haven’t checked this with him, because we don’t speak much, and when we do the conversations are so terrible. Anyway, some time during the first month here I came across his name, or rather the word for his name in the paperwork for the various visa processes we were obliged to follow. ‘Loi’ is French for law. Dad was born in 1954, the same year Vietnam proclaimed its independence after defeating the French in the first Indochina War. I can’t remember why but his legal papers record a different date of birth, for a completely different day and month in the year 1955. Is the legal birth date itself legal, if it does not reflect the true date?
I don’t know what his parents thought about the French, or indeed what they thought about Vietnam the year of its independence from colonial rule, the year my dad was unofficially born. The year would have been a big one for constitutional law. My dismay: the important things are so boring. I have never studied history, and I am always coming up against this deficit and the incomprehension it brings about in so many matters in life.
Being the daughter of a migrant obviously I was expected to become either a doctor or a lawyer. I never studied law, but I managed to become a doctor of poetry, and that’s definitely not what my poor migrant dad meant all those years I was ordered to study by this tired, angry man who spent his days burning electrodes. Recently I read a strange excerpt from a nineteenth century Vietnamese history, written by an early Vietnamese historian whose name I don’t remember, who characterised his own people as intellectually inferior to the French, capable of great imagination in the literary sphere but weak in the superior procedures of reason. I suppose that at the time his source material for historical research was written by French ethnographers and anthropologists.
What did my paternal grandparents think of the French? I was told once there was some French mixed into the Vietnamese part of the family. Quite a few of my aunties and uncles have naturally curly hair. I don’t know very much about this side of the family. (Or the other side of the family, for that matter and goddam, I meander.) I spend so much time wondering about things I can never know. I do know that my father’s father was a famous chef in Saigon, both during and after French rule. His celebrity existed before the paradigm of the celebrity chef as we have it now, but maybe I can understand his celebrity only in modern, tabloid ways. I’m told by my father that people still come to the family house now, to this day, asking about his recipes. They are French recipes of course, and it is a source of very private pride to me that this quiet man, whom I only met once, sailed to Paris in his youth to learn how to cook.
That he never really spoke is one of the few legends I have of this man. My own father is garrulous, like his mother I think. I think he would die if he couldn’t speak. One of the few things my grandfather, my ong noi, said to my father when he was a child was ‘never be a chef’. It is a shame, my father says, that his father was never proud of his acclaim, and never sought to pass on his brilliant career to his sons (daughters could not be chefs back then). Another source of shame, according to my father, is that the children were never taught Chinese (both parents’ families originated from Hainan, and are therefore ethnically Chinese, whatever that actually means). My father never taught me welding nor Vietnamese (and of course neither of these assertions is strictly true). I’m told that welders earn quite a good living these days, burning electrodes. Much more than doctors and lawyers.
My father used to tell me about how he was the only one of his nine siblings that loved his dad. The others, especially his ‘stupid, big mouth’ eldest brother, knew how to ‘sweet talk’ their mother. Unlike his mother, and unlike his siblings, my dad would wait, he told me, every night for his father to come home from work at whichever famous restaurant or hotel he was employed. They would go out for noodles while everyone else was in bed, never saying much to each to other. I intimate a romantic scene. I think at one point Ong Noi was cooking for the President of Vietnam. And my father asked his father, possibly one night over street noodles, whether he could slip some poison into the President’s meal.
It amazes me that I never realised until I came to France that I have never really cared about or particularly enjoyed French food. And while I like how I keep losing reasons to be here, I regret not being able to bridge the generational gap, or maybe I mean something else—spot weld, perhaps, around some of the structural defects in that monstrous bridge that spans all those oceans and seas. I will never know whether Ong Noi didn’t teach his children how to cook because he saw no future in the French, or because the work itself was degrading. And on a practical level he didn’t need to—they all became great home cooks instinctively. Could it be that despite his celebrity he was still subaltern in the kitchen, on the floor, in the lobby? I have no idea. Maybe he was just not a good teacher, a trait that seems to run in the family.
The paradigm of the celebrity chef is surely a French invention—didn’t restaurants come about after the Revolution, when the old court chefs needed to figure out how to make a living in the new way? In class today we were talking, or rather I listened to the class talk about all the different types of markets in Lyon. Brocante, marche aux puces (I love this phrasing), they went on. There are women from all over the world in my class, and in the discussion of markets all of them complained about how their husbands never knew the price of anything after they did the shopping. And they complained of how bored their husbands were, of their ennui, when shopping for clothes in the mall. My dad always says, if you want to find a husband, go look for him in the army. And if you want to find a wife, go to the market. I know everything has bias, but this is really too rich—he himself was in the army. I just remembered, I think he said once that his birth date was altered so he could avoid conscription (an undertaking made redundant when he volunteered to serve in the American war). Our teacher wrote ‘Les Halles de Paul Bocuse’ on the white board. Who knows this place? I put my hand up. And somehow my pride in my grandfather surged. Because I see him in the faces, under the big white hats (what is their purpose) of those old French chefs. Who was Paul Bocuse? I didn’t put my hand up. Un chef celebre, I said. He invented la nouvelle cuisine. His restaurant, in the north of Lyon, has been awarded three Michelin stars for more than five decades.
Our teacher explained Les Halles de Paul Bocuse, a famous food market in Lyon I have actually been to, twice, without buying anything. The best produce in France, the freshest, the highest quality, and yes, the most expensive. She was beaming. Another student, a woman from Syria, asked what kind of food the stall holders there sell? Asiatique, arabique. ‘Mais non, la gastronomie francaise!’ our teacher cried. I instantly felt bad about what I scrawled in tiny English words about supremacy. It is not as simple as cultural supremacy, this pride in French cuisine. I felt the surge too, and I couldn’t be less French, or less of a Francophile. I was touched by the old world sense our teacher seemed to cling to in today’s weird weather (chaque heure, ca change), its collision of two superstorms—the winter of globisation and the slightly more summery (I reckon) colonisation in reverse—that has already reached France.
And perhaps there is nothing simple about cultural supremacy itself. There is something marvellous, immoral, but marvellous nonetheless, about assertions of excellence, and the discursive systems they proliferate (terroir, blah blah). But why bang on all the time? What insecurity and doubt lurks behind supremacy? There is ‘l’amour propre’ but also vexation, and then there is ‘l’amour de l’autre’. And maybe somewhere in between that was my ong noi, working on those glamorous river boats, and in Saigon’s big colonial hotels, in the palaces, tired and silent, tall and handsome into his eighties, bad with money, whose name I have never been told. I like to think he really did name his middle child after the law per se, which is strangely transcendent despite itself. He passed and named (what, or who), in an attitude of ambivalence, with hatred and love commingling under the fading colonial system, which was perhaps the only place the celebrated chef could see himself.