AVALLON, France — A famous old hotel and restaurant in northwestern Burgundy, built around a 1707-vintage stagecoach stop. A three-star rating from the Guide Michelin, and many years of glory in the firmament of French gastronomy. Then a proprietor growing old and losing interest. A daughter taking over, making mistakes, firing chefs. A long, slow, sad slide into mediocrity, with two stars lost along the way. And then, suddenly, a rebirth--new owners (a small group of respected local food and wine people) and a new chef, young and innovative. Great hopes for the future. A dedication to regaining those three stars. . . .
That's already a pretty good story as it is. But it gets even better: That innovative young chef, hired in the hopes that he can help the place regain its old quality and reputation, turns out to be not at all some Senderens- or Guerard-trained Gallic whiz kid, but rather 25-year-old Bob Waggoner of Canoga Park.
The hotel/restaurant in question is the Hostellerie de la Poste in Avallon, 145 miles southeast of Paris, not far from the Chablis region. And the road Waggoner took to get there had as many stops as any 18th-Century stagecoach route.
His first real awareness of food, Waggoner said when I visited the Hostellerie recently, came at Chatsworth High School, where he took an international food class--a combination food-history/cooking-lesson/restaurant-field-trip affair. Waggoner admits that he might have been drawn to the class initially at least in part because it included 42 girls and only two or three boys--but he was soon hooked on cooking and, at his teacher's suggestion, he applied for a part-time job at the fanciest restaurant he knew, the Summer House in Woodland Hills.
At the time, he recalls, "I didn't know the difference between rare, medium, and well." But the chef there, a 30-year-old Italian named Eligio Miglia, took him in. "He taught me all the basics," says Waggoner. "How to use knives, and so on. More important, though, he was really into his work, and he communicated his enthusiasm about food to me." A year later, still in the 12th grade, Waggoner was running the evening service at the Summer House, preparing up to 400 dinners a night.
When Miglia went on to Trumps in West Hollywood, Waggoner followed. "(Trumps executive chef) Michael Roberts was terrific," Waggoner says. "He really watched me and taught me a lot." He stayed at Trumps for three years and then, with the help of Roberts and Burgundy-based American wine shipper Becky Wasserman, found a temporary room-and-board-only job at the then-new but rapidly up-and-coming Le Vieux Moulin in Bouilland, near Beaune.
The Vieux Moulin's owner/chef, Jean-Pierre Silva, became "my Eligio in France," says Waggoner. "He did everything for me, not just showing me things in the kitchen, but taking me out to taste wine, taking me hunting, inviting me along when he went to great restaurants like Alain Chapel--things that even most Frenchmen don't get to do very often." Silva also eventually encouraged him to leave Le Vieux Moulin--to volunteer for work in other French kitchens, so that he wouldn't become just an imitator of Silva's own style. Thus, Waggoner put in three months at the Rotisserie de la Paix in Beaune and then, with several trips back to California (and to Trumps--"sort of my home away from home") in between, did stints at the three-star Lameloise in Chagny, Charles Barrier in Tours, Pierre Gagnaire in St-Etienne, and then two more three-stars--Boyer in Reims and Marc Meneau's L'Esperance.
"At that point," he recalls, "Jean-Pierre said, 'Get out of here. Don't work for free anymore. You've learned enough to get a real cooking job.' "
It might not have been exactly what Silva had in mind but, back in the United States again, Waggoner met a French chef named Jean-Paul Coupal, who had been working in Canada but who had just taken over a $3-million private club, called Members, in Caracas, Venezuela--and Coupal hired him as head chef. "The place had this great new-wave California look to it," Waggoner says, "with an 18-speaker stereo system and a changing exhibition of contemporary Venezuelan art. Unfortunately, other than tropical fruit and some fish, there were virtually no raw materials available--so I made lots of different sauces to cover up the same few items day after day, and lots of wild fruit sorbets."
There were perks, though: At one point, when the club's owners wanted to do a week of Indian cooking, they sent Waggoner to New Delhi and arranged for him to bring back two accomplished Indian chefs and a couple of tandoor ovens.