So, today I’ve reached the Biblical three score and ten. Considering the alternative and the fact that I’m in good health, I’m definitely not complaining! As happens on such occasions, it’s got me thinking back to previous milestone birthdays.
When I became 18, the big thrill was being able to drive. We lived in Queens and that was the age when one could get a license in NYC at that time (and may still be the case?). From the moment I took my first lesson, I loved driving and still do. I passed the test on the first try.
Being 21 meant I could vote. I wasn’t old enough to vote for Kennedy in 1960, so I was looking forward to casting my first presidential vote for him in 1964. Well, we all know how that turned out….
At thirty, I had been married for four years and had become a mom the year before. Michael and celebrated my passage out of my twenties with dinner at the Old Orchard Inn and Golf Club, in Eatontown, NJ. It was fancy-schmancy dining with a menu that offered classics like Caesar salad prepared tableside and beef Wellington. Unfortunately, during dinner, I started to feel ill. It turned out to be the flu. The place is still there though we haven’t eaten there in ages. When I checked their website recently, I discovered that the dining room is no longer open to the public.
Now here’s something really strange. I have absolutely no recollection of how or where we celebrated my fortieth.
For my 50th birthday, Michael and I went to Les Celebrites, the upscale French restaurant in NYC’s Essex House (the space that eventually became the home of Alain Ducasse NYC) with Executive Chef Christian Delouvrier helming the kitchen. The large, very opulent room was adorned with paintings done by famous people. Ergo, the restaurant’s name. There were only 14 tables, each capacious in size and spaced far apart. Whenever Michael and I think about that meal, the most memorable thing about it was the first course foie gras we both ordered. Sandwiched between thick slices of apple was a gargantuan piece of seared foie gras. As the reigning Foie Gras Queen, I can say that to this day, it’s the most humungous we’ve ever had! (You can read the New York Times review of Les Celebrites by Bryan Miller here.
To celebrate my turning 60, we went up to Quebec. The Auberge Hatley is located in the town of North Hatley, a half-hour’s drive from the Vermont border. This was a very special place for us, a place we fell in love with after our first stay there in 1987, and where we became annual regulars.
Each year, we’d arrive on the first Sunday of August in time for lunch on the terrace (weather permitting) and then spend five relaxing days – always in Room 22 — eating three meals a day (breakfast and dinner were included in the room rate) and rarely leaving the property.
The owners, Robert and Liliane Gagnon, were lovely people and extraordinary innkeepers. They and their wonderful staff became like family to us so that each return visit felt like coming home. We never went to the Hatley in the winter or spring, but we did go up there a few times in the fall. My 60th birthday celebration was one of those times.
The Auberge Hatley was a member of the Relais & Chateaux group. At that time, members were offering paid kitchen stages. The idea of doing a stage in a restaurant kitchen intrigued me, and since we’d come to know Executive Chef Alain Labrie very well, I felt comfortable about doing it there, and the 5-day stay for my birthday celebration presented the perfect opportunity. Before geting started, I was handed a closed box and told to go up to my room to get ready. When I opened the box, I was stunned. Along with a crisp white apron, there was a chef’s jacket with my name inscribed on it! Wow! Thus suitably attired, I spent two mornings alongside Chef Alain and his sous chef as they prepared items for a new menu. After finishing the second morning, Alain joined Michael and me for lunch at the Chef’s Table in the kitchen. Overall, a truly memorable birthday!*
This evening, Michael and I will be dining at EMP, and we’ll return again on Saturday to celebrate with Jen and Louis. A few weeks ago, I kidded with Will Guidara that I can’t image he could ever come up with a surprise that would top what they did for my birthday last year. But with or without surprises, there is no place I’d rather celebrate this milestone occasion.
*Addendum: The year after my 60th celebration, the Gagnons decided to retire and sold the Auberge Hatley to Christiane Germain, owner of the Germain Group of boutique hotels. We continued with our annual visits. During our summer visit in 2005, we were informed that a major construction project was going to begin in early 2006 which would involve upgrading all the existing rooms and adding a new wing. We were excited about this prospect and booked a room in the new wing. Sadly, this was not to be. In March 2006, while some work was being done (ironically) outside Room 22, a fire started, and the Auberge Hatley, which was a 100-year-old wood structure, burned to the ground. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Mme. Germain decided not to rebuild. Chef Alain Labrie and his wife Joelle (who worked as a server in the dining room) have opened their own place in Sherbrooke called La Table du Chef. We have not dined there as we have not been back to Quebec since what turned out to be our final stay at the Hatley.