The list is not a pragmatic ‘to do’ affair because the actual doing remains largely shrouded in mystery. The entries reside outside the mundane and serve to enrich my experience (like a personal ‘beurre monté) rather than buoy my ego. Entries usually arrive in an inspired manner and are executed under the same conditions. They emanate from a deeply personal place, although sometimes I share a desire with many others of similar bent. Like my DNA, they weave a very personal and intricate pattern into my gastronomic being.
I can demonstrate the personal nature of the list by telling the story of my journey to the Auberge of the Flowering Hearth. This enchanted inn is the namesake of one of my most favourite cookbooks, a French classic (and cult favourite) written by Roy Andries de Groot. It tells the story of an inn, located in the alpine environs surrounding Chartreuse, and its owners, two women regionally reputed for their exceptional taste in food and wine. The book is part recipe book, part journal, and part historic record of the region. Besides the gustatory delights offered at the inn, the book recounts the story of the monks who settled at Chartreuse and developed the famous French digestive, a secret concoction of local alpine herbs that made the monastery and region famous. The inn is located on a small, single lane road and invests in almost no signage. I overshot it more than once before finding a local to help me. Directly across the narrow road from the inn a pastoral scene that included a small herd of local dairy cattle, bells at their neck, chewing cud close enough to the fence line to take me in with some interest. I arrived well before dinner but had no intention of eating, as I feared that would mess with the experience (and I’m glad for that instinct). The owner did come out to greet me and welcomed me into the very low ceiling, dark, tiled foyer. I drank it in, and despite the many modern amenities, the original inn was visible just below the surface. I was ecstatic and later in the day I sent both Alison Fryer of the Cookbook Store and Eleanor Kane of the Stratford Chefs School an email, including a photo, because I knew they both would understand the specialness of that experience. I spent the remainder of the day enjoying an omelette filled with local cheese on an outdoor terrace flanked by a flock of grazing sheep while paragliders passed overhead. I toured the monastery, one of the most serene and special places I have ever visited (or maybe it was just me and the day). What I felt about the experience, and what is inherent to all bucket list experiences, is a deep feeling of wellbeing and gratitude and an incomparable sense of aliveness.
Not all bucket list entries are immediately satisfied. There is one entry on mine that has existed since the lists inception more than 20 years ago. From a very early stage of my career I have wanted to spend time at Ballymaloe. I don’t even recall how I first came to know about this enchanted place. I have immense respect for both Allen women, firstly Myrtle and then Darina, and have long been drawn to places that great women cooks have built. Their holistic approach to food and life, including the arts of gardening and pottery making, render Ballymaloe irresistible to me. I perceive a shared love of similar things and am curious about how they are woven into their world. If and when the dream is realized, what will come is a deeper understanding of why the thirst was given to me in the first place.
There are also entries that return to the list even after they’ve been achieved. Le Bernardin is a fine example of this for me. I visited New York City in late 2008 in the months immediately following the stock market crash. The whole week was a minor festival of crossing off bucket list restaurant entries but Le Bernardin was at the apex. I arrived for lunch on a grey, damp, slushy day in the week preceding Christmas. I was in the heightened state of anticipation that heralds the realization of a dream. I was greeted and seated towards the back of the dining room with a perfect view of the room at large. I was practicing (and continue to practice) the fine art of not taking any distraction when dining alone. I was book and phone free. I wanted the full experience and felt secure enough to be seen dining alone. It was, as I had imagined, extraordinary (and included a walk through by Eric Ripert). I remember many things, including a sublime dish of crispy black bass in a sauce infused with Iberico ham. I was treated with extraordinary care in spite of my aloneness and had a waiter whose skills I hold as a bar to measure all others. I breathed deeply, watched the room closely, and enjoyed every last moment. I knew that this restaurant would never leave my bucket list. Returning to its elegance was essential.
Not all the bucket stuff is posh or exotic. On my current list is a desire to attend the American Royal World Series of Barbecue in Kansas City. It’s been there since I crossed attending Memphis in May off the list in 2008. I’ve not had to travel far to meet one of my great chef heroes, Jacques Pepin, who I met twice in Toronto. But there are, and always will be, very fine restaurants on my list: Manresa, Blue Hill at the Stone Barns, L’Arpege, and Sukiyabashi Jiro. Of the more exotic current entries I hope one day to attend the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, to eat from a hawker stall in Singapore, to enjoy coffee and Sacher Torte on a snowy day in Vienna, and to pay an extended visit to Oaxaca.
The list will remain, and needs be, unrealized. The entries are a calling – an inner whisper of desire. To come to the end of the list would be a dangerous thing. It would signal a shift away from the kind of delight that only a fleeting experience can possess. I want never to enter the realm of the blasé, collecting for collection sake rather than treasuring my great good fortune.