I had a good night's sleep. Who wouldn't? I was embalmed by the Four Seasons George V in a room with a perfect patio overlooking rooftops in the distance. I don't much care to eat where I sleep, so I got dressed and walked down to the breakfast room, no matter that it had once served as a palatial ballroom. I enjoyed some rather coddled eggs and a basket of flaky heaven, served with butter from contented cows somewhere in the hills of Brittany.
The French believe the best butter must come from Normandy or Brittany. This is because it rains a lot, and the cows have more green grass to eat. But it goes deeper than that. The French have this word, terroir. It literally means "the soil's history." It is important in understanding the French way of looking at food and wine. The French believe you can taste the origin of the fruits, vegetables, butter, cream, etc. They can taste the soil, sense it in each bite.
There was a meeting or two in the morning and then off to a light lunch. I was attending the Virtuoso Chairman's Event, an opportunity to talk with some of the nation's top-producing agents and agency owners immediately following the U.S. presidential election. "The rich will get richer" seemed to be the prevailing view, and in certain sectors of the travel industry, I suppose that is a good thing. But there were often-stated concerns about the tendency of our new leader to identify and then insult entire nations and its citizens. But, after all, we were in Paris, so we need to be positive about the future and hope for the best.
I headed to a luncheon and a private tour at the Louis Vuitton Foundation. The luncheon was prepared by three-star Michelin chef Arnaud Donckele in a lovely setting framed by huge cubes that I found disconcerting and unattractive. But the foundation is considered a modern-treasure house of design, so what do I know?
In the late afternoon, I returned to the George V with a precious 45 minutes to get ready for predinner cocktails. This is normally something I would skip, but since the cocktail party was tres exclusive and held in the Picasso Museum, I made an appearance. About an hour into the gathering I realized I was being offered a level of hors d'oeuvres that exceeded anything I had experienced in the States, or the world for that matter: fois gras mini-sandwiches, scallops baked with figs, caviar atop lobster.
From the Picasso, we had a dine-around option. All of the top hotels in the Virtuoso Paris collection were hosting dinners. I went over to the Mandarin Oriental, where the chef prepared a special meal for our small group while the manager and his staff regaled us with tales of life inside a Paris hotel. That was the evening I discovered that poached turbot can be elevated to culinary heights I had not previously experienced. I tried re-creating the dish when I got home, and it was not such a great experience. I don't think you are supposed to begin with frozen turbot.
The next day, the Virtuoso guests were offered an array of activities that included a morning visit to the Hermes store before it opened with a behind-the-scenes look at the craftsmanship of their pieces; others were invited to the Musee d'Orsay for an informal morning lecture on the entertainment and festival aspects of the reign of Napoleon III. The Shangri-La offered a historic walk, followed by a two-star Michelin lunch, while others viewed the King's interior apartments at the Palace of Versailles, followed by lunch in the restaurant of Alain Ducasse, a three-star Michelin superstar.
There was more: a day going inside the world of the salons of the jeweler Cartier, and a choice of spa services followed by lunch at Fouquet's.
I decided I would accept an invitation to tour the gardens of Versailles with the chief gardener. He approached us in the waiting room, all ruffled and soil-stained, with wavy hair and a three-day stubble. He began welcoming us in lovely French after a few minutes of which he said, "You are all fluent in French, correct?"
When we shook our heads no, he immediately broke into a Tony Soprano accent and explained that "no worries, I am from New Jersey."
His mother was French, and he moved to France at an early age. He started walking us through the 22-acre gardens from the 17th century, a favorite achievement of Louis XIV. He was, I noticed, a botanist, a historian, a supreme gardener and, most importantly, a philosopher. He taught us something I had never heard expressed before.
The French, he explained, are fixated on the condition of their stomach and the interaction of the gastric process with whatever food enters their system. He said that to understand French food and life, you must understand that the French pay particular attention to how they feel in the hours following a meal. They believe that we all have a unique system and that each of us interacts with food differently. So food affects us differently. Some of us are happier after eating kale, others not so much. Salmon for the evening meal puts some in the perfect position for healthful sleep. Others might thrive on a dinner of pig's jowls with offalesque side dishes.
"The French are constantly cataloguing the foods they eat that make them feel good, healthy and happy as well as the ones that don't. The ones that have a negative effect are removed from their diet. This is a concept that is not a part of the average American's approach to food."
He scooped hidden gems from underneath the soil and led us on a short excursion to find rare herbs hidden from view. This all happened on a heavily overcast, chilly day, with the Palace of Versailles looming in the background. I remember thinking, "I hope my friends who are doing Hermes or Cartier are enjoying it as much."
We walked from the gardens to the kitchen of the Trianon Palace, a Waldorf-Astoria Collection Hotel. I was suited up with a proper apron and escorted inside the kitchen of Gordon Ramsay. A new chef had arrived, a protege of Ramsay named Frederic Larquemin, who had worked with him at Claridge's in London.
I've done a fair number of in-kitchen experiences around the world. It is something we often arrange for clients. But this was an extraordinary experience because of the setting and the quality of the instruction. The semicircular kitchen was enclosed by high windows with views of the fields of Versailles and grazing sheep in the distance.
One of the takeaways was that one should always keep a high-quality chicken broth next to the stove to dilute olive oil so it doesn't burn when it cooks. This makes it possible to use olive oil, maintaining its flavor while reducing the possibility it will turn bad from overheating.
There were truffles and foam and pumpkins from the garden. The chef even managed to take us through a dish from the time it is placed on order, explaining that many chefs must employ microphones or hearing aids so they can hear every word of every order while judging plating times. I tried to get him to talk about Ramsay, but other than a knowing smile, his only on-the-record comment was, "A week in the kitchen with Gordon Ramsay is like a four-year internship anywhere else."
On the last evening, a surprise: Our group was taken on a tour of Paris at night, then dropped at the footstep of our private boat for the evening. I had to get up from my table as we passed the Eiffel Tower. We got close, the boat slowed and the lights on the tower gleamed as the clouds gave way to a clearing night sky.
The filmmaker Wes Anderson once said that walking down an unknown street in Paris "is like going to a movie." It is all so beautiful, so poignant and so available, awaiting our clients with open arms in an atmosphere of elegance that can't be replicated anywhere else on Earth.
Editor's note: This column previously was mislabeled as "Part 1 of 2." In fact, it was the second of two parts. Read the first part here.