My name is Henri Girard. I am a chef. Or should I say, I was a chef for the du Monde family at Montenero, their estate in Virginia. Now I have been dead a long time. Doomed to stay in the wine cellar of this estate during the daylight hours, every day since 1938. I am what you might call a ghost.
I will tell you my story. I began my training to be a chef at the side of my Grand-maman in the French countryside. We lived in a small village where we could obtain fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs easily. My Grand-maman raised me as my own mother had passed away when I was just 2 years. Father worked on a merchant ship. I knew from the time I was 12 that I wanted to be a professional Chef. I worked very hard to make my way up to Head Chef in some of the best restaurants in Canada and the United States.
M. William du Monde and I became acquainted while I was working as a private chef at the Saratoga Race Club. A very generous family had hired me to prepare a light meal for 20 people. This party included M. William du Monde and his wife. I remember so clearly, it was the day when the famous Man O’ War suffered his only defeat. Everyone was very nervous. I knew nothing about horse racing, I did know about food. I was worried there would not be enough to last the day.
In a quiet moment M. du Monde Sr. approached me and said he needed the best chef his money could buy. I was quite surprised. To my recollection he had not been to any of the restaurants where I had worked. He insisted I was the best. He offered me such a generous salary, an apartment, and even to pay for my medical bills. I could not say no. In 1920, I left the stress of the big city restaurant life behind and moved with my new bride to the spacious quarters at Montnero.
M. du Monde Sr. was very particular about the foods I prepared for his family and even more particular about food served at social gatherings on the Estate. I did not mind. He gave me a free hand in choosing menu items. I created some signature dishes for which Montenero became famous. It was a great source of pride for both the du Monde family and me.
The only thing M. du Monde Sr. did not allow me to do was to hire the kitchen staff. This was a problem because I was also particular about who was at my side in my kitchen. After a year or so of working for M. du Monde Sr. I felt that we had a cordial rapport. Therefore, I asked to speak to him about a wholly unsuitable man he hired as my Sous Chef. He was not trained properly. He did not even have the proper clothes to wear. It was shocking. How could he be second in command of my kitchen!? The dishes he prepared were bland and his plate presentation? Oh! mon coeur! Several times I felt faint at the sight.
My appointment did not go as I had hoped. The man he hired as a chef was the relative of his wife. He was there to learn how to become a chef, and I was to teach him. I assured M. du Monde that I respect him, but this man was not talented and would never be a true chef. I beg him, I said Cyril has no natural gift for cooking or baking.
M. du Monde looked up at me from his desk and said “Henri I sympathize. I agree the man is lazy and has no talent for cooking. He has dreamt of being a Chef all his life, so he says. My wife has begged me with tears in her eyes to allow Cyril this chance. For the sake of domestic peace, please do your best.” Domestic peace was a difficulty I could understand.
I replied, ”M. William, sir, I comprehend your problem. This will be a thorny subject for you. I propose we give him 3 months to start to show improvement in his skills. Mme. Marion and M. William Jr. would expect my very best work. If M. Cyril is not up to the task, one shudders to think, yes?”
He said, “That seems fair, Henri. He has had some success at baking perhaps you could see how he does at preparing the dessert course. Henri, we have no desire to throw out more food. Cyril may be angry at being made Pastry Chef. Let us face facts. The man is incompetent. You make the decision to make him the pastry chef, or you let him make bread and I will back you up. I cannot take another night of painful indigestion caused by barely edible onion soup.” He stated with as much vigor as I had ever seen.
“M. William I will be sure to keep you apprised.” I gave a little bow and left the room.
The excitement began when, after a very difficult divorce from her first husband, Mme Marion became engaged to a famous actor- or was he a writer? I don’t remember. The wedding was to be held on the grounds at Montenero. A few close friends and family were to be treated to a feast.
As head chef I began to create the menu. An autumn wedding would call for some Autumn dishes made with fresh produce. I would make Coq Au Vin for the main dish with Ratatouille, fruit breads, and other delicacies.
Cyril would never be Sous Chef. He was excellent as a Pastry Chef. He worked very hard to learn the proper etiquette of the kitchen. He was also very good at finding the best fresh produce in the village. This is a vital skill.
“Cyril, you will take these lists I have had typed out to the village farmer’s market. Make no substitutions, especially to the zucchini. It MUST be zucchini, and it must be fresh.” I said.
Cyril took the notes and headed to the village. He might not have been the brightest chef I have ever worked with, but he could do this errand.
Without any question, Cyril knew that I had a serious allergy to cucumbers, so he must not make the mistake of trying to sneak in cucumbers if there are no zucchinis. (It would not be unlike him to do this especially because I was too busy to check every basket of fruits and vegetables) Too many things to do. The wine was due to arrive, as was the cheese I had ordered.
The next day everything was in readiness for the wedding. My Juliette had decorated the cake beautifully and was now assisting the bride. Juliette and Mme Marion were very close friends. We had only to locate the groom. He left a note on his pillow in his bedroom. He wrote that he was most apologetic, but he could not marry Mme Marion. Mme. Marion fell into the arms of Juliette crying. Her father and brother carried her to her room.
Quel Dommage! I exclaimed to the kitchen staff. “There is to be no wedding. Mme. Marion’s fiancé had left only a short note.” I continued. “Tomorrow we must serve the food we have to the guests still here at the house. We cannot let them go away hungry. (I was quite angry!) All of you go home now, come back tomorrow ready to do what we can for Mme. Marion.”
The housemaids, Juliette and I cleaned the kitchen and put away the food very carefully making sure nothing would go to waste. After which my own beautiful bride, Juliette, and I went to our quarters to wait for instructions from M. du Monde.
The next day at 2:00 we began to prepare the meal for the houseguests. The Ratatouille could be served as a cold salad. I carefully removed the thinly sliced vegetables from the pan gently arranging them on salad plates. Before the plates were carried to the dining room, the fateful moment came. I took a bite of the dish, as I always do, only to find that Cyril, the fou à lier, substituted cucumber for zucchini. He thought he’d get away with it! I stumbled to the wine cellar to find the strong whiskey. It might help to keep me breathing. A doctor, among the guests in the house, administered the correct medicine, but it was too late. I was fading quickly and here it was that I died.
Now stay in the wine cellar until dusk when I am allowed to roam the upstairs portion of Montenero.
Every year since my passing has been interesting. I see and hear things, some of which would shock the moral conscience of many people. I amuse myself by helping in the kitchen at night. Mme Marion knows it is I who help to chop vegetables, or prepare a pastry. She tells the story of the day I died and how I have been seen wandering the house in my white jacket and my checked scarf. Though I am not the only ghost in this house.
This year was different. Mme. Marion had become gravely ill. I was worried about her especially since I was stuck in the wine cellar and could not see what was happening.
Mme Marion never remarried or even entertained the idea of remarrying. Many men had tried, of course. Her wealth attracted them like bees to a hive! Always buzzing around her, but she was not interested in being hurt again. She has no family of her own. Though she had friends, among them my Juliette as they had each suffered a tragedy the day I passed, she had no blood relatives to stand by her. Juliette was giving her best, but she was getting older and tired easily.
It was a Tuesday according to the calendar in the kitchen. The year was 1983. Mme. Marion du Monde passed away quietly in her sleep. I stood at her bedside and welcomed her to the other side. She smiled.
“I knew you were here Henri. Juliette knew too. She said no one would chop vegetables for fun.” She laughed
“I have to stay in the wine cellar during the day because that’s where I died, but you can go anywhere you like in the house because it belonged to you at death. That is how it works here on the other side. I am here to greet other souls. Eventually you will pass on to another place.” I told her.
“You won’t be coming?” Asked Mme Marion
“I can visit, but I have other duties as gatekeeper, so I must stay here. I enjoy my job” I replied.
Mme Marion would spend the day in the wine cellar to keep me company. There are many souls who pass through the house and grounds often coming to visit the wine cellar. Mme Marion was introduced to James and Dolley Madison, the Washingtons, the Lincolns, several other important families who had lived in or visited the area around Montenero. She recognized one of the horse jockeys that used to ride for her stable. There was even the ghost of a horse that belonged to M. du Monde.
Week by week Mme. Marion became accustomed to the idea that she had passed on. She had willed Montenero to the National Historic Trust. She began to enjoy riding her father’s horse, visiting the gardens, eating because she could not because she had to, meeting new people who had passed on. Most of her day would be spent in the cellar with me.
One day my own Juliette appeared in the house. It was a Friday in 1983. Mme. Marion was so pleased to see her. The two of them came down into the wine cellar together. I was able to hold my one true love on earth. Juliette was not worried about her life after death. She knew that she would have to learn new things. She was happy to be out of pain, and to be with her husband and her best friend again.
Mme. Marion saw her nieces and nephews come with her sister-in-law to pack up the private family papers and other personal items.
In the Spring, there were the construction workers who came to restore Montenero to its original dimensions before allowing the public to view it as a landmark. It was noisy work! There were young people around during the day. It was refreshing to see and hear them.
The three of us, Juliette, Mme Marion and me, would clean up for them. I would prepare fruits and vegetables for our visitors to eat. It would amuse us to hear them try to figure out how this was done.
In Summer, the beautiful gardens were in full bloom. Juliette and I would sit on the benches after dusk to listen to the sounds of the night birds. While Mme Marion would help with greeting the recently passed to her home.
A year went by though we did not notice. Mme Marion and Juliette were given the option of helping as gatekeepers. They could join me, or they could go on to their eternal reward, as they wished. After taking some time they each decided that they would stay. We made a good team. Of course, we could visit our relatives and friends who chose to move to their eternal resting place at any time. However, Mme. Marion and Juliette decided to stay at Montenero. We possessed the assurance that we could go to our permanent, eternal home at any time.
Despite the fact that I was relegated to the wine cellar during the day, serving as a gatekeeper was a wonderful job to have for eternity. All people eventually die. Some would have to learn to live with certain choices they made while they were alive. All would have to accept permanence of their death and eternal reward. The three gatekeepers of Montenero would greet those who had recently deceased. We would continue to ease the shock of death, teach people about their new surroundings and to help people experience ultimate peace of a free soul.