Au Revoir, Avec Notre Amis, Levi (Saying goodbye with our friend Levi Minyard)

 

Au Revoir, Avec Notre Amis, Levi (Saying goodbye with our friend Levi Minyard)

By Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes
a friend in Oxford who did not know him nearly long enough

OXFORD, MISSISSIPPI (deltabohemian.com) – The first time I met Levi it was apparent that his smile was as contagious as his energy was infectious.  It happened at an interview luncheon at Oxford University Club, where he hoped to not only be the next executive chef; but to triumphantly return to his hometown with a stellar list of culinary accomplishments and a declaration as “Steel Chef Mississippi.”  It would later turn out that he was really returning to the center of gravity and a place to comfort not only him, but also to his incredible family, to those he loved, and those he had not yet met . . . but who he always strived to please.

Refecting Pool at Eiffel Tower - RIP Levi Minyard. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

Refecting Pool at Eiffel Tower - RIP Levi Minyard. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

The first presentation of Levi that day was a most perfectly cooked (or not so cooked) salmon roulade on toast, with black caviar and a sprig of fresh herbs.  It was sat before each of us just seconds before a nervous, yet spree young man entered the little room in the club with his crooked and confident smile, and spoke with a magical accent as though he were a passionate Frenchman who had forcibly accepted the English language of Mississippi, albeit with an altered Southern accent.  A single question I asked about some seemingly insignificant attention to detail, communicated not only an acknowledgment of his method of preparation, but established an uncanny and immediate connection with the young man in the “Rust” hat, who clearly had so much energy and talent which was searching for a direction, a focus, a landing spot.  For a while, it seemed he had found it, in Oxford, which was reaffirmed with each gleeful welcome to the guests as he worked the tables he worked daily like a politician.

Levi Minyard in his Rust hat. Photo by Levi Minyard. RIP our friend

Levi Minyard in his Rust hat. Photo by Levi Minyard. RIP our friend

While we all relished in his successes and seemingly contagious positive attitude, Levi fought his struggles in private, apparently unaware of the happiness and sheer pleasure he delivered with not only his cooking talent, but with his smile and insatiable desire to please all with whom he came into contact.  Levi’s focus and happiness was not, surprisingly, cooking great food, or immaculate presentations. Rather, it really was simply making people happy – making them smile – at, it turns out, whatever drain or cost to him personally.

His struggle ended a couple of weeks ago, but his gift of bringing people together and making them happy carried on, across the ocean.  Like his cooking, Levi’s departure brought people together, and renewed friendships that had lagged over the years.  I was lucky enough that his parents were so gracious to extend their trust of a little bit of Levi with me.  It came by way of his mom, Robin, who so gracefully and stoically showed up at my office last Tuesday “with Levi in hand”, as she said with a smile.  Her emotions in check, she handed off some of Levi’s ashes to me so delicately like a mother passing along her newborn child for the first time to another to hold.   I took Levi with the same care and respect, and took him home to prepare for a final journey.  Once home that evening, Levi and I went into my little bistro in the basement that he loved so much as a reminder of Avignon, and Restaurant 75.  After toasting him with a glass of chilled champagne (French, of course), I told him about our journey that weekend to Paris, and swear I heard him say, “My friend, you have got to be kidding me!”.

Our flight arrived in Paris arrived at 6:10 in the morning, last Friday, and Levi and I hit the ground running.  After a quick stop at the hotel, we sat at a sidewalk cafe and enjoyed fresh croissants and café au lait in the morning sun and gentle breeze, all within the obligatory view of the Eiffel Tower.  It was the bluest sky I have ever seen in Paris in the winter, and the temperature was unseasonably warm as well.  Levi sat to my left, so he could be in clear view of everything.  Soon the storefronts slowly began to open, meaning it time to walk about Paris and be surrounded by the language he loved to speak, hear and simply just be near.  And, while Paris was not necessarily the France Levi knew best, it had symbols and culinary landmarks that represented all that was so dear to him, across the pond.  So, off we went to the three places that embodied the culinary arts in Paris, at least in Levi’s and my opinion (which he loved to discuss).

Jay and Levi visited E. Dehillerin in Paris. RIP Levi Minyard. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

Jay and Levi visited E. Dehillerin in Paris. RIP Levi Minyard. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

The metro stop of Chatelet Les Halles is near “Les Halles”  – is the original site of one of the largest wholesale market places of Paris, and perhaps all of France.  For over 900 years vendors gathered there early each morning to sell their finest meats, poultry, vegetables, spices and wares to the best chefs and home gourmets.  Though long since replaced by modern stores, the grounds surrounding it and the Church of Saint Eustache are hallowed.  So, it is in the shadows of the great church that Levi and I made our first stop by “E. Dehillerin” where great chefs have carefully selected their pots, pans and special utensils for over 190 years.   The vintage store remains unchanged from its original location or form, adamantly refusing anything modern other than an old telephone – which is seldom acknowledged or answered.  Even a broom seems to be too modern, as dust clings to some items that have been on the raw old wooden shelves for many years, and between the cracks in the wide wooden floors of massive oak planks.  Levi and I spent the better part of an hour just looking at the neat culinary tools for any executive chef, spoke with some of the attendants, and made our way downstairs to the “special” room, that is, the basement.  It is there where the finest copper pots and pans hang from every inch of the ceiling, and they are stacked to the hilt on every shelve and corner of the old wooden floor.  As an attendant made his way to us, with the creaking of the floor, we were amazed at the sheer magic of a culinary museum frozen in a time gone by – a time where Julia Childs and Joel Robuchon, and thousands of other great chefs-to-be bought their utensils as young chefs.  And so it was that Levi and I decided a little of him would stay behind there, where a great chef would forever grace the sacred basement, in the shadows of the hallowed market.

Jay and Levi visited inside E. Dehillerin in Paris. RIP Levi Minyard. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

Jay and Levi visited inside E. Dehillerin in Paris. RIP Levi Minyard. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

From the old corner building, we went a couple of blocks to another landmark gourmet shop, “La Bovida.”  Little has changed there since it opened in 1921, other than its paint.  However, it does have the latest and greatest in cooking supplies and dinnerware on three different floors, it is a must-see in the heart of the cooking district for any chef or gourmet traveler.  Levi and I strolled around the various floors and departments of the store, and made certain to see or try all that was the neatest culinary gadgets.  The most impressive was the display of the finest assembly of knives (so impressive some customers actually took pictures of it).  I could literally hear Levi going on with his classic “Youre kidding me!” – so it was a foregone conclusion that Levi would want linger there for a while, and then leave a little piece behind.  So, we did – and he did.

The final stop in the cooking district was at “G. Detou,” literally the finest old seasoning store, and edible epicenter of Paris.  I cannot go without buying fresh Madagascar vanilla beans, vanilla sugar, and an array of the best French oils.  As with the other two landmark stores, it is dated and need not change when it is the best, and always has a line to fight through to arrive at the counter.  Detou chooses to focus on one thing and do it well.  Mission accomplished.  Levi and I smelled all the seasonings (probably more than we should have), inspected the oils and stood in line to get an invoice, then another to pay, and then back to another line to retrieve our goodies.  I could not imagine part of Levi not wanting to stay there…. And so he did.

Jay and Levi visited G Detou - an icon in Paris. RIP Levi Minyard. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

Jay and Levi visited G Detou - an icon in Paris. RIP Levi Minyard. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

Our final stop of Friday evening was to the little restaurant near the Eiffel Tower, Au Petit Sud Ouest.  The restaurant was unknown to Levi, that is before the first time we first met and he asked my favorite meal and restaurant in Paris:  Duck! – and Au Petit Sud Ouest.  We would later discuss the various duck preparations, styles, region, garnishment, etc, in much detail in my bistro (prompted by a photo of the restaurant hanging on the wall).  Then, always striving to please, Levi surprised me one day at the club with the most perfectly recreated version of the duck.  It was flawless duck confit, atop a perfectly grilled magret duck breast, over steaming hot potatoe puree, with an orange demiglas. There was simply no way I could take Levi to Paris and not take him to our favorite restaurant, and introduce him to Chantelle and Allain, the proprietors.

We sat at a little table near the window, as close as possible to all of the bottles of wine and display cases of the various parts of fresh duck and sausages from Southwest France.  We began with chilled champagne and fresh foie gras on toasted country bread.  Then, after a fine bottle of Bordeaux had breathed to its fullest, I toasted Levi and we shared perfectly roasted magret duck breast, puffed potatoes, and sautéed chanterelle mushrooms.  Chantelle and I discussed Levi and what our plans were the following morning with his other friends.  She was so very touched in a genuine way, and smiled and grinned with that special mother’s touch.   In the end, Levi decided to stay there as well, but just a little bit.

Enjoying a Duck dinner at Au Petit Sud Ouest. Levi enjoyed preparing duck. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

Enjoying a Duck dinner at Au Petit Sud Ouest. Levi enjoyed preparing duck. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

Walking back to the hotel from Sud Ouest is always a pleasant journey, and one that takes you through the quaint streets of the Left Bank, through the garden and under the Eiffel Tower, then across the River Seine.  The tower has lights up all sides and angles, which, at the top of every hour, sparkle, like fireworks on Bastille Day and illuminates the whole area, to be seen for miles.  Just to the right of the base of the tower is a reflecting pool for ducks, which is surrounded by a perfectly manicured flower garden.  As chance would have it this evening, the lights began to sparkle as we walked beside the reflecting pool, approaching the tower.  And so it was, that I could not think of a more pleasant place to spend a few minutes, and leave yet anther little memory of Levi in the eternal pond.

Eiffel Tower Route taken by Jay and Levi. RIP Levi Minyard. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

Eiffel Tower Route taken by Jay and Levi. RIP Levi Minyard. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

Throughout the previous week, Levi’s mom had initiated contact by email between some of his friends in France, and me. Through the emails with Charlotte, Anne and Sandra, it was immediately apparent their obvious love and compassion for Levi, and the pain over their loss of him.  We planned to meet Saturday morning in the middle of Pont Au Double, a bridge across the Seine, just to the South of it, and under the careful watch of the Rose Window of the Cathedral de Notre Dame. Though Sandra would not be able to make it from Avignon to Paris that morning, her mother, Haye Francoise, knew Levi and actually cared enough to drive seven hours overnight to Paris to make sure Avignon was represented, and that she would be able to take a part of Levi home to his friends in Avignon.

Levi and I got away from the hotel early on Saturday, in time to catch the opening a little bistro for a final croissant and café au lait.  It was then off to the Metro to the appointed place.  We arrived a little early, and could see though the light layer of fog, that no one was on the bridge yet.  So the final trip Levi and I took were within the great doors of Notre Dame Cathedral.  Just as you enter the church, there is a large statue of Jesus on the Cross, probably 15 feet high, that rests against the wall.  Amongst the glowing candles, and the absolute silence of the early morning in the cathedral, Levi and I kneeled and said the Lord’s prayer.  After that, I walked to the base of the statue, and felt it almost calling that a little of Levi spend eternity in that special area beneath the feet of Jesus, for all to visit time and again, and know he is at peace and within the warmth and glow of the candles and statues of patron saints.

The Rose Window of Notre Dame. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

The Rose Window of Notre Dame. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

After another walk around the beautiful cathedral, it was on to the bridge, Pont Au Double.  A screenwriter could not have written it better, and I admit I was unprepared for the emotions, as I walked onto the historic bridge, and then appeared, in perfect timing, with a knowing nod and heartfelt smile, Haye (Sandra’s mom), then Charlotte, and then Anne.  With very few words, we thought about the direction of the wind, and then walked to the East side of the bridge.  Each of us had special things said in our hearts and minds, and then with tears, and a shoulder-to-shoulder embrace by four otherwise strangers, we said goodbye to our friend Levi, and watched him fly into the morning sheen and the River Seine.  Charlotte and Anne then reminisced of how they happened to meet Levi at Madidi, and the craziness of him impressing them with his repertoire of cuss words in French, as well as a zany little French song he loved to play.  With that, Charlotte had downloaded the corny song to her phone, and we listened to it, with big smiles of seeing him dance to it, complete with his forefingers pointing in the air and moving to the rhythm.

Admiring the Rose Window of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

Admiring the Rose Window of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

Thereafter, the three ladies decided not to depart immediately, and we shared Anne’s car to the remote area where the original culinary school of Le Cordon Bleu is located.  Even though a Saturday morning, school was in session, but protected by a hawk at the front desk like she was guarding a military secret.  We were finally able to convince her of my desire to show my friends where I had gone to school, and we were granted entry into the Winter Garden, and wonderful atrium in the middle of the school, where plants and trees grew along the edges of the dining area and classrooms, beneath a classic wire/glass ceiling.  As we secretly introduced Levi to the garden of his Alma Mater (and had illegally parked in a construction zone) it clicked with all of us at the same time how we realized that Levi would have loved the secrecy and mischievousness of the mission, which had left him forever with Le Cordon Bleu.

Still not ready to separate after such an emotional morning, we returned to the little brasserie across from Point Au Double, where we had first met that morning, and with a vantage from the table of the Rose window of Notre Dame.  The irony of us sitting there over breakfast breads and coffee went unnoticed, until Haye smiled and said that it was food that brought each of us to Levi, and then, one final time, that food still brought us together.

Our bill was paid, hugs and kisses were exchanged.  Then, with the same respect that his mom used at my office, I gently handed over Levi to Haye, and also to Anne.  Haye was going to return to Avignon, to do something special with Levi and his friends there.  Charlotte and Anne had not yet decided their plans for Levi in Paris, but the love they showed left no doubt that it would be so special.

We all kissed each other on each cheek once again, and then hugged one more time, with tears in our eyes and hearts, as if we had known each other for years.  This was the final gift of Levi – bringing people together, even though a world apart.

As I began, Au Revoir Notre Amis, Levi.  You will be missed. Jay Hughes

Oxford private bistro of Jay Hughes where he and Levi had delightful discussions. RIP Levi Minyard. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

Oxford private bistro of Jay Hughes where he and Levi had delightful discussions. RIP Levi Minyard. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

Jay and Levi visited the landmark gourmet shop La Bovida in Paris. RIP Levi Minyard. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

Jay and Levi visited the landmark gourmet shop La Bovida in Paris. RIP Levi Minyard. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

Jay and Levi inside this little restaurant near the Eiffel Tower called Au Petit Sud Ouest. RIP Levi Minyard. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

Jay and Levi inside this little restaurant near the Eiffel Tower called Au Petit Sud Ouest. RIP Levi Minyard. Photo by Guest Bohemian Jay Hughes

The Delta Bohemian is grateful to Jay for sharing this poignant narrative about his travels with the partial remains of Levi as was given to him by his loving family for transport to his beloved France.

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Comments

  1. Robin Minyard says:

    Thank you for this incredible kindness. Words cannot express our gratitude for this experience. Love, grace and peace abound. You have been a testament to that. God bless you.

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