Over the years, I've asked a lot of men about their fathers-in-law: whether they get along with them, whether they play a significant role in their lives. These conversations took place over a beer, or on a fishing trip, maybe at an Orioles game. I usually had to bring the subject up; in most cases, the guys I've known wouldn't do it themselves, or there just wasn't much to say. They had married the man's daughter, and that was about it.
My friends and fishing companions
were far more likely to
talk about their own dads, not
those of their wives. So maybe
I've been luckier than most.
He wasn't just my father-in-law, or what
the French call "beau-pere." He became
my friend and mentor. We had the kind of
buddy relationship I never had -- and
probably never could have had -- with my
Louie showed me how to work a chain
saw and chop word, prune fruit trees and
grow potatoes, dry and preserve onions,
slice a turkey and poach a salmon, replace
a fan belt, make a Manhattan, play bocce,
win at Uno, fold linen napkins for formal
dining, prepare a family picnic, install an
electric outlet, panel a club basement,
grow endive in the dark, can
vinegar peppers, build shelves
for a wine cellar, tie bulky objects
to a car roof, charm visitors
and make strangers feel welcome.
Louie Donnard was a farm boy
from France, though he was
always quick to specify Brittany
as his place of birth. He and his
wife, Felicie, grew up speaking
Breton, a Celtic language. They
survived occupation and war,
then moved to the United States
in the 1950s, arriving in New
York, Louie liked to remind us,
"with a wooden suitcase, a new
wife and $100."
He went to work in hotel
kitchens, putting in long hours to learn
and refine his craft and save money for a
house in Queens. In time, he became a
highly regarded chef at country clubs in
the suburbs of New York, then at the
Harvard Club in Manhattan and finally
the executive dining room at Morgan
Stanley. There, he could order anything
for his menus because, he said through his
thick accent, "At Morgan Stanley, money
is no objection."
The daily clientele included international
financiers, bankers and heads of
state. One day in the 1980s, Louie prepared
lunch for Richard M. Nixon. After dessert,
the former president autographed Louie's
He was proud of that. Louie admired
John F. Kennedy, but he voted for Nixon
twice and was a big fan of Ronald Reagan.
That led to some challenging conversations,
especially after a couple of glasses of
Louie believed in hard work, saving
your money and never buying something
unless you had the cash for it.
He also believed:
• The best way to avoid speeding tickets
-- and just getting off with a warning --
was to cover one's Buick with the stickers
of every fraternal order of police and
chiefs of police association between New
York and Florida.
• Keeping knives sharp at all times
reduced frustration in kitchens by 80
• Taking time to sit and eat a homecooked
meal, every day, no matter how
busy you are, makes you healthier.
I wish you all could have met him. He
was the kind of person who, upon being
introduced to a stranger, could make that
person feel like the most important one in
I knew Louie long enough to see his
temperamental side, so I was glad to just
be his son-in-law and not his sous chef.
But, as passionate as he was about getting
the consommé correct or the firewood
stacked smartly, he maintained a joyous
nature, and all of us hopefully learned
something from that: Be passionate about
what you do, and don't forget joy.
Live long. Live well. Salut!