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A Life I Never Imagined
A Life I Never Imagined
A Life I Never
LifeTime Private Autobiography
The experience of sharing your stories in a private autobiography for the family
Copyright © 2022 Louis Borel
First produced in the U.S.A. in 2022 by Private Autobiography Service, Inc. for the Author’s private circulation.
This book is produced for private circulation and is not for public distribution. The accuracy of the content is the
sole responsibility of the Author and is based on the Author’s perceptions of his experiences over time.
All opinions and statements of fact are those expressed by the Author as his personal recollections, and dialogue
and thoughts are consistent with those recollections.
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system,
or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior
written permission of Private Autobiography Service, Inc., nor be otherwise circulated
in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is produced.
Spelling, punctuation, and grammar contained in this book have been approved by the Author
and may not be in accordance with contemporary accepted styles and usage.
Typeset in Goudy Old Style.
Printed and bound in the U.K.
Private Autobiography Service, Inc., 503 E Summit Street, Crown Point, IN 46307, U.S.A. +1 800 453 0199
A LifeBook Ltd company
I dedicate this autobiography to Jacqueline, my former faithful,
beautiful wife of 53 years; to my children Danielle and Pascale; to
my grandchildren Kyle, Jacques, and Chase, and to any future greatgrandchildren
so they may know and understand who I was, where
I came from, and how this family came to be in the United States.
A special thanks to Danielle, who helped me edit every word of
this book and curate these wonderful photos!
1. The Earliest Years 9
2. My Experiences in Paris 21
3. My Time in the Army 29
4. My Time in Rhodesia, Africa 45
5. My Life Changes Again—Meeting Jacqueline 59
6. My Marriage 67
7. My Arrival in New York 73
8. A New Life in San Francisco 79
9. Moving to Acapulco 95
10. My Time in West Covina 109
11. My Time at the Holiday Inn Palo Alto 111
12. My Time at Le Baron 125
13. My Own Place: L’Omelette/Chez Louis 135
14. My Girls 159
15. My Life Lately and What I’ve Learned 169
Conclusion—Food for Thought 179
The Earliest Years
My maternal grandfather, Pierre Pelissier, met his wife, Marie
Chevalier, at the farm just next door where she lived with her
sisters. I’ve always loved the name Chevalier. At one time, it served as a
big farm called the Château de St. Gall. Today, the farm still exists, and
the owners are the descendants of the Chevalier family.
My grandparents had four children—my mother Berthe, her sister
Alice, and her brothers Charles and Cyril. My mother, Berthe Pelissier,
was first married to Vital Cussac but became a widow in 1920 at just
20 years old. They had a daughter together, Andrée, who we called
DeDe. After Vital’s death, my mother married my father, Eugene Borel,
but my mother called him by his middle name, Antoine. My mother
met my father in the village of Vabres, by the blacksmith’s building
which my father was building at the time. I should have asked more
questions about my parents’ childhoods and their lives. I regret that
nobody spoke to children about the past in those days.
I was the eldest of Antoine Borel’s children, followed by my brother
Roger (who died in his late 70s); my brother Rene (his real name was
Alexis); my sister Josette; and my youngest brother Lucien. I was born
on July 16, 1934, in the very small rural village of Lastiguet, commune
de Lastic, département de Cantal, province d’Auvergne, France. There
were only five farms in my village and the abundant crop of the region
was lentils. I was born in the same region as the Marquis de Lafayette,
an important figure of the American Revolutionary War and the
Although I was born in Lastiguet, I never lived there. We lived in
the village of Vabres in a house near the village elementary school, very
close to my mother’s parents’ farm in La Trémolière.
My grandfather and grandmother were my heroes and I still have
a letter from my grandmother somewhere. My grandmother died in
1954 when she was in her 70s and I remember going to her funeral.
I remember walking from La Trémolière to Vabres, to the church and
cemetery where she is buried. As I walked to the main village, I recalled
my life there. Every corner reminded me of something to do with my
grandmother, and I could recall memories of Pierre, my grandfather,
My first childhood memory, from when I was four or five, is of Vabres
and our home there. The house we shared when we were very young was
comfortable and located in the countryside. I remember waking up one
morning and the garden fence was covered in a beautiful mountain of
snow. I still have that picture in my mind’s eye. Uncle Charles was like
a big brother to me; he took me everywhere when I was very young. He
went off for military training later and I remember him coming home
in 1939, dressed in a ‘Blue Horizon’ military uniform from World War
I. I recall that he brought me two bananas and I carried the beautiful,
sweet taste of them in my mouth until the end of the war! I didn’t see
Uncle Charles again until 1944 because he was taken as a prisoner of
war in Germany. He spent five long years working for the Germans in
a stalag prisoner of war camp.
I also have a cousin, Jean, whose father, Marcel Soubirou, was very
nice to me. He was the nicest and most civilized person, and I felt just
as if I was at home whenever I would go to see them in the Hotel de
Ville in Paris, overlooking the Seine River.
I knew much less of my father’s side of the family. I didn’t know
about it when I was younger, but I found out later that my paternal
grandmother, Maria Boudon, committed suicide. People kept silent
about that kind of thing then. My grandfather on this side was called
Louis, which was why I was given that name. My middle name is Felix
because my godmother was Félicité. When I was young, the name Felix
was associated with Felix the cartoon cat. Everyone had a nickname in
the village, but often I didn’t know their origins or the reasons behind
them. Mine was Loulou.
The Charles de Gaulle was an area rich in grain, but my Pelissier
grandparents’ farm (and my family’s home) was in a poor part of it
called l’Auvergne. There was granite, clear water, and nice scenery
but it was poor in terms of agriculture. It was all very rural. We had
cattle but nothing of real value at that time. During the occupation,
the Germans would come to make requests. We might, for example,
receive an order for an animal to be delivered at a specific location the
next day without warning. They used to pay peanuts. The value of the
grain, which was not very high-quality rye, was also in demand and
actually had great value during the war. Life improved after the war
when the occupation ended, but while the Germans were in France
and taking what little we had, people were keen to leave.
Since we lived close to the school, I began before the required legal
age which was six. By seven years old, I could already read and write
perfectly, and I was at least two years ahead of my classmates in school.
I grew up speaking a regional French patois dialect called Auvergnat
before I learned how to speak French. It’s known as Occitan or
Auvergnat and has a Latin root, but I never learned to read or write
it because it’s very difficult to read and it wasn’t the thing to do at the
time. I remember some songs and I can still speak it when I visit or
when I talk to my brother on the phone; it all came back to me when
I visited in October 2019.
In late 1939, we moved from Vabres to Saint-Chély-d’Apcher,
right when England and France declared war on Germany, and just
after Germany invaded Poland. During World War II, all of Europe
was in turmoil and France was split in two—the occupied north and
unoccupied southern zone near Vichy, where I lived. During this
time, the southern unoccupied free zone was invaded by hordes of
refugees fleeing and everything became overcrowded, especially the
I was overwhelmed by the situation and the ages of seven to nine
years old were some of the saddest of my life. I felt out of place in the
large crowds and I found it difficult to cope, having come from a small
village where everybody knew everyone else. At that time, I attended
a school where Catholic brothers taught us. They took vows and were
celibate. The school was called École du Sacré-Coeur. It was a regular
elementary school but also a vocational school that taught carpentry
One of the brothers was vicious and mean—a sadist really. He was
cruel and evil to certain children and would target them. He used his
carpentry skills on the erasers for the blackboard to traumatize the
children. He stuffed the erasers with pieces of wood and made them
quite heavy so that when erasing the blackboard, the chalk powder
stayed with the eraser. Then, when we were expecting it the least, the
brother threw the eraser and the target received it right in their face.
It exploded like a white bomb! Unfortunately, I was one of his favorite
targets. Hurting the kids, especially me, was fun for him. The brothers
and other students would make fun of me and disparage me. I was
punished often and I didn’t understand why. It was a very traumatic
time for me that has stayed with me all my life.
By the time I was nine, I was very skinny, depressed, and miserable.
It was at this time that my parents finally realized there was something
very wrong going on with me. With that, my parents sent me to live
with my grandparents and I returned to La Trémolière, to the school
at Vabres. When I arrived, I found comfort in my former teacher,
but I had been so badly traumatized at my previous school that I had
somehow forgotten how to read and write. I was at least two years
behind my classmates in terms of schooling.
I recall that when I returned to live with my grandmother, I had to
learn the Catechism. For me to learn the text and remember it, she had to
read it out loud and repeat it many times, which was very tedious, as you
can imagine. The priest who recited the Catechism was not very patient
with me because, even though I didn’t know how to read, he couldn’t
understand why I couldn’t learn. There was no psychology at the time or
knowledge of learning differences, such as dyslexia or ADHD. Children
who could not keep up with learning were not very well understood and
teachers simply thought the child was lazy or dumb.
There was one teacher in the French department who also didn’t
like me. I don’t know why, but he always gave me a bad grade, which
was known as a note, and you couldn’t ever ask him a question.
Since I had lost all those early years’ progress, I was very bad at
spelling. Really, I had to relearn everything at the age of nine, and
so I always felt left behind. The people around me at the time were
not kind or empathetic. The adults, especially, always diminished
me and put me down.
After a very tough beginning, I ultimately spent three years at
that complementary school and they were my best years of learning.
I became happier there, and I also improved my education.
At home, I was the first to wake up and light the fire every morning.
It was so cold that I had to find the kindling and dry wood so that we
could have boiled water or hot milk. I would head to school about one
hour before class started so I could light the fire in the schoolroom as
well. It took me an hour before classes started and, at the time, we had
quite a bit of snow. Nowadays, there is very little snow in Vabres and
the winters are not as cold! February used to be a crazy and miserable
month because the snow and water sometimes mixed, making it very
slushy, but now that kind of weather is rare.
Towards the end of the war, when I was living with my grandmother
and grandfather, I vividly recall hearing the news that Louis Mallet,
a doctor we knew who was also a member of the Résistance, had been
killed. The Germans killed one of his oldest sons first, right there
in front of him, before they killed him, simply because they were
Maquis. I remember hearing that the mailman had found 25 bodies
on the side of the road next to the village. They were executed early in
the morning around daybreak by a firing squad. Among those bodies
was Louis Mallet’s 16-year-old son who had been trying to escape. Just
before the American landing, the Germans went crazy because they
didn’t know what was coming. They left the little town, Saint-Flour,
when there was a thunderstorm in the middle of the night. The road
was cut off and the bridge was blown up. They killed several people
along their way and burned down several villages. At night, we could
see the blaze of the fires as they were burning down those villages.
The villages had a lot of Maquis or Maquisards, known as French
Freedom Fighters. Many of the Maquisards were near La Mageride,
which is covered with a large, wooded forest of Douglas fir trees.
Many battles were fought there, and there is a memorial at Le Mont
Mouchet erected in their honor.
I knew people in the Résistance but I wasn’t a member because
I was only 10. At night, we could see the Germans burning the village
of Clavière. I recall my father guiding Résistance soldiers across the
mountain in the middle of the night. I also saw them one day in
June and our teacher and all the school heard a machine gun firing a
few kilometers away. From our village, everything was at least 5km or
more away—a long way to walk. I didn’t know any of the towns around
where I was born. I visit some of them now when I go there because
I have a car, but there are many towns I have never set foot in. I also
recall watching a German convoy close to La Trémolière, about 1km
away, on the road coming towards our village. We were ready to take
off into the woods and hide. It was a scary moment, but they never
came to where I was, thank God!
I stayed at the school in Vabres and eventually caught up with my
classmates. I was 14 when I passed my certificat d’études primaires. There
were five of us who passed that exam and I was proud to finish first in
the group, especially after my long struggles.
I returned to Saint-Chély-d’Apcher, where I enrolled in the Cours
Complémentaire de Saint-Chély-d’Apcher and completed my last year
of school, equivalent to sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. My father
was leasing a small farm to help my family, and every morning I had
to milk two cows before going to school. At school, I became stuck
learning the first act of the play Horace by Pierre Corneille, so in May
or June, I skipped school and took care of the two cows in the pasture
in hopes of learning Horace in a different environment, but nothing
helped me learn it.
The furthest I could go in school was ninth grade. To go further,
I would have needed to go to boarding school, which was not financially
possible because we were so poor. I recall, after the war, the clothing
that was available was very nice, and my friends were well-dressed, but
my parents could not afford any of those things, let alone boarding
school. I wore wooden shoes and had one pair of socks to my name.
Regardless, staying in school for one more year wouldn’t have brought
me any further opportunities.
When I dropped out of school at 16, I was about two years behind
the other kids. With nine people living in two rooms, with a kitchen
and no indoor plumbing, I had to figure out what to do for a living.
With the diploma I received, I could work in a post office, railway, or
factory. My father was employed at a steel mill and I’m sure he wasn’t
paid very much. It was a bit of a struggle for him to put food on the
table for our family. During the war, my father would go to the farm,
slaughter an animal, and come back with the meat, but we didn’t have
a nutritious, varied diet. We mostly lived off dried and salted meat,
cabbage, and potatoes, and in the summer, we had salad and dry beans,
such as lentils and peas.
When I was growing up in France, my grandfather’s farm passed
to the eldest son, even though my mother was the oldest in the family.
I would have had to become a farmer had it passed to her. In Saint-
Chély-d’Apcher, the options for a good future were not bright and were
limited. In order to make a good living, I had to go somewhere else.
There was nothing that I had set out to do, I just fell into the pastry
shop by chance. It was the beginning of summer and I had already
asked to be an apprentice at the local patisserie in Saint-Chély-d’Apcher
because I had heard my cousin in Paris, Emile Jourde, the grandson of
my grandmother Chevalier’s sister, would be hiring a pastry apprentice
and I wanted that job. So, I worked as an apprentice pastry chef for
three years. My boss was paying me close to nothing—in a day, the pay
was less than one dollar. In France, the 35-hour work week didn’t exist
back then! I was told what time to arrive for work, but no one ever told
me what time to leave.
The entire Borel family at the kitchen table, circa 1946. Nine people living in a two-room
home without indoor plumbing
My parents, Berthe and Eugene (known as Antoine) Borel
Elementary school class photo, showing all grades of École de Vabres. I am in the top row,
second from the right. Circa 1946
Yearly school field trip with Mr. Farnier and his wife. These field trips opened our eyes to
a world far outside our small villages. We used to sell herbs to raise money to pay for the
The last time I saw my mother alive. She died shortly after my visit. My sister, DeDe, is
pictured with her. Saint-Chély-d’Apcher, circa 1997
My Experiences in Paris
In October 1951, I moved to Paris to work for Cousin Emile. I wasn’t
very tall when I first went to Paris, but I shot up in height once
I arrived. I was very happy about the growth spurt since my small
stature had always made me self-conscious. I think I had a sense of
inferiority that stayed with me for a long time. I always thought that
I was not dressed properly and not smart enough.
Cousin Emile’s patisserie, La Caravelle, was in the Seizième (16th)
Arrondissement close to La Muette and Palais Chaillot—a very upscale
neighborhood. As I mentioned, in the three months prior, I had
learned how to make many pastries in my hometown and, because
I learned quickly, I was productive right away. I had room and board,
although I slept in the storage room of La Caravelle. I know living in
a storage room doesn’t sound very glamorous, but it was actually nicer
than where I had lived at home. It had indoor plumbing, a shower,
and electricity. I slept surrounded by chocolates and treated myself
on occasion. In addition to making pastries, I had many other duties
that included babysitting Cousin Emile’s children and cleaning the
entire pastry shop. I remember one of the biggest adjustments I had
to make when I went to Paris was having to do my own laundry—a
first in my life!
In addition to making the cakes and pastries, I also had to deliver
them via bicycle to clients’ homes. I had many accidents because the
cake and pastry cases were so cumbersome, and I had only one hand
to guide the bike and brake at the same time! During the Indo-China
War, around 1952, Emperor Bao Dại lived in Paris, and Minister Lee
Van Ding would visit. He loved to take petits fours and chocolates
with him when returning to Saigon. I used to deliver them to him via a
steep road, the Avenue Mozart. One day, the brakes on my bike didn’t
work and, as a result, I hit a Citroën car, went over the top of it, and
landed on the hood. Somehow, I managed to hold onto the pastries
and not drop a single one!
As I mentioned, the 16th district is a very fancy neighborhood. In
fact, you can see the front of the Eiffel Tower up to La Défense and the
vast beautiful gardens. There were many famous people living in Paris
at the time. I used to deliver pastries to generals, counts, actors, the
Ambassador of Spain, and even to Brigitte Bardot, who lived right next
door to us. I was completely mesmerized by the luxurious apartments
and wealth where I made my deliveries. I didn’t know or imagine such
luxury even existed. I recall having to take my cousin’s children to
a very chic quartier where the maids wore uniforms. My cousin was
very well off because he was a businessman, and his pastry shop was
thriving with good clientele splurging after the war. I’ll never forget
seeing his apartment for the first time and thinking it was lovely. On
my end, I was so poor that I had to save three months’ salary, plus the
tips I would earn, just to buy a warm coat, and another three months’
salary to buy myself a suit.
I have so many stories and memories from this period of my life in
Paris. Often, I wouldn’t know the configuration of a building where
I was making a delivery, so I would go in through one door, but come
out through another and then I would end up on another street entirely
and would have to find where I left my bicycle. On my day off, which
was on Monday afternoon, I used to go to school and then sometimes
stay with Uncle Cyril and Aunt Jeanette Pelissier in Aubervilliers. The
school I attended was located near Gare de l’Est. It was a vocational
school and was in conjunction with my apprenticeship. It taught the
basics such as hygiene, cleanliness, calories, and techniques of running
a pastry shop. I did pretty well because I had completed three years of
training beforehand back at home. I quickly became a proficient baker
and replaced the chef after just a year—I was learning quickly! I made
ice cream and had a big turbine made from bronze that I used to churn
Paris was a very lonely town for me because I didn’t know anyone
with whom I could have some fun, especially in the 16th district where
the crowd was very upper class and didn’t mix with blue-collar workers.
In the winter, I would go to work when it was dark and return home
when it was dark, so it wasn’t possible to go sightseeing outside work
hours. It was a lonely time of my life, just like it is now again since
Jacqueline passed away.
I tried to learn English, but there were often three or four of us in
a room at the pastry shop, and I couldn’t do my homework easily. I’m
sure that people in the higher class—such as when you study and take
the baccalaureate, which is like two years of junior college—learn all
about the ancient story of Paris. I was curious at the time, but I didn’t
know the whole story or history of the area. I still visit Paris sometimes.
I have a friend who has an apartment there, and he has taken me to
places in Paris that I’d never had the time or opportunity to explore
because of my working hours.
One day, I had an argument with Cousin Emile. The delivery
boy had brought the smelly garbage up to the ground floor and the
concierge of the building complained about the smell. The delivery boy
was actually responsible for removing garbage cans, but my cousin went
after me for no reason. When I explained that it wasn’t me, he told me
I should have ordered the delivery boy to move it. I found that to be a
very awkward and frustrating situation since I was not authorized to
give other employees orders. I yelled back at my cousin, and then he
just said, “You’re fired!” In the heat of the moment, my cousin even
called me a “petit communiste,” a little communist. I had no idea why
and he fired me right there and then.
That day, I moved out of my cousin’s storage room. I walked down
the Avenue Paul Doumer to Palais Chaillot and found a hotel. I was
able to find a cheap room there, but I only had enough money for a
couple of months’ stay. I think it cost 7,000 francs, but I was making
just 2,500 francs a month when I was working as a chef. The argument
I had with my cousin had a significant impact on my life. It left me
confused and hurt. Thankfully, out of this turmoil, I met Madame
Blanc who was the secretary of the Association of Patisserie Owners.
She and her husband, who was also a teacher and attended the pastry
school, ultimately changed the direction of my life and helped me find
It was very hard to get another job after I was fired. Unfortunately,
my cousin badmouthed me everywhere I applied as a pastry chef, and
I was still only an apprentice, so people were reluctant to hire me
because I only had two or three years’ experience. Separately, because
my cousin hadn’t finished my training, I could have sued him and
raised it with the labor board, since he had a contractual obligation to
complete my apprenticeship. My Uncle Cyril intervened and convinced
me that I shouldn’t do that to family and that it wouldn’t make a
difference for me to get even with him. Even though I didn’t file a
complaint, I felt as though I had been used like a servant. He had been
paying me like an apprentice even though I worked as a full-time chef.
I couldn’t find a job, I had no money, and all I could afford to eat
were bananas, camembert, and baguettes. I was buying food from the
Arabs who sold items from their pushcarts in Paris because it was the
cheapest food available. My cousin had never given me a raise, but I felt
like I finally got my revenge on him when I completed three years as
a pastry practitioner and passed my certificat d’aptitude professionnelle
(CAP) in 1954. I was 20 years old and was ranked third out of 650
apprentices in the region. I was very proud of myself. The presentation
ceremony took place at the Hotel Lutetia. Putting someone else’s name
on the program as my sponsor, since I couldn’t put down my cousin’s
name, felt like I was giving the biggest kick in the you-know-where to
him! It turned out that moving to Paris was the first step of a very long
journey that I had never dreamed of or imagined.
16 years old. Just before I left for Paris, circa 1951
Receiving my certificate from the Association of the Chocolatiers, Patissiers, Glaciers,
Confiseurs and Traiteurs. I received a silver award for ranking third in my class.
The famous Hotel Lutetia, Paris, circa 1954
Me at 20 years old. Just prior to being drafted into the army
Just after returning from my time in the army. Driving a Renault 4CV borrowed from my
neighbor, Rose Vilette. Saint-Chély-d’Apcher, circa 1957
My Time in the Army
was drafted into the army in 1955 when I was 21 years old and all my
plans came to a stop for three years. I was ready and eager to learn
more, but I had to put my culinary training on hold, as well as my plans
to move to England to work and learn English.
At the time, I had developed a very strong Parisian accent, but
over in Algeria, I adopted a very different accent to fit in. Most of my
fellow soldiers had a thick accent from the south of France, known as
Le Meridional, and I was the only one with a Parisian accent so they
always mocked me. Now, with all these years spent in America, my
accent is completely mixed up.
My boot camp was three months long and took place in the Basse-
Alpes, near Barcelonnette, where Hannibal crossed the mountain range
with elephants in 218 B.C. We learned how to march, shoot, and live
as soldiers. Every Thursday, we climbed the peaks from Chapeau de
Gendarme to Croix de L’Alp, Le Pain de Sucre. The geography in the
Alps is very similar to that found in northern California. As part of our
training, we were sent to Germany, to the mechanized tank division
that was part of NATO, 7e Division D.M.R. (2nd Cavalry Regiment of
Dragoons). We were located near the Danube River and the historic
Hohenzollern Castle, in the charming town of Sigmaringen. I recall
the uniforms we were issued in boot camp were already used and
falling apart. As mountain troops, Chasseur Alpins, we had to wear
ig berets which looked like large flat tarts on our heads and were a
little ridiculous. The same berets are still worn today by the Chasseur
Alpins. When we arrived in Germany, we were issued new uniforms as
part of the Cavalry Regiment of Dragoons.
In Algeria, there was a rebellion started by Algerian non-commissioned
officers—also known as the Fellagha (an Arabic word that means
bandits)—who had previously fought with the French in Vietnam but
now wanted independence from France. Algeria was a French territory
and at one point had more than one million French soldiers based
there. The rebellion amplified and France needed more soldiers to go,
so we were suddenly transferred to Algeria.
Around the time we were being shipped out, I happened to be
featured in a Parisian evening newspaper, France-Soir. You can see me
clearly in the photo, the number 51 visible on my helmet.
We sailed from Marseille to Algiers. We sailed through the bay of
Château d’If, where you can see the château that was featured in The
Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. At the time we passed it,
I was too distracted by the waves that were crashing up and down,
sweeping over the first deck, and making everyone too seasick to enjoy
it. The stairs from below deck led to where hundreds of servicemen
were crowded and confined, trying to escape the stench of below deck
and find some fresh air. I passed in front of the kitchen and saw the
big pots chained to the stove. I’d never seen a sea like it before—it was
swaying backward and forward with huge swells. Our ship looked like
the painting The Raft of the Medusa by Géricault. I was throwing up and
eventually walked by the ship’s funnel and sat on a box where there was
a German Shepherd. Even the poor dog was sick. At one point, a wave
three stories high hit us from above and I wanted to get off the boat
immediately. After that journey, I decided that I would never work on
a boat again because I was so seasick.
When we arrived in Algiers, we were taken to a racetrack where we
spent the night in our tents. The next day, our company (about 200
soldiers) moved to a farm. Interestingly, the area has the same climate
as California and, without irrigation, nothing can grow. Similar to
California’s Imperial Valley, in Algeria’s La Plaine de la Mitidja, there
are orange groves and vineyards. During my time in Algeria, I went
very deep into the country, to Bou Saada, a trans-Saharan town with
an oasis, and to Laghouat, which is even deeper into the desert. The
Atlas Mountains, which are north of the Sahara Desert and span from
Morocco, through northern Algeria to Tunisia, are like our Sierra
Nevada in terms of altitude. In the desert and mountains, I saw many
things I had never seen before. I was fascinated by the fossils of clams
embedded in the stone at very high altitudes in the mountains.
What struck me immediately when I arrived in Algeria was that
there was absolutely no connection between our initial Alpine training
and what we actually encountered in the Algerian mountains. We were
trained to move via tanks, but instead we became foot soldiers in order
to patrol the countryside to find the Fellagha. During my time there, we
were attacked at the borders of Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria.
My squadron received heavy war equipment, including tanks, Jeep
trucks, and other items from the mechanized division. We had to
paint the tanks and trucks yellow to camouflage them; some had a big
white ‘H’ on them to distinguish them as Force H from World War II.
They’d been used by Force H during the war and had been repurposed
by the French army.
For a long time, there were foreign volunteers, but the French
Foreign Legion exclusively only drafted officers who were French.
Many places and peoples of the world now wanted to have new
identities and France was sending draftees to defend its territories and
ground forces in Algeria and Vietnam. By the timing of the draft,
I was able to avoid going to Vietnam and fighting in the Battle of
Dien Bien Phu, a conflict that took place from March to May of 1954.
When the French finally surrendered in Vietnam, it was on my 20th
birthday, July 16, 1954.
In northern Africa, the Algerian rebellion—what would become known
as the Algerian War of Independence—started on November 1, 1954, with
the first massacre in the eastern part of the country. It was a very gory
scene. The rebels beheaded all the occupants of an isolated farm, before
impaling their heads on the directional road signs. They cut telephone
lines and bridges, and carried out many other forms of sabotage.
Not far away, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the
Suez Canal in July 1956, and this led to the Suez Crisis. The French,
Israelis, and British joined forces to face Nasser. A war ensued and
Nasser started the hijackings after 1956; a truck bomb exploded in
the American and French compound in Lebanon. All the arms were
coming through Libya from Egypt, and Nasser was on the side of
Arab revolution throughout the entire region, including Algeria. The
crisis came to an end when President Eisenhower told the French and
English that he was sending the U.S. Marines to pull them out.
For most of the time I spent in Algeria, I never slept in a bed because
we were in combat and constantly on the move. We drove in large
convoys of GMC Jeeps across the desert, which lifted the sand and
created a huge dust bowl. We couldn’t even see the other Jeeps just
in front of us. The sand penetrated everything. I found it in my ears,
lungs, food, equipment, guns—everything. Periodically, the medics had
to check our lungs to see how much sand we had inhaled. Everything
tasted like sand or had sand on it or in it.
I also vividly recall how surprised I was to see so many storks nesting
everywhere. They flew through Egypt, and, in later years, I would see
them when I lived in Southern Rhodesia, where they would go in the
winter. I particularly remember how the storks behaved at night. When
I was on guard duty, these creatures with their huge beaks would make
a terrible clacking noise, so you wouldn’t know what was going on. If
you were sleeping, the noise would wake you.
Our big kick was that if we found an Arab man sitting on a donkey
while a woman walked with a load of wood on her head alongside him,
we used to reverse down the road. It would startle the donkey and they
would drop their wood. We didn’t hurt anybody; we just humiliated the
husband a little. I passed through Grande Kabylie and the Djurdjura,
part of the Atlas Mountain range in the province and town of Tizi
Ouzou, and worked all the way to the coast, protecting the workers
who were repairing and rebuilding a road. The road and bridges were
cut by the Algerian rebellion forces, and we had to go on foot to the
crest of the mountain to protect the French and Arab workers in the
valley. After that, we went and stayed in Kabylie for a time, where many
of the people who live there are not Arabs but of different ethnicities.
They are very pale-skinned and even today they don’t get along too well
with the rest of the local population. I also traveled to Chott Melrhir,
which is a saltwater lake, and climbed Djebel Aberraz Ridge.
One day, I was with two other soldiers, one named Damiano, when
three shots were fired and missed us by 30 yards. The person who fired
at us was dressed like we were and disappeared into the thick forest. He
was an Algerian soldier who had found a French uniform to disguise
himself. What gave him away was that he carried an American rifle.
When I was in the forests of Kabylie, I remember a day when
gunshots were coming from everywhere and could have killed us. The
person shooting at us was a Fellagha on the loose. One day, I was very
scared and found myself alone and guarding 20 prisoners in the forest.
All of a sudden, a big guy broke rank and came over, really surprised
me, and said, “I want to talk to you.” I said, “I don’t want to talk to
you.” I spoke to him in French, but I was scared because he was big and
could easily have disarmed me. When the situation calmed down, other
soldiers from my unit showed up. I do not recall where the prisoners
came from; I presume they had been found in the woods by another
unit. I didn’t know why they were there, or which unit was in charge of
them; I just remember being very frightened.
I was initially enlisted for 18 months, but every six months our
stay was prolonged because Algeria continued to need troops. This
happened three or four times. I was making 40,000 francs a month,
which was pretty good money at that time. I was stupid though because,
when I earned my diploma to become a sergeant, I wanted to stay with
my unit in case of war, so I made the mistake of not pursuing the
promotion to sergeant. I could have had all the promotions I might
have wanted, and I would have made much more than 40,000 francs.
However, the men in my squadron were my friends. Even after all these
years, I am still friends with Jean Lambert, a man I met in Algeria.
When his son came to the U.S., I helped him out. He became a pilot
in Palo Alto and now works for the Brazilian company, Embraer.
Instead of being promoted to sergeant, I was eventually transferred
to be the chef for General Allard. I was selected as the chef of my
squadron because sometimes I would catch a rabbit, then make a
roasted filet with onions and anything else I could find and scrape
together. Lieutenant Marte was General Allard’s Aide de Camp; he
took care of the general’s uniform and decorations, his schedule,
and made sure everything was in order. Lieutenant Marte knew that
General Allard needed a personal chef and he remembered me from
when I prepared a rabbit I had caught. The captain of my squadron
was angry when the general took me away because, at that time,
I was feeding our entire squadron. The transition to working for the
general happened so quickly that I didn’t even have time to take my
clothing—I just left! It was dangerous to travel, so the general provided
me with an armed escort to his camp in a Citroën Traction Avant.
When I arrived, everybody was running around because they had seen
the Citroën and believed the general was in the car, but it was just me!
I was given the title of brigadier chef and the general was very happy
with my work. I went from being responsible for purchasing all the
food and managing 200 soldiers in the delivery and cooking of meals
for all the platoons to taking care of just three people! To help with the
general, we had two African soldiers, one of whom did the cleaning.
I don’t recall their names, but one was from Haute Volta and the other
from Senegal—both were very nice fellows.
I have a saying, “Why do you turn left or right?” This refers to the
mystery of how we end up taking our different paths in life, and it also
applies to the way in which I went to work in Africa later. Something
pushes you to go this way or that, and after I became a chef, I had a
good time in Algeria.
Being the brigadier chef in charge of food and beverages had its
perks. The general gave me a chauffeured Citroën Deux Chevaux and an
adjutant who escorted me everywhere. These were very good and popular
cars at the time. The nice Citroën, the Traction Avant, was reserved for
the general. The Traction Avant was called the ‘La Reine de la Route,’ or
the ‘Queen of the Road.’ It was like living in luxury in Algiers. Instead of
having to stand guard duty, we had the military police take care of us at
night. Our living quarters were deluxe! We even had a shower, whereas
before I had gone weeks without washing, especially when we were in the
desert and were only given a couple of liters of water for the day.
One day, however, I managed to get arrested by the military police,
along with another man, our waiter, who was working with me. It
was late and we were in civilian clothes, even though the general had
explicitly told us not to go out in civilian clothes. I asked the police to
let me make a phone call, but the officer was very reluctant to agree.
I told him the general was not going to be happy because I was his
chef. I called the Aide de Camp who told me not to move and I was
immediately picked up in a car.
General Allard’s house was an old Turkish home, right on the coast,
with an inner courtyard and a fountain, and all the bedrooms around
the courtyard. The house had a lovely painted ceiling too. We all lived
in this house but in separate quarters. France had liberated North
Africa from the Ottoman Empire.
I once prepared a banquet for all the generals: General Salan, the
top-ranking officer in Algeria; General Jouaut, who was in the air
force; Colonel Bijar, who was a paratrooper; and Lejeune, the Minister
of War. I went to buy lobster and similar ingredients to make a nice
buffet. I worked with Adjutant Lopes, who was Spanish and Corsican,
and it was fun because I know a lot of Corsican jokes. He and I used
to go shopping in the morning, usually in the market in Algiers.
There are many Roman ruins in Algeria. In fact, I remember in the
middle of the desert there was a Roman mosaic, swimming pools, water
canalization, and big arenas where we collected squab when we had time
to cook them.
General Allard and I were together for just a few months in Algiers
since I went to work for him towards the end of my time. I was asked
to stay in the army as an officer, and I would have been sent to officer
candidate school. However, I didn’t want to do that because I had
been in the military for over two years and I missed home, my family,
and friends. I also found military life and the desert environment
challenging. When we used to travel south into the desert, our skin
would dry out. I remember a soldier friend who was severely affected
by the dryness of the desert and had skin like a lizard’s. When
we traveled toward the coast, we could instantly feel the change
Only once during my deployment to Algeria was I able to go home
on leave. To return to Algeria, I was supposed to go by train to Marseille
to take a boat for the return trip. It so happened that on the day of
my return, French railway workers were on strike, as they often are
in France because the workforce is never happy. The train we caught
stopped somewhere in the middle of the night and we had to go to the
gendarmerie in Béziers to wake up the gendarme for him to stamp our
ticket. Because of the strike, we had to hitchhike to Marseille to make
it in time to catch the boat to Algiers. I arrived several days later than
expected, and I could have been put in jail or had my pay docked for
being absent without leave (AWOL), but the captain didn’t punish me
because it was close to the end of my service.
In my platoon, I met a man who was a lawyer. I was always curious
about history and political science, and he explained to me what was
going on in Algeria. My time in Paris did help expand my horizons
a bit, but since I had left school early and we didn’t have access to
international newspapers, I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about
current events. I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn from others.
People explained to me about the Muslim college and European
college, and how it took two Muslim votes to equal one European
vote. I remember an Arab teacher who said, “I drink wine like you.”
The Algerians also used to bring in French civilians to work within
the Algerian administration, and a simple mailman would make more
than a local one if he was French. I discovered what it was like to live
in a French territory.
I found much of my time in the army frustrating. The army officials,
especially during boot camp, never provided us with specific details
about any of our missions. I do remember all of the stupid things we
were made to do, such as scrubbing the toilet with a toothbrush and
cleaning everything with water contained in our heavy helmets because
we didn’t have buckets for polishing the parquet in the old Napoleonic
barracks. Our supervisors would tell us to peel potatoes but wouldn’t
tell us how many to peel. Of course, all these tasks were designed to
turn us into obedient soldiers and teach us how to take orders. When
it comes to my time in the army, an old saying of mine applies well:
“When you have understood, you should not try to understand.” The
army would try to cut us down as a way of disciplining us. You could
never question orders and had to obey every command. We were told
how to dress, how to eat, and where to go. I think this is the real reason
why people suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People
had PTSD back then, but nobody cared about or recognized it.
I left the service at the end of 1957. Thankfully, I never witnessed
any kind of torture and I never fired a round at anyone, even when
attacked. Of course, in the army, people are not human and work
under the cover of anonymity. I didn’t see too many horrible things,
I’ve never returned to Algeria since leaving the army. It was a
beautiful place, but it became a dangerous country after the French
Where we lived when we first arrived in Algeria and where we had our first casualty.
Photo taken circa 1955
Me in my Chasseur Alpins uniform during boot camp. Barcelonnette, Basse-Alpes,
Laghouat oasis, at the edge of the Sahara Desert, circa 1956
Me (top right) going through the Suez Canal
Me (far left) with my army buddy, Jean Lambert (far right). Corso, Algeria
Bronze Medal of Merit Certificate
My Time in Rhodesia, Africa
Towards the end of 1957, I left the army and headed back to Paris
to look for work. I went to the Association of the Chocolatiers,
Patissiers, Glaciers, Confiseurs and Traiteurs office and reconnected
with Madame Blanc. She helped find me a job as a pastry chef at La
Vielle France in the Latin district of Paris, where I replaced someone
who was still in the army. For the job, I was given room and board
and 18,000 francs a month, which was more than I had made with my
cousin (approximately 2,500 francs) before my service. It was quite a big
raise, and I was very happy.
Unfortunately, the original employee returned from the army and
I was laid off. Madame Blanc helped me find another job at a very nice
place, Rond Point des Bergères, located on the outskirts of Paris.
When I returned to Paris from the army, it was tough. My brother
had broken into my suitcase and taken all my clothes, so I had no
wardrobe. At the end of my time in the army, I was making pretty
good money because we were paid as carrier soldiers after three years.
However, my mother was receiving most of the money because I would
send it home to help support the family and I had almost nothing, not
even clothes which was heartbreaking because I used to buy beautiful
clothes and had always been well-dressed when I was in Paris before.
In order to replenish my pockets and become more comfortable,
I spent three or four months at a winter resort in the Alps, working
as a pastry chef and cook. I worked at the Hotel Le Christina in Alpe
d’Huez, at the foot of the téléphérique (cable car), near the bottom of
two ski runs and a clinic for broken bones. It was a very active and
lively place. My time there helped me recover from the military, and
when I returned to Paris, I moved into an apartment. It took all the
money I had earned just to pay the rent. Luckily, I was fed at work!
Before I went to the Alps, Madame Blanc had told me that she
had a job for me in Rhodesia, working for Nairobi Airport Services
and preparing all the food for in-flight dining. At first, I said I didn’t
want to take it because I had not been back in France for very long
and wanted to stay, but I came around to the idea after a while.
Fortunately, she had kept the job for me, which was so nice of her
because she changed my entire life. Madame Blanc had rescued me
when my cousin fired me and now, once again, she helped me and
changed the course of my life.
To work in Rhodesia, I had to have all my working certificates
translated into English in order to obtain a visa. I didn’t speak English
and I didn’t have the money to fly to Rhodesia. At first, my visa was
refused because the person I was replacing complained to immigration,
but then a representative of Nairobi Airport Services intervened
and took care of everything. The company had some clout with the
immigration services, so I was given a visa a month later.
I left for Southern Rhodesia (known as Zimbabwe since 1979) in 1958
and it was quite an adventure. Very few people had heard of Rhodesia
or even knew where it was unless they had been there themselves. In
the late 1800s, Rhodesia was named after South African expansionist
Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes had a treaty for mineral mining rights with
King Lobengula of Matabele, who resisted colonization for his people.
The Shona (Manyika) and Matabele tribes were the two main tribes
in Rhodesia. The Matabele lived in the southwestern region, where
the capital was Bulawayo. In this same area are the Victoria Falls and
Wankie Game Reserve (now called Hwange National Park). The Shona
lived in the eastern part. At the time, the capital of the region was
Salisbury, now called Harare.
When I departed for Rhodesia, the only airport in Paris was Le
Bourget, because Paris Orly was still under construction. Even in 1958,
Le Bourget was only a tiny airport, although today it hosts aircraft
shows. The plane I took to Rhodesia had four propellers and was the
same type of plane that I had watched in La Trémolière when I was a
young boy, flying very slowly above me on its way to bomb Germany.
It took me 24 hours to reach Salisbury. We stopped in Nice, France,
and then Tripoli, in Libya, where the hostess told me to stay on the
plane. From there, we crossed Africa from the east to the southwest. It
was a long journey that took all night. We landed in Brazzaville in the
Republic of the Congo, in southwest Africa. I enjoyed breakfast with
coffee and warm croissants before flying on to Salisbury.
Southern Rhodesia, including the town of Salisbury, is located on a
high plateau with a high altitude. It has an excellent climate with clean
air, and I fell in love with the country’s open space immediately. It wasn’t
at all what I had expected—no jungles, lions, or tropical forest. I found
Salisbury to be a beautiful town with very modern, high buildings and
gorgeous suburbs with new housing. There were very good Chinese and
Indian restaurants in Salisbury, and I loved the curries there because
the chefs would make a mild one if that was what you wanted. This is
where I first discovered Indian food, which I’d never had before.
When I arrived in Southern Rhodesia in October, I had been
expecting the weather to grow colder, but December there is like
August in California. I had my first peaches and cherries in January.
Salisbury has a wonderful climate, with cool nights, so I never suffered
from the heat or mosquitos. In winter, the nights are equal in length
to the days, and the region has a very short twilight—it’s surprising how
quickly it gets dark.
Salisbury had a reputation as the most floral town in Africa. In
spring, around October, some avenues were in bloom with blue
jacarandas, while others were bright red and purple with the flamboyant
msasa tree. I used to record movies from the top of the hotel, it was
magnificent to see Salisbury come into flower. In comparison to here,
the jacaranda blooms fall before they get leaves, and the blooms would
e bright light blue. In Salisbury, you could enjoy the full bloom for
over a month. In Los Altos, the flowers come in at the same time as
the leaves. I know these trees also grow in Australia. My daughter’s
neighbor, who is from Australia, has one growing in his yard and
I admire it every time it blooms. I love fishing and hunting too, so
Africa was paradise. I didn’t hunt for big game, only guinea fowl and
other birds that are very good to eat.
When I arrived in Salisbury, I had a nice house at my disposal.
Up until this time, I had never thought I could buy a car, but I had
my military driving license transferred into a French one in Algiers,
and then obtained a Rhodesian permit and bought myself my first
car. I could have bought an MG—a nice car for very rich people—but
I didn’t. Instead, I bought a Peugeot, mainly because it was cheap, and
I wanted to save my money. I have always been very frugal because
I never had very much growing up.
At that time, my English was very poor, but as that first year passed
in a blur, my English improved little by little. I went to school in the
evening and also on my day off. My work colleagues included three
French chefs and a large crew of natives. I learned English in Rhodesia
because I found it so frustrating not to be able to communicate with
the locals. I even picked up pieces of the Shona language and could
talk and swear. If I was ever stranded in the bush, and the person
helping me didn’t understand English, I would speak to them in Shona
and right away I would be helped.
I had a very lonely life in Rhodesia before I learned to speak English.
All I knew was ‘first class’ and ‘tourist,’ and what to do on an airplane.
Little by little, though, I learned—I was a very self-motivated learner.
After I had learned English, I used to help a little French girl with her
English homework. She was the daughter of the executive chef, Roger
Verge, who later earned a Michelin star for his restaurant Le Moulin
When I went home to France from Rhodesia to visit, I was speaking
English, which amazed everyone who had raised me. I had an uncle
who had a bistro in Paris, and he was mesmerized that I was speaking
with an Englishman who was a pork trader because I spoke better
English than he spoke French. I’ve always been intellectually curious.
I didn’t have much formal guidance, but I learned to study on my
own. That continues even today; if you have an open mind, you never
Besides learning English, I also took an accounting course. I had
no goal in mind when I took accounting, but it came in handy in the
future when I started to manage hotels and restaurants and I could
easily read and comprehend a P&L (profit and loss) statement. I always
studied very hard, whether I was by myself or in school.
Rhodesia changed my life because my job there gave me room and
board, plus my salary was over £100 a month at a time when the pound
was very valuable—I think it was $3 to £1, or 1,300 francs in 1958!
Unfortunately, despite earning good money, I also lost large sums
because I lent it to people who never repaid me.
The company I worked for, Nairobi Airport Services, paid for
everything I needed. We served Nairobi, Entebbe, Ndola, Victoria
Falls, Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia, Malawi (called Nyasaland then),
and Salisbury. Working at the airport was like working at the United
Nations. We had the Dutch coming from Indonesia because the
Netherlands had occupied Indonesia for quite a long time, even during
the occupation by the Japanese during the war. We also had Greek
Cypriots, Italians, and French people. Travel was not common for
people with my background and from small rural towns, but working
for Nairobi Airport Services gave me the opportunity to travel around
Rhodesia. You learn a lot when you travel.
I fell in love with the national parks in Southern Rhodesia because
the higher altitude made it feel like a Mediterranean climate. I remember
seeing trout in the little brooks. At that time, there was little tourism in
the parks—no one knew about them as there was no television, so they
were very serene. The first national park I visited was Gorongosa, in
Mozambique. At that time, before television, Mozambique was mostly
unknown to anyone who hadn’t traveled. Hunting was prohibited in
national parks, even in Gorongosa. When I visited, there were only two
cars—mine and one other—and I remember seeing the most beautiful
sunset over the lake in the middle of the park. When it got dark in the
evening, everybody looked for safe shelter. I thought I was reliving the
Creation because all kinds of animals, from elephants and giraffes to
antelopes, hippopotamuses, and baboons were coming out to the lake
to drink before nightfall. There were all kinds of birds, including geese,
a multitude of ducks, and storks—so many species of all kinds and sizes.
Local people would go fishing and catch a disease called bilharziasis,
caused by a microscopic parasitic worm that infects freshwater snails
living in a lake or pond. It enters the body through a skin wound,
travels into the blood vessels, and lodges in the liver and other organs,
causing many symptoms including lethargy. I’ve never heard of this
ailment in America.
In Rhodesia, there was the beautiful Wankie Game Reserve, now
known as Hwange National Park—many of the park names have
been changed back to native names. I was mesmerized by the game
parks. During the war of independence in Mozambique, armed rebels
massacred many of the animals in these parks; even now, it is being
restocked with wildlife from South Africa. The Kruger National Park
is 700 miles long, so it’s a very big park. The boar are very beautiful
and delicious to eat. I enjoyed sleeping in the park, hearing the lions
roaring nearby throughout the night. There were also some amazing
storms, with torrential downpours. I recall the rocks that had been
eroded at the bottom so that they looked as if they were balanced on
In Northern Rhodesia, there were many copper mines. The flame
lily used to be the national flower of Rhodesia. It’s a type of ground
orchid and I have a copper one that sits on the mantelpiece. I’ve never
needed to polish it; it is made from virgin copper, unlike the copper
we have in the U.S. which has been melted and recycled so much that
it tarnishes very easily.
I wanted to see as much of Africa as I could. I wanted to drive
across South Africa from Durban to Cape Town and Port Elizabeth—
which is very English—because, in the spring, the road along the Indian
Ocean from Durban to Cape Town is called the Garden Route. There
is beautiful greenery and vegetation along the trail and the views are
magnificent. I remember being in a hotel restaurant in Afrikaans
territory and nobody was talking! People were eating soup and that
was the only noise, even though the restaurant was full. It was a time
of active apartheid and I had not heard of Nelson Mandela. Later, I was
amazed by what De Klerk and Mandela did to liberate the people.
They were great statesmen and set good examples, and I admired
them. I loved South Africa. It is a very captivating country, with lots of
diversity in its plants and animals, as well as the stunning landscape of
sea, mountains, and desert.
New friends and experiences
It was an adventure living in Rhodesia and I met many people. When
I arrived in Salisbury, I thought many of the people I met were bankers
because they had the names of nobility, such as Von in German or Van
in Dutch. For instance, when I went to Gorongosa Park in Mozambique,
I took a guy with me whose name was Jimmy Van Ekrien—he was related
to Dutch royalty and worked with me at the airport. It was easier for
them to adjust since most of them spoke English.
I found the British to be very secretive. In fact, when I was
in Rhodesia, the natives were ‘English’ and in a restaurant, for
example, the waiter might stand behind you and never talk to you. In
Mozambique, by contrast, the waiter would interact with you, so it was
quite a different experience. They acted more like people from a Latin
culture—engaging, open, and talkative.
I met some people from Mauritius, an island that had been
administered by the British in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
(since 1810) but was populated by the French. During the French
Revolution, the nobility left France on boats, bringing many servants
with them, and some went to Mauritius. Mauritius is just off the coast
of Madagascar, next to another island, Réunion, which is still a French
territory. I don’t know how the British came into possession of the
French islands in this area, including the Seychelles farther north in
the Indian Ocean, at the same latitude as Kenya. It was possibly through
a war treaty. Many of those French people immigrated to South Africa,
and today Mauritius is populated mostly by people whose ancestry
originates from India because the French brought laborers over to
cultivate the sugar cane grown there. There are very few French people
there now. As a result, if you go to Durban, South Africa, you can find
many people of French descent.
I didn’t have many friends but the guys from Mauritius all spoke
French, which was convenient. There was De Chalain, de La Giraude,
and De la Bourse Plate, all names of people who originally emigrated
to Rhodesia from the island of Mauritius. One was curious and asked
me, “How much do you make?” I told him that I made £100 a month,
plus room and board. At that time, around 1958–1960, £100 was
worth about $300. He said, “Oh, you are lucky because they don’t
prize manual labor here in this country.” Because of his name, I had
thought he was a banker, but he was a store manager in a shop and was
working for his brother who had a Simca dealership and was in charge
of automotive parts. It was an awkward conversation.
Since I had a problem with my visa prior to leaving France, the
head of immigration for Rhodesia, Mac Redis (which is an Irish or
Scottish name), wanted to meet me. At that time, I had never had
whisky before, and he and his wife took me drinking. They could
certainly drink and by the middle of the night, his wife had passed out!
To this day, I’m still a poor drinker! Mac had an old Citroën, so we put
his unconscious wife in the back seat while I sat in the front with him.
We went to his house and when we opened the front door, although
I was embarrassed, I grabbed her by the feet and he grabbed her by the
arms, and we put her down on the carpet in front of the sofa before we
returned to drinking! I had my own car, but I do not remember how
I got home. You have to be young to do such a thing. It never happened
again. I could have had an accident and I don’t like to be impaired
Sometimes I spent Sunday on a farm near Salisbury where
everyone spoke French. There was a band that played all around
Africa and Sunday was their day off, so they played for the group at
the farm. A man named Andre worked the land. He had married
a very wealthy girl from Rhodesia and her family was very famous
in France. One of her family members, Pierre Jonquières d’Oriola,
was an Olympic equestrian champion for many years. At one time
Andre’s wife was his employer when Andre was learning how to grow
Virginian tobacco and corn.
On weekends, the white Rhodesians and local expats used to drink
very heavily, and when you hosted a reception, you would have to
count a bottle of Johnnie Walker whisky per guest. In the morning,
you would see the damage from the night before—cars on the sidewalk
instead of parked along the road. There would usually be two cars at
the foot of the big statue of Cecil Rhodes! The road below the statue
had four lanes around it and in the morning, you would often see a
car that had been smashed to pieces there. At the time, however, if you
had too much to drink, you could simply call the police and they would
drive you home.
I enjoyed all the African music and culture. In fact, the transistor
radio became popular when I was living in Southern Rhodesia, and
I absorbed a lot about African culture this way. The radios had built-in
generators that had a handle which you turned manually in order to
produce the electricity to make the radio work. One of the inventors,
William Shockley, was from Silicon Valley in California, where I would
later find myself settling and working at the Palo Alto Holiday Inn and
purchasing my restaurant, L’Omelette/Chez Louis.
I recall that, on Saturdays, the Tamtan used to play live music, tribes
danced, and you could hear the music all the way from Salisbury. All
around Salisbury, they would play the drums until the morning and
they would be completely drunk. In the morning, you would go to
the village and they would be passed out. They made a drink called
scocoyan, containing all kinds of things, including a large quantity of
sugar that was fermented to make a powerful liquor.
Salisbury was a black township. I seldom went to the township
because the whites weren’t friendly with the blacks and were kept
completely separated from them. Thankfully, I had very good
relationships with the natives we employed. In Rhodesia and South
Africa, if a white man was caught with a black woman, he was given
six months in jail without trial. I used to prepare the diplomatic corps
dinner for the prime minister of Rhodesia, Sir Roy Welensky, who
helped found the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. One reason
why I left Rhodesia was because the Rhodesian Front aligned itself
with apartheid and its concepts, such as blacks not being allowed to
live in the same neighborhood as whites. They also were not allowed
to be in a white residence after 5 p.m. and not a single paper ever
mentioned Nelson Mandela’s efforts.
Everything changed completely in Rhodesia in those few years
I was there. First, the Rhodesians had voted to align themselves with
apartheid, as in South Africa. I didn’t like apartheid—we are all the
same, just different colors. Then the Americans and Russians came
to the Congo when the UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld’s
plane was shot down over Katanga in September 1961, which created a
big panic and turmoil. The natives were shocked to see people running
from the Katanga Congo, and the incident caused a mass exodus of
Europeans to flee to Salisbury and then to South Africa.
Most significantly, however, Robert Mugabe, the controversial
leader who received praise for liberating Zimbabwe from the British
and white minority rule, came to influence. Mugabe was born into a
Shona family in Kutama, near Harare. Nelson Mandela used to call
Mugabe “Uncle Bob,” although at the time I didn’t know who Mandela
was because the newspapers never mentioned anything about him.
Robert Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe from 1987 to 2017, and he ruined the
country. Zimbabwe was very rich in agriculture and had a surplus of
food during the war, but he chased out all the farmers by encouraging
the violent seizure of white-owned farms. He was responsible for the
massacre of people in Matabele, and for sending the country into
famine and 90% unemployment. Before independence, Rhodesia was
rich in agriculture and exported farm products including beef, milk,
butter, corn, oranges, and tobacco. The agricultural sector collapsed to
the point of starvation. People had to eat the seeds meant for planting
the next crop. In the four years I was there, I never saw this starvation,
but Mugabe ruined a rich, beautiful country.
First time skiing while working at the Hotel Le Christina. Alpe d’Huez, circa 1958
The flamboyant tree in full bloom
Dinner for Sir Roy Welensky, the prime minister of the confederation of Rhodesia
Certificate of bookkeeping course completion from The Rhodesia Business College, 1962
My Life Changes Again—
Among my new friends were a couple of French students who
were also learning English at the night school. Monsieur Boyer,
Madame Boyer, their two boys, and their daughter had lived previously
in Saigon, Vietnam, and then Madagascar. They introduced me to
some people they had known from Madagascar, including a man
named Frederic Jaegle. I also met his wife, Antoinette Jaegle, and their
daughter, Jacqueline Jaegle. The Boyers had a beautiful swimming
pool and they and the Jaegles would spend Sunday together and loved
playing canasta. I did not know then that this introduction would
change the course of my life!
When Jacqueline Jaegle arrived from Madagascar, she was 16 and
went straight to school. If my wife had lived longer, we would have
visited Madagascar because she lived there from the time she was four
years old until high school. Her father had had an important job there
with a company that controlled the island’s Malagasy imports/exports.
She went to school with Malagasy Hindu children. In Madagascar,
there is a tribe called Hova. The Hova people have very long names,
like those in Hawaii. They are Polynesian and not dark. They were the
ruling class before colonization and had a queen called Ranavalona.
The capital is Antananarivo.
In the beginning, I did not see Jacqueline often, only sometimes
on Sunday when we met at the Boyers’ house. At 25, I was much older
than Jacqueline and did not consider her for me at this time. After
getting to know each other, Frederic approached me and we decided
to open a boulangerie and restaurant together. I resigned from my job
at the airport in Salisbury and we opened Le Café de Paris. We spent
all our money opening the restaurant. It was an instant success, thank
God! Together, we rented a big house and moved in. I had a beautiful
bedroom and bath.
I worked very hard, starting at 2 a.m. every day to bake croissants
and fresh pastries for The Hotel Mikels, the hotel next door, on Cecil
Square. I returned late in the afternoon and went to bed. Le Café de
Paris did very well. It became the rendezvous of choice for visitors to
Salisbury and for the workers in the offices near the shop as well. The
money was counted in shillings and pennies at the time and customers
used to buy cakes by six or the dozen because if it cost six pennies for
a cake, then a dozen was six shillings (because 12 pennies were one
shilling). It was an adventure to open a restaurant in Rhodesia.
On New Year’s Day 1962, I had to cater a reception for the French
consulate. It was 5 a.m. and I was driving on the left-hand side of the
road, as was the case there. Another driver made a U-turn right in the
middle of the road, which had two lanes and double lines. As I was
about to pass on the left, the driver suddenly turned into my lane and
I turned to avoid him. It was very early in the morning and I am sure
the other driver had been up all night. The road signs were near the
edge of the road and broke very easily. Right by me was a big sign, set
in hard concrete, that said ‘Salisbury,’ and I impaled my car right into
that sign. I smashed up the car I was driving, and my chest looked like
a rainbow of bruising because seatbelts were not a feature in cars at the
time. I absorbed the shock of the crash with my feet and my chest. My
steering wheel broke off in my hands, I split my lip, and my two front
teeth were broken. I’ve spent a lifetime repairing my front teeth ever
since that accident and it has cost me a small fortune!
The people who crashed into me gave me a ride—not to the
hospital, but to the reception I was hosting at the French consulate.
The consul was a baron and had been a companion of Charles de
Gaulle in England during the World War. He used to import so many
good foods—wine, foie gras, you name it. We had a beautiful party. The
consul was thankful I worked the party, given my split lip and broken
teeth, so he sent me home with a bottle of champagne. I stopped at the
hospital on the way home and they stitched up my busted lip.
In fact, I had two car accidents in Rhodesia. The second accident
occurred when I had a collision with a lady from Mozambique who
was driving a Volkswagen. Again, I had no seat belt, but this time
I absorbed all the impact with my legs because I had seen it coming.
The lady, however, had cuts all around her face because instead of
holding the steering wheel, she had tried to protect herself and hit
Jacqueline was still going to school when we started up and she used
to help us in the restaurant from time to time. After a while, Jacqueline
and I became very good friends. Her father was very strict, however—
too strict even—but I started to take her to the drive-in cinema, which
was a large parking lot with a big screen at the end and a speaker in
every space where you park your car.
When Jacqueline finished school, she started working as a diamond
sorter, locked in a room like a safe! One of the huge diamond mines
was on a mountain called Nyangani, next to the town of Nyanga
in the Umtali district, on the road to Beira, Mozambique, and the
Indian Ocean. She was making her own money, dressed very well,
and when she turned 19—what a change. I saw her now. She was very
beautiful. Her father didn’t like that she talked to me often, and one
day her mother looked at me and said, “Jacqueline is in love with
you, but I do not know if it is mutual.” I did not reply positively or
negatively. Her mother and I had the same passion for fishing and
hunting, and we got along fine. My future father-in-law, Frederic, was
not the outdoorsy type.
Frederic didn’t want his daughter to marry a poor guy like me. He
knew we were getting close so, when Jacqueline turned 19, he sent her
to Paris to live with her first cousin, Annie, and her aunt and uncle,
Marcel and Roland, in a tiny apartment. Jacqueline did not get along
very well with her aunt, and she couldn’t stand her uncle. Annie was
the same age as Jacqueline, and it was a small, cramped apartment. I do
not remember how long she lived there, not even a month, but one day
I received a letter. She had gone to Sceaux to visit my friend, Roland
Bomer, the chef who had mentored me when I was an apprentice at my
first pastry shop in the 16th district and had taught me at La Caravelle.
The same day, if I remember correctly, Jacqueline returned to her aunt’s
apartment, packed her suitcase, took a taxi, and returned to Sceaux to
live with Roland and Marguerite. The chef had a big house and she
moved in with the family. She had known the address and had planned
it all herself, while her parents and I knew nothing about it.
Le Café Paris was successful but not everything was perfect, however.
My father-in-law wanted to return to Europe and was not very keen on
continuing to be a shopkeeper. My father-in-law was from Alsace in
France, but only my wife was born in Paris. We all decided to return
to France together.
Before we left, we took a trip together—my future in-laws, Jacqueline
and I—to South Africa. We went up to Durban, Pretoria, and
Johannesburg. I even got lost in Soweto at night! We didn’t have any
GPS at the time and I was driving. I went to the Kruger National Park,
which is wonderful. Now, if you find a lion, you have 20 cars with
people trying to photograph it, but then there was nobody.
It was with a heavy heart that I left Rhodesia, but another major
reason for my departure was that the Rhodesian Front had aligned
itself to South African apartheid, as I mentioned previously. Since I’d
had military experience, I was being pressured to become a Rhodesian
citizen and join the Civil Guard. Algeria had been an eye-opener for
me—I did not want to fight again. I wanted to live in a country where
I could look 50 years down the road and see a future, a wish which has
now been granted: August 2022 will mark 58 years that I have been in
the United States.
I had learned enough Shona to communicate with the natives in
the area. That area is Shona land and people speak Shona, whereas
around Victoria Falls, people speak Ndebele. I had a good crew in
Rhodesia. They liked me and I was successful. Several of my co-workers
and employees that I had trained at the airport and café came to say
goodbye to me early in the morning, around 5 or 6 a.m. I had a little
houseboy called Simon, and he called me “Buana” because that was
what the locals called Europeans. Later, it was the same in Mexico
where everyone called me Don Luis! It was a sign of respect. When
everyone came to say goodbye, Simon said to me, “Buana, you are
taking a roundtrip ticket?” Apparently, he thought I was returning,
and although I didn’t want to lie to him, I just couldn’t tell him I was
never coming back.
When I left Rhodesia, I missed the open space and the freedom of
the country, and the local people who were nice too. I enjoyed living in
Rhodesia and it took me more time to forget Africa than it had taken
to forget France. Later, when I arrived in America, I used to watch all
the movies about Africa and reminisce, and when I was first in New
York, I went to see the lion at the zoo in Central Park.
Antoinette and Frederic at Le Café de Paris Patisserie. Salisbury (now Harare),
Antoinette (left) and Jacqueline (right) visiting Mermaid Pool, Mwanga,
Rhodesia. December 1960
Visiting a gold mine in Rhodesia. Antoinette (far left), Frederic (center at the back),
me (far right), and Jacqueline (middle at front)
left Salisbury in May 1963, and I was very sad to go. We sold the
restaurant, which was a pity because we had a good business. I had
made £16,000 and I could have gone to America with all that money
in my pocket, but the exchange rules meant I was only allowed to
take £3,000 with me because of a law passed by the government
I also lent some money to some Mauritian people. I was lonely
and had become friends with them, even becoming the godfather to
one of their children. They needed money and I felt sorry for them,
so I lent them several thousand pounds, which was a lot of money.
When I left, the balance of the sale of the bistro was deposited at
the Ottoman Bank of Salisbury. At that time, the communication
options weren’t the same as they are today. The world was very big
then, and even if a letter was put on the right boat, it took a month
or more to reach its destination.
Finally, the day to leave arrived. Along with Jacqueline’s parents,
I took the train from Salisbury to a beautiful town in southeast
Mozambique, Lourenço Marques (now called Maputo). I used to go
on vacation in northern Mozambique. In 2019, it suffered a terrible
hurricane and money was being raised because that part of Mozambique
was underwater. It was quite the journey from Rhodesia, in the middle
of Africa, to southeast Mozambique.
From Lourenço Marques, we boarded a plane. It had a French crew
and the first stop was Douala, in Cameroon, with the second being
Lisbon, Portugal, where we spent the night. I was distraught at leaving
Rhodesia, so I went to bed and didn’t want to visit the town. The next
morning, we took the same plane directly to Charles de Gaulle airport
in Paris. We stayed in Paris for only a few months because my visa to
travel to the United States was going to expire on August 31, 1963, and
it was already May.
After recuperating from my voyage, I took a job at the Bomer Ammary
Patisserie belonging to Chef Roland Bomer and his wonderful partner,
Marguerite Ammary, with whom Jacqueline had taken refuge a few
years prior. His patisserie was on Rue Hodan in Sceaux, a suburb south
of Paris near Orly Airport and known for the Château de Sceaux.
While Jacqueline was in Paris, she had gone to an English polytechnic
school for a couple of years to learn typing and clerical skills, so she spoke
much better English than me. The experience completely transformed
Jacqueline’s life. English schools had fancy uniforms, complete with
a hat, which she hated. After getting her GED, she shed all that and
started to dress differently, more grown-up and elegant. She met other
foreigners and made new friends who spoke French and English. After
graduating, she got her first job. She had decided to marry me—either
with the approval of her father or without. She had found a place in
Scotland where we could go to get married, and nothing would have
Since I was running out of time with my visa, Jacqueline and
I decided to get married on August 3, 1963. Imagine organizing a
wedding out of a suitcase. My future wife had been in Sceaux since
arriving around Christmas. My future father-in-law was working in
Hamburg, Germany, and my future mother-in-law was in Colmar,
Alsace, where my father-in-law’s family was originally from. In Paris,
Jacqueline and I bought her wedding gown and the rings and arranged
the cake and church.
We were first married in a civil ceremony at City Hall on August
3, 1963, before the formal church ceremony, as is customary in
France. Following the civil ceremony, we had our church ceremony
in an old medieval church in the park of the Château de Sceaux. Our
wedding reception was at Bomer Ammary Patisserie. Unfortunately,
while driving to the wedding from Hamburg, where he worked, my
father-in-law, Frederic Jaegle, had a little car accident going through
a town in Belgium called Liège, and this delayed his arrival. Liège is
a town in Wallonia, which is a part of Belgium where people speak
French. In the east, people speak Flemish, which is like the Boers’
language of Afrikaans in South Africa and very close to the Dutch
spoken in Holland. My father-in-law was an important person to have
at the wedding; he had to give his agreement to the marriage because
Jacqueline was not yet 20 years old. On the day of the wedding, he
wanted me to sign a prenuptial contract and I agreed. Possibly he
thought that maybe one day he would leave his daughter a large sum
Finally, I was married to my beautiful Jacqueline. The champagne
flowed! My mentor Roland Bomer was in charge of the reception, as
he was one of the best caterers. The finger food was well presented and
very appealing, which was wonderful. You would never guess where
we spent our honeymoon. We took the night train to Saint-Chélyd’Apcher,
which is more than 600 kilometers south of Paris, to meet
my family. My family was not surprised to meet my new wife for the
first time; my decisions in life were always very impromptu and fast,
and they welcomed her.
We stayed there for a few days and Jacqueline became acquainted
with my uncles, aunts, and close family, including my father Antoine, my
mother Berthe, my brothers Roger, Alex, and Lucien, and my nephew
Daniel. There was also Josette, my youngest sister, her husband Jean-
Danielle and their daughter, Florence. She also met Andrée (DeDe),
my older half-sister.
After our visit, we took the train from Saint-Chély-d’Apcher to
Hamburg, Germany, which is close to the Baltic Sea. It was a very long
trip and we had lunch in the train’s restaurant coach while we were
crossing Germany. It was very relaxing and we found a small bottle
of Châteauneuf-du-Pape—we drank the whole thing! After lunch, we
went to our compartment where Jacqueline, who must have been very
tired after drinking the wine, fell asleep. She didn’t wake up until
we arrived in Hamburg. Meanwhile, I listened to an elderly German
lady who kept trying to make conversation, speaking in German to
me. It lasted a long time, and I tried to be polite, although I didn’t
understand much. She kept up the conversation non-stop until we
arrived at our destination.
I stayed with Jacqueline for a few days and we visited Hamburg.
We went to the Reeperbahn, the welcoming point. For every visitor
who arrived, they raised their national flag and played their national
anthem while you enjoyed a liter of nice German beer in a tall stein
glass, which I could never finish. We also visited the park along
the Elbe River that links Hamburg to the Baltic Sea. Today, it is a
significant tourist attraction and the largest arrival and departure
point in the Port of Hamburg.
On our last day in Hamburg, I had to make another difficult
decision, which was to leave Jacqueline with her mother and father
so that I could travel to the U.S. because she did not have her visa
yet. The prospect of going to that big country—a continent, in fact—
without knowing a soul, with no work, and no connections, was quite
an adventure and rather overwhelming. I knew it would be easier to
travel and navigate around the country by myself, but, nevertheless,
I was very reluctant to leave Jacqueline behind.
Our wedding day. Walking down the aisle of the medieval Saint-Jean-Baptiste church in
Sceaux. August 3, 1963
Ready to leave for New York City from Hamburg airport, Germany.
Left to right: Antoinette, me, Jacqueline, Frederic. August 1963
My Arrival in New York
With a heavy heart, I left Jacqueline in Europe. I had a reservation
with Lufthansa to fly to New York’s LaGuardia Airport. I had
let the airline crew pick the destination and had also let them make
my hotel reservation. I believe that on Saturday, August 31, 1963,
I stayed at the Hotel Seymour on 44 West 45th, close to the terminal
and on the corner with Fifth Avenue. It was night when I arrived at
the hotel, so I took a shower and went to bed, feeling a little bluesy.
I slept very well and woke up early. I immediately went to the lobby to
buy a map of New York because I didn’t know where I was. Luckily,
I oriented myself easily. I was at Fifth Avenue, next to Tiffany & Co.
and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Central Park was nearby, with open spaces,
trees, and flowers, and there were no clouds in the sky. New York was
also quite empty at the time, which was to my liking, but quite hot and
I spent most of the long Labor Day weekend in Central Park. It was
a relaxing place and I felt at home in that expanse of greenery. I had
contacts in New York but most of them were still on vacation when
I arrived; for instance, I had the address of a history and geography
professor at the Lycée Français de New York, with whom my father-inlaw
was related and knew, but he was on vacation in Alsace, France.
At this point, I was a little desperate to encounter a person who would
smile at me and say, “Come on, I will show you New York!” It was a long
weekend, so on Sunday, I went to church at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and
on Monday, which was Labor Day, I watched the parade along Fifth
Avenue. The first thing I did on Tuesday was to go to Park Avenue and
look up. It felt as if I was at the bottom of the Grand Canyon!
The first time I took an express elevator to the 20th floor was to visit
the bank. New York was getting too crowded for me—it simply does not
compare to Paris. New York is on another scale. In Paris, there aren’t
streets like Park Avenue with huge skyscrapers. Nevertheless, it was so
impressive to take an express elevator to the 20th floor! On Monday
night, I tried to go to Broadway, but I felt scared because there were so
many people coming this way and going that way! I visited Chinatown
and couldn’t believe that America had bums just like in Paris! There
were so many, and they would ask for a quarter all the time—and a
quarter was a lot of money in France. All sorts of things were different.
I remember you could buy stamps in a pack at the shop, but you had to
pay for the packaging and not simply for the stamps.
I also remember going to Park Avenue at 5 p.m. when all the
workers emerged from the buildings. They looked like a swarm of
bees coming out of the queen’s hive. It was quite something! There
were cops with guns and their caps pulled down so that you couldn’t
see their eyes; and the sidewalks in New York seemed so wide, what
with the mass of people and the wave of cars going back and forth.
Really, it was all too much for me. After all, I had come from Africa,
a continent that I loved, with a lot of open space for hunting and
fishing in the great outdoors.
The day I decided to leave the Big Apple, a Tuesday, was beautiful,
albeit a little hot and muggy for my taste. I was walking along Fifth
Avenue when I saw a sign for American Airlines, so I went inside to buy
a one-way ticket to San Francisco. With my ticket in my wallet, I left
the office a very happy man. I cashed my check of $1,000 and left the
city. I did one other very important thing that Tuesday. I visited the
Vatel Club Chef Association. When I had gone through immigration,
I’d had to give an address to which my green card could be forwarded
and the Vatel Club Chef Association was very accommodating in that
I could have it sent there. It was routine for the club to provide that
kind of service. I was lucky because a friend I had met in Southern
Rhodesia—where he had represented the Renault car company in the
same job he’d had in the U.S.A.—sent me some names of people in the
Vatel Club Chef Association and they proved to be very handy when
I needed them.
All this time, I could only stay in touch with Jacqueline by letter
because I had no phone—and anyway, even if I’d had one, phone
calls were very expensive at that time. The intercontinental phone
line involved a submarine cable and a seat because it was a long wait.
Everything was very different in the 1960s. Cables were controlled by
AT&T. There were no wireless telephones. At that time, the U.S. was
25 years ahead of Europe. Five years of German occupation had meant
that nothing had advanced in France. Now I have a mobile phone, a
flat rate, and I can call anywhere in the world. Sometimes, I spend two
hours calling all my friends and family. I could never have thought
about doing that in the 1960s. There have been so many changes
during my lifetime.
My life was an adventure—I went to the U.S. with $1,000 in my
pocket and no formal education. Now, I was on my way to California.
I had first heard of Palo Alto when I was in Rhodesia and met a guy
who had graduated from Stanford (he might have been an Episcopalian
minister). He gave me a letter of recommendation for the Hyatt House
in Palo Alto, California. The American consul in Salisbury, Mr. White,
was from California too and he was the one who had delivered my visa
to travel to the U.S. At that time, I obtained my visa very easily because
the French quota had priority. Before President Kennedy changed the
law, foreign countries were subject to a U.S. immigration quota, and
the French were allowed 5,000 immigrants a year, a figure that dated
from the days of Napoleon. There were very few French immigrants, so
the quota was never met. In comparison, England had almost 80,000,
Germany 60,000, and Ireland 60,000, whereas Italy, China, and
Mexico had none. After Kennedy changed the law, however, priority
was placed on the family—the siblings, the father, and the mother.
San Francisco, California
When I left New York City, I set off for California, looking for a
new adventure. Fortunately, during the plane ride to San Francisco,
I encountered a gentleman returning from a vacation in Germany.
He was going back to the University of California, Berkeley, where
he was a professor of German. After chatting for a while and getting
acquainted, I told him about my situation, whereupon he said that he
had his station wagon waiting at the airport and would take me into
San Francisco. He took me to the YMCA Hotel on Turk Street. The
room only cost $3 a night, whereas in New York I had been paying
$17 a night. That was a big relief for me and I could look at the future
That first night I felt more relaxed, so I went to a nearby restaurant
where I had a nice dinner for $10. I slept well in my little room and
the next morning I felt ready to explore the city. The streets of San
Francisco seemed to be so laid back in comparison with New York.
I took the cable car and found out that even in September people would
wear fur and a nice hat because the city was so cool. I also met Filipino
and Chinese people for the first time in my life. For my first outing,
I went to find a famous chef called Lucien Heyraud who had been the
executive chef of San Francisco’s Palace Hotel during its heyday. He was
retired and living in a beautiful, big house in the Marina District on
Cervantes Boulevard, close to the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. He
told me that good chefs made $1,000 a month in San Francisco. I don’t
know how much chefs make now, but it’s not the same California today
as the one I first experienced.
He introduced me to the Chefs’ Association for the West Coast
and I found a job as a line cook in a casino up in Reno, Nevada,
which was my first experience of working in an American hotel.
I worked there until November 25, 1963. I remember when John
Kennedy was assassinated on November 22. The casino came to a
complete standstill because everyone was looking at the television
and no one was gambling. People were stunned and could not figure
out what was happening.
The next day, I was laid off—I lost my first job in the U.S. Many
people lost their jobs when Kennedy was assassinated because it
created so much uncertainty in the future and the economy. There
was another Frenchman in a similar circumstance, so we ate the daily
special of ham and eggs and prime rib at the Horseshoe to survive.
Total cost? $1.75. At that time, casinos also gave leftover food away.
That is not done nowadays. Something I found interesting was that
if you established residence in Nevada for six months, you could get
divorced there. I stayed in Reno until the end of November.
When I returned to California from Reno, I found a job at the
Fairmont Hotel, which is located up on Nob Hill. I had to join the
union before I started working, and had to pay my dues, which I found
very funny. At first, when I inquired about a job at the Fairmont, the
chef told me that there was nothing available. Then he asked me one
question, could I make soufflés? I told him that I could, and he said,
“You start tomorrow.” In the end, I think I only made one or two
soufflés during the entire time I was there because they kept me busy
making lots of different dishes and pastries.
After I had secured a job, it was time to settle down. I was renting a
room at the Hotel de France on Broadway, which was run by a French
Basque, Mr. Berouhet. I had started to work at the Fairmont two days
before the Christmas holidays. I spent my day off by myself since I did
not know anybody—I was miserable. It was a miserable day at the end of
1963. Rainy, low ceiling, cloudy—a gloomy day. It is depressing in San
Francisco when it rains in December. I had dinner at the community
table in the Hotel de France with people who were mostly Basques,
but I had something in common with them. They had been soldiers in
Algeria, like me. The Basques are very sectarian, and they can be found
all over the world, especially in South America. One of the presidents of
Mexico, President Echeveria, was a descendant of a Basque. When you
have something in common, you bond over it and you feel less lonely.
Since the weather was cold and misty, I sought refuge in a movie theater
on the famous Grant Street at the entrance to Chinatown. The price
was 50 cents, so I spent Christmas in a cheap, warm, and dry place.
My first night in New York was spent at the Seymour Hotel, 44 West 45th Street
and 5th Avenue. August 31, 1963
A New Life in San Francisco
In 1964, Jacqueline received her visa. I cashed my first paycheck and
rented a studio apartment on California Street and Powell in Nob
Hill. It was very central, near the French consulate and the French
church, Notre Dame des Victoires. Union Square was nearby, as was
Chinatown. The area reminded me of the commercial streets in France,
and it was very convenient for shopping because everything—such as
the stalls selling fruit and vegetables—was outside, as it is in Europe.
The apartment was also very close to the Fairmont Hotel in Nob Hill,
not even a block away. San Francisco didn’t have many skyscrapers at
that time and the Fairmont Tower dominated the landscape. I went to
JCPenney for bedding, kitchen items, and the things we needed to live
in an apartment. Jacqueline arrived around January 20.
Right from the beginning, we loved the city. We didn’t stay very
long in the apartment on California Street and Powell. When I started
working, I met another Frenchman who had come from Brazil with his
adopted little girl, and they were living in a building above the Stockton
Tunnel, at the entrance to Chinatown. There we found a beautiful
studio for $100 per month. It was furnished, was on the sixth floor,
and had a view. Talking of skyscrapers, one morning, when looking
through the window, I discovered that one had grown overnight!
The view had literally changed overnight on California Street.
San Francisco is a different town today. In August, ladies used to wear
fur coats and outfits that matched perfectly, so if they wore a green suit
then it had green shoes, green skirt, green everything. A fur coat in
the middle of August seemed absurd to me! I used to see the women
going to the Saint Francis Hotel on Union Square in gowns and mink
coats. The city had two newspapers, The Chronicle in the morning and
The Evening Examiner. On Union Square, on the sidewalk in front of
the Saint Francis Hotel, there would be a huge pile of newspapers at
the entrance, with a little cup for customers to put in 10 cents. Today
leaving those papers out would not last long—the whole thing would
disappear from the sidewalk! At the time, there was great trust between
people. People were very cordial and helpful then.
Back then, Fisherman’s Wharf had an unobstructed and open view
of the sea. I learned how to crack a Dungeness crab by watching the
workers and I learned how to appreciate the quality of the crabs. They
are delicious! They were the best crabs in the world. We integrated into
life in this beautiful city, and even though it was a bit cold in summer,
it was still very pleasant.
From the Fairmont to the Palace to the Hilton
My wife, Jacqueline, found a job decorating and painting plates. After
that, she used her clerical skills and moved to an insurance company
dealing with workers’ compensation. I left the Fairmont Hotel to work
at the Palace Hotel where there was better pay. When I went there, it
was rundown and decaying. I worked there for just a month. Since that
time, it has been restored and is nice again now.
Working in the U.S.A. was an entirely different experience. During
my career in the U.S.A., my jobs often overlapped because I was
working in two places at one time. I would be working in one place
and then start the next day at another place in order to better myself.
When the Hilton Hotel opened in 1964, I started work the next day
after it opened. A few months later, I met the Swiss chef who had been
the chef at The Palace and who had become the chef at the Hilton. Do
you know where I met him again a few years later? On the stairs at the
hotel in Acapulco where I worked! Just by coincidence.
The Hilton was on Turk Street in the Tenderloin district, where
I had stayed at the YMCA when I first arrived. The Hilton was a very
interesting hotel because it was the first new motor hotel. I don’t know
if it still exists, but you could go there in your car and there was a
road going up the side of the hotel. I never went inside the hotel or
the rooms because I mostly stayed in the kitchen so I don’t know how
many floors there were, but you could drive to your room and park
your car outside it like a motel. It was not very practical. With the
Hilton’s room service, the waiter would use a cart to deliver it. I never
went up there because you had to ask for permission and, when you
work eight hours, you take off afterward!
Today, there are 30, 35, or maybe more big hotels in San Francisco.
When I arrived, there were only five or six major hotels. There was the
Fairmont, Sir Francis Drake, St. Francis on Union Square, and The
Palace. There was also Mark Hopkins, and I went there to work as a
carver for a buffet when Louis Lurie, owner of the hotel, and French
celebrity Maurice Chevalier were celebrating their 80th birthdays there
together. While I was there, I met a guy whose accent I recognized, and
I said to him, “You are from the center of France.” It turned out he was
from Lozère Saint-Chély-d’Apcher, the town where my parents lived
and where his cousin, Michel Bonnal, had a boulangerie!
In 1964, the Hilton was the first hotel to be built in San Francisco
that could host a big event such as the Republican Convention. It
was the year that Barry Goldwater from Arizona ran for president
unsuccessfully. At the time, there was no place large enough for the
delegates to meet, so they were meeting at the venerable Cow Palace
in South San Francisco, near the airport. At the Hilton, we hosted all
the press and television crews—there were cables all over the place, but
I’m sure it was quieter than being among all the delegates who filled
the other place.
Becoming a papa
My daughter, Pascale, was born in Kaiser Hospital on Geary Boulevard
in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1964, at
6 a.m. It was my day off. Being the eldest of a family of six, I’d had
training taking care of my younger siblings and cousins when I was
in La Trémolière, whereas Jacqueline, being an only child, had little
experience of being a new maman. My experience was very handy. We
had no family around for advice and help. Jacqueline learned fast,
became the best mother, and took very good care of Pascale. We did
not have a car, but we took our little treasure everywhere we went.
On Saturdays, we would take a bus to the bay breakers on the Pacific
and walk back to Nob Hill where we had our little apartment, after
having explored every corner of Golden Gate Park. In the park, we were
sheltered from the very cold wind of the ocean. I carried the baby in a
light car seat and she seemed to enjoy the ride and never complained.
I remember Pascale being dressed in a pink wool dress from Austria,
given to her by a colleague from work at the San Francisco Hilton. She
looked like a beautiful little doll in it.
Our long promenades used to end at Kezar Stadium. From there,
we would take a bus to Powell Street and a cable car to Bush Street,
then walk back to Stockton Street to our apartment. We lived there
for just a few more months as the building did not allow kids, so we
needed to move.
When Pascale was six months old, we decided to return to the Paris
suburb of Sceaux, near Orly Airport, to be near Jacqueline’s parents
and my family. I had lived there from 1951 to 1955 and nothing had
changed much since I left. It was difficult to find a nice apartment
and employment—there was nothing equivalent to what I had in the
U.S.A. This unemployment lasted 11 months, which was long enough
to spend all our savings.
The only plausible option was working for a restaurant chain owned
by a gentleman called Jacques Borel. The chain doesn’t exist now, but it
was called Wimpy, which was an English name. It was not my kind of
cuisine. I was the hotel ambassador, then assistant manager afterward.
To live in Paris on the salary of an assistant manager was hard. It’s hard
to build capital, especially with kids, and my wife was not working.
I spent a lot of money and we only stayed for one year.
We returned to San Francisco after a friend who was working at the
Hilton telephoned me. He said that he had talked to the chef and if
I returned on a certain day, my job was open. I talked with Jacqueline
and my in-laws and decided it was wiser for the family to go back to the
U.S.A. Two days later, we flew to San Francisco. My friend Ed and his
wife Lucy, who are Pascale’s godparents, offered us hospitality in their
house in Millbrae, across from San Francisco International Airport.
My friend had the same work schedule as me and he had a car. I had
$5,000 left in savings and we decided to buy a house in nearby San
Bruno, through Bob Highsmith, a friend and realtor who had an office
in San Bruno. During the 11 months of my absence, many things had
changed at the Hilton. Many of the people I previously knew and had
trained had been promoted.
We had been living in our house for not even a month when I had an
offer I could not refuse, which was to work as a chef at the beach and
tennis club in Pebble Beach in Carmel—an idyllic place.
The club had many famous golf courses, as well as tennis, sailing,
and the historic Del Monte Lodge. It was very upper class and had
deluxe amenities. It is located on 17-Mile Drive, a scenic road along the
Pacific where there are luxurious houses and prime properties. All 17
miles are very beautiful and chic. The founder of the club was Samuel
Morse, a nephew of the inventor of Morse code. He used to come to
Sunday brunch and he would introduce me to his guests, who were
ambassadors, generals, and other very important people.
The mother of Pierre Salinger lived in Pebble Beach. Pierre was
President Kennedy’s press attaché and was of French origin. We loved
Carmel, where the first French consulate had been set up from the
time of the Spanish. The original French consulate of that era still
exists there. Junípero Serra, the founder of the Carmel Mission at the
time of the Conquistadors, is buried at the Carmel Mission. He came
from the island of Mallorca and was canonized by Pope Francis. There
is much Spanish influence and character in California.
My daughter, Danielle, was born in Carmel on April 11, 1968. She
decided to come at Easter time—the Thursday during Holy Week—and
we were so busy for lunch that day. My feelings were so divided between
abandoning the crew and taking Jacqueline to the hospital. When the
call came that her water broke, I left everything, rushed to the house
to pick up Jacqueline, and called a neighbor to take care of Pascale. We
rushed to the hospital in Carmel where a nurse was waiting for us at
the entrance. I dropped Jacqueline off with the nurse and rushed back
home to take care of Pascale. We were very close to the hospital, and
when I arrived back home, the phone rang. “You are the father of a
beautiful girl!” It was so fast that the doctor told my wife, “Next time,
come a bit earlier.” My life was always in a rush.
For a year, we really enjoyed this corner of paradise and its style of
living. We lived close to Del Monte Lodge in a very cute little cottage,
next to the Peter Hay par-nine golf course. After Danielle arrived,
we moved to Via Ventura in Monterey, an area just as enchanting as
the entire peninsula of Carmel and Monterey, with its imprint of the
Spanish conquistadors. It was a privilege to have spent several years in
such glorious surroundings.
Professionally, I was very successful. The year I left, we generated
more profit than the Del Monte Lodge. However, my bonus after such
a profitable year was not equitable. I wanted a promotion, but my
assistant also wanted one, so I left to be sous chef at the opening of a
brand-new Hyatt House. I had the same salary, but the fact that I had
left had a domino effect. The manager—whom I had rescued when
I started at The Beach Club because he was mismanaging the hotel and
losing money—was promoted to manager at the Del Monte Lodge and
my assistant was given the job I wanted. So goes life, unfortunately!
I did not stay very long at the Hyatt House, although I did enjoy
working there, despite an English chef whom I didn’t like. The Hyatt
had a very different philosophy and it is always nice to open a brandnew
hotel. I was replacing the original chef who had been transferred
to The Peachtree in Atlanta, Georgia. At the opening, the hotel
chartered a train from San Francisco to Monterey for all the invited
guests. In every room, there was a bottle of French champagne and
a can of Russian caviar. When the guests left, I told room service to
bring me all the caviar, open or not open. Afterward, we all had a feast
in the kitchen for those who loved caviar!
This reminds me of another story about caviar, when the Queen
Mother visited Rhodesia to inaugurate the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi
River on May 17, 1960. I was working at the airport in Salisbury. The
Queen Mother arrived and the plane was cleaned by the cleaning crew,
who brought me up to the plane’s kitchen. In the kitchen, there was a
beautiful blue metallic can with a lid. I opened it and, to my surprise,
it was Grosgrain, those big eggs of Russian caviar. Afterwards, it was
missing only one teaspoon! It was selected for the Queen Mother—only
Back to the Fairmont and Starting at the Holiday Inn Fisherman’s
During this time, I was recruited by the San Francisco Fairmont with
a beautiful offer of $2,000 a month, which meant moving back to San
Francisco as a chef de cuisine and supervising over 100 cooks. We
rented a house in St. Francis Woods, and I supervised and trained the
cooks. We lived on Los Palmos Drive with a view of the San Bruno
Mountain and south San Francisco. In the meantime, Jacqueline’s
mother visited us from France and never returned there; she moved in
with us and my father-in-law joined later.
My first job when I arrived in San Francisco had been at the
Fairmont Hotel as a pastry chef. When I was rehired as chef de cuisine,
all my former bosses now became my subordinates. They accepted
me with no problem and I was very grateful for that. It was a very
busy place at the time because there were only six major hotels in San
Francisco. We were grossing $1 million a month in food and $400,000
a month in liquor. The banquet room seated 1,200 people for breakfast,
lunch, and dinner, and there were many other rooms, such as the big
Venetian room with its magnificent crystal chandeliers. At the time,
the most expensive dish was $30 per person for a kosher wedding in
the Venetian room. The Fairmont Hotel banquet room is also where
the UN was founded and the first ever meeting was held there in 1945.
After the Fairmont, I was recruited to work at the new Holiday Inn
Fisherman’s Wharf, where I became the director of food and beverages
and assistant manager. It was a gold mine there. It was close to 100%
full on the first day of opening, and I’m sure it is still like that today.
I was responsible for organizing catering and selling banquets. It was
very different from what I had done previously. In fact, when I started,
I didn’t even know how to use the telephone to transfer calls.
One day, I had a problem at Fisherman’s Wharf. A woman called me
from the sales department about a group coming from the Ryder Truck
Company. I was new at the game and introduced myself to her, but
she knew everything about me since I was the manager. The booking
was for the Ryder Truck Company, and they booked so many rooms
and each meeting room needed to be equipped with a flipchart and
something called an easel. I didn’t even know how to look for those
things within the hotel and I had no idea what an easel was! I went
to a big storage room and asked, “Do we have any easels?” “Ho! Yes!
Here are five of them.” The mystery of the word ‘easel’ was now clear
to me. They were the stands that painters used to hold their canvases.
In French, we call them chevalets!
Jacqueline arrives in the U.S.A., photographed with the Brazilian neighbour. January 1964
Pascale’s first picture. San Francisco, November 25, 1965
Pascale’s first Christmas, only a month old
Letter of recognition from Mr. Morse, the president of The Farmhouse Del Monte
Properties and The Beach Club at Pebble Beach, CA. March 25, 1967
Letter of thanks from Bill Coleman, the Chair of the Heart Fund. February 5, 1968
Family photo taken in the gardens at the Carmel Mission, where Father Junipero Serra is
buried, circa July 1968
Letter of recognition from Mr. Oliver, Chairman of Del Monte Properties, and
photo of the croquembouche cake referenced in the letter. December 26, 1968
Letter of recognition to John Gorney from head of sales, Mattel. Holiday Inn Fisherman’s
Wharf, San Francisco. April 26, 1971
Moving to Acapulco
When I brought my father-in-law to the U.S.A., I was his hero.
I found him a job in 1969 or 1970 working as a steward at
the Fairmont, where he stayed for a couple of months. It was a job
pushing carts in the steward department, and afterward, he left to take
care of the department of personnel at the Holiday Inn in Fisherman’s
Wharf after I opened it. The manager at that Holiday Inn was
German, Herman Stiegelmeier, and when I had to go to an interview
in Houston for a job in Acapulco, I returned to find that I had been
fired. Somebody was sitting at my desk! I was only gone for a couple
of days and that had happened. Stiegelmeier was eventually replaced
by an American innkeeper whose daughter I would later employ at
the Holiday Inn in Palo Alto. The same innkeeper once came to my
restaurant, L’Omelette, and, in a very friendly way, said, “Hello, Louis,
my friend. How are you?”
I said, “There was a time you didn’t like me that much!”
I think I must have been doing a good job while working at the
Holiday Inn at Fisherman’s Wharf because I had quite the promotion.
My next step was to the Holiday Inn in Acapulco, Mexico. Welcome
to the U.S.A!
I had lots of things to tie up before leaving for Acapulco. It was a bit
hard for my daughters, though, especially Pascale. In September 1970,
the authorities began busing the children to school for integration in
San Francisco. Before leaving for Acapulco, the local school board
wanted to send Pascale to Hunter’s Point, but as she was just starting
school for the first time, we felt that five years old was too young to
send her all the way across town in a bus. Instead, we put her in a
French school and I used to take her on my way to work.
I had two cars at that point, one of which was a sky-blue Valiant that
I eventually gave to my father-in-law. We had first purchased it when
I went to Pebble Beach, but at the beginning of our time in California,
we didn’t have a car because we were in San Francisco, and you don’t
need a car there. The other was a big American car, although I cannot
recall the make and model.
One day, a couple of days before our departure, I had a problem
with the Valiant’s transmission. I had to pull over on Mission Street.
I was feeling desperate when a passerby approached me and asked me
what the problem was. I told him what was happening and, to cut a
long story short, he offered me $200 for the car. Then, he took my car
and left. I never knew who he was. I just gave him the papers for the
car, he gave me $200, and we parted company. I was happy to be rid of
I had to empty out my house to ship everything to Mexico. After
the movers had come and gone, we were alone, sitting on the floor
in the empty house—Jacqueline, Pascale, Danielle and me—and it was
quite an adventure. Jacqueline had been to Acapulco on vacation and
had loved it, but as I have often said, you cannot confuse immigration
At the Holiday Inn Acapulco, I encountered huge pressure from the
employees. I had a bunch of crooks; they were stealing all the tips from
the poor waiters and busboys. And if you kept employees for more than
three months, they became fixed employees entitled to severance pay.
We had two lawyers on the premises full-time because there were so
many employee issues. The previous management had been lax about
controlling the problems.
Of course, without money, you can’t pay for anything. We had
to fire about 150 people because we had to lower the payroll in the
summer. One day, we had a big meeting with Walter Thompson, a
big advertising company from New York. You can imagine how much
we must have been paying them when I arrived; as a winter resort,
you have to advertise in the summer to the tour operators in the U.S.
and Canada. The best weather and high season for tourists is from
December to April, when the trade winds blow gently from the sea
to the land. The difference is like night and day. It’s balmy and very
pleasant instead of hot and very muggy and humid as the weather is
in the summer. During the winter, big groups arrive from New York,
Canada, and other freezing cities of North America. The Europeans
and Mexicans would visit in the summer, but they were not big
spenders. One day, we had a big group of Canadians, and I had to go
to the brewery because they had drunk all the beer!
We lived in Acapulco for four years. Every six months, my wife
and kids made a trip to the U.S.A. to renew their tourist visas,
and they used to stay in the Holiday Inn in Las Vegas or Houston.
When you are an American, you have to report your salary to the
U.S. State Department and they supervise salary, rent, school, and
medical benefits to be sure we are representing the U.S. well. My
employer, Holiday Inn Corporate, headquartered in Memphis, was
paying my social security in America and also my social security in
Mexico. I had schooling for the children, a good salary, and many
other advantages. There were only two U.S. citizens, including myself,
who were responsible for the good management of the Holiday Inn
Acapulco; the rest of the crew were Mexican. At the Fairmont, my
monthly salary had been $2,000 plus bonuses, but it was only $1,000
plus bonuses at the Holiday Inn Fisherman’s Wharf, so it had cost
me a lot of money going into management. I was able to recoup when
I was in Acapulco.
I didn’t want to raise my kids in Acapulco. I wanted them to be
educated and would have had to send them to Mexico City where the
big schools were if we wanted to stay. They did not even have a decent
hospital in Acapulco. I had typhoid there and almost died. The doctor
told Jacqueline that I might not make it through the night.
Mr. Clement Chen and his wife came and visited me in Acapulco to
recruit me to go to the Holiday Inn Palo Alto, where he was managing
partner. At that time, I wasn’t ready to move to Palo Alto, so our paths
didn’t cross again until a few years later when we moved back to the
Proud to be in Holiday Inn innkeeper uniform as Assistant Keeper and Food and Beverage
Director of Holiday Inn Acapulco, circa 1971
The Holiday Inn Acapulco’s circular tower
From left: friends Rachline, Leon, Jacqueline, Pascale and Danielle. Poolside at the
Holiday Inn Acapulco, circa 1971
From top left: Pascale, Danielle, Antoinette. Bottom row: Me and Jacqueline.
Pie de la Cuesta, Acapulco, Mexico
With Wallace Johnson (center), co-founder of the Holiday Inn
Jacqueline as the lead singer in The Cabaret Show at the Kit Kat Club.
Acapulco, Mexico. Circa 1972
Playing soccer with staff in 100-degree heat. I’m pictured top row, right
Jacqueline hosting Holiday Inn co-founder, Mr. Johnson. Pictured behind is Arturo Estrada,
my assistant who helped me navigate the labor laws and hire the right personnel.
Acapulco, circa 1972
Letter of recognition for excellent service from Saul Zussman, GWV Travel. June 21, 1974
Jacqueline, me and Danielle in Acacpulco, circa 1972
My Time in West Covina
flew from Acapulco to Olive Branch, Mississippi, where Holiday
Inn has a university from which you can graduate as an innkeeper.
I had been a food and beverage manager and assistant innkeeper,
but after two months at the Holiday Inn University, I graduated as
an innkeeper—a term from the past that Holiday Inn used instead
of general manager. After my training was completed, Holiday Inn
Corporate assigned me to the Holiday Inn in West Covina, next to
Highway 15, which continues through San Bernardino to Las Vegas.
Prior to moving into the West Covina Holiday Inn, management
sent us to stay at the Holiday Inn near the 405 and Highway 1 in a
nice neighborhood called Brentwood. In 1974, the children went to
Brentwood School near Beverly Hills.
I didn’t have a car, so I went out and bought my first brand new
car, a Volvo, because San Bernardino and Brentwood are far apart.
Sometimes, when I had to fly to conferences and events, I would see
the airport but feel as though I could not reach it; there was so much
traffic it made it seem so far away. I used to say, “I will never make it!”
There was a Holiday Inn at the Los Angeles airport, so I’d park my car
there and take the shuttle to the airport.
The Holiday Inn West Covina was five stories tall, but because the
smog was so dense, I couldn’t see the hotel’s top floor from the ground.
I could not even see across Highway 15 to Covina. When you drove
to the airport, it wasn’t until you arrived close to the Pacific Ocean
that you could see where you were. You were in a bowl of smog on the
freeway where you could not see the sides of the highway at that time in
1974! I recall one of the first rainstorms that washed away all the smog.
It was like a miracle. I was stunned and mesmerized by the beauty all
around us and the fresh, clean air.
I was accepted right away by the crew, who had been there for a
long time. In fact, it was one of the first times in my career that I didn’t
have to hire or fire anyone! I remember receiving a card on New Year’s
telling me I was a good boss. The hotel had a coffee shop and a small
banquet room, but it was a quiet location and it wasn’t a very exciting
hotel. The only highlight was hosting a college band that was marching
in the Rose Parade. They were rooming five or six per room. We had
to get ready to serve breakfast at 1 a.m. so that they could be ready for
I was only in West Covina for six and a half months before we
moved to Palo Alto. The Holiday Inn Palo Alto was independently
owned. The other hotels were corporate-owned. When we moved to
Palo Alto, every morning I would look up at the smog-free blue sky. The
sky was so blue there and breathing the air was a delight!
My Time at the Holiday Inn Palo Alto
took over the Holiday Inn Palo Alto on March 4, 1975. The hotel
was co-owned: 50% by Clement Chen, an architect who was both
the managing partner and the designer, and 50% by Lincoln Life
Insurance, a very large insurance company. Clem Chen was the one
who had hired me. The first thing I did when I started was to go to
accounting to look at the financial records. The people in the office
looked a bit puzzled, and one of them told me, “If you want to make
the payroll on the fifth of this month, then you’ll have to go to the
bank and borrow $50,000.” So, the balance in the bank when I started
was minus $360,000 and we had taken a line of credit. In fact, before
leaving my office, the co-owner from Lincoln Life Insurance came to
meet me to find out what I thought about Mr. Chen and our financial
situation. I recall he pointed his finger at me and said, “You are his last
chance! If you’re not successful, we will replace Mr. Chen as managing
partner.” I was a little bit scared for the sake of my family, but I liked
the place. It was well put together, with beautiful landscapes and
surroundings, built in a Spanish style. It was located at the entrance to
Stanford University on Palm Drive (it is now a Sheraton). Danielle and
Pascale liked it too, as did my wife Jacqueline.
We were living at the hotel, so I was two minutes from my desk—no
commute! At first, the employees looked at me a bit warily because
they had already run out several managers. Later, when I’d made
a few friends in the crew, they told me that they had been betting
on how long I was going to last. They must have been disappointed
because I stayed for three years! The land that the hotel was built on
used to be a yard where the city of Palo Alto parked its trucks and
equipment used to maintain the city. The land belonged to Stanford
University and was leased by Palo Alto, and then Palo Alto re-leased
it to us on a 50-year land lease only. The decision to grant the lease
was made via an election that was won by just a handful of votes, so it
was very controversial; local people didn’t want to have a hotel on that
corner and many locals and council members were very bitter about it.
Ultimately, it was accepted by the city council.
In the beginning, I had to deal with some complaints from the
locals such as, “the gate of the garbage disposal area was left open and
it’s an eyesore.” However, I put the hotel on the right track. The bank
was happy because, after just one month, we were no longer on credit.
The hotel was on a path to being sustainable and we had the money to
pay the bills. I worked hard and reorganized the hotel. A key change
was that I rearranged the prices of the rooms. There was a railroad that
passed by at the back and the rooms there were the same price as the
ones that had a beautiful poolside view, with a fountain and a lake.
I lowered the price of those less-desirable rooms. At the time, the hotel
had a Japanese garden with a river and a lake, and I was the one who
recommended we put koi fish in there. Mr. Chen had also promised
a free shuttle service to Stanford University Law students when they
held conferences at our hotel. Unfortunately, Mr. Chen didn’t tell any
of us and we did not have a shuttle bus in our possession! To our
great surprise, one day a group of law students said Mr. Chen had
promised the shuttle. We had to scramble to get the department heads
to find enough cars to drive them all to Stanford. It was chaotic and
I made all kinds of improvements, did all kinds of things for the
hotel, and Mr. Chen tried to micromanage me. He told me, “I designed
it, I’m running it, and I know the problem.” One day, I had a big, big
problem because the sewage wouldn’t go down the pipes and we were
elow the city sewage. We went onto the roof where there was a pump,
and we found that someone had tripped the breaker. I said, “Why
didn’t you mention we had major sewage problems? You never told me
that.” I was there for a full day trying to sort it and it’s terrible when you
have a sewage problem in a large hotel, I can tell you!
Shortly after I joined, I went to see a demonstration of an IBM
computer that was able to manage the systems in the front and back
of the house at the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco. I hit it off
with their assistant controller, a very nice and knowledgeable woman
named Hazel Ferris, and brought her to work at the Holiday Inn Palo
Alto. Later, Hazel came with me when I went to the Hotel Le Baron.
Around 1965, the Holiday Inn created a fantastic system with
the IBM computer company, called the Holidex. It was a centralized
reservation system, with the main terminal in Memphis and
terminals in Holiday Inn hotels in major cities worldwide. Holidex
made it easier to fill empty rooms. Even in Acapulco on the
weekends, especially in the high season, they were filling the two
or three available rooms they had left. Guests from Houston—which
was a few hours away—could have an immediate confirmation of
their room reservation. This system was fantastic and helped hotels
reach 100% occupation.
When I took over running the Palo Alto Holiday Inn, I had never
previously worked on issues such as workers’ compensation insurance.
In my previous jobs, that used to be taken care of by the headquarters
in Memphis. I didn’t know what workers’ compensation was, but
I learned—and learned that we hadn’t any paid in several months. I had
never dealt with those kinds of problems, but I learned fast.
I liked managing both hotels and restaurants. I aimed to be good
to people and I ran that hotel as if it was mine. I was afraid, I was
trying to repair things, and I had to handle insurance claims, such as
when a lady fell in the bathtub not long after I’d started working there.
I had never handled those kinds of situations before because when you
work for a corporate hotel, the corporate side deals with it all. At the
hotels owned and managed by Holiday Inn, I had to give a signature
for everything. I drew up the bills, I signed the orders, I signed the
checks—I signed for everything.
By 1975 and 1976, the hotel was doing very well. It was fantastic.
I met so many interesting people during my time there. During the
second year, in 1976, it made Inn of the Year, winning against 1,700
Holiday Inns worldwide. Tied with Aruba, which had a casino, we were
the number one hotel.
The CEO of Holiday Inn at its corporate headquarters in Memphis
sold all the corporation-owned land under the hotels to make them less
valuable because the real value of the hotels was worth more than the
shares. He sold the Holiday Inn corporation to an English company
called Bass PLC. At that point, my 450 shares of stock became very
valuable. One day, I received a check for $10,000 and I didn’t know
where it had come from. I didn’t follow the stock market; I was too
busy running the hotels. Unfortunately, the shares did not reflect
the true value of the company since it was mostly based on real estate
value. This gave us a lot of uncertainty because it made us vulnerable
to takeover by corporate raiders—financiers who make a practice of
making hostile takeover bids for companies, either to control their
policies or to resell them for a profit. Regardless, I was happy to collect
the extra shares and the money!
I met wonderful and interesting people during my time at the Palo
Alto Holiday Inn. In fact, I met someone who had one of the first heart
transplants because they used to come to Stanford Hospital for annual
check-ups. I became friends with many of the guests who were there
for the hospital. I remember that the first woman who had had a lung
and heart transplant used to ride a bicycle in the parking lot of the
Holiday Inn in Palo Alto. I met a family, the Charfens, whose daughter,
Alejandra, was seeking cancer treatment at Stanford Children’s
Hospital. The Charfens were from Mexico, and although their daughter
was a bit older than my daughters, they befriended her by the pool.
At the time, my children spoke Spanish fluently. My eldest one still
speaks it fluently, like me. My wife also spoke Spanish. We became
lifelong friends with the parents. Alejandra, the daughter, would cry
ecause she had to go to the hospital. This was when doctors were
starting chemotherapy and they were essentially injecting “poison” into
her body since these treatments were very new and mostly unproven.
Dr. Kaplan was the one who started radiation therapy. Alejandra had
Hodgkin’s lymphoma and she’d had every treatment. In Mexico, she
was only given a few months left to live, but the doctors in Palo Alto
cured her cancer. She was considered a miracle patient.
Abraham is the Charfens’ youngest son, and in 2000 we attended
the wedding of Abraham’s youngest daughter in Acapulco. Alejandra
couldn’t have children, so she adopted a little girl named Sophia. A
few years later, sadly, Alejandra passed away. The adoptive father, her
husband, also passed away soon after, so his sister took care of their
daughter, a little orphan. Sophia must be 20 years old now. Today,
Abraham and I call each other on special occasions.
There were also wealthy South Americans, such as people from
Venezuela, coming to Stanford, and because I spoke the language,
I had no problem communicating with them.
One day, a Corsican French chef left me without notice. Somebody
came to my office and told me, “The chef is leaving.” I ran out and tried
to catch him; I wanted to tell him it was very unprofessional to do that.
I knew Corsicans were very hard-headed, but I couldn’t change his mind.
When I started at the hotel, Mr. Chen could not borrow a red cent,
not a penny. He was working on the Civic Center project in Pasadena,
California, but he could not do anything. But, after a year, the hotel
was making money and becoming very profitable, and Mr. Chen
regained his footing and could once again begin his projects, some
of which had been dormant for a year. He sent me to Laguna Hills
to inspect the Hilton, which was in foreclosure. I went to visit it and
told him that it was a quality place, so he bought it before real estate
saw a big inflation in prices towards the end of 1977. Mr. Moore, the
bank manager at California Bank, even came to the Holiday Inn Palo
Alto and I had dinner with him at our French restaurant, Justine’s. He
was very impressed with the food and the hotel and left with a good
impression of the food management.
As part of my role as the innkeeper, I had full signatory power,
which meant I signed for every purchase at the hotel. I ran the place as
if it was mine and my honesty was never a problem. Mr. Chen trusted
me with signatory power, despite his liking for full control. I managed
the hotel for three years and no one, not even our CPA or controller,
ever questioned our accounting practices and the hotel was doing very
When we reached the end of the year though, it was a poisoned pill
to defend against a corporate raider because, at that time, the trading
stock had less value than the actual shares were worth. The Holiday
Inn had a much higher value than the physical value of the company,
compared with the Holiday Inn stock at the time. The shares traded
did not reflect the true value of the Holiday Inn corporation. The real
value was much higher than the one reflected by the stock market.
In many ways, I admired my boss, Mr. Chen, who has since passed
away. He had arrived in America with $500 his mother had secured in
the lining of his jacket. He came on the last plane leaving Shanghai.
He had wanted to be an architect, but at the time, because of the war,
he wasn’t allowed to do that.
Mr. Chen had a cabin at Lake Tahoe. He took my two daughters
skiing for a week and gave them both a lesson, renting the skis and
everything they needed. I was very impressed and touched by his gesture.
I didn’t have the time nor the money to take them away for a weekend.
I admired him for his knowledge and his professional architecture
skills. He liked me too; he was very happy that the employees had
figured out that I was staying and that they couldn’t chase me out like
they had the others.
We didn’t stay friends, however. When I first took the job at Holiday
Inn after leaving Acapulco, I liquidated myself. I paid for my vacation,
signed the check for it, and I signed a check for other things, but I did
it with spare accounts while Hazel Ferris was supervising and acted as
the financial controller. I brought Hazel in from the Stanford Court
Hotel in San Francisco on Nob Hill. Do you know what Mr. Chen
did? He went to the district attorney and tried to have me indicted for
embezzlement. With Lincoln Life Insurance, this was the last chance
for Mr. Chen before he was removed as managing partner. Mr. Chen
was paid $3,000 a month to do the job, but I was the one actually
doing it. During the first year, when it was time to pay my bonus, Chen
actually cut it in half because he thought it was too much, even though
I had been running the hotel completely. He could be very vindictive.
He would lose a day of work just to fight a $2.00 parking ticket.
He knew, of course, that I had a signature for everything, that I was
signing the payroll, and that I was borrowing to run the Holiday Inn
Palo Alto. I had a credit card so that I could check out the competition.
I used it once in a restaurant called L’Auberge—I took the assistant and
the controller with me—then I never used it again.
With Mr. Chen accusing me of embezzlement, I panicked because
I was just taking over Le Baron. I had a new employer to work with,
so I went to see a lawyer because I was scared. The lawyer I used is
a current member of the Los Altos Rotary Club with me. His name
is Mr. Packer. He must have remembered me because when he saw
me again, he asked me, “Did you do it?” I just walked out. I was so
offended! I gave my bonus money back to the Holiday Inn Palo Alto to
put an end to everything.
I was already managing Le Baron Hotel and I even told the guy
who hired me what I was going through. One day, I met an employee
of the Lincoln Life Insurance company, who knew I hadn’t embezzled
anything, and he said, “Louis, do me a favor, sue the insurance firm.”
I did just that and the insurance company didn’t like to have a lawsuit,
so I had my money back in two weeks. That put an end to the story.
You can see why I left, though, because Mr. Chen was too petty with
certain things. I made the Holiday Inn Palo Alto profitable and left
more than $1 million in the bank for them. I helped Mr. Chen to open
a hotel in Pasadena before the big inflation of the real estate market.
Otherwise, they would have gone broke. Lincoln Life Insurance was
tired of seeing the minus figure in the bank and I changed all that.
Mr. Chen saved his position as managing partner in the venture. He
knew he had this project for years. When the Holiday Inn Palo Alto
showed signs of recovery, he said to me, “What are you doing that
I could not do?”
I said to him, “You are a very good architect. I must be a good
innkeeper and manager.” All of this and, to thank me, he filed a lawsuit
against me with the district attorney of Palo Alto.
I also had to fight the union labor organization of Santa Clara
County, and I beat them! I put in health insurance, dental, and
everything for the employees, and they were very difficult to negotiate
and come to agreements with. I even did something that I shouldn’t
have—the lawyer told me to take the total of the annual union dues
that an employee would pay and buy groceries, so I did! There was a
pile of groceries that we bought with what an employee would have to
pay to be in the union. We had a lottery with the produce and we gave
it to the employees. Because I spoke Spanish, the Spanish crowd and
the entire staff trusted me.
Me and Jacqueline hosting a fundraiser for the March of Dimes. Holiday Inn Palo Alto,
With Jacqueline and Antoinette at the Holiday Inn Palo Alto, circa 1976
Hosting a reception for Amnesty International at the Holiday Inn Palo Alto, circa 1976
Letter introducing me to management and staff of the Holiday Inn Palo Alto.
May 28, 1976
Letter from Kemmons Wilson, Holiday Inn co-founder and chairman of the board,
July 6, 1976
My Time at Le Baron
On September 1, 1976, I bought a house in Los Altos for $120,000.
If I had bought it in 1975, I would have only paid $60,000. The
real estate agent paid for repainting the inside and we had to stay at
the Hotel Le Baron in San Jose while this was going on. I was already
managing the hotel and had bought the house, which was close to
Highway 280 and Highway 17 (Highway 85 was still under construction),
so that I could be at work in 10 minutes, especially when leaving late
at night. When you manage a hotel, you must be nearby. The Hotel Le
Baron was located on 1st Street in San Jose, by the airport, and now
it’s a nice spot.
Before I took over Le Baron, I found out that the chef had been
running a personal catering business on the side out of the hotel’s
kitchen before I arrived! I also found out that the previous hotel
manager, Ken Reilly, paid $30,000 for a hotel consultant. I always say
that a consultant is someone who uses your watch to tell you what time
it is. I just did not see the value of the analysis or recommendation they
tried to provide. The consultant, Howard Lowenthal, was one of the
top consultants in the hotel industry. He wrote me a nice letter when
I was at Le Baron, saying, “We knew, with the right management, Le
Baron had nothing wrong with it and it could be great.”
During my time at the Le Baron, I found out many interesting and
some upsetting details about my employer. I have always said that you
never investigate your boss, but they investigate you. They try to find
out if you have good credit, a good reputation, good references, or a
criminal history. I should have investigated them to find out the same.
When I went to work at Le Baron, I didn’t know that it was in Chapter
11 bankruptcy. The hotel had been very neglected. The landscaping
was poor and I had to visit every room to coordinate the furniture;
I had to hire a maintenance guy and housekeeper, and I wrote to my
former controller and accountant, Hazel Ferris, at the Holiday Inn Palo
Alto to see if she wanted to work for me at the Le Baron. I told Ken
Reilly that I would put the Le Baron back together because the hotel
had good promise.
We had a banquet room that seated 1,200 people, but I never had
enough plates if I had a big banquet to serve. I had to buy plates,
costing $10,000 on my own credit because I needed them right away,
and I personally guaranteed the payment. I could not wash the glasses
without the right equipment because the water in San Jose contains
deposits that make it chalky. We needed a machine to clean the glasses,
otherwise they were cloudy. Also, the dishwashing system had not
been connected properly from the time the hotel was built and sewage
sometimes flooded the sunken bar in the lobby. Many problems due to
poor construction fell on my shoulders.
The only part of Le Baron that was working successfully was the
nightclub called The Jabberwocky Club. It was like dynamite back
then—all the prostitutes, pimps, and drug dealers of San Jose went
there, but it was the only part of the hotel making money. The cops
from San Jose would moonlight there as security guards, which was very
good for me. They were very professional and if anything happened in
the club or the hotel, they knew where to call for help. I used to drive
over whenever the staff called me in the middle of the night because
I wanted to know what was going on so I could have all the details. If
you wait to deal with a problem, it only gets bigger.
Le Baron was in disarray when I arrived there. When a hotel has
been abused, it’s hard to rehabilitate it. Because the hotel was in
Chapter 11 bankruptcy, everything was COD—cash on delivery. I had
never run a business like that and it was very scary. Every time I was
paged, I had to go off to sign a check. I also had to lay off around
60 people, including the DJ and chef. They took it to a labor board,
claiming that we hadn’t done it properly, but we prevailed. We cleaned
the place from top to bottom, and I made a forecast that took us safely
through four months, September to December. After a few months
on the job, in December of 1976, I presented a forecast of a milliondollar
improvement, but the owner threw this back in my face, saying,
“You’re not going to be able to do that.” However, we had already
booked three big companies that were the start of Silicon Valley, and
the hotel was beginning to thrive. One of the salesgirls came to me
one day and said, “Look what I’m bringing. Sixty rooms per night
guarantee.” After that, I was able to hire people, knowing we were
safely on the right track. It was music to my ears and my heart that we
were trending in the right direction!
I knew the president of Rolm because I had a friend from Sri
Lanka who was working there. Starting in January, Rolm took a 60-
room per night guarantee at the corporate price. It was not a very big
sale per room, but it was 60 rooms every day and it was better than
when I arrived. Throughout January, February, March, April, and
May 1977, I think the business made $500,000—$100,000 per month
improvement on average.
After some months at the Le Baron, I went to the bank and saw
the bank manager, whom I knew well by then, and told him the hotel
was flourishing. We used Bank of America in San Jose for payroll and
accounting for the Hotel Le Baron because the manager was very nice.
I explained that my father-in-law was going to open a store and we
The bank manager said, “When do you need it?”
I said, “Yesterday!” Before I left the bank, I had $30,000 in my
account to help my wife and her father open a carpet store in San
Francisco selling Persian rugs. There were some Persian people whom
my father-in-law had met when he had been managing an outfit in
Hamburg. Lots of Iranians used to go to Hamburg because Germans
were very fond of Persian rugs. I remember that I’d never seen so many
rugs in my life as were piled up on the boat at the Port of Hamburg! In
fact, I still have one that came from there. I had no idea at the time, but
my father-in-law had five Iranian employees in Los Angeles. He filled
up a truck with carpets and came back, and the deal was that he paid
for the carpets only when he sold them—a fantastic deal! He didn’t have
to pay to keep inventory upfront. The same bank manager who helped
us finance the rug business, helped us finance the house in Los Altos
and Le Baron.
The Mafia was active in San Jose. I recall there was one guy from
Albuquerque who was missing an arm, so I called him “the one-armed
bandit.” He was called Sanders—an Irish name—and he was the same
age as me. When I went to the conference in Memphis, I met many
people who worked with the Mafia. By contrast, I also once met the
founder of Holiday Inn, Kemmons Wilson. In fact, his brother-in-law,
Owen, used to pick me up at the airport in a Rolls-Royce when I was in
Memphis and, when we opened the Pasadena location, I played tennis
with Kemmons Wilson. I was mingling with all kinds of people.
The owner and builder of the Le Baron had already bankrupted the
new hotel himself, and my friend at the Palo Alto Bank of America
had been appointed the receiver by a bank in Florida. The owner of
the Le Baron was involved in many activities and investments at the
airport in San Francisco. Funny enough, during the 1989 earthquake,
the only building that fell was one of the hotels he had owned. He
also lost it in bankruptcy. One day, he told me that by a whisker he
could have had $1 million from the insurance, but it was seized by the
receivers before he could cash in. I was once talking about food with
him; in France, we say that the best way to a man’s heart is through
his stomach, but he told me it was something else (below his belt)! He
was quite the character.
He lived in La Jolla and we never met any of his family. He appointed
the receiver himself, and the manager of the bank said that wasn’t
usually how it was done, but it was a mortgage company from Florida.
I had done very well at the Holiday Inn Palo Alto, and the Hyatt House
at the corner of 101 and 1st Street was just a block from us. The Hyatt
was very profitable, so there was no reason why we would not do well
with Le Baron too.
I was the GM and vice president and was responsible for many
things, including signing the meeting minutes. In December, I started
questioning my boss about the finances and where he was spending
money. I suspect that what he was doing was not kosher. As the general
manager and vice president, I was signing for everything to do with
the bank. Even my friend, who was the manager of the Bank of Palo
Alto, said to me, “Be careful, you could be framed and end up being
the fall guy who owes the bank.” The manager warned me that I was
signing the checks, so I could be a fiduciary who was liable if something
happened. That scared me.
In January, I confronted my boss because I had gone to the accounting
department and said, “How come we didn’t buy any uniforms?” I had
never been able to buy uniforms and they were worth $30,000. We
were tight on money and I was watching the expenses like a hawk.
I went to talk to Hazel, and she showed me an invoice for a fur coat
and a leather coat—I believe that these were items for my boss’ family
I confronted my boss and he said that he was the owner and would
do what he wanted. I said, “You can’t do that. I will make money for
you. If you want to feed rats then do that, but don’t do that now.” It
was irresponsible of him to buy gifts for his family with the money
we needed for uniforms and for the hotel. In January, the revenue
increased by $100,000. I had been worried because the first week of
January was usually slow, but then everything picked up.
Since I had a contract, I was entitled to a percentage of the profits
that came with improvements. My salary was $2,000 a month and,
with the increase in business, it turned out to be $6,000 a month. In
February, we increased by $100,000 and, in March, it was the same.
In April, it was also the same and in May too. In the end, I lost my
job because I had been making too much money. When you start and
the hotel is in Chapter 11, they promise you the moon. They will give
you anything when nothing is of value. I was a miracle man and doing
very well, making improvements to the hotel. I was thrilled to have
accomplished my goals, but it cost me my job. I took over the role
on September 1, 1976, and lost the job on Mother’s Day in 1977. On
Mother’s Day, we would have more than 500 guests for brunch. We
had so many reservations!
On the day I was fired, I arrived in the morning in a company car
that I drove, and the boss called me to his office. I thought he wanted
to congratulate me on having done a good job. The first thing he told
me was, “Louis, you are too slow for my hotel. I want you to resign.”
I said that I could not resign! I had just bought a house in Los Altos
in September. I had started at Le Baron, and it had taken three months
to restaff and clean, but I had done all these things and done them very
well. I said to my boss, “No, you are wrong.” I told him that I couldn’t
quit and that he would have to fire me.
I had a company car so, after he fired me, I had to call my wife
to pick me up. I felt pressed like a lemon for more juice! They had
what they needed from me and now it was time to be kicked out.
My head was reeling. I had a mortgage, which was $1,000 a month,
and now I also had to take care of my in-laws. My father-in-law had
closed his carpet store when his sciatic pain became too much and had
subsequently been laid off from his job running a Holiday Inn in Little
Rock. My wife had to fly to Arkansas to pick up her father and his car.
My mother-in-law was already living with us, and I also had my two
girls to think about. It was a very stressful time.
The company used another consultant and he told me, “You don’t
run a hotel like you fly a plane ... by the seat of your pants!” What
he was doing there, I don’t know. My boss used me. I had increased
revenue by $100,000 every month, but he told me I was too slow! They
wanted me to quit—no severance pay and no lawsuit. It was such a
A short while after me, Hazel, the controller, was fired too. Hazel
Ferris was gone, reason unknown. She told me later, “After you left, they
never kept profit and loss statements.” Separately, the bank auditors
had also uncovered invoices that showed my boss was remodeling his
house in La Jolla in Southern California. It seemed as though he was
using the hotel’s money to take care of his personal life.
My boss and the people surrounding him were funny characters.
He said he could hire a cheaper manager than me. I could have filed
a lawsuit against them because I had a written contract, but they were
scary—I think they were Mafia from Las Vegas.
After I was fired, what could I do? You can’t just find a manager’s job
anywhere. When you are fired, an employer checks your background
and credentials. It was a catastrophic situation for all the family. I was
offered jobs back in Mexico and even in Taiwan, but there was nothing
in my area. I was offered a job on Los Padres Island, Texas—an island in
the Gulf of Mexico where there was a hotel and condos. If I had been
younger and had had no children, then it would have been different.
I was offered jobs in all those places, but it was too much disruption for
Pascale and Danielle, they needed stability.
So, I always say, I punished myself and bought a restaurant! You
sign things, you do things, but you don’t look at the details. I had to do
something because I was unemployed for six months. The employment
office was next to the Le Baron, so I went to file for unemployment for
the first time in my life. Even the people in the employment office were
surprised that the former general manager of the Le Baron was there
to file for unemployment. Everyone stared at me, but what could I do?
Le Baron is a Holiday Inn now because the owner sold it.
I wished I had never left the Palo Alto Holiday Inn in the first place,
but the owner there was so complicated. For the most part, he was a
wonderful man, although he could be a pain.
News article describing Le Baron Hotel’s comeback, February 28, 1977
Letter from Earl Overson, GM of Bariteau Linen Service, after I left the Le Baron.
June 15, 1977
My Own Place: L’Omelette/Chez Louis
It was very hard after I was fired. Fortunately, I had some savings
because I had done very well in Mexico, and I still had money from
the house in San Bruno, which we had bought for $5,000 and sold for
about $50,000 when we returned from France. I had to raise $200,000,
which was a lot of money in 1977, with little collateral or savings. I had
used most of the money I saved in Mexico to make a down payment
on my house in Los Altos. My mortgage for the Los Altos house, which
cost $120,000, was $1,000 per month. When I was at the Holiday
Inn Palo Alto, I could have bought a house in Los Altos very cheaply.
For the price I bought the one in Los Altos, I could have bought one
in Palo Alto, which would now be worth millions. Ultimately, I got
a loan from Bank of America, from the same bank manager who
knew my reputation and what I had done with the Holiday Inn in
Palo Alto and Le Baron in San Jose. Fortunately, at that time, if the
local bank manager trusted you, he could make those kinds of deals
and transactions. Between cash and a bank loan, I put together the
In September 1977, I bought a restaurant at 4170 El Camino Real—
north of Arastradero Road on the corner of Maybell Avenue and El
Camino Real—in the Barron Park neighborhood, an unincorporated
area of Palo Alto. The restaurant was called L’Omelette, but it became
known as L’Ommies to the locals. The restaurant had been popular
with students and faculty from Stanford from the 1930s right through
to the early 1970s.
Two brothers, André and Pierre Frelier, sold the whole place—
including the land and the restaurant—for $500,000. They were from
Algeria and had immigrated to Palo Alto around 1930 when Algeria
was French territory. André and Pierre were very smart and good
restaurateurs. Pierre was the bartender and he had the reputation
of making the best martini in town. He and André had postcards
printed with the name and address of the restaurant. On each card
was stamped a number that represented the number of martinis
served. When a customer bought a martini, they received the card
for that drink. Between 1932 and 1970, they served more than three
Before the Frelier brothers retired, André had a painting
commissioned, a mural, on a large piece of plywood. The image was
done in the manner of the famous French caricaturist Albert Dubout,
who was known for his cat drawings. In the mural were famous people
from San Francisco and the Bay Area, including San Francisco Chronicle
columnist Herb Caen, who wrote about happenings in the area and
mentioned L’Omelette and the Frelier brothers on more than one
occasion. The mural adorned that back wall in the bar area; it remained
there until we sold the restaurant and was used as the artwork for the
menu and matchbook covers for many years.
The Frelier brothers sold L’Omelette to a group of investors led by
former Stanford basketball coach, Bob Burnett, and including a group
of four fraternity brothers. They ran it for a few years until they sold it
to another party who really ran it into the ground. When I took over
the place in 1977, it was completely depressed, morally and physically.
It was rundown everywhere. In fact, on some mornings, when I arrived
and it was raining inside the restaurant, I would cry over the spectacle
as it was so gloomy. It was a very old building with a lot of charm, but it
needed a new roof. A record rainy season, the year of El Nino, brought
heavy precipitation, which was the cherry on the cake. Some mornings
I had to mop up the rain that came through the roof because it was
like a sieve! The building was in such bad shape, it was a disaster. Since
I had a 25-year lease and my lease was also triple-net, I was responsible
for paying the property tax, maintenance, and rent.
In the 1980s, I recall a time when everything froze on the peninsula.
The weather destroyed all the citrus trees and I lost all the fruit that
year, but they came back because the roots weren’t affected, fortunately.
The only frost I have ever seen in California was the one that year.
At Chez Louis, a pipe burst because it was so cold. I remember that
I was at home, getting comfortable watching the football playoff game
between the 49ers and the New York Giants. I was watching the game
when, all of a sudden, I saw gallons of water coming from the solar
heater on the roof. This pipe had burst too, so I had to cut the water
and repair the damage. I had to go to the hardware store in Rancho
Shopping Center in Los Altos, but there I saw a line of people who had
the same problem looking to buy supplies to fix burst pipes! I had to
have a lot of stamina to fix all these problems.
The restaurant building had a variety of maintenance issues and
many aspects were not up to code, although there was no code at
the time. I also had problems with the electricity and the sewage. It
was an old building—cold in winter and hot in summer. There was a
very large parking lot behind the restaurant, enough for 400 cars, and
I rented it to an auto dealer, Lutz Ford, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. every
day for $4,000 a month. Every time the owner of the dealership made
me mad, I would raise his rent! He was very condescending and not a
I worked for some time patching up the roof. With the sewage, we
had an old grease trap, and the health inspector used to bring students
to view it because he had never seen a grease trap like it before. I used to
skim off the grease on the top. You cannot imagine how hard I worked
at L’Omelette/Chez Louis! I am sure that the whole neighborhood was
betting that I wouldn’t make it. When Burnett took it over from André
and Pierre Frelier at the peak of its success in 1970, he was grossing
more than $1 million a year. I never made a million when I ran it
but, then again, I never opened on Sundays because I had to reserve
Sundays for my family. I don’t regret that, as money isn’t everything.
What matters is that you have enough. The reason I bought Chez Louis
was to give stability to my two girls. Children grow so fast, and time
passes like a blur.
I had a lot of courage and stamina, and I enjoyed hard work.
Jacqueline had stopped working after she had our first daughter,
Pascale, but she took care of all the accounting and bookkeeping while
I ran the restaurant. This was really something since she hadn’t studied
accounting, unlike me, and it was not something she had a passion for.
Sometimes, when I reflect on that time, and what I went through in life,
it does scare me. I was signing the papers for the real estate when the
restaurant was open for lunch. I had no cash reserves and the mortgage
on the house was $90,000, with an interest rate of 9.5%. I didn’t know
if I would have to pay interest of 9.5%, nor did I know what was going
to happen with payroll for the employees. When I think about it now,
I don’t know if I was brave or stupid. I like to think I was daring.
For the first few days, I kept the previous owners’ menu, but very
soon, we created our own menu. My father-in-law, Fredric, helped me
write the French menu by hand. I hired a French chef called François
who was from Brittany—he was a very nice person and easy to work
with. It was hard at the beginning to get the restaurant off the ground,
but then the rest fell into place and it was rewarding. Many people,
including the seller, had bet that we would not be successful. In fact,
the seller had even predicted that they would get the restaurant back,
so they must have been disappointed!
I had no money to advertise the restaurant and I had a huge payroll,
but by the end of September, I had enough money to pay my rent and
the staff, and also a salary for myself. After that, the restaurant grew and
grew. As I mentioned, the locals already knew L’Ommies/L’Omelette,
and as soon as they found out it was under new management and
that it was a true French restaurant, they became curious. L’Ommies
became an instant success, and many people from large corporations in
the area such as Hewlett-Packard, Varian, Monsanto, Ford Aerospace,
the Palo Alto Medical Center, and Syntex, liked to eat there. It was
still popular with the Stanford crowd, the older generation (the parents
and grandparents) that had graduated from “The Farm,” as it is
affectionately known by the locals.
The Stanford athletic director, Andy Geiger, became a good friend
of mine. During football season, the restaurant was full of Stanford
alumni and people from the visiting team. We even served Stanford
quarterback John Elway, who later went on to play for the Denver
Broncos and won the Super Bowl, and Stanford alumnus Jim Plunkett,
who became the quarterback for the Oakland Raiders. Both had also
won the Rose Bowl. We used to serve 300 people or more on the
weekend. With football games in the afternoon, people came after the
games to eat and drink in the bar.
During my time at L’Ommies, Los Angeles hosted the 1984
Olympics, and in 1985 some of the FIFA Soccer World Cup games
were held at Stanford. During the World Cup, Palo Alto was overcome
by a mass of visitors and traffic in town to see these games. Then, on
January 20, 1985, the San Francisco 49ers played the Miami Dolphins
at Stanford Stadium; the first Super Bowl ever played in the Bay Area.
San Francisco won, 38–16, and after the game, the police directed
traffic straight toward the 280 and 101 highways and diverted everyone
away from El Camino Real, where L’Omelette was located. To make
matters worse, it was exceptionally foggy that day and it meant you
could not see 10 feet in front of you. As a result, people couldn’t find
I remember that all of Silicon Valley came to L’Ommies to eat and
drink. It was a who’s who of Silicon Valley elite and legends. David
Packard of Hewlett Packard used to come with his daughter when they
were discussing plans for the beautiful Monterey Bay Aquarium. Steve
Jobs was in the restaurant once, interviewing John Sculley, who later
fired him. He was sitting at table 14, against the wall in the corner. So
many people came by, such as many employees of Syntex, the company
that created the contraceptive pill, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), and
the Ski Club of Palo Alto. PG&E used to host an open bar on Fridays
at Chez Louis.
Two brothers in Palo Alto, Russell and Sigurd Varian, founded
what is today Varian Medical Systems. They were a firm, like
Hewlett Packard, that started Silicon Valley. Another was Fairchild
Semiconductor, which spawned all kinds of companies, such as Intel.
In fact, Intel was a very good customer for us—at the time, it was
almost bankrupt, but shortly thereafter it became the biggest chip
maker for Fairchild Semiconductor. I remember that one day I had
people from Intel in the restaurant and they drank so much wine
that they ran up a bill of $800. I didn’t think they would pay for it,
but they did. They were drunk and they were opening bottles left
and right. I should have bought shares in Apple and Intel when their
shares were down!
L’Ommies was a prime meeting place for Silicon Valley executives.
The restaurant had a huge main room and when you were in that
room, you wouldn’t think you were next to El Camino. It was like
being transported to an old, rambling, and charming farmhouse or
auberge. There were high ceilings with wooden beams in the main
dining room and it had four fireplaces, with a big circular one in the
middle of the bar where people would gather and share drinks.
I had a big crew, and after we closed the dining room, the large
bar was open for entertainment and dancing. We had a piano bar
entertainer named Roger who had a big following on the peninsula
because he was with several singing groups. He would sing and tell
raunchy jokes and get the whole crowd involved. The CEO of Xerox
used to sing there, as well as the person who founded a local laser
company and Mr. Rose, the CEO of the Aerospace Corporation. I met
so many people from all around the world and from so many different
large corporations when I owned L’Omelette.
In the early 80s, Palo Alto was changing quickly and Silicon Valley
was growing. One night, a CEO who used to patronize the restaurant
invited a client to have dinner there, and the client said to me, “I do
not care very much to have eggs this evening.” The CEO told me,
“You should change the name. L’Omelette and L’Ommies do not fit
anymore.” He was right. We didn’t even serve breakfast. I wanted to
make the restaurant my own so, in 1981, I changed the name from
L’Omelette to Chez Louis.
One Saturday, we opened Chez Louis at 6 p.m. The place was empty
except for me and some cleaning people. I was occupied lighting the
fireplace before the Saturday crowd arrived when three people came
into the bar. One lady and two men. All of a sudden, the lady started
talking to me. We may have even started speaking in French. After a
few banalities—where are you from, and so on and so forth—she asked
what had brought me to the U.S. I told her I had been in Rhodesia, and
she asked if I had ever met her sister. She told me her sister was Princess
Helene of France and that she was Princess Claude. I told her I had met
Princess Helene several times at receptions given by the French consulate
in Salisbury—on Bastille Day, New Year, and a few other occasions. In
that conversation, I also learned that one of her brothers had lost his life
fighting in Algeria during the same time I was there.
The family was directly descended from King Louis XV. After the
Revolution, the French royal family was exiled. They lived mostly in
Portugal and, during World War II, in Brazil. Princess Claude said
her mother, the Countess of Paris, was writing her memoirs and later
I received a copy of her book. I still have it! It’s moments such as these
that make you realize what a small world it is!
During the football season, people came to the restaurant in droves,
like it was a pilgrimage. They would come to visit their old college
town. Barron Park—which was where Chez Louis was located—was the
center of Palo Alto at that time. Downtown Palo Alto was dead at
night and pretty run down. Barron Park was where the action was—
Rickey’s Hyatt House, Prime Rib Inn, Rick’s Swiss Chalet, Dinah’s
Shack, the Hotel Cabana which Doris Day financed (and looked like a
miniature of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas), and other restaurants. This
area remained the ‘go to’ place for dining and entertainment until the
1990s, when downtown Palo Alto was resurrected and restored and
started to attract people again.
At the same time, I also got involved in another restaurant called
La Tour, on Cowper Street and University Avenue. It was on the third
floor of the tall building there. It was beautiful, but it was very hard to
run because people were scared to go to downtown Palo Alto because
there was poor lighting and a lot of crime. Now, University Avenue is
one of the nicest and busiest areas on the peninsula. It’s so popular,
you cannot get a parking space there. But it was crazy in the late 1970s
and on into the 1980s and 1990s. There was no traffic until the city
of Palo Alto opened a street directly to University Avenue from City
Hall. Ultimately, La Tour was sold back to the building owners who
converted it back to offices—they could make more money by renting
it out as office space.
Goodbye to Chez Louis
I had Chez Louis for 18 years, until 1995, and when I closed, I still had
10 years left on the lease. The building was falling apart and the people
who helped me were partners in the land. There were two partnerships:
one was made up of alumni from Stanford and fraternity brothers, and
the other was made up of a group led by the then basketball coach of
Stanford, Bob Burnett. When Downtown Palo Alto started growing,
however, it took away much of my business. I was not making the
same revenue, and people became choosier, preferring more modern
buildings and dining experiences. Downtown Palo Alto started to
prosper, and that affected Barron Park. Next to us, restaurants started
to close, including Rick’s Swiss Chalet and some areas were rezoned as
residential. Ricky’s Hyatt House eventually shut down as well, which
had a severe impact on our business. It was on a huge piece of land and
an entire neighborhood of family homes is located there now.
Unfortunately, in the early 1990s, one of the remaining partners/
investors in Chez Louis was going into bankruptcy and all of their
assets were frozen. It was bad for me because I had my savings tied up
with them because they were paying good interest in a development
account. Once that portion of the partnership went into bankruptcy
litigation, many businesses won big judgments against them, and many
tried to take the Chez Louis property from us. I still had 10 years left
on my lease, but this situation ultimately led to the restaurant’s closure.
The ordeal with this partnership and the remaining partners turned
into a few tough years of relentless and complicated legal battles where
I encountered many liars and backstabbers.
When I sold the lease, I had partnered with Walter Harrington,
who had loaned $1 million and became the owner of 30% of the new
venture. We sold the back parking lot of Chez Louis to pay some of the
debt and then leased it to Walgreens for triple-net—good for 50 years.
It was a land-lease agreement, and Walgreens built their own store and
started paying rent. This arrangement lasted a long time and we were
paid close to $1 million in rent, but unfortunately, I never received a
penny because of the complications of the ongoing lawsuits.
In the end, I sold my share of the business to Walter because it was all
too complicated. I asked him to show me the books and he would either
not want to show me or he’d find a reason not to show me. I think that
what he was doing might not have been kosher. I didn’t like these people
sometimes. He was not a straight shooter. I’ve been unlucky in my
business dealings and I was not a businessman. I trusted him because
I was his best friend in the beginning. I should have had a lawyer. All
in all, I did okay because I just had good common sense with hotels,
restaurants, and hospitality businesses, and I was successful. I lost quite
a bit of money because I trusted people too easily. I had the mindset
that I was still in my small town in Auvergne where people trusted each
other and were good to their word, but I didn’t learn quickly enough
that things were not the same in the U.S., so I was taken advantage of.
Walter had a girlfriend for a long time, a Jewish lady named Bobbie,
who was a travel agent. Bobbie and Jacqueline were friends and they
took trips together, to Morocco and to the Orient, where they stayed at a
special price in places such as The Peninsula in downtown Hong Kong,
and in Thailand and Saigon, Vietnam. In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on
a familiarization trip for select travel agents sponsored by Abercrombie,
Jacqueline got sick. She had taken out insurance and was treated royally
by the doctors and nurses. Her medical treatment cost about $1,000.
I closed Chez Louis in 1995, around the same time as Stanford
graduations in June. We had a big auction at Chez Louis of all of the
memorabilia collected through the years. Other memorabilia I gave
to the Palo Alto Museum, including a bunch of collectible hats, a
photograph taken at the Rose Bowl on which someone had written
‘Michigan 40–Stanford 0’, and photos of the Mandolin Club, dated
1903, and the Mask Club, and all kinds of other things. The whole
family worked the auction. It was a hard day, but we also had so many
good memories wrapped up in that restaurant.
My father-in-law had been on the Chez Louis payroll and I was paying
him very well. When I sold Chez Louis, my parents-in-law bought a
house in Las Vegas (Jacqueline’s mother loved gambling) and moved out
of our home to live there permanently. They should have listened to me
when I told them to buy a house in Los Altos when they were affordable,
but they bought one in Las Vegas where the land is infinite! They were
up a hill where there were lakes and a big avenue, so it was nice up there,
but they paid $90,000 for it, and when we had to sell it when my fatherin-law
passed away, we sold it for $90,000 as well. They could have paid
$90,000 in Los Altos and then sold it for $300,000 or more, just like my
house. Purchasing our Los Altos house was the best thing I ever did, and
Pascale and Danielle appreciated being able to walk to St. Simon School.
After I sold Chez Louis, I opened a new restaurant called The French
Rooster. I did not have it for long. Selling The French Rooster was an
easy decision because I had run out of steam—as I used to say, “Only the
pilot light was lit.” I ran out of ambitious energy. I could not push myself
to a higher gear. The French Rooster was a high-end restaurant, but it
was in the wrong location. It was a very difficult situation and I spent
too much money trying to make it work. Pascale came to work with me
as the restaurant manager; she did a terrific job and we enjoyed many
good ups and downs in our very short time there. I was thankful she was
there to pick up the pieces when I was personally falling apart. I had gone
into a full depression and I would not have made it through without the
support of my family.
I think I had seen too much of the hospitality business that had
disheartened me by then. I have always wanted to write a book called
101 Reasons to Not Open a Restaurant If You’re an Amateur. People I meet
tend to fancy themselves as chefs or glamourize owning a restaurant!
I tell them, it’s not a profession, it’s a vocation with grueling hours and
many sacrifices. When I was a manager at the Holiday Inn Palo Alto,
the crew bet how long it would take to run me out. Similarly, when
I arrived in Acapulco, it was hell. The first year, there was pressure
from the Holiday Inn headquarters in Memphis, and the employees in
Acapulco saw me as an intruder. I even say to this day that white sand,
blue skies, palm trees, a nice breeze, and crystal-clear waters can also be
hell. I arrived there and they said, “Who are you?” They used to call
me ‘El Frances’—the Frenchman. The hotel had so many problems, and
when I arrived the profit forecast was $75,000. We surpassed $75,000 in
January because I changed lots of things and hired a few key managers,
but I had to prove myself.
I also want to write another book called How to Travel for Free from
Coast to Coast. This is because I have had experiences of people trying
to get things for free. For example, I lived in the hotel in West Covina
and my wife and kids lived there too. They didn’t make any noise—
they had a backyard where they could play, and they could ride their
bicycles in the parking lot. Nevertheless, a female guest sent a letter
of complaint to Holiday Inn headquarters in Memphis asking them
to cover part of her room rate, equal to the amount of sleep she lost,
because, she claimed, she only had a specific time when she could sleep
because there were kids across from her room making a lot of noise. It
was not true! There was another guest who had about 25 cats in her
room—guests who were staying free of charge!
At Le Baron, one guest said that he had a piece of green glass in his
salad. We only had clear glass in the dining room and elsewhere, so it
didn’t come from me! Inspectors from Holiday Inn corporate would
travel all over the world, wherever there was a Holiday Inn, and do
inspections. An inspector once told me about an older lady who said to
her husband, “Stop eating your steak, or we’re not going to be able to
complain!” People would do anything in the dining room. In Acapulco,
we had ashtrays that didn’t even cost one peso at the time, and yet
people would steal them. In the end, as an advertising gimmick, we had
“Stolen from the Holiday Inn Acapulco” printed on the back, so that
they didn’t have to feel guilty!
By the time I sold The French Rooster, I’d had enough. I was truly
ready to retire.
Remembering L’Omelette and Chez Louis. Article written for The Forum
retirement community’s newsletter
Palo Alto Times article, March 8, 1978
Cooking with Chef Francois, June 29, 1978
I attend an American Express CRASE seminar held for restauranteurs at Cornell
University. On left, Associate Professor Raymond Cantwell, with Professor Robert Chase
on right—both teachers at the school of Hotel and Restaurant Administration at Cornell.
Ithica, NY, September 13, 1978
Me hosting a fundraiser for the Kidney Foundation. Holiday Inn Palo Alto, circa 1981
Outside Chez Louis with the restaurant manager, circa 1983
Jacqueline and I in front of the fireplace of the main dining room, posing for a promotional
picture. Circa 1988
Danielle, chef Michele, maitre d’hotel Philippe, and myself pose for promotional photos in
the Chez Louis wine cellar, circa 1987
Pascale and I featured in a promo for The French Rooster, February 27, 1997
Promo for The French Rooster. The stained-glass rooster was commissioned by local artists,
Little Raidl Studios
Copy of the Comtesse de Paris’s book. The Comtesse de Paris was the mother of
Princesses Helene and Claude
Dedication to me
When I retired, Jacqueline and I took a trip to Tahiti and
Bora Bora, the only mountains in Polynesia. We stayed at
Club Méditerranée. We had a beautiful bungalow on the water and
the food was fantastic, with breakfast choices of petits croissants,
brioches, and a multitude of goodies baked that very morning on
the premises. All the dairy came fresh from New Zealand; it was
breakfast just like in France.
The weather was balmy and a boat took us across to the motu, or
islet. The temperature of the water was divine when we walked in the
lagoon. Up to the chest, the water was crystal clear and warm, and
down to your legs and feet, there was a stream of cool water—amazing
and very refreshing.
We took a tour of Bora Bora Island—or atoll—which was apparently
a discovery of Captain Cook, according to folklore. We stopped for a
picnic on a little island that was very remote and charming. On the
island were breadfruit trees—l’arbre à pain. After lunch, we sat in the
water with bread in our hands and were assaulted by a multitude of
yellow butterflyfish crawling all over our bodies, trying to steal the
bread we had in our hands. Then came the big, black manta rays. At
first, I was a little scared—they were also swimming all over us, trying
to steal the bread in our hands. I remember how soft and velvety they
were, a pleasant sensory feeling, and how friendly and gentle they were.
After that, I took a helicopter ride to see the island from above.
Magnifique. Jacqueline declined to participate since she wasn’t
comfortable going up in the helicopter.
Another day, we flew north to Manihi, part of the Tuamotu
Archipelago. That night we slept in a bungalow in the lagoon. After
dinner, we brought bread to feed the fish. Amazingly, the nightstand
in the bedroom could be removed and opened to the water below, lit
by a big spotlight under our bungalow. We started throwing bread in
the water and within five minutes the bottom of our bungalow was
invaded by a horde of all species of fish, including white-pointed sharks
and parrotfish … too many to identify!
Manihi is a beautiful atoll with a lagoon in the middle, a crown
of coral surrounded by palm trees and brush, with an opening to the
ocean. We went on a picnic on Manihi and crossed the lagoon to the
other side. While sailing, we caught fish for dinner using a simple fish
line with a hook and bait. You had to hurry to reel it in because the
sharks were very quick to steal your dinner. This method of fishing is
called la palangrotte (handline).
Manihi had several black pearl farms. We visited one and, at the
shop next to the hotel, we bought some unique black pearls. Jacqueline
was very happy. She loved jewelry, and every time I had the opportunity,
I bought her something.
We flew back to Tahiti Nui and visited the town, took a taxi, and
went around the island, and then went back to Los Altos with a lot of
souvenirs and memories.
That was one of the best vacations the two of us had. I was happy to
have shared that adventure with Jacqueline prior to her maladie (illness).
We were only able to take one other trip after we retired, which was to
Alsace, where her father was born and she has roots.
Jacqueline’s parents lived with us until each passed away. My
wife’s father, Frederic Jaegle, died at 70 years old at Kaiser Hospital in
Redwood City. Kaiser was originally treating him for hemorrhoids, but
then he died of full-blown colon cancer. I didn’t know he was going
to die. When I went to see him at 7 p.m., he said he was having an
operation the next day, but he died later that night. I was running
the restaurant at the time and we were very busy. My mother-in-law,
Antoinette Jaegle, passed away when she was 96 years old—she had
lived with us for 30 years or so.
Jacqueline and I were very proud of the way we raised our children.
Danielle and Pascale were raised here, and they were the first generation
of our families to graduate from college. Pascale studied fashion design
and merchandising. She worked for West Marine for 15 years but lost
her job in 2020 when the pandemic started. Danielle served in the U.S.
Army for four years, mostly in Germany during the build-up before
the invasion of Kuwait. She came back much wiser, graduated from
San Jose State with a degree in communications, and has worked in
corporate marketing and public relations for her whole career.
We had two beautiful weddings for them. First was Danielle. She
had just returned from the U.S. Army. At that time, we had Chez
Louis. It was a beautiful wedding in May. We had our house in Los
Altos, and the garden was all in bloom. At the entrance, we had a
pergola—one side with tiny white roses, the other side had yellow. It was
a gorgeous day for taking photos. Of course, we had a nice and tasty
French reception with a lot of champagne. I had made the wedding
Pascale married a year later. The ceremony was at Los Gatos at Villa
Montalvo and the reception at Chez Louis. To animate the occasion,
Jacqueline had contracted an Auvergnat band which we had previously
enjoyed listening to in the magnificent Stanford Shopping Center.
The particularity of the band was that they had instruments like those
used in the Middle Ages. They were singing songs in patois using a
hurdy-gurdy and a cabrette, which resembles instruments such as the
bagpipes of Scotland. They sang in Auvergnat, my first language before
I learned French. We are descendants of the Celts who played the same
instruments for folkloric dances. It was very anachronistic to hear that
kind of music in a shopping center in Palo Alto, California.
Sadly, like the wedding flowers, these first marriages wilted. But from
Pascale’s first marriage, I have my wonderful Kyle, born in 2000. I had
stopped working by this time and Jacqueline became a grandmother
for the first time, a role she loved. Danielle and Jeff gave us two more
grandsons, Jacques and Chase. Kyle is a sophomore at Foothill College.
He has come a long way from when he had meningitis as a baby when
we were so worried about him. Now the whole family consults him
for computer guidance, including his pépé (grandpa) and he’s like an
encyclopedia of knowledge. He fancies himself as a Scotsman and even
wears a kilt regularly with pride! Jacques is 18 and a freshman in college
at Creighton University in Nebraska, and Chase is 16 and a sophomore
at Serra High School. Jacques is very friendly and outgoing, and I see
a future for him in sales or hospitality. Chase is an avid and excellent
golfer already on the varsity team. I think Chase is preparing Jeff to
manage him when he turns pro and Jeff retires. All of my grandsons
do very well in school and I’m so proud of all of them.
Losing ma chérie
In August 2015, the doctor called Jacqueline and me into his office
and revealed to us that my beloved wife had terminal cancer. I was
stone. Like somebody had planted a dagger in my heart. It was a word
I could not understand—a nightmare I could not assimilate to. I had
heard it, but it was not true. We left the office sad, of course, but she
was still alive, still hopeful. I prayed every day for something to happen.
A new medicine. A miracle. Something. Anything. “Please, God, help
us,” I prayed.
We tried to make her comfortable the best we could. I was exhausted
when she fell in the middle of the night, and my son-in-law, Jeff, came
to help. Jacqueline did not want me to call the paramedic because she
would have to go through the trauma of being in the emergency room
because of the state of her health—she knew the routine. In the end, we
hired some wonderful ladies from the island of Tonga who took good
care of her, but her health suddenly unraveled and she went to Heaven
peacefully on February 19, 2016.
We were married for 53 years. She was my wife, my friend … my
everything. As I write this, almost six years have passed, and I still
feel very alone. I could not have lived in our house of more than 45
years without Jacqueline there. I sold the place where our family had
lived. The house sold on a weekend—a bit too fast—and I moved to
the retirement community of The Forum at Rancho San Antonio in
Cupertino, not far from our house in Los Altos. Jacqueline is next
door at the Gates of Heaven Cemetery, where she is waiting for me.
Someday I will rejoin her at our last residence—there is a place waiting
for me next to her. It is very peaceful there. I visit her and remember
The Forum was very nice. I had a view of trees in the Rancho San
Antonio Preserve, and I enjoyed watching the trees swaying in the
wind, the squirrels chasing each other, and the different birds, but
I felt very isolated at The Forum. I have just built and moved into a
small casita next to Pascale, Kyle, and Dan, and it’s beautiful. Pascale
had a ball decorating it. My daughters are very helpful, and my three
grandsons and two sons-in-law are very supportive. In the future, I still
hope to be able to visit my two sisters, one of whom is 94.
Jacqueline was only 72 when she passed—just weeks from her
birthday. We could have had a long, blessed life together. I miss you,
ma chérie. You raised two amazing daughters who help and support me
every day. You gave me the courage to continue. You were a good help,
a good wife, and a good friend.
Danielle and Jeff’s wedding. With the groom’s parents, Pat and Fran Hamel
At Pascale’s wedding
All together on Jacqueline and my 50th anniversary
Jackie and I with Jack, Chase and Kyle on our 50th anniversary
Pascale, Dan and Kyle at Christmas
My Life Lately and What I’ve Learned
Learning has been one of the most important quests in my life.
I always learned because I was curious and it has served me well.
I learned Spanish, even though I didn’t know that one day I would
be transferred to Acapulco. I studied accounting in Rhodesia when
I didn’t know I’d run a hotel one day. I don’t know why I learned
Spanish. In Spain, I spoke Castilian, and in Mexico, I have no problem
being understood. I also understand Italian and can read Portuguese.
I learned Italian after I retired. I did some tutoring in French and
Spanish, but I stopped when my wife passed away. I also took Mandarin
for two years, but I should have had more perseverance and I did not
pursue it. When I went to the chiropractor recently, there was a young
lady there and I asked her if she was the chiropractor, but she said that
she was the doctor’s daughter. When I came back out, she asked me if
I spoke French and I said, “Of course.” I asked her if she spoke Spanish
and we started a conversation in Spanish—she was delighted! I am now
taking an online Portuguese class and I’m doing very well. To this day,
I still speak my first language, patois, Auvergnat.
From the age of seven until I was nine, I was traumatized by those
teachers at my school, but I never told my parents anything. When I told
my father that the teacher had slapped me, before I had even finished the
sentence he said, “I’m sure they had a good reason.” That was the end of
the conversation. Even when I was working in La Caravelle, the patisserie
in Paris, people would say, “You’ll never learn.” Yet, when the chef left,
I took his job. I am determined, and no one will stop me from learning.
I was shy—and I still am—but I did a presentation about bees at
The Forum retirement center in Cupertino. When I learn something,
I really get to know the subject because I study it for myself. I first
became interested in bees through a secretary at Le Baron Hotel. She
told me that her brother was raising bees and that if you eat the honey
from your local environment, it helps you with your allergies. I started
doing that in 1977 and it has helped me, whereas before I used to
sneeze all the time. I still eat honey for my allergies, but I now get the
honey from Danielle, who keeps bees.
I educated myself on my travels. I learned English in Rhodesia and
Spanish in San Francisco. When I arrived in California, I went to an
adult high school on Hayes Street to learn German. When I took my
family to live in Acapulco for four years, where I managed a Holiday
Inn as an assistant manager, the whole family came back speaking
Spanish. When I retired, I studied Italian with a small group in Los
Altos, and then two years of Chinese. I was fascinated by how this
language worked. It’s very interesting. With perseverance—and going
to China for a few years—I think I would have mastered it.
I have been a member of the Los Altos Rotary Club since
September 2003. I have made many good friends, taken many trips,
and collected many memorable experiences and souvenirs. We went
fishing in Alaska and also visited the Galapagos, Guayaquil in
Ecuador, and Mexico. In Mexico, we were in Oaxaca on the Day of
the Dead, and we donated clothing and money for the Rotary Club
of Oaxaca because it provides medical services to an orphanage. The
doctor at the Rotary Club in Oaxaca carries out cataract and cleft lip
operations, and I was the translator when we made the presentation.
I also went to Peru with some Rotary Club members. We saw Machu
Picchu, Cusco, and Lake Titicaca. We are building greenhouses on the
Altiplano to enable the native Inca to grow vegetables. When we visited
the greenhouses, they received us with a band and were so thankful for
what the Rotary provided for them.
Separately, I have also been to Morocco to visit a Moroccan friend
who was married to a Berber woman. She was black but with European
features because the Berbers are mixed, with Arab or European blood,
mostly Arab, and she was very beautiful. They had three wonderful
children with whom I am still in contact. I was very happy to return to
Africa, a continent I love so much.
I have been a beekeeper for over 45 years and was featured in the Peninsula Times for my
beekeeping skills. April 18, 1992
I caught a ‘small’ halibut (200lbs) on a fishing trip to Alaska with the
Los Altos Rotary Club
My “dream catch” on a trip with the Los Altos Rotary Club to the Sea of Cortez, Mexico
Picking mushrooms in Pebble Beach with my friend Pierre Ajoux. November 2, 2000
Greenhouses which the Los Altos Rotary Club built in the Altiplano, Peru
Standing on totora roots on the floating islands of the Uros people in Lake Titicaca, Peru
I never dreamed I would see this! Machu Pichu
Food for Thought
This book is important for me, and I hope it will provide food for
thought to my grandkids or anyone else who reads it.
My children know that I worked hard, but they didn’t know it back
then. They didn’t want to come to the restaurant. I used to bribe them
to come because they could make over $100 if they worked as coatcheck
girls. If it rained on the day of a Stanford game, they made a
fortune. I drove a Volkswagen bus for 20 years. When I finally sold
it, I started driving a BMW X5 that my family made me buy because
my kids said it was a cool car. I also set up college accounts for each
grandchild because I have always believed that education is the most
important foundation in life. I had to do it on my own, but I would
have loved some support!
I never dreamed of going to America. When I started working,
I never even went to England as I had planned because I immediately
started my apprenticeship. Then I was drafted into the army and
wasted three years fighting—and for what? I lost friends during that
time. A few years ago, I was visiting Normandy because I had never
been there, and I saw the Bayeux Tapestry—at least the king depicted
there went to battle!
America is not the same today as it was when I arrived, especially
in San Francisco. California was so laid back then. I’ve seen America
change from the old to the new. In America, we are the kings of litigation.
I recall learning about Alexis de Tocqueville, a French diplomat, who
came here in the 1800s, wrote De La Démocratie en Amérique (Democracy
in America), and said that one day we wouldn’t be able to cross the
street without a lawyer! When I recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I always
mutter at the end, “If you have money.” I know it’s challenging for
America, but we live on a little planet. We are dependent on each other!
We had two world wars, and that’s why I don’t understand leaders such
as Putin, Xi Jinping in China, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and Netanyahu
in Israel and their divisiveness.
In 2019, I became quite sick and weak, and one day I ended up in
the ER. I found out that I had a tumor and internal bleeding, and
that my red blood cell count was almost completely depleted. All
year, I wasn’t feeling good physically or mentally. Once settled in the
hospital, I had a double blood transfusion, and I was scheduled for an
operation to remove the tumor shortly afterward. After the surgery,
I was supposed to take some medicine because I had a non-malignant
tumor, which I was told would slowly grow back. The doctor prescribed
me the medicine, but when he saw me, he changed his mind, saying
I was too old for it! He had thought I was 70 years old—many people
think I am 70 and not 87! My oncologist checks on me every three
months and since the last check-up, everything is normal.
When I started writing my memoirs, I was 86 years old. In the
restaurant business in America, 86 refers to running out of an item
on the menu or the special of the day. I still have a clear mind, and
I remember stories with all their details because I did so many things.
So many people are lonely in this world. I am lonely and I miss my wife
very much. I clearly remember the first time I met her was at a little
coffee shop called Wise Donkey on 1st Street in Salisbury.
It is so hard to write about these wonderful memories. I struggle
to finish my memoir. March is her birth month. Her birth date was
March 16, 1943. She died on February 19, 2016. It has been almost six
years since she left me and went to Heaven. I know she is gone and will
never come back again. With time, I have healed, but I am very lonely,
especially after being quarantined during this pandemic for more than
a year in 2020–21.
I am grateful we came to America. We accomplished everything—
more than I could have imagined. It was difficult, and it took us time
to accumulate capital after arriving in the U.S.A. with so many things
to discover. It takes a few years to form connections with people, learn
how things are done, and recognize opportunities for buying a car
or a house, getting banking loans, finding a job and other business
opportunities, and many other things. It took me quite some years
to acquire the knowledge of how to do things in the U.S.A. and to
be familiar with the way of life. After that, it was easier to navigate
American society. I am very grateful to all of the people who helped us
and for the life Jacqueline and I led here.
Celebrating my 87th birthday. From left: Jeff, Chase, me, Jack, Danielle, Dan, Kyle,
After three years, one pandemic, two surgeries, one house move, and a very long bout
of terrible siatica, I made the final edits to my book! April 23, 2022