Clowning Around in the Countryside
The new Maison Troisgros opened while I was in France. It was destiny.
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, is a glorious glass-enclosed space surrounded by farmland where many of their ingredients are sourced, and there’s a hotel on the property. The family is perhaps the most well-known culinary dynasty in all of France.
This was the top dining experience of my life, beyond exquisite with the most top-notch ingredients and impeccable service.
But first, there was the clown car.
After a 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 making lunch at Troisgros, plus I’d need time to get from Roanne to Ouches by taxi. The building in Ouches is pretty solitary, since it’s surrounded by a functioning farm. It’s meant to be remote.
Luckily, a man named Laurent was making the journey from Lyon to Roanne around noon and had just enough room for a small American — one who needed to eat 11 courses of French food on a casual Wednesday.
The magical appearing and disappearing car
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 checked for shaving cream at the drugstore, maybe the eighth place I’d tried since arriving in Lyon. Did people prefer smooth skin on this side of town? Nope.
I waited nervously. The whole place was strangely empty.
Twenty minutes later, I got a call.
“I’m in the garage."
How weird. Had he been there the whole time? I hadn’t seen any cars go into the garage at all. I was waiting right across from it.
I still couldn't find him. Was this a joke?
Fifteen more minutes later, he called and said he’d moved to a nearby hill, and I finally spotted him. Laurent drove a sleek black Volvo and was handsome and jolly in a dark gray sweater and black slacks. He was probably in his mid-30s, I thought, and was a successful businessman of some kind, always on the road charming people into deals.
There was a man in the woman in the backseat. Laurent explained they were also BlaBlaCar-ers, and he was dropping them off in the small town near Roanne where they go to school. I introduced myself to them in French. They grunted a few words back and seemed confused, shocked and annoyed.
life on the highway
Once we were speeding along the highway, Laurent said he can speak decent broken English, and we started talking while the couple silently canoodled and stared at us. I described my trip and that I’m a writer in NYC. He was very calm and focused. He seemed genuinely interested. ‘And you?’ I shouted as the loud country wind started ripping across the fresh leather seats.
“I’m a clown.”
“Sorry, what did you say?”
“Clown. I'm a professional clown.”
Was he joking? Was this a cross-cultural word mixup?
“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 - I’ve never met a professional clown. Except when I was wailing and shooing them away from my stroller.”
Laurent got his start in theatre troupes and magic clubs in high school. When he got the opportunity to take his juggling act on the road, 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 through France. Luckily his face wasn’t painted with that thick, toxic-smelling makeup that I hated so much as a toddler in the 80s.
This was my opportunity to ask some pressing questions: what is the draw to being a clown? Why do you like hiding behind dramatic cartoonish makeup? How can you love something that scares and scars so many children?
Laurent said he loves making people smile with unexpected antics. He showed me a picture of his two year-old daughter. She is getting used to seeing him in his makeup. He first showed her pictures of him dressed up to familiarize her with it, and she recently attended her first show. She didn’t cry at all.
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 my rock.
I soon revealed somewhat sheepishly why I needed the ride — to eat an 11-course lunch by myself at Maison Troisgros. His eyes bulged excitedly, and his hands hopped off the wheel. He immediately offered to drive me straight to the restaurant so 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 to eat there.
But first we had to stop a food market for the famous François Pralus’ ‘la praluline,’ the original praline-filled and studded brioche. I had already tried it in Lyon, but he insisted I get the freshest version straight from the source to eat later after my 11-course meal.
When we arrived the bakers were closing for lunch and were out of the small loaves anyway. Good news for me as I didn’t want to enter Troisgros holding food, let alone a loaf of fragrant, buttery brioche poking out of my purse. This made the clown frown, which used to be my worst nightmare. Nothing more terrifying than disappointing a clown. Also, why are clowns so good at frowns? But Laurent just really wanted me to have that bread and was genuinely upset about it. I really appreciated his enthusiasm for food and drive for creative success. He also seemed like a cool dad.
I still won’t watch creepy clown movies. I prefer a sweet French 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 start with the part about a clown?!"
I’m so happy I met Laurent and partially cleared a lifelong fear on the way to one of the world's finest dining rooms.
All of the food was impeccable, but these veal sweetbreads were sheer joy and magic on a plate. Totally worth the journey.