Last supper … ? No, he came back for more …

El Bulli Restaurant For the past six months the question that had been asked most in French restaurants has been – no, not “would sir/madam like an aperitif?” – but: whatever could have happened to poor Pascal Henry? Did I say Pascal Henry? Sure did. Maybe until you read this you would not have heard […]


El Bulli Restaurant

For the past six months the question that had been asked most in French restaurants has been – no, not “would sir/madam like an aperitif?” – but: whatever could have happened to poor Pascal Henry?

Did I say Pascal Henry? Sure did. Maybe until you read this you would not have heard of him. Therefore, the story I am going to tell you now should perhaps be under the heading … Greatest Career Move Ever …

It happened in June last year, just after midnight on Friday the 13th. The place was the restaurant El Bulli on Spain’s Costa Bravo; some say its owner, Ferran Adria, is the best chef in the whole wide world.

That night, a Swiss national – the said Pascal Henry, 46 – had just finished his meal and was chatting to a woman at the next table: he’d not yet settled his bill. The woman was Christina Jolonch, a Spanish journalist. Henry wanted to give her his business card but had to go to his car to fetch his wallet in which he kept his cards; he said that he’d forgotten his wallet in the car. He left his coat, hat and a notebook behind at his table; he was after all popping out for only a couple of minutes.

But Henry did not return to the restaurant; he was gone. And when someone went to look for him, his car was gone too.

Did he make a runner so as not to pay the bill – a meal there costs about €165 ($220 ; ₤160). Certainly not those who knew him said. A courier, delivering on his scooter in Geneva, he was an honest and hard-working guy. He was also a hard-eating guy. For Henry was a gastronome – a foodie – and it was kind of a thing of his to eat at starred restaurants. In fact, he was on a restaurant-crawl when he disappeared. The plan he had was that he was going to eat in each and every of the 68 three-star Michelin-rated restaurants. He’d given himself 68 days to do so. This meant that he would have to travel about 25,000 miles (40,000 kms) through nine countries -Europe, the U.S.A. and Japan. He’d already eaten at 39 when he disappeared.

So what had happened to the man? Was the food so terrible that he’d freaked out and was living off hamburgers and hotdogs somewhere very far from delicacies like foie gras on mozzarella beds? Now, if anyone freaks out after having eaten 39 of what I cook and which I call a meal, then I would have said that this was what had happened to him, but one surely can’t freak out after eating the food of chefs like Ferran Adria and France’s Paul Bocuse.

Yet, Pascal Henry was truly gone!

His strange disappearance was reported to the Spanish police and they launched a helicopter search for him but without success. Next, they alerted their Swiss counterparts as well as Interpol who opened a “missing person” file for him. He was scheduled to have returned to work on July 15, but the day came and went and there was still no sign of him. An uncle, apparently Henry’s only relative, defended him to the media by saying that he certainly had not done a runner to avoid paying his restaurant bill. He certainly had had no problem paying for what he’d eaten in the other 39 restaurants: these were in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Monaco, Spain and his native Switzerland. Also, he had saved for his eating adventure for all of two years and had around €30,000 ($40,000 ; ₤27,000) of which had come from sponsors, one of them France’s Paul Bocuse. The latter had also given him introductions to all those chefs whose restaurants he would be calling in on.

Meanwhile, praise for and admiration of Henry flooded in to Swiss newspapers. Said Philippe Rochat, chef at the Hotel-de-Ville restaurant in Crissier in Switzerland, one of the restaurants where he’d already eaten: “I’ve rarely seen someone with such knowledge. He came into the kitchen for a discussion with my team.” Apparently, Henry knew not only all about food but also all about the chefs, even how many dogs they had and what those were called … and what the chefs fed their dogs.

The Spanish and Swiss police as well as Interpol however called their search for Henry off when at the beginning of August his bank signalled that money had been withdrawn from his account and checking the CCTV footage of the relevant cash distributor and seeing that none other than the foodie himself had withdrawn the money.

But the mystery was by no means over; it had even deepened.

Had Henry been kidnapped and had he withdrawn the money to give to his kidnappers? And was he bumped off afterwards?

Said journalist Christina Jolonch: “He promised to grant me an interview when his journey was finished and wanted to give me his visiting card but realised he had left his wallet in his car. He said he would be just a moment. A waiter told him that there was no need for him to go and fetch a card, that he could pop in the next day to leave the card, but Henry left anyway. He said he will be right back.”

Said Swiss foodie blogger Jacques Perrin (blog: Mille Plateaux) who had interviewed Henry in those days when he was happily eating his way through the Michelin guide. He said that Henry had told him: “We all want to do something beyond our everyday experience. I am not doing it to get into a book of records. I have always been passionate about food and wine and I just wanted to leave my working life behind me for a few months.”

Said Gérard Rabaey, chef of the Swiss three-star restaurant Pont de Brent: “Henry used to phone me once or twice a week while on his eating tour. He was to have returned here to my restaurant on Wednesday, June 19 for a photo shoot, but he did not show up. I was waiting with the photographer. I’d even prepared a special dish: veal kidneys cooked in their own fat.” Worried, he had then called Henry but had reached his answer phone. “I am not the only worried one. So are all the other chefs I’m in contact with,” he said.

Just before 2008 was to end Pascal Henry reappeared. Well yes: he just “reappeared”.

In the evening on Monday, December 29, he arrived on his scooter at the home of his “uncle and aunt” (they have not been named) but he gave them no explanation of where he’d been. “He did not really want to talk to us,” said the uncle.

Henry stayed with the couple for the night and when he left early the following morning he said that he had to go and look for a job. He left his scooter with the couple and set off on foot for the nearest bus stop.

“He knew everything that’s happened in the world in the time that he was gone,” said Henry’s uncle.

Henry also knew everything that’s been written about him.

Two days later, Wednesday, December 31, Henry walked into Paul Bocuse’s restaurant in France.

“I’d thought he’d fallen into the sea,” said a very relieved and happy Bocuse.

Henry sat down for a sumptuous meal that began with soup with black truffles and he had a long discussion about wine and cheese and which one goes with which. He also said that he’d not had a gourmet meal for six months.

So, where had he been those six months?

He was, he’s now said, either in Switzerland or France; he went from one to the other. How come neither French nor Swiss Customs had picked him up? Switzerland has signed the Schengen Agreement (open borders between member nations) which means that these days custom officials do not check passports. Or rather they do but only of those they pull out of the que
ue.

Why he’d done what he’d done he explains by saying: “I did not disappear in order to create news. I am neither a victim nor a hero of modern times.” What the second sentence means I don’t quite know, but he added that he is now going to realise his childhood dream: he is going to become a chef. “Even at my age one can learn a new trade.”

A French radio station interviewed him. Like all of us the interviewer wanted to know why he’d gone and disappeared like that for six months. He replied: I didn’t do it purposely. I wasn’t all that comfortable with myself. That’s not such a fantastic explanation, but that’s how it was.”

He said that he’d gone out to his car to get his wallet and sitting in the car, without really thinking about it, he had decided to … just drive off.

I do not know Spanish law so I do not know whether Spain will pursue him for having wasted their time. I do know French law though and here he would have faced charges.

Last word goes to Swiss Chef Gérard Rabaey. Speaking of the possibility that Henry may be writing a book about his six months of dropping out, he said: “Forty three-star restaurants in forty days, it’s a story that needs to be told.”

Really?

I suggest that the book’s title should be: BIT OFF MORE THAN I COULD CHEW.

…and then there are children dying of starvation …

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

5 Responses

1-17-2009 at 14:29:00

What a peculiar story. I wonder if he ever paid his outstanding restaurant bill.

1-17-2009 at 15:33:00

I wish to know too whether he paid the bill at the Spanish restaurant.

Agnes Bertrand

1-18-2009 at 07:20:00

Perhaps he put on too much weight. Maybe?

Henry

1-18-2009 at 11:11:00

It all sounds a bit self-indulgent, doesn’t it? Perhaps our Pascal Henri is not the most responsible person in the world.

1-18-2009 at 17:21:00

He was no longer hungry!!

Pierre Ponte

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