Jonathan had asked me to join him for breakfast while he waited for his parents. He and I sat at a table in the dining room of the Rosa Alpina, a deluxe hotel in the Italian Alps not far from the Swiss border. A buffet circling half the room displayed jams, breads and pastries in artfully arranged rows. Silver tureens filled with eggs, bacon and sausage glinted in the morning light. The colorful fruits and juices competed with the scenery outside the windows. The deep green of the national forest was in stark contrast with the mountain peaks made white by a snowfall the night before. The Alpine beauty and regional food were quite literally sensational. To stay at the Rosa Alpina was to invest in one’s memories.
“Are you on vacation?” I asked Jonathan, like a novelist fishing for a story.
“Yes, it’s a gift from my parents. When we leave here we’re driving to the Virgilius. It’s another spectacular hotel but it can’t be better than this. It’s hard to improve on perfection.”
“What a thoughtful gift. May I ask what for?”
“Yes. I just graduated from Cambridge. Before I get locked into an investment bank where I’ll earn my stripes, my parents decided to give me what I like doing most.”
“Going to restaurants and taking notes on the wine and food. I keep a journal of menus and write reviews about them before my palate forgets.”
“It’s obvious you prefer food to working in a bank. Your enthusiasm gives you away.”
“You’re right. Finance is like eating vegetarian. I know it’s good for me but it gives me no joy. I find pushing numbers equally insipid.”
“Some people enjoy the risk in high stakes investment.”
“I’m not one of them.”
“Then why work at what’s distasteful?”
“I need a salary in six figures to travel to the world’s great restaurants. Money will support my interest.”
“Have you ever thought of combining deep satisfaction with employment? I mean, making money from what gives you joy.”
“It means taking a risk. I have no training in the culinary arts. I find great pleasure eating and drinking and then writing about it. I can’t afford the joy even when I’ve tried.”
“Sorry but I don’t follow. Would you explain?”
“In the last three months I’ve paired great foods with exceptional wines and run up a credit card bill that I just paid off. The first dinner I gave started with fettucini tossed in Icelandic butter and topped with parmesano reggiano and freshly shaved white truffles. I matched it with a 1985 Santo Stefano Barbaresca. At three thousand dollars a pound, truffles cost a fortune for a few ounces, not to mention the pricey wine. I shared the dinner with two friends. After a few mouthfuls, silence came over the table and I thought I saw tears in their eyes. Mine were moist at the rapturous mix of ingredients. I recall another night when I served Iberico Bellota ham in gossamer thin slices, aged Manchego cheese, and a Vega Sicilia Riserva 1970. Also memorable was the foie gras and apple tart paired with a 1990 Chateau d’Yquem.”
“You’ve made your point. It’s all a little rich for my taste. While I’m no connoisseur at that level, I can feel the profligacy.”
“I won’t feel it again for a long time. We’re in a recession. Unemployment is over nine per cent, the euro is tottering, and several countries are close to default. The name of the game is austerity. Even with degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, my friends are struggling to scare up jobs. They once had the backing of wealth. Not any more. Their families are hurting.”
“You know, Jonathan, someone in the twenties was in a position similar to yours. The parallel is uncanny. How he handled it may prove enlightening.”
“Tell me who. I need all the help I can get.”
“His name was Jean Patou. Early in his career he created revolutionary sportswear for women. But his success came to a grinding halt with the Wall Street Crash. Patou saw the fortunes of his American clientele dwindle. Still, he threw caution to the wind and offered a gift to his clients, a hymn to life that would lift their spirits. In a bold, generous gesture despite the price in a depressed environment, he offered a sumptuous fragrance to his cherished customers. He called on the genius of Henri Alméras to create the most splendid perfume ever, and told him to spare nothing. Henri viewed as unreasonable the cost of ingredients going into JOY perfume and complained to Patou:
‘Do you know what it takes to make one fluid ounce of JOY? 5300 jasmine flowers and 14 dozen roses. What shall I do with this formula?’
‘Double it,’ answered Patou.
“No fewer than ten thousand six hundred jasmine flowers and three hundred and thirty-six roses make up each ounce. Patou’s decision was extravagant even by today’s standards; nonetheless, JOY was launched as ‘the world’s most expensive perfume’. The unique concentration of jasmine and rose made it one of the best-selling fragrances of all time, second only to Chanel Number 5.”
“It’s a great story and I see your point. It’s all about commitment to one’s vision.”
“You’re right. Whether with jasmine and roses or wine and truffles, it means doing something extravagant that goes to the limit of yourself. Life wants a different thing from each of us, arduous or easy, private or prominent, but something only we can achieve and for which each of us was born.”
“You’re asking a lot to secure joy: fidelity to self and generosity of spirit; most of all, courage. I’m not sure I’m up to those ingredients. How am I to deal with that formula?”
“How can I when fear threatens me?”
“Brace yourself with these words and then repeat them like a mantra: ‘You’re only human once, you’re only human once.’”
Joseph Roccasalvo is a professional writer.
His website is www.josephroccasalvo.com