Over the years, I've asked alot of men about theirfathers-in-law: whetherthey get along with them,whether they play a significantrole in their lives. These conversationstook place over a beer,or on a fishing trip, maybe at anOrioles game. I usually had tobring the subject up; in mostcases, the guys I've knownwouldn't do it themselves, orthere just wasn't much to say.They had married the man'sdaughter, and that was about it.
My friends and fishing companionswere far more likely totalk about their own dads, notthose of their wives. So maybeI've been luckier than most.
Until the other day, when we had to saygoodbye to him, I believe I had the bestfather-in-law a man could ever imagine, atotal bonus in life. Louie Donnard had joiede vivre to the nth power, an extravagantlygenerous spirit and a personality muchbigger than his body. Everyone aroundhim seemed to gain energy from him.
He wasn't just my father-in-law, or whatthe French call "beau-pere." He becamemy friend and mentor. We had the kind ofbuddy relationship I never had -- andprobably never could have had -- with myown father.
Louie showed me how to work a chainsaw and chop word, prune fruit trees andgrow potatoes, dry and preserve onions,slice a turkey and poach a salmon, replacea fan belt, make a Manhattan, play bocce,win at Uno, fold linen napkins for formaldining, prepare a family picnic, install anelectric outlet, panel a club basement,grow endive in the dark, canvinegar peppers, build shelvesfor a wine cellar, tie bulky objectsto a car roof, charm visitorsand make strangers feel welcome.
Louie Donnard was a farm boyfrom France, though he wasalways quick to specify Brittanyas his place of birth. He and hiswife, Felicie, grew up speakingBreton, a Celtic language. Theysurvived occupation and war,then moved to the United Statesin the 1950s, arriving in NewYork, Louie liked to remind us,"with a wooden suitcase, a newwife and $100."
He went to work in hotelkitchens, putting in long hours to learnand refine his craft and save money for ahouse in Queens. In time, he became ahighly regarded chef at country clubs inthe suburbs of New York, then at theHarvard Club in Manhattan and finallythe executive dining room at MorganStanley. There, he could order anythingfor his menus because, he said through histhick accent, "At Morgan Stanley, moneyis no objection."
The daily clientele included internationalfinanciers, bankers and heads ofstate. One day in the 1980s, Louie preparedlunch for Richard M. Nixon. After dessert,the former president autographed Louie'stoque blanche.
He was proud of that. Louie admired John F. Kennedy, but he voted for Nixontwice and was a big fan of Ronald Reagan.That led to some challenging conversations,especially after a couple of glasses ofwine.
Louie believed in hard work, savingyour money and never buying somethingunless you had the cash for it.He also believed:
• The best way to avoid speeding tickets-- and just getting off with a warning --was to cover one's Buick with the stickersof every fraternal order of police andchiefs of police association between NewYork and Florida.
• Keeping knives sharp at all timesreduced frustration in kitchens by 80percent.
• Taking time to sit and eat a homecookedmeal, every day, no matter howbusy you are, makes you healthier.I wish you all could have met him. Hewas the kind of person who, upon beingintroduced to a stranger, could make thatperson feel like the most important one inthe room.
I knew Louie long enough to see histemperamental side, so I was glad to justbe his son-in-law and not his sous chef.But, as passionate as he was about gettingthe consommé correct or the firewoodstacked smartly, he maintained a joyousnature, and all of us hopefully learnedsomething from that: Be passionate aboutwhat you do, and don't forget joy.
Live long. Live well. Salut!Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun