Nicolas Rey – a chef and aristocrat, told us where his passion for cooking came from. A descendant of the famous poet told about his story in the castle of Montresor, which LoanMe visited during the implementation of #DoJednejBramkizMaćkiem (#To one goal with Maciek) charity campaign.
LM News: Nicolas, how many years have you been in Poland? Why did you decide to live here and not in France?
Nicolas Rey: Although I was born and raised in France, I came to Poland in 1999 as a fresh-baked high school graduate because I wanted to learn Polish. Polish was always present in my French life, but at that time I didn't understand anything. In total, I have been in Poland for over 16 years and I have always wanted to discover it. I am not the type of person who knows what he wants in life. I have never had a specific plan – "okay, I will be a banker, chauffeur or athlete". I just never had a clear direction or intuition about who I would be in my life. I knew there was something very Polish about me because I grew up in Montresor. When I received my high school diploma, my father took me aside and said: "Son, I feel a little sorry and ashamed that I didn't manage to teach you Polish, the language of our ancestors. Your name is Mikołaj Rey, you don't realize what it means, but it's important that you speak Polish for yourself and our home". I said – OK. The plan was to go to Poland, learn the language and come back. And I didn't come back. It was the only small slip. (laughter)
LM News: How are you connected to the Polish castle in Montresor?
NR: The Polish and French castle in Montresor – this place is over 1,000 years old, so it is very connected with French history. It is one of the oldest buildings of the Middle Ages when it comes to defensive fortresses. To this day, it has a double layer of defensive walls. This piece of Polish history in the valley of the Loire begins from 1848. In fact, I have a lot in common with this place because then my family settled here, namely my great uncle – Ksawery Branicki, he bought and refurbished Montresor and from that moment on, it has become my family’s property. While for Branicki Montresor became a home in exile, later for the rest of the family, it was more like a “summer home”. Ksawery was sentenced to death by Tsar Nicholas I, among others for proclaiming the idea of independent Poland. This did not please the Russian court. Returning to his homeland was impossible for him because it had not been reborn yet. He missed Poland very much, that's why he decorated Montresor in everything that resembles Polish history. One can say about Montresor that it is a village of "Asterix and Obelix" Poles preserved in the center of France from 1848 to today. This is my family home with deep traditions and I think it is a very successful experiment of European integration for nearly 200 years. And this is also noteworthy.
LM News: What is it like to grow up in a castle with such history?
NR: For me it was more upbringing in Montresor. The whole territory of this village was our playground. I remember my youth through the lens of one word and it is a great "F" as in "Freedom". I had a lot of freedom in this small town, where about 350 souls live. At least 20 houses belonged to my family members or close friends. There were a lot of children who came from here for various holidays. There were also many cousins from “Polonia”, from all over the world – the United States, England, Africa or Poland. Not only was I free, but in addition there was such exoticism, accents from around the world. The connector was Polish and a shared history related to Poland. Besides, these are old walls situated in a very beautiful place, there were also many customs related to family traditions. Still, it was such a carefree French life that we can still see in the films of de Funès (note: Louis de Funès). Such a completely charming, hidden and lost France.
LM News: A quiet place?
NR: Yes. This definitely left a trace of such healthy, cheerful simplicity in me. (laughs) In this case, aristocracy is not snobbery or great traditions, but a world of simple, kind-hearted people. You can say – a village of Hobbits, but inhabited by Poles and French.
LM News: So you were not brought up as a stereotypical aristocrat but rather close to the people?
NR: Stereotypes are very dangerous, so I'd rather not talk about them for too long. Appearances are just appearances. I lived in such an extraordinary place and I knew it. I was aware that I have quite special conditions, not only material. Living in such old walls is such a different, unusual experience. Also, the number of people who visited us gave me food for thought. I have often visited my friends – typical, French, "from here" and I actually noticed that there is something worldly in my family, something bigger than just one country, region or property. We are something far reaching. These are the traditions and history that has survived. These characters, features and accents. It is very complex and deep – like a souvenir.
LM News: In September, we supported the #DoJednejBramkizMaćkiem (#To one goal with Maciek) charity campaign. Maciek is a young athlete who had a car accident. Among others, Gerry Blynberg (French celebrity) who organized the "Prorider Tour" became involved in the campaign. During our stay in France, we visited Montresor, where we had the pleasure to talk to Mrs. Maria Rey-Potocka and Mrs. Karolina Grocholska. Both ladies decided to support Maciek and joined the "LoanMe plays #DoJednejBramkizMarek (#To one goal with Maciek)". Mrs. Karolina talked about numerous Polish accents and about the importance of Polish history in this city. You mentioned that you did not learn Polish until you came to Poland. Have you ever thought about it before?
NR: Yes, definitely, but unfortunately ... I thought a lot and I didn't put much into practice. (laughs) Such things happen. I really wanted to learn Polish from my childhood. I will start from the beginning ... in 1946, all my grandparents left Poland as political refugees. My father's parents had a home in Montresor, so they went there directly. I mean, it wasn't really in France that my grandfather met his grandmother, who was also in exile. However, my mother's parents wandered around Europe. My mother was born during this trip in the south of France. Before she was a year old, they went to the US. My mother grew up in Florida. In fact, she spent most of her best years in the United States. Because of this, my mother taught me English as my first language, even though I was born and raised in France. It wasn't until later that I learned French at school. Because of practice, French became my "first" language, the most natural. I think because of the fact that there were already two languages at home, my parents decided that three would be too much. But they did argue in Polish and then I remembered the word "damn" quite clearly. I didn't quite know what it meant, but it seemed to me that it wasn't entirely positive. (laughs) As I mentioned – “Polonia” from all over the world visited us in Montresor and everyone always greeted us in Polish and spoke the language. Most of my cousins born in France also spoke Polish, so for me it was ...
LM News: Curiosity?
NR: Yes. Even a bit of annoyance that everyone "understands each other" and my brother and I don't. (laughs) It was a bit annoying. I think that somewhere, in fact, I knew three languages quite well when I was 17, so I had some predispositions that allowed me to learn the next one quickly.
LM News: In Montresor, we talked with Mrs. Maria Rey-Potocka, who emphasized very much that you, as a family representative, are in Poland and are involved in various campaigns. On the Internet, we came across the "Courage and Hope" project. Can you tell us more about it?
NR: Generally, the original goal was directed at me. Maybe it's a little selfish, but very realistic. The idea is to wear some quotes printed on a T-shirt that inspire me. This is a long story, but the main intention is to remind myself of certain truths and values that are extremely important to me. These are quite universal things that we share individually – it is such a paradox. With some slogans, I help myself in some internal exercises. I feel that maybe it will be a little easier for me to deal with certain situations thanks to this.
LM News: So it is like building confidence in your abilities?
NR: No, no. Rather, it is the awareness that everything is not always perfect. (laughs) At the very beginning, when I thought about it, it is one thing to inspire myself, but when someone "meets" a slogan that is not commercial – I'm not talking about those artistic ones that are very beautiful, but most of the slogans we wear very often have no message ... It should be remembered that someone can see a given slogan and it can inspire them to do great things. Wearing such quotes from, for example, Mother Teresa – "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness" – I am often met with a big smile, without exchanging a single word with anyone. And not only me. I gave away a lot of these T-shirts and there were a lot of stories like that. Someone even said: "I wore your T-shirt on the train and everyone smiled at me." My intuition came true. Over time, I realized that this is more important to me internally than on the outside, but if it helps someone else, that's good.
LM News: What do you think about charity initiatives? How can we help people who have experienced many misfortunes in their lives, such as Maciek?
NR: Charity initiatives are admirable. In general, the fact that someone cares for another person, gives their time and energy is what is most valuable. Thanks to such attitudes, this world has more light and becomes something that inspires. It gives hope.
LM News: In Poland, you have gained popularity, not only because of your name, but also due to your participation in a popular culinary program. How did you discover your passion for cooking?
NR: Simply speaking, I really like to eat. (laughs) Maybe you can't see, but I really have a legendary appetite. For those who would like to eat more and cannot, I suggest – eat slowly. (laughs) Apparently it's healthier. I also like conversations over meals, so the pace is even more slowed down. In this case, it is also important where I was born. In my opinion, France remains – despite enormous gastronomical competition from around the world – a culinary mecca. When it comes to culture, it's how much people are aware of what they eat, their traditions, and regionalisms. In France, there is no day where a man would not talk about what he ate, what he will prepare today and what he will eat tomorrow. Likewise, there is probably no French film where there is no food. The chef's prestige in France has also been around for hundreds of years. In Poland, it is basically a new thing. It appeared when the broadcasting of cooking programs began. And before? The cook is almost a guy from the last "sort", working in a gray place, with a cigarette in his mouth. (laughs) Returning to Montresor, when you entered a restaurant, there was always a moment to comment not only on the flavors, but also the cook's work. Additionally this contact with primary products, i.e. milk straight from the cow, fish from their own ponds, hunting. For me it was a classic. My favorite delicacy when I was a child was veal kidneys prepared by my dad in a cream sauce with a crown of rice. Scrumptious.
LM News: We know that because of your name, you have had various "adventures" in Poland.
NR: Of course. Nicolas Rey in France is a very anonymous name. Whereas Mikołaj Rey in Poland? Now, as I introduce myself, it comes easily to me, but it wasn't always this way. Earlier, when I introduced myself in Polish, I had the impression that people look at me as some sort of a historical monument and I suddenly aged 500 years. It turns out that the "monument" can smile. (laughs) People like it and react with a smile or disbelief. It was often like this: "stop it, why are you making fun of me?" Or such situations – administrative formalities or arranging something. The answer to: “What’s your name? Mikołaj Rey” – they hang up the phone and that’s it. There were several such funny situations.
LM News: Nicolas, we know that you are in a hurry on your next trip. We won’t keep you any longer. Thank you very much for the conversation and we look forward to seeing footage of your trip on Facebook.
NR: Thank you very much!