Project 184, Day 12: The Great Vatel

This little story is presented as a parable at the end of the first act of Deadbeat, a musical that I composed in 1976-7. The idea, the book and the lyrics are by Dorothy Louise, a beloved mentor and friend for nearly 40 years, the woman who, more than anyone, helped me envision myself as a musical dramatist and who, both by advice and by example, guided me in the direction of a dual career as an artist and academic. More about the story and the performers after the lyric:

The Great Vatel,
Maitre d’hotel,
Legendary chef to the Prince de Conde,
Set to work with relish,
Humming all the way.
Devoted for a lifetime,
He deserved his day,
And Louis Quatorze, come to dine there that night,
Would laud the chaste chef’s sway
Over rabbits in rose vinegar,
Cold sparrow tart,
Truffled partridge sauce de morney.
Pigeons bulging drunken eels,
Nightingales’ hearts,
Amber jelly, almonds,
Quince compote, pears flambe.

Stainless, glinting Chef Vatel!
The best plans go astray.
For as he stirred and tasted,
Humming away,
A bearer of bad news perfection did betray.
Alas! Alack! Ah, welladay!

“Speak up, mon petite,” Vatel bubbled.
“I’m humming so happily it’s hard to hear.
Oh happy, happy, happy,
Dinner fit solely for a solar king, never fear!”

“Mon dieu, Sir, that’s the trouble,”
The churl began to snivel.
“The lobsters for the sole’s sauce have sent their regrets!
The fishmonger forked over this common trout,
In lieu of which you’ll have to do without.”

Poised above his feather genoise,
Vatel caught an ashen calm.
“Thank you, child, keep your fish.
It would demolish my honor and tarnish the dish.
Feign lobster with a common trout?”
Then stately, sedately,
“Throw the lout out!”

Fats congealed, copper turned green,
Ceramic pans flashed tragic flaws.
Fate glanced off the batterie de cuisine
Breads restrained their rising,
Juices ran their race,
Sauces ceased simmering,
The genoise fell from grace.
All bubbling and whipping
And basting and dipping
And tasting and sipping
Stopped short
And the great, unspotted Chef Vatel laid down his spoon.

Dumb and deliberate,
He loosened his coat.
Slow and slack,
He took off his toque.
Drew his sharp sword from its shining sheath.
The Great Vatel,
Finished at last.

Embracing his assistants one by one,
Snorting fire and streaming hair
The tall chef’s passions thundered through the room,
Rattling the tins in the triumph of despair.

“In such a world of rank injustice,
May those lobsters live long!
May they never abide together
In a sauce of high endeavor!
May they die of old age, abandoned and stinking!
I have failed king, country, Conde and cuisine,
But I die like a chef, on my sharpened steel!
Oh, coup de grace facile!”

Take a lesson from this dream of a man of principle:
If living proves impossible, life can prove vincible!

Hara kiri,
Happy dispatch,
Hara hara kiri kiri, happy dispatch
Happy happy happy
Hara hara ha!
Hara kiri,
Happy dispatch,
Happy, happy, happy dispatch!
(Repeat)

The parable of the great chef Francois Vatel is actually drawn from culinary history: a man who took his own life rather than face disgrace in the discharge his duties. In Deadbeat, the tale of an overstressed executive laid low whose finds a new lease on life after a heart attack, the story is told as an ironic glorification of the Type-A personality: the suicide of a perfectionist, it proposes (with tongue in cheek), is a glorious death since it honors the ideal of perfection. Honestly, I think all this was lost on 22-year-old me as I scribbled notes on staff paper; I was just thrilled to be making original work for the stage. When it came time to produce the show, I got to direct it too, giving full free rein to my youthful megalomania. Oh, and did I mention I was in a relationship with a lovely singer who went on to become Miss Delaware? Those were the days!

Cutting Edge postcard
This performance is from a concert of my compositions that was performed in Wilmington about 20 years ago. Gary Pagano plays the Chef Vatel; a man of many talents, Gary worked variously as a chef, restauranteur, fine artist and rock singer before making his way up the corporate ladder in Viacom’s Special Events department. D’Arcy and I sing the other parts, with Harvey Price on percussion.

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