Clowning Around in the Countryside
When I read about the new Maison Troisgros opening while I was in France, I figured I shouldn't miss out.
Maison Troisgros, formerly located across from the train station in Roanne, has sustained three Michelin stars since 1968. Its new iteration in Ouches, just outside of Roanne, was described as a glorious glass-enclosed space surrounded by farmland from which many of their ingredients are sourced, with a hotel on the property. The family is perhaps the most well-known culinary dynasty in all of France.
This was definitely the top dining experience of my life and some of the most exquisite food I’ve ever eaten, made with the most top-notch ingredients and impeccable service.
But first, there was the clown car.
After the car of screaming kids from Lyon to Nice, I still decided BlaBlaCar was the best way to get to Roanne. The train times to Roanne were inconvenient for lunch at Troisgros, and although Ouches is only an 11-minute drive from Roanne, it definitely was not walkable. The building itself is pretty solitary, since it’s surrounded by a functioning farm. Luckily, a man named Laurent was making the journey from Lyon to Roanne that afternoon, and I'd just need to find a cab from there.
Bag of tricks
I arrived at the meeting spot outside a train station with a drugstore attached and a covered parking lot across the street.
I didn’t see Laurent.
I made my eighth attempt to find shaving cream in the drugstore. Maybe people treat themselves to smoothness in this part of Lyon? Nope.
I waited nervously. No one around - and still no Laurent.
Twenty minutes later, I got a call.
“I’m in the garage."
‘How ominous,’ I thought. Had he been in there the whole time? I hadn’t seen any cars go into the garage at all.
I still couldn't find him and was starting to think this was a joke. Fifteen more minutes later, he moved to a nearby hill, which somehow made it easier to find him. He drove a black, sleek and clean Volvo, and he was handsome and jolly in a dark gray sweater and black slacks. He was probably in his early to mid-30s, I thought, assuming he is some type of successful businessman, always on the road charming people into deals. The man and woman in his backseat seem irritated. Laurent explained they were also BlaBlaCar-ers, and he was dropping them off in a small town where they go to school.
I introduced myself to them in French. They were somewhat kind. Once we were speeding down the highway, Laurent admitted he speaks decent broken English, and we started talking while the couple silently canoodled in the backseat. I described my trip and that I’m a writer in NYC. He was very calm and focused and seemed genuinely interested. ‘And you?’ I asked as the loud country wind ripped across the fresh leather seats.
“I’m a clown.”
“Sorry, what did you say?”
“Clown. I'm a professional clown.”
His delivery was so straightforward I thought this was a sarcastic joke.
“No way!” I said. “Really? You’re really a clown?”
“Yes. I’ve been a clown for 25 years. It’s why I travel so much, always on the road, away from home…”
“Wow. I - um - I’ve never met a professional clown before. Not to mention a successful one.”
He explained that he got his start in theatre troupes and magic clubs in high school. When the opportunity to travel and do his juggling act came along, he took it. He was 16.
Why does this matter?
I hate clowns.
I never thought I’d be stuck in a small space with one, let alone a speeding car in France. Luckily his face was not painted with that thick cakey makeup that always came just a little too close to me in my stroller. (Yes, I remember. I hated the rubbery smell from the balloons, shoes and whatever other weird doohickeys Pittsburgh clowns wore in the 80s.)
This was my opportunity to ask all of the questions I’d always wondered: what is the draw to being a clown? Why do you like hiding behind makeup? How can you love something that scares and scars so many children?
He explained that he loves making people smile with unexpected antics. He showed me a picture of his two year-old daughter, who he said is getting used to seeing him in his makeup. He first showed her pictures of him dressed up to familiarize her with the idea, and she had recently attended his show for the first time. She didn’t cry at all, he said.
Well, if she could deal with a clown putting her to bed at night, I guess I could deal with a short car ride. This two year-old was an inspiration.
I soon revealed somewhat sheepishly why I needed the ride: to eat an 11-course lunch by myself at Maison Troisgros. He was so excited his eyes bulged and his hands hopped off of the wheel. He immediately offered to drive me straight there so that he could see the new location; with the little girl at home, and another clown kid on the way, it’d be a few years before he could afford a meal there.
But first he insisted on taking me to a food market where the famous François Pralus is based so that I could try ‘la praluline,’ the original praline-filled and studded brioche. I had tried it in Lyon, but he insisted I get a bread to eat later straight from the source. When we arrived they were closing for a lunch break and were out of the small loaves - good news for me as I didn’t want to enter Troisgros with food at all, let alone a loaf of fragrant, sweet, buttery brioche poking out of my purse. This made the clown frown, which used to be my worst nightmare, but on him it was endearing - he really wanted me to have that bread. I really appreciated his enthusiasm for food, love for his daughter and drive for creative success as a clown. (I still won’t watch creepy clown movies because that’s way different than a foodie clown who loves making people happy.)
When I got back to Margot’s that night in Lyon, she asked how my day was.
Me: "I drove to Roanne with a clown!!"
Margot: "What?! What were you doing in Roanne?"
Me: "I ate at Maison Troisgros."
Margot: "You ate at one of the best restaurants in the world, and you lead with the part about a clown?!"
I’m so happy I met Laurent and partially cleared my lifelong fear on the way to one of the world's finest dining rooms.
Oh yeah, and while all of the food was impeccable, the veal sweetbreads were sheer joy and magic - no extra makeup required.