Qualifying for a purser's job with La Transat nowadays requires as much study and perseverance as it does to earn a doctorate. A candidate must have passed the equivalent of a college entrance examination even to be considered. Then he has to pass written and oral tests in French, English and Spanish, mathematics, accounting and law, and a few other subjects before he is allowed to approach a board of examiners that sizes him up as to appearance, personality, savoir-faire and savoir-vivre. If he passes this test, he is given a berth as a student purser at $90 a month, and after three years at sea he is examined by the French Ministry of the Merchant Marine and he must prove he is thoroughly grounded in history, maritime law, geography and commerce. If he passes again, he is given a brevet de commissaire de la marine marchande, which means that he is at last a purser—seventh-class.
Sea travelers are notorious eaters and food is one of their major preoccupations, so it is not surprising that all the great ships have superb kitchens. To say that the cuisine of one luxury liner is superior to that of another is not only foolhardy but futile, like arguing whether Car�me was a better chef than Escoffier. But it is true that on no ship was good cooking such a tradition, was the ordering and preparation of meals such a ritual, and the art of gastronomy such a topic of conversation as it was on the Libert�.
It is a rare Frenchman who isn't interested in the art of cooking, to be sure, but on the Libert� the art had been elevated until it was almost a religion. He may prefer the simple delights of cuisine bourgeoise for himself, but every crewman, from the youngest recruit to the captain on the bridge, took a fierce pride in the Libert�'s haute cuisine and was always willing to pause a minute and listen knowingly to descriptions of meals that had just been finished and to make suggestions for meals to come. Naturally, this consuming interest in food soon began to affect passengers. When they fell into conversation, sooner or later the talk turned to what they had ordered for dinner last night and what new sauce they had discovered at lunch. After a few days at sea, it was a rare passenger indeed who did not fancy himself something of an epicure, or who did not feel he had the palate to become one if he only let himself go. It was impossible to sail on the Libert� and remain indifferent to food. At times one got the feeling that it was only a mammoth seagoing restaurant, surrounded by facilities that allowed guests to rest or exercise before returning to table for another go at langouste d'Audierne froide � la russe or cervelle d'agneau � la polonaise.
Any meal was something of an event on the Libert�, but dinner was a full-blown fete. The ladies donned their prettiest gowns and the gentlemen wore dinner jackets, and the huge dining room with its high curved ceiling and illuminated columns and colorful murals had a festive glow. There were flowers on the table and one pretty dress after another appeared on the central staircase while serving chefs stood at attention behind the enormous central buffet, which was decorated with bonbon baskets carrying billowing spun sugar bows and covered with platters bearing four kinds of ham, and almost every other cold meat imaginable. Champagne corks popped discreetly, Burgundy corks were sniffed, old friends who had never laid eyes on each other until they boarded the Libert� chatted animatedly, plates were removed and compliments given, glasses were refilled, and nobody worried about a check, or, for the nonce, gave a thought to his waistline. Finally the fancy desserts began to flame, the Alaskas, the crepes suzette, the Jubilees. There was more laughter, more compliments, and bonhomie all around.
Ma�tres d'h�tel and waiters on La Transat ships are masters in the art of seducing the timid and the stubborn into the pleasures of haute cuisine. It takes both guile and patience, for the passenger is royalty and they must not presume to question his regal order. They must not lift an eyebrow when he orders a glass of milk with his c�te de veau dauphinoise. They must not flinch or even avert their eyes when he douses catsup on his tournedos de Charolais Curnonsky. But quietly and subtly they usually manage to have their way with him. "This sauce is excellent, Monsieur, a sp�cialit�, please to try it just as it is before you use the catsup. Good? Thank you, Monsieur. I am happy to know you like it." Or the sommelier may take over, "Pardon, Monsieur, but I am informed you have ordered the sole. It is also a favorite of mine, Monsieur. I have a white Bordeaux, a fine vintage, which complements it well, Monsieur. It goes with the meal—without charge, of course. Would Monsieur like to try it before he has his milk?"
During the course of every meal on the Libert�, the ma�tre d'h�tel appeared, inquired about your health, asked how you liked your d�lices de sole or aiguillette de boeuf brais�e, and, then, invariably, "Is there anything I can order for Monsieur or Madame tomorrow? Perhaps a sp�cialit�? A souffl�, Madame—certainly. And for you, Monsieur? No? Ah, I would like to prepare you something. Has Monsieur tasted the bouillabaisse? It is a fine sp�cialit�, prepared by taking..." On an average there were at least 75 items on every menu on the Libert�, beginning with hors d'oeuvres and ending with beverages, but at every meal every passenger in first class was asked if he would like a sp�cialit�.
Counting the crew and all classes of passengers, some 7,000 meals were served on the Libert� each day. The man responsible for seeing that they were prepared in the right way and served in the proper manner was the chef de cuisine, Andr� Papion, a plump, apple-cheeked gentleman of 52, who, by his very position, must be ranked as one of the top chefs of his time. A native of Nantes, M. Papion had already served a long apprenticeship and worked in the H�tel Meurice and the Restaurant Viel in Paris when, at 22, he joined La Transat. He worked in all departments on all the great French ships—the Paris, the Ile de France, and the Normandie—before he was named chef de cuisine of the Libert� in 1952. M. Papion is, of course, skilled in all the almost infinite divisions of haute cuisine, and he has an impressive array of citations and medals to prove it. His work aboard the Libert�, however, was entirely supervisory. There were 165 chefs, culinary specialists of various skills, and kitchen workers on M. Papion's staff and he had to keep a record of all food they prepared in four entire kitchens. At the same time he kept an eye on the butcher shop, the poultry room, the hors d'oeuvre room, the fruit room, the grill room, the bakery, the pantry, and it was his responsibility to see that everything from the latest batch of croissants to the large and ornate sugar sculpture prepared to commemorate Bastille Day was up to the Libert�'s exacting standards. Twice a day M. Papion held a conference with the ma�tres d'h�tel from the first class to discuss with them the preparation of the specialties they had persuaded passengers to order. He also kept tabs on the food supplies. On a normal trip this would include 14,000 pounds of beef, 66,000 eggs, 6,000 pounds of fish, 220 pounds of caviar and 40 or 50 different kinds of cheese.
We were entering New York harbor on the morning I said my farewell to this elegant and luxury-charged old ship. Most of the passengers had crowded on deck to see the Statue of Liberty, so the rest of the ship was practically deserted except for members of the crew. I wandered into the Caf� de l'Atlantique and looked at the white ash walls and the translucent floor where pretty ladies danced in their stocking feet when the sea was rough. I went into the smoking room and looked around at the paneled ceiling and the lacquered murals. I went into the grand salon and admired the Chinese-red tapestries and the murals and the glazed gold pilasters, and then passed into the library and looked at the cherrywood bookcases and the sculptures. I peeked into the children's playroom with its Punch and Judy theater and its mechanical horse and donkey. I was standing at the door of the theater when the plump little mustached assistant purser came along. He knew immediately what I was doing. He stopped and said, "It is a pity to see her go—is it not, Monsieur?"
"Yes, it is," I said.
"I have spent nine years aboard her, Monsieur," he said. "To me, it is like parting from a woman you love."