1,000 Feet Off the Ground

By Dan Weimer

           Shamane's Bake Shoppe was born of a long standing dream. But before that dream came true, Shamane pursuedher culinary education by followingher passion for delicious food in a part of the world which is synonymous with fine cuisine. After her time in culinary school, one of Shamane's friends turned her on to a job posting for a private chef working with a travel company based in the Loire Valley in France. Initially, another chef got the job, but when he fell through Shamane was called up and, with barely two weeks notice, she accepted a job half way across the world. Only 22 at the time, Shamane had never been on a Eurail train, nor did she speak French, but these things were trivial obstacles compared to the adventure that stood before her.

            Buddy Bombards European Tours was an American company specializing in luxury hot air balloon tours of some of Europe's most iconic destinations: flying over the vineyards of Burgundy, the Jungfrau region of the Swiss Alps, and the quaint Tuscan farms of Siena. Clients were treated to luxury hotels and fine wines, private castle tours and meals cooked in medieval fireplaces. There were about 15 crew members in all, mostly in their 20's and looking for a job that provided more adventure than pay. They were mostly English speakers from around the world, but they always had a few people who spoke French, Italian, or German around so they could communicate with clients and farmers in the different regions they flew. Shamane was the only cook in the group and was responsible not only for feeding the customers but the crew as well, which meant that while it may sound like  one, it was no vacation.

         She would wake up around five in the morning to make breakfast for everyone before the first launch of the day. Picnics would be set up in the lush green fields as the early morning fog was still burning off and the crew ran across the field, unfurling the balloons as they went. The sound of the burners filling the balloons would pierce the early morning silence as the colorful canvases rose into the air. The clients would come in and sit around small tables enjoying fresh baked croissants, just squeezed orange juice, and whatever berries were currently in season. Some days Shamane would help the crew launch the balloon, sometimes she would be on the chase squad assigned to bring it down on the other side. Occasionally a client would request that she fly with them, either for company (many of the customers were regulars who had met Shamane before) or for the wine and cheese she would provide to complementthe views of castles and vineyards floating below.

         The chase crew might have been the most exciting job. You see, balloons don't always land where you want them to. Winds move different directions at different heights and commonly the crew doesn't meet the balloon at a landing spot so much as they chase it down and beg the local farmers for permission to land before the balloon, with it's high class customers, could be wrangled to the ground in their fields. While some would deny them access and send the balloon back into the air looking for a new spot, most would consent, excited to see the colorful balloons come down and to partake in the bottles of champagne readily offered by the crew. Of course, bringing the balloons down was sometimes more comedy than work; the luxury balloons were heavy and liable to bounce violently when they landed, something that could upset the quality of customer who indulged in wine and cheese balloon tours of Europe's most sought after destinations. To bring the massive balloon down gently required the crew to delicately drag the balloon to the ground. So the pilot in the balloon would throw bags attached with long ropes over the edge and the chase crew would grab on for dear life, slowly lowering the colorful giants to the ground. Of course, if you grab on first, and a gust of wind catches the massive balloon before your compatriots are able to latch on, there's a good chance you will be dragged through the field with the unpleasant task of deciding whether to jump off before you reach the fence or have faith that the rest of the crew will catch up by then. Luckily, it was a quick and able crew, and perhaps it is    them we should thank for Shamane still being here today.

          On days when she got to ride in the balloon with the clients, Shamane would attach a picnic basketthat would hang from the edge of the balloon. Once in the air she would pull out fresh fruits and cheeses, even thinly sliced cold marinated meats and frangipane tarts to enjoy while drifting just beneath the clouds. Anything that could be enjoyed mid flight would be, and once they touched down Shamane found that the burner that propeled the balloon could be used to make a fruit flambee for her guests. From 1,000 feet in the air, Shamane got to tour Europe, seeing the Swiss Alps, the french vineyards, rolling Italian hills, Medieval Czech walls, and ancient Austrian castles. With a schedule of 2 months on and 2 months off she was able to hitch rides with the van and catch cheap trains to achieve her dreams of hiking the Alps and backpacking through Italy.

              Once the balloons were launched, the rest of the day was hers as long as there was an amazing dinner that evening. This is where her education truly began. The company gave her a daily per diem to take to the local markets and boucheries to collect the freshest produce and the choice cuts of meat to prepare for their clients. She wandered through small towns, buying the most sought after cheeses and bottles of wine rarely found outside of their respective vineyards. There was no King Soopers, no ability to have the same ingredients year round, so with each season she would learn to cook with a new set of ingredients. In each castle she would have to learn to use old equipment and bake in fireplaces and stone ovens. She would fly over farms in the morning and then meet them at the market to see what they had to offer in the afternoon. After visiting the town, it was time to cook. There were usually between fifteen and twenty-five clients, plus the staff, and all the food was served family style. Meats were cooked in stone fireplaces that had stood for hundreds of years, cheeses from the farm down the road were paired with dusty bottles of wine that had been waiting for just the right moment to be opened. By the end of it all, the long wooden table would be chock full of roasted sausages, fresh salads, plates of cheese and fruit, and glasses of wine. While Shamane did most of the cooking herself, it was also her job to find fresh loaves of bread and regional pastries at the local boulangeries to round out the traditional fare that filled the table.

             The meals would be served in castles and chateaus across the continent, with a particular favorite of theirs being owned by an antique collector. His lawn was dotted with WWII era planes and, while they didn't fly anymore, he kept them looking like they had just come off the factory floor. The cavernous rooms of the castle were filled with vintage motorcycles. Triumphs, Vincents, and BSAs seemed strangely at home in their medieval surroundings.  By the end of the night the fire would burn down to coals and the clients would find themselves sedated from the aerial adventure and the fabulous food. The crew would pack it all up and prepare for more of the same the next day.

              Being a private chef for a hot air balloon company won't be on many lists made of career aspirations, nor will it always be available. But good food is everywhere. It is the back bone on which we build our lives. There will always be ways to get your hands on a rare block of chevre, to uncover a forgotten bottle of Burgundy, to find a pear unlike any you've ever tasted. To be a chef is not a job limited by location or age. Pursuing food with a passion can take you around the world, the calls are out there, all you need to do is answer. While working for Buddy Bombards, Shamane found a way to access that which seems like a fairytale to many of us -- the opportunity to work hard doing what she loved, surrounded by vineyards, castles, mountains, and friends. Sometimes building a dream takes some exploring, some hard work, and the willingness to find yourself 1,000 feet off the ground.

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