Margaret and Dick   


June '08: Going out at the top
I had to go up to Rennes-le-Chateau to see for myself.  Friends said that the sign outside his garden restaurant was overgrown with weeds.  It was the only way I could begin to believe that our friend Jean-Luc Robin was gone.

For years a guardian of the legend of Rennes-le-Chateau, Jean-Luc died in March 2008, the day after his party won the mayoral election in this tiny mountain-top town.  He had two successful books published, with more on the way.  “All the lights were green,” said friend Fabienne.  He is survived by his partner Isabelle, their toddler son Clément, and three grown children.

I first met Jean-Luc, a man of great charm and intelligence, in the kitchen of his restaurant.  He was living in the opulent but decaying house in which the abbé Saunière had hosted famous guests in the late 1800’s, when the mystery of the abbé’s wealth gave rise to the legend of Rennes; his restaurant was in the garden.  (See the 2006 story Our own Da Vinci Code mystery for background on the Rennes legend.)

A gifted chef, Jean-Luc had run a Michelin one-star restaurant before retiring to the quiet of Rennes.  He took the job of manager of the abbé’s residence and museum.  Each summer he organized a series of lecture/discussions for devotees to expound their theories about Rennes, some of which you read in The Da Vinci Code bestseller.

He was harassed by the village power structure, which saw him perhaps as an outsider getting too successful.  For a while, the tiny village had two competing museums: Jean-Luc’s in the abbé’s residence and garden, the elders’ adjacent to the church.  “The competition was rude, and the methods used to counter me were not always the most elegant,” said Jean-Luc, diplomatically, in his 2005 book.  From one of his windows Jean-Luc would hear the village museum guides tell tourists that the abbé’s residence was closed, owned now by foreigners.  “They failed to say that it was open to the public, depriving me of revenue that allowed me to keep this activity going.”  Soon the village bought the abbé’s domain, terminated Jean-Luc’s job, and turned his quaint little restaurant into pottery studio for tourists.

Undaunted, he rented a garden property across the street and began an open-air restaurant for summer tourists.  Rennes pilgrims are a strange group:  people hoping to prove Mary Magdalene had settled with her (and Jesus’s) offspring around Rennes, people hoping to learn the where the holy grail is buried.   

A mysterious fire destroyed the kitchen of Jean-Luc’s restaurant.  He rebuilt.  The mayor sent in the health department, who closed him down.  During the next several lecture/discussions he could serve no food; later it was limited to cold-cuts brought up from nearby Esperaza.  This was a crushing blow for the former one-star chef. 

In 2006, he confided to an interviewer, “I really had to fight to be able to remain here. Sometimes it’s like this place wants me … but some people don’t want me to be here, and they have been trying everything to get me out … and it’s still at this moment going on.”

But he persisted, opening a year-round restaurant in nearby Esperaza to serve the locals and the tour buses that would (it was hoped) flock to Esperaza’s two new museums (one with dinosaurs, the other with hats).

It was here that I enjoyed a cooking class that Jean-Luc put on especially for me and foodie friend Roberto.  He wanted to show us a new technique, cooking sous-vide, now a standard technique in fine restaurants.  Individual servings of ingredients were sealed in a plastic bag and slow-cooked in hot water, infusing the meat or fish and sauce together for a melt-in-mouth consistency.  He had harvested tender thistle greens from nearby fields to add local flavor to the sauce. 

His passion for the summer conferences at Rennes-le-Chateau grew.  Dozens flocked up to the garden restaurant for presentations by larger-than-life characters like Henry Lincoln.  Lincoln’s 1982 book Holy Blood, Holy Grail had outlined connections between the abbé’s mysterious wealth and the legend that Mary Magdalene had come to live nearby.  For decades, convinced searchers had dug and dynamited every likely hole or cave to no avail. 

Jean-Luc proposed an alternative explanation for the abbé’s wealth.  The treasure of Rennes was not physical objects such as the grail; it was information.  The abbé, known for nighttime digging in the church, may have found a trove of secret papers hidden by priests during the French revolution before they fled into Spain to escape the guillotine.  These papers were thought to contain historical evidence for which the Catholic Church in Rome paid the abbé well to keep hidden.  Fans of The Da Vinci Code will invoke the Knights Templar, the Priory of Zion, Mary Magdalene, the bloodline of Jesus, and European royalty.  Unlikely, you say?  An otherwise undistinguished Austrian Hapsburg royal and frequent visitor to the abbé was sainted soon after his death.

Jean-Luc was in his element comparing theories of the Rennes mysteries.  I don’t think he cared if the enigma was ever solved; the fun was in the debate.  Soon after The Da Vinci Code movie was released, Jean-Luc published his first book Rennes le Chateau, le Secret de Saunière, a lucid text with gorgeous photos of Saunière’s domain.  I joked to Jean-Luc that, with the movie’s fame, a quick translation into English would cover college costs for little Clément.

Those are my last memories of Jean-Luc, in summer 2007, welcoming visiting experts to the seminar series at Rennes.  What a triumph to win the election that ejected the mayor who had harassed him for years!  Alas, how sad to leave this life in his prime, at age 58!

And what about the sign outside the garden restaurant?  It was not overgrown with weeds.  The gate was open.  Inside were the long-time waiter and a cook.  One table was occupied in mid-afternoon.  I asked the waiter who was in charge of the restaurant now.  He pointed over to the table: “Monsieur & Madame Dobler over there.  They always owned the property; Jean-Luc rented it from them.  They live in town.”  I went over to pay my respects.  They too were crushed by Jean-Luc’s death, and felt they had to continue the “Enigma of Rennes” lecture series that Jean-Luc had already organized for summer ’08.  “This garden restaurant is at the heart of life in this town,” said Mme Dobler.  “We have to keep it open, for Jean-Luc.”  Their new company is aptly named Enigma Tours.

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