Due, perhaps, to his adherence to the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism—and a friendship with Richard Gere—he had concerns about what kind of a welcome he’d receive. For the first few nights he slept with a tinfoil helmet around his head, convinced that “they” were onto him every time his cell phone dropped a call.
I assured him repeatedly that he was the very last person any Chinese secret service would give a shit about, but he was unconvinced. His paranoia was acute.
More comically, the level of heat in the Sichuanese specialties he sampled in Chengdu, where we spent most of our time, was, shall we say, rather more than his delicate French palate was used to.
Coddled by years of foie gras, runny cheeses, flaky pastries, and the subtle notes of many fine wines, the searing burn of the Sichuan dried chilies and the numbing, delightfully disorienting effects of Sichuan peppercorns were a challenge.
Chinese drinking traditions were intimidating as well. With this in mind, I arranged a formal banquet for my friend with executives from a baijiu distillery.
Generally, at functions like this the guest of honor must toast each and every other guest individually—meaning one must drink about eight to 10 times more than everyone else. To his credit, Eric soldiered through like a champion, dignity and liver intact.
Around halfway through our adventures in Sichuan province, though, the Frenchman was folding at the knees. He pleaded for a respite from the delicious but damaging local flavors. So my crew, taking pity on him, took him to the nearest Western-style eatery: Hooters.
I did not have the heart to take photos of what I saw that night. I saw many terrible things.
I can be a cruel man. But not so cruel that I would Instagram the sad spectacle of my Michelin-starred friend gratefully digging into a Double D burger while our servers, in spandex hot pants, gyrated robotically to Justin Bieber between courses. I will savor the memory all to myself.
In case you are thinking I spent all my time torturing the sensitive Frenchman with caustic substances, I did try to entertain, educate, and enlighten (the Three Es, as we call it at my ashram).
I introduced him to the healthful benefits of a public ear cleaning by a trained professional— along with complimentary spinal realignment.
Did he appreciate it? No. He quibbled about hygiene.
I even took him back to culinary school for a crash course in the mysteries of the regional cuisine. His cleaver skills are—to be charitable—rudimentary. Unable to suck up to the instructor on account of the language barrier, he cribbed constantly from yours truly.
I don’t want to use the word cheating, but some might.