I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process. – Vincent Van Gogh
Six months we have owned and been running the Hôtel Diderot and I have rarely slept through the night. Knowing that my alarm will ring at six sharp, that I prefer to be (need to be) out of bed at 5:30 am, downstairs at 6:30, and that something niggles in my brain keeping me half awake, checking my phone for the time at 2-hour intervals, worried that I’ll somehow oversleep.
I post a hotel update on Facebook at the end of each day now, a concise, condensed, pithy list of facts and trivia and it always starts with breakfast. How many clients I served at breakfast shapes my day, paints my mood. Breakfast – setting up, serving, cleaning up – and making jam are my main jobs at the hotel, which is why it seems to be all that I write about now. I am consumed by breakfast and jam. A friend questioned one recent post, asking if I am alone in serving all of these breakfasts, which can reach to dizzying heights in high season – 35, 39, 42, 46 people arriving for breakfast each morning, seven days a week, between 7:15 and 10:15 (with the occasional one or two who dash in at 10:30 breathlessly saying “I overslept can I still get breakfast?”). So I decided to answer her question here by describing how it works at the hotel.
The truth of the matter is, my days start and end with breakfast. The question of where it all starts, with set up the evening before, like Jewish holidays which begin at sundown before the first day, or with breakfast itself, the day ending with prep for the following day, is somehow like the question of the chicken and the egg. Which comes first?
My eyes open at about 5:00 am, close promptly once I have checked my phone and realize that it is still too early. At 5:30 I force open my eyes again, push back the covers and grope around in the dark for pyjamas, sweatshirt, and slippers. I tiptoe past Marty asleep in the living room (to little avail) and make coffee. I don’t have to be downstairs until 6:30 but, unlike Jean-Pierre who prefers to stay in bed until 6, I crave that extra half hour alone, in the dark, in the quiet, sipping my coffee and reading. Before the rush begins.
Because it will.
I start at 6:30 by opening the front gate for the baker who arrives with oven-warm baguettes, croissants, brioche, and grain breads. The large electric coffee urn (attached to a timer) should already be bubbling away and I start the small coffee maker because the 100-cup urn is never enough. I start heating the large stovetop teakettle and rinse and refill the electric kettle. One is never enough. I pour two liters of milk into the electric milk urn and start that heating. I set the jars of jam, each with its own colorful jam spoon sticking merrily ceilingward, on each table, making sure that there is a carefully selected variety, one orange, one exotic, one strawberry, one apricot, one peach, pear, or plum, etc etc, on each table. The curtains drawn back, the door of the old wooden armoire in the corner open to reveal the dozens upon dozens of jars of unopened jam not yet served, I then prepare and set the buffet (fresh goat cheese on a platter with cheese knife, bowls of dried fruits, fresh fruit salad and yogurts in bowls sitting atop ice packs, honey jars rinsed and dried clean, walnut bowl filled), slice brioches and cut baguettes and I am, by 7:15, ready, as is the coffee.
If we have a large tour group staying at the hotel, anywhere from 9 to 29, I will have glasses of apple juice, pats of butter, and baskets of bread already on their tables before they arrive.
The first clients come trickling in. Once in a while, I will have a few people, usually businessmen or women, requesting an early breakfast, as early as 7. But usually, the flux of clients begins arriving at about 7:30 just as Nathalie or Ophélie arrive. As I wrote in 31 Breakfasts, “I don’t serve breakfasts alone, I have one of the femmes d’étage (one of the young women who make up the cleaning team) to work with, seating hotel guests, taking orders, serving, cleaning up and washing dishes, but as breakfast service winds down, as the first of the guests have gone back to their rooms to pack or have returned to reception to pay and take their departure or leave the hotel for work or visiting, she leaves me to finish up alone as she heads upstairs to the rooms.” Leaving the bulk of cleanup for me.
This means serving the last guests or refilling coffee pots and handing out extra dishes of butter to the latecomers and the lingerers while I wash piles of dishes, juice glasses, coffee cups, silverware, etc, shove baskets, one at a time, of washed dishes, cups, and glasses into the dishwasher for a blast and a sanitization. Heave and lift the basket out, dry, put away, and do it again.
Now, to be perfectly fair, I will say that before leaving me to finish up, Nathalie will clean the milk urn and Ophélie will try and get most of the dishes done and put away. But when we have had a more than chaotic breakfast, when twenty clients all arrive in the breakfast room at the same time, all looking for a place to sit (when the hotel is full, the breakfast room will not hold all the clients at one time) and demanding a meal, or when everyone decides that this is the perfect morning to sleep late and anyway we are on vacation so why not breakfast late? and when there are an overwhelming number of departures and the cleaning of the rooms will take the girls all day, then they slip away as early as possible and I am left alone with an overwhelming amount of cleanup.
Clearing and wiping down tables inside and outside on the terrace, all the dishes to wash, putting the food away, straightening up the leftover bread, emptying and cleaning urns and coffee pots, toaster and bread board, cleaning all of the jam spoons and the dribbles and globs on the jam jars. And on and on. This can take anywhere up to 3 hours of work by the end of which I am often drenched with water and sometimes aggravated as it seems to go on forever. Just as I think it is finished I turn around and there is something else that I have forgotten. Those of you who have worked in the hotel or restaurant industry understand, those of you who haven’t, well, it can be awfully overwhelming to a newbie like myself.
I have discovered along the way that the number of hotel guests has little to do with whether or not breakfast will go smoothly or will turn into utter chaos. Forty guests can flow as smoothly as silk drawn across the skin. Twenty can be reduced to bedlam in seconds. The breakfast room is open for three hours and most mornings guests arrive one room, one couple, one group at a time. We seat them, one of us brings them juice and places butter on their table while explaining the products on the buffet table and the jams. I prepare the bread basket(s) while Nathalie or Ophélie gets their hot drinks. We serve together and then await the next room or couple or group to arrive and so on and so forth, smoothly, easily. If two rooms, two couples, or two groups arrive at once, we each take one, hunky dory. But…. But sometimes everyone (or so it seems) arrives at once, four, five, six rooms. We try not to panic, we try and keep our heads on our shoulders, remain calm. We try to make sure everyone is served, no one, no drinks, no breadbaskets forgotten. The kitchen is topsy-turvy as slices of brioche are shoved two by two, four by four, into the toaster, ceramic teapots and silver coffee pots battle for counter space as they are filled and lined up, breadbaskets are piled precariously on the sideboard and we try not to jostle each other as we grab this and that and dash back out into the diningroom or onto the terrace. We dash back into the kitchen and cross off another room on our list and start over again with another table: “2 on the terrace!” “4 at the chimney table” “2 x 2 baskets for the terrace!” One of us frantically washes and dries fruit salad bowls and butter dishes to be refilled with another pat of butter. And plates, cups, teapots begin to come back empty, dirty, and become a mountain of sticky ceramic next to the sink.
Breakfast begins winding down at about 10ish, sometimes earlier if I am lucky. But the cleanup takes another two hours. At least. I won’t go into detail but take it for granted that I am rarely out of that kitchen before noon, more likely 12:30, sometimes, in high season, even later. And then… lunch? No, not yet. I begin to check the rooms, verifying each one (errant cleaning cloth or spray bottle left behind, stray hair on a pillow, the placement of rugs and furniture back into position if the girls have left too quickly, bath mats down on the floor, windows closed against possible rain) as the girls finish cleaning. Halfway through I grab a quick lunch then back to check the rest before the clients begin arriving.
And that’s my day ended at 3:00. Unless, of course, I have jam to make or fruit to prepare for jam. Or shopping to do for the hotel (more often than you think). Or a group to welcome or a wine tasting to assist at. Or when I help in the laundry room folding and storing towels to help the girls when they are overwhelmed with work. When all I want to do it take off my shoes, eat a snack, and rest.
Don’t think I’m complaining (I reserve complaining exclusively for Ilva via text messages). This is the drudgework that is hotel life and ownership. Did you think that it was all welcoming clients, wandering among them, glass of Chinon blanc in hand, chatting? Nope. But you know what makes all of that drudgework absolutely worth it? The time that I am able to spend wandering among the clients while they drink an apératif on the terrace, spending a bit of time chatting with and getting to know them. Or having the time to talk with a few of them during breakfast when there is a calm amid the frantic rush
It might very well sound trite or like a well-worn cliché, but the clients do make it all worth it. Well, my team, as well, whom I have come to love dearly, but I have met some extraordinary people who have stayed at the hotel, I have even connected with some of them on social media. Chinon is the kind of city nestled in the kind of region that draws tourists interested in history, architecture, culture, wine and food. The Hôtel Diderot is the kind of hotel, charming, warm, convivial, more like a family-run chambres d’hôte than an hotel, that draws a clientele that is warm, charming, and convivial, ready to talk and joke, conversable and familiar.
Early evening, I head back downstairs to prep the kitchen for the following day’s breakfast (after having lugged out the kitchen and hotel trash three times a week). I fill three coffee filters with coffee, ready for the small coffee machine, I fill the 40- or 100-cup urn with water and coffee and set the timer. I slice and bag brioche for the morning’s toast. I top up the sugar bowls with cubes. I sometimes help Françoise or Abeline, the receptionists, set the tables. I check to make sure that everything is ready.
And it starts all over again. Breakfast.