The other day I was doing some planning for our vacation in June. I am, as my father used to say, a glutton for punishment. Or would that be, I’m cruisin’ for a bruisin’? For we will be piling into the minivan and driving across the country.
Looking at the June calendar, I noticed that the 24th is Saint Jean-Baptiste Day in Canada. I could have done some research so as to inform you concerning the holiday, but I wasn’t really interested. See, when I saw the name Jean-Baptiste, I was transported back 15 years ago to a five-course bistro in my hometown.
Washing Dishes at Chateau Basque
After I graduated high school, I worked for a summer at a small restaurant called Chateau Basque, which was like a little piece of Europe in a Wild West town known for its territorial prison that held such outlaws as stage coach and train robbers. Chateau Basque’s owners were just as historically interesting. They were an eccentric, 70-something couple—she from Great Britain and he from the Basque region nestled in southern France and northern Spain.
J.B., as he liked to be called, worked the bar and took brandy in his coffee. He was what a good bartender should be, a wonderful listener and a great story teller. He often talked about growing up in Basque raising goats, though later in the evening—when the dishes slowed down and I could break from the kitchen—his speech slurred and he would often trail off, lost in thought.
Joanie, who really ran the restaurant herself, occupied the first booth in the lounge near the entrance, sipping Chablis all evening and smoking like a chimney. She was shorter than her diminutive husband, except the wigs she wore enabled her to tower over him. She had a fondness for me. Perhaps my dark, somewhat European features reminded her of her son, whom they seldom saw.
J.B. and Joanie also had a daughter, who served as the cook. She might have been a lesbian, this curious woman who liked to give scraps to the throng of cats outside—the same cats J.B. threatened to turn into kitty tacos. I can’t remember the daughter’s name, but she liked to read magazines like National Inquirer, though not merely for entertainment. I think she believed government operatives were encoded into stories about humans giving birth to aliens and sightings of Jesus’ second coming. She was sweet, though, always making me dinner.
J.B. and Joanie introduced me to an altogether different class of society. On Mondays the restaurant was closed, and often they hosted dinner parties and invited me along. I’d bring my keyboard and entertain them with Billy Joel or Broadway tunes. Joanie would herself cook for these events, and we would eat prime rib or lamb or fresh fish. We enjoyed specialty cheeses that were a lot stronger than the Colby I was used to. And the wine, oh the wine did flow.
I was only 18 at the time, so they could have been shut down and J.B. would have had only his stories to offer. But the restaurant was probably a much safer place for my underage imbibing. While other kids my age were out drinking in the middle of the desert or frequenting clubs in Mexico, where 18 on your I.D. could get you a watered down Long Island iced tea, I was eating expensive food and sipping wine with people more than twice my age, including a Moroccan who could drink anyone under the table.
Fond of Cindy
While in college, I lost touch with them. But I introduced them to Cindy, when I took her there on our first date. They loved her, especially J.B. who had a European’s eye for young, striking women—he told her that when she tired of me he’d be waiting, Joanie notwithstanding. Then about 18 months later, Cindy showed them her new diamond ring—I proposed to her at the restaurant. And finally, on a visit back home to Arizona (after we’d moved to Ohio), we left the girls with my parents and went there on a date. They always gave us privacy while we ate but afterward demanded our company at the bar, where J.B. kept shoving salty dogs toward Cindy.
That was nearly ten years ago, the last time I saw them. J.B. died first, and then Joanie.
I searched Chateau Basque Yuma AZ and followed a link to local restaurant reviews. Two years ago, someone posted: THIS RESTAURANT HAS BEEN CLOSED FOR OVER FIVE YEARS. PLEASE UPDATE. That saddened me. But I know I’m a better man for having worked there, and specifically for the opportunity to know them.
Salut, Monsieur Jean-Baptiste et Madame Joanie.
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UPDATE (6/11/11): I should have added that in no way do I condone illegal underage drinking. Sometimes I forget that I just might have some younger readers, and I don’t want to encourage illegal behavior. I apologize that I may have given a different impression on the subject. If you’re younger than 21, stay away from the sauce. If you’re of legal age, as with all things, enjoy with moderation and responsibly.