Cab Cuisine

The chicken, a preparation both simple and splendid (it tastes so much better than it’s name would suggest), was the pride of the house. Perhaps created by the legendary Fernand Point, the dish consisted of a chicken, stuffed with sausage, placed in an inflated pig’s bladder and poached in a rich bouillon with aromatic vegetables. It was presented in its wholeness and then carved tableside and it was, as the taxi driver promised, magnificent.

At the end of dinner, when we called for a taxi, the same driver arrived and I was barely settled in the cab when the questions began. Our connoisseur/chauffer wanted to know everything we ate and drank. He nodded enthusiastically as I went from course to course and then, when I told him we had drunk a Sauternes with dessert, he shook his head in disapproval. "Ah, too bad," he sighed, "it would have been much better if you’d had that with the foie gras. Yes, too bad.

What was so interesting was that he wasn’t judgmental, just really sorry that I’d missed out on what he thought was a sublime combination. (So many years and so many foie gras-and-Sauternes pairings later, I can say he’s right: it really is that proverbial match made in heaven.) He spoke with such passion and, more than that, such authority, that when I got out of the cab, I half expected to see that instead of a hack’s license he had a diploma from Le Cordon Bleu.

That was my first conversation with a cuisine-savvy cabbie and I’ve since lost track of the number of French drivers I’ve met who have strong opinions on everything culinary – and even some recipes. My latest encounter took place in the back of  a Mercedes as I headed to the Paris airport yesterday.

I’m always miserable when I have to leave Paris, the kind of miserable that I’d rather not be jollied out of. Fortunately, the weather matched my mood: it started to rain as I had to leave; unfortunately, Taxi Bleu had sent me a perky driver: The door closed and he started to talk. At first the topic was the upcoming French elections, but no sooner had we crossed the Seine than he was talking about food. Turns out Djamal – yes, we quickly introduced ourselves to one another – is new to taxi driving; he spent 14 years as a waiter at Bofinger. And, while he never worked in the kitchen, he was in the kitchen enough to learn about cooking and to become passionné about food. It’s Djamal who does all the shopping and cooking for his family (a wife and 18-month-old son – very cute, I saw the picture). He’s also the one who sets the table – beautifully – "it’s the way I was trained," he says.

By the time we reached CDG, we’d covered everything from the importance of finding a good fishmonger to the joy of eating at home, especially after working a 12-hour shift. I had the feeling that Djamal is a good cook, and I’m going to find out if I’m right. The next time I’m in Paris, Djamal and I are going to try to cook together. I was hoping he’d teach me one of his mother’s Algerian couscous dishes, but he doesn’t know those – his mother taught them to his wife, continuing a centuries-old tradition of handing down recipes from mother to daughter. Never mind, whatever we do, I’ll bet it will be interesting. I’ll let you know.

Dorie Greenspan