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Best of Cousins
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Interview / Apr 30, 2018

Best of Cousins

By Marie-Julie Gagnon

Their little heads barely cleared the wooden bar, a holdover from the restaurant that once belonged to their great-grandparents. Perched side by side, the three girls sipped Shirley Temples like regular little patrons, their little feet dangling from the stools. Éric caught sight of the trio and nearly dropped the dishes he was carrying. He had a sudden flashback that catapulted him thirty years back to when, at the age of seventeen, he was first hired as a waiter at Le Bistango by their grandparents, Christiane and Jean-Yves Germain. How time flies!

Three generations of the Germain family were gathering on this day to say good-bye to Huguette. Every day for over twenty years, Huguette had made her famous brown sugar pie for Le Fiacre, the restaurant that she and her husband ran in that building until nineteen ninety- three. She preferred to bake at home and drive the pies over herself. It allowed her to hold her recipe very close to her chest. Her loyal customers, who kept coming back time and again to cap their meals with a slice, had tried to wheedle it from her every which way, but to no avail.

Huguette and her husband, Victor, who had passed away a decade earlier, were the ones who had passed along a love for the restaurant business to their children, particularly Christiane and Jean-Yves. These two had managed Le Cousin Germain and Le Café Saint-Honoré before launching out into the hotel business.

But the Germain clan was not the only one attached to this place. Tristan, son of Le Bistango chef, Sylvain Lambert, who was there when the restaurant served its first meal, was now working in the kitchen. It just went to show that the Germain family extended beyond ties of kinship.

Marie Pier, Huguette’s grand-daughter, was there, too, observing the three little girls at the bar from a distance. It warmed her heart to see how effortlessly her daughter and her cousins got along. She was reminded of her own childhood spent between this bistro, at once refined and relaxed, and the hotel it sat in. The Hôtel Germain- des-Prés, the first establishment opened by her mother and her uncle in nineteen eighty-eight, now operated under the Alt banner. Time sure did fly.

1990

“Bloody Caesar, please!”ordered the little girl seated next to a gruff-looking old man.

The Hôtel Germain-des-Prés attracted a mixed bag of guests since opening just two years earlier. There were plenty of businessmen on weekdays and plenty of families on weekends. Mr. B., the old man, was a regular. He was always alone, even on weekends. Always dressed the same: dark suit and spit-shined boots. And his hair was slicked back flat, which gave the impression of someone stuck in the sixties. It certainly seemed out of place at a time when volume was everything, when hair was worn as high and as wide as possible!

“Hi Clarah,” he said to the redhead with the rebel curls.

He had realized a while back that resistance was useless. At the ripe old age of six, the kid had decided she was going to talk to him and to let him in on absolutely everything that was going on in her life. His grumpy exterior had not seemed to put her off the least bit. In no time, she had managed to find the chink in his armour when other eyes assumed the shell to be impenetrable and forbidding.

She favoured him with her comeliest smile, revealing the latest in the process.

“Hey, you lost a tooth!”

Flattered that he should notice, she called the waiter over.

"And a Bloody Caesar for Mr. B. as well!”

The waiter took the order, an amused smirk on his face. Despite her tender years, and though her Caesar naturally contained no alcohol, Clarah probably knew the cocktail menu better than most adults.

“Candy’s fault,” she whispered in her friend’s ear. “Fell out when I bit into it.”

Marie Pier and Laurie were spying on the odd couple from across the room. They couldn’t understand what Clarah saw in that sourpuss. When the old man’s gaze crossed theirs, they darted out the accordion door.

Once in the lobby, the girls stopped to catch their breath. Francine, the guest services supervisor, asked if everything was okay.

“Uh-huh,” replied Laurie sniggering. “Feel like doing a check-in, ladies?” “Oh, yeah!!!!!” The girls went around the back of the front desk. A man and a woman stepped up. “Good evening Madame, good evening Sir!”

While Marie Pier entered information on the computer, Laurie handled the credit card, which was what she liked doing best. She loved the chick-a-chick sound the machine made!

On weekends, all four cousins were in the habit of hanging out at the hotel where they went through their little rituals. After doing the rounds with one parent, they would run off to play while the two parents tended to business. One of their favourite games was without a doubt racing around on luggage trolleys. Even Hugo, who was a little older than the girls, still got a kick out of it!

Their favourite place by far, however, was the laundry room. It was a celebration whenever Jean-Yves let the foursome fold towels and washcloths, a chore they took to with the utmost diligence. Every time without fail, they compared stacks to see who came closest to perfection. When the children worked exceptionally well, they were rewarded with the ultimate treat: crawling into the colossal dryer before pulling out the next load of towels. Basking in that warm pillowy softness was pure bliss!

On weekdays, Jean-Yves —Hugo, Clarah and Laurie’s father— worked mostly in the office while Christiane —Marie Pier’s mother—o versaw operations at Le Germain-des- Prés. After school, Marie Pier went straight to the hotel, which was on the way home, and did homework while waiting for her mom. Sometimes Francine let her answer the phone and put callers on hold. When she did this, Marie Pier felt like she was performing a task of monumental importance.

“Good night, Mr. B!”

Clarah ran off to join her sister and her cousin at the reception. She found Marie Pier and Laurie sorting the big round keys to the rooms. Each had to be placed in its pigeonhole just right. Easier said than done!

After seeing the task through, the three amigas went into a huddle.

“Know what I could go for right now?” said Clarah with a gleam in her eye. “A Shirley Temple—“ “—with lots of cherries!”

2015

“Remind you of someone?”

Marie Pier was startled out of her reverie. Her cousin was standing next to her, smiling. She lived in Montreal so the children didn’t get to play together as often as they did back when. This rendered these moments all the more treasurable.

“Remember when we used to play spin the bottle with our friends in the small room downstairs?” recalled Hugo.

“How could I forget! Remember how the maître d’ used to come around all the time to tell us to turn it down every time we had a party.”

They both laughed.

“The sharpest thing though was when we had friends sleep over. I can still remember the humongous breakfasts we’d have brought up to the room!”

“I think we just checked off everything on the menu!” “Hot chocolate—”

“—and croissants… I still think about Richard, the pastry chef at that time—the one from France who always wore that tall hat?—I think about him every time I walk past the offices next to the laundry room where the bakery used to be. He’d let us crack open eggs for him now and again, remember?”

“What I do remember is that you were there all the time! I was certain you’d become a chef.You sure loved nosing around in the kitchen!”

“That’s true. I could spend hours looking at the cooks without ever getting bored. But peaking of failed ambitions, I didn’t see your band become the next Pearl Jam. So I guess we’re even!”

“Hey, how far could we go with just one song?”

Hugo couldn’t help poking fun at himself when he looked back at his adolescence and his “rock” days. His father, who did not appreciate the extent of his son’s talent when he played drums at home, had kindly proposed that he and his buddies practise in the vacant space above the bank in the hotel complex. That’s how his band, The Travelling Wildberries, came to be. He couldn’t remember how they came up with that funny name, but he did remember the effect the music had on girls. Their repertoire consisted of just one song: Up on my hill. The singer in the band sounded just like Eddy Vedder. They did nothing but play that one tune over and over again. It was a case of going with what you know.

“I didn’t hang out with you girls as much back then,” he continued. “I was snowboarding all the time.”

“And you started working.You used to mow the lawn!”

“I also washed dishes at the restaurant when Paparazzi first opened.”

“I started working there a couple of years later, first as a hostess and then as a waitress.”

“Remember how Clarah used to flirt with Étienne Breault at the reception?”

“She was fourteen and he must have been at least twenty-three!”exclaimed Marie Pier. That made them laugh again.

“You talking about me?”

Hugo and Marie Pier turned to see Clarah who had crept up on them. If anyone had not changed an iota, it was her. Except that she now had all her teeth and preferred men closer to her own age.

“When we had supper at the restaurant with the folks, I’d scarf down my food as fast as possible so I could hurry off to chat him up at the reception,” admitted Clarah. Boy did I try his patience!”

“What was your first job?”

“Coat check at Le Bistango when I was fifteen, in the winter. After that I worked as a breakfast attendant at the hotel. That’s when I learned how to unclog toilets!”

When they were all still teenagers, their parents opened a second hotel in Quebec City: Le Dominion, now known as Le Germain Hotel Quebec City, Hugo held various jobs there.

Then came the time to choose a career. The eldest moved to Montreal to study com- merce at Concordia University. Marie Pier felt the need to get a little further away. She opted for mechanical engineering at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. That’s where Hugo completed a Master’s degree a few years later. The two worked in the group’s hotels while they hit the books. In Montreal, Hugo was by turns receptionist, concierge, clerk, valet, and barman. Marie Pier did a little of everything as well, but at Le Germain Hotel Toronto. At the time, she had no intention of working in the family business, though she had entertained the thought just before heading off to university.

While completing his Master’s, Hugo worked as an assistant manager at Krispy Kreme, a company he served for three years. Meanwhile, Marie Pier was still trying to find her path in life. After earning her degree from Queen’s, off she went to Los Angeles to become a yoga instructor. She then returned to Toronto and taught yoga there while also working for the family business. When construction began on Le Germain Hotel Calgary, she quit teaching to dedicate herself to the project, where her engineering background came in handy. Little by little she gained experience and, in time, came to manage the Alt Hotel Montreal, which opened in twenty fourteen.

Where Hugo is concerned, he was officially hired as project manager when the Alt Hotel Quartier DIX30 opened in Brossard. At the age of twenty-eight, he became General Manager. His first daughter, Élie, was born two weeks after the property was inaugurated. About a year and a half later, he and his family decided to move back to Quebec City. They wanted to be closer to the family, plus it made things easier for Hugo, who had begun to focus on the business development side of things. He has since become Director of Development for the Group.

Clarah went down various roads before winding her way back to the family business. After studying communications at the University of Montreal, she launched her own blog, Miss Clarah, where she used to share her gastronomical finds and favourites. She was content supervisor at the Sid Lee Agency before becoming new media director at Aetios Productions. In twenty fifteen, she joined the ranks of Le Groupe Germain as content and social media manager.

As for Laurie, she opted to study law at the University of Ottawa before branching off into industrial relations. Today, she is the human resources director at GDI Services, a company that works closely with Group Germain Hotels. She is also the mother of three wonderful children.

Étienne Breault, the hunk that Clarah had such a crush on, is now General Manager of the Alt Hotel Quebec City. Many employees of Le Bistango, of the Alt Hotels and of Le Germain who were there at the very start are still working for the group today.

For her seventh birthday, Margot, Marie Pier’s daughter, was treated to an overnight stay at the hotel with her mom. Wearing a perfectly tailored bathrobe, she stated that she wanted to follow in her mom’s footsteps. Élie, Hugo’s eldest, isn’t sure whether to work in the restaurant or as a chambermaid. There has been talk of a possible internship, but she’d have to start from the bottom, which is to say the laundry room. In the meantime, she’s begun practising making her bed like a good girl.

All four children of the brother-sister combo who founded Group Germain Hotels like to cook and all fold their washcloths flawlessly. Clarah Germain hasn’t lost her habit of engaging old curmudgeons in conversation, but she swears she’s stopped hitting on poor desk clerks.

The four cousins sometimes have brunch at Le Bistango, like their parents did thirty years before. However, there’s no telling if they still race trolleys down the halls when there’s no one around.

As for Huguette’s brown sugar pie recipe, her descendants are the only ones to know her secret. It has been handed down to the next generation, along with a passion for hospitality.

This story is part of the first tome of the book Hotel Stories and Other Places.

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