Legends of the Waiter, Part III

by wjw on July 1, 2007

Continued from the posts “Me O My O” and “Chef Francoise, Part II”
Baron le Vison had been a legendary character long before I met him. I kept hearing stories about him, some from the Baron himself, some from others. Consider these to be Unconfirmed Rumors.
He is, according to one account, a genuine French baron, albeit one from Mississippi. He told me that he was expelled from Notre Dame for heresy, and finished his college education at a Jesuit school in the South. (“They didn’t care what I believed.”) When he ran for class president, he bombed the school with leaflets from his airplane, and won. He later became the first class president to be impeached.
Because the Courtyard Kitchen was near Kirtland AFB and Sandia Labs, a lot of military and scientist types became regulars. (Gulf War I, which produced increased security at the base and prevented people from leaving for lunch, killed the Cajun restaurant that occupied the Kitchen’s former building.) Some of the scientists were involved in the Tethered Satellite project (TSS). So impressed were they by the cooking that they named the TSS “Francoise,” and presented to the restaurant an artist’s rendering of the satellite with Francoise’s name written on the exterior. I don’t know if TSS-1 actually bore Francoise’s name when it was eventually deployed from Atlantis a couple years after the restaurant closed, but I hope so.
The restaurant featured art by the Cajun artist George Rodrigue. This was during his “black oak period,” when he painted portraits and group portraits of people standing before a massive Louisiana oak, and before he got into his kitschier (and incredibly successful) “blue dog period,” creating hundreds of paintings and silkscreens featuring a rather anxious-looking spaniel. Eventually Rodrigue painted Francoise, standing in her chef’s uniform before the black oak, and carrying a saute pan. There was a huge dinner party to unveil the portrait, and of course I went. I met Rodrigue, but he did not offer to paint my portrait. Rodrigue told the Baron, “You weren’t a success until you decided to become a Cajun.”
At one point the Waiter decided that all his customers should contribute a piece of literature to a collection that he would put together and print. Mine was an incredibly sophisticated re-rendering of Marcel Proust, with black roux gumbo substituting for the madeleine. The Waiter threw all that away and put on a play instead, a sort of melodrama set on a Louisiana plantation. Local actor and playwright Jeff Hudson adopted an authentic Cajun accent he’d learned from watching Justin Wilson on PBS. It was amusing, but it wasn’t Proust.
Every so often, when I came in for lunch, the Baron would pull a bottle of fine champagne from the fridge and drop it on my table. I don’t drink at midday, usually, since it affects my work, but I felt I ought, since— you know— there it was. Drinking a bottle of champagne by oneself turns out to be a lot of work. Eventually I got used to leaving the restaurant carrying a chilled, unopened bottle of champagne, which I’d open and drink later, after I’d finished work for the day.
The Waiter and the Chef ended up in Albuquerque by accident. They’d closed their restaurant in Washington,D.C., and were on a motor trip through the southwest. They saw a restaurant for rent and investigated. A few weeks later the Courtyard Kitchen opened.
The restaurant closed, with great ceremony, in September of 1990. Francoise had burned herself out by holding herself to her own exacting standards. If she’d been able to bring herself to deal with sous-chefs the place might still be open. The last dinners were sellouts. Free videos and cookbooks and prints of the Rodrigue portrait were handed out. Beth Meacham got her picture taken with Francoise. We all kissed and said our last “Ooh la las.” The Waiter handed me a bottle of champagne, which I carried home.
Somebody named Marcello from New Orleans kept calling and demanding a table for himself and his associates, and the Waiter kept telling him that the place was full. “Wow,” I thought, “the Waiter’s taking on the guy who killed Kennedy!”
Francoise retired. The Baron started a business as a restaurant consultant, and ran for the head of the restaurant association. (He lost.) Every so often I’d run into him at another Creole restaurant, Arthur’s and the Dot, but the restaurant got closed when the city tore up the street in front and left it that way for nine months.
Some time later I did a web search for “Baron le Vison” and discovered that he and Francoise were running a motel called Uncle Bill’s Place, on the Street of the Little Motels in Page, AZ. (“Street of the Little Motels” has that unmistakable le Vison mixture of fantasy and practicality.) We stayed there in summer of 2003, where I took the pictures that accompany this memoir. The Baron had started a newspaper called PAGE USA in which he regularly blasted the city administration and the Park Service. In the last actual communication I’ve received from the Baron, he sent me a package of underwear I’d left in a drawer.
A check on the Uncle Bill web site reveals that Baron and Francoise have now retired from the motel business. Maybe it’s time I got in touch.
Further adventures surely await.
dubjay July 1, 2007 at 10:38 pm

Sacre merde! The message I sent to the Waiter bounced, with the response “No such person.”

Obviously the adventure has started without me!

pjkarst August 17, 2008 at 3:47 pm

Does anyone have a current e-mail for Francoise and the waiter?

dubjay August 17, 2008 at 7:14 pm

Alas, I do not. The email on their web page leads nowhere.

Chris Brooker April 25, 2017 at 11:18 pm

Hey Walter, ever locate Francoise and the Waiter (Baron) again?

wjw April 26, 2017 at 2:43 pm

The Baron was, and possibly still is, my Facebook friend, but hasn’t posted anything in years.

Bob Dienst December 23, 2019 at 4:07 pm

Myself and writer Fred Maio wrote the caberet show “Shrimp Boats Are A-Comin’ ” the play that is mentioned and it was performed seven Saturday evenings in the late summer of 1988. It sold out each time and we even had a waiting list. I produced the show along with The Baron. It came with a four course meal, all for $22.50. It was a dumb and funny murder mystery and the characters were paterened after many of the core dining patrons. There was a contest on “who dun-it” and prizes were given out at the end of each show. Even six of the 16 performers were actual patrons. It was pure magic. Anyone who is still alive that was an actor or stagehand please email me at Bob@ArtistBob.com and I can send you a copy of the DVD that has two of these extraordinary shows. If anyone knows the where abouts of The Baron or Chef Francoise, please email me. Would like to send them a copy of this DVD too.

Triston McLaughlin (nee Le Vison) May 17, 2020 at 10:38 am

HI, I am the Baron’s daughter!! Wanted to say thank you for these great stories. We had lost touch for 50 years, and finally reconnected a few years back. Both Francois and Baron (William/Bill) have passed. So seeing these tales is lovely!!

wjw May 17, 2020 at 5:06 pm

I’m so very sorry that Baron and Francoise have passed. I’m glad the stories found a reader who could appreciate them.

Stephen Beale November 5, 2021 at 3:37 pm

Thank you so much for writing these posts! I recently went to look up the lyrics to one of my favorite Gerry Rafferty songs that I first heard earlier this year (Cafe le Cabotin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQVOxsdarZs ) to clear up one of the lines I couldn’t quite make out and it led me down a wonderful rabbit hole!

Particularly intrigued by these lines:
“We’re gonna go downtown to the Cafe le Cabotin
Where The Baron is waiting to welcome a rock and roll band
And if we get a little crazy The Baron will understand
He’ll understand”
I set out to find out what the inspiration for the eminently enjoyable picture painted by this song was and who (if anyone) this fun-loving Baron might be.

Having searched “Cafe le Cabotin Baron” and come across your post “Montserrat Stories”, I was quite excited to realize that they must both have been real when I immediately saw mention of “the Baron”.

Next I came to the Montserrat page on Wikipedia to search for any mention of the cafe (having been before then unaware of the island’s tragic history). While I did not find what I was initially looking for there, I did notice that George Martin had a recording studio there for a decade, during which many famous artists recorded music in it (including Jimmy Buffett, who recorded the apparently accidentally prescient song “Volcano” about the then-dormant Soufriere Hills on the island). Hopping over to the Wikipedia page for “Snakes and Ladders” (the 1980 Gerry Rafferty album on which “Cafe le Cabotin” appears), I was ecstatic to see that it was recorded in part at this same studio on Montserrat.

Having gained enough confirmation to be confident that the Cafe le Cabotin that Rafferty sang about must have been the one on Montserrat, I continued searching until I found your posts about The Baron and Francoise. Thank you so much for recording this! Were it not for you I likely would never have known any of this! These are the only substantive pieces I’ve found that mention the cafe or The Baron more than simply in passing (with the exception of this article from 1982 in the Washington Post reviewing the transplant of the Cafe under the same name to a former garage in the Washington, D.C. area: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/magazine/1982/02/14/cafe-le-cabotin/26b65e58-981f-4acc-938f-31da2a621c9b/ ).

It is very satisfying to learn the song I adore so much is based on a real place and real people that Rafferty evidently adored in turn. It is always enlivening to learn about characters like these that make an impact on people for a lifetime (and even, it seems, beyond that). I am sad to hear that this delightful duo are no longer with us, but so glad that I learned they once were. These are the sort of people that I get excited to learn that I share (or shared as the case may be) the world with. To quote a song that I have been fortunate to learn a lot from this week, “It’s on a night like this, it’s good to be alive!”

wjw November 5, 2021 at 11:07 pm

Wow! What a story! I’m so glad that Cafe le Cabotin is a memory accessible on youtube.

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