A FRENCH CULINARY DREAM

by Radko Popov; photography by BTA

Haute cuisine la Nobel Prize Winners Luc Montagnier and Francoise Barre-Sinoussi

Luc Montagnier and Francoise Barre-Sinoussi

My first encounter with this year's Nobel Prize winners in medicine was not academic, but gastronomic. And like a fine five-course meal, my haute cuisine experience with Professor Luc Montagnier and Dr Françoise Barré-Sinoussi has a comedic appetiser.

In 1981 I went to Paris for a few days with a group of fellow students from Heidelberg University who were studying art history. One evening they asked me if I ate seafood. "Of course," I replied. They'd heard of a Parisian restaurant on the Place de L'Odeon called La Mediterranee that was famous for its fish, so we went there to check it out. At first, it didn't seem like anything out of the ordinary – tables with floor-length, starched tablecloths, and they were crammed so close together in the glassed-in part of the sidewalk that the waiters could hardly squeeze through. But then we noticed with amazement that Cocteau's sailboat motif was decorated on the plates and cloth napkins.

The previous evening's revelry at the Moulin Rouge had left me short on cash. When I opened the menu, I started drooling and sweating simultaneously – I could hardly afford an hors d'oeuvre and a glass of wine, and began feverishly calculating how I would make it through the next two days. When the time came to pay the bill, my total was a humble 100 D-marks – one-seventh of my monthly stipend. As we left, a few of my wealthy friends pocketed the Cocteau napkins as souvenirs. For the next two days I survived on McDonald's and swore that once I got a real job I'd return to the restaurant for a real meal.

Three years later I became an editor at the BBC in London. My wife at the time, Dr Rachanee Cheingsong-Popov, was working at the Centre for Cancer Research in South Kensington and was the first person in the UK – and one of the first in the world – to study the AIDS virus. The Pasteur Institute had invited her to Paris for two weeks of joint research, so, after pulling a night shift and earning a few days off, I hopped on a plane to visit her there. In the evening I went to pick her up from the Pasteur Institute laboratory and there met Professor Luc Montagnier and Dr Françoise Barré-Sinoussi. Monsieur Montagnier invited us to dinner and asked what kind of restaurant we were in the mood for. I said French – my modest international experience had taught me not to pass up the opportunity of having a cultured local treat you to native specialities.

Besides, when I was still at Heidelberg I had joined a university club for French wine. So we went to dinner. They discussed incomprehensible topics there while I savoured the French food and wine. I contemplated how, with his sincere, intelligent face and close-cropped moustache, Luc Montagnier resembled a kindly school principal. I still remember one of the desert cheeses, Crottin de Chavignol – ever since that night I have bought it whenever and wherever I have had the chance. After dinner, Françoise and I went to visit her husband, who was working the night shift at the France Internationale radio station. There we joked about our parallel lives – how last night I had worked the night shift and now it was Monsieur Sinoussi's turn, how we were close in age, how both wives were studying AIDS, how both husbands worked for international radio stations, and how both women had hyphenated surnames.

Champignons farcis au fromage de chevre

Champignons farcis au fromage de chevre

The next afternoon I again went to the Pasteur Institute and this time met Dr Sarngadharan, who was on a short visit from Professor Robert Gallo's rival laboratory at the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr Sarngadharan suggested we go to a dinner together, most likely hoping to expand his contacts with fellow AIDS researchers to include London.

Best of all, the hospital in Bethesda would reimburse him for a restaurant bill, but not for a cabaret show. I offered to pay for the cabaret and suggested Crazy Horse, since I'd never been there. However, when I called to make a reservation, the late show had already been sold out, so the only option was the early show at 6:30 pm. It was a terrific experience – and the ticket price of course included a half bottle of champagne per person. My wife sipped half a glass, leaving me to polish off almost an entire bottle on an empty stomach. After the show we grabbed a cab and headed directly to La Mediterranee on the Place de L'Odeon. This
time I ordered whatever I wanted, I didn't even glance at the prices. Unfortunately, the only thing I remember is that the wine was Pouilly-Fuissé. Or was it?

Shortly thereafter, we flew back to London. Once again I vowed to return to La Mediterranee – a dream that has yet to come true and which is now intertwined with my memories of Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi. For dessert, a bit of food for thought. Sometimes fleeting good impressions turn out to be right on. In recent years I have often seen Montagnier and Barré-Sinoussi in the media, openly criticising the unjust convictions of the Bulgarian nurses in Libya. Upon hearing her colleagues had won the Nobel Prize, Dr Rachanee Cheingsong-Popov commented, "It's long overdue!"

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