Wherever Grimes went, he met people who put him in touch with others. With Olney's letter, a growing list of names, and the gold-stamped Watson Foundation document in hand, Grimes set off from the capital in a used "clown car" Fiat and zigzagged his way around France from restaurant to restaurant—picture one of those connect-the-dots drawings. He'd spend several days at each restaurant, standing out of the way in the kitchen, soaking up the scene; eventually he might be allowed to strain a stock, peel some shrimp, or trim an artichoke.
L'Auberge de l'Ill, Paul Bocuse, Troisgros, Oustau de Baumanière, Alain Chapel, Hostellerie du Cerf…what struck Grimes about these multistarred restaurant kitchens was the hyper-organized satellite system that surrounded the central stoves, where each dish was individually tweaked before being sent out. A clearly defined hierarchy among the staff meant that everyone knew their role. "The beauty of the finished product came out of orderliness rather than chaos," Grimes explains—a far cry from what he'd experienced in Philadelphia.
The kitchens were behind closed doors—unlike today's taste for open kitchens—yet French chefs were adamant about cleanliness and order. According to tradition, they had to be ready at any time to receive a guest from the dining room who might request a peek and a cordial tête-à-tête with the chef.
Just after Christmas that year, Grimes arrived at Olney's Provençal home in a hill town near Toulon. "He had this dreamy one-room lofty space with a pillar in the center covered with wine labels. The house revolved around the stone fireplace…and there was an extraordinary cellar he dug out of the rock," says Grimes, adding with a smile, "You drank really well there."
Olney's house may have been spartan, but when he cooked, he was a colorist and a sensualist, Grimes notes, describing Olney's famous salade composée: "torn purple and green basil leaves; red, yellow, and saffron-orange nasturtium flowers; a mix of young greens; and perhaps an egg or some leftover meat. It was just a huge awakening in how colorful and aromatic a salad could be." Olney's salad was equally transformational for Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower, who were among an increasing number of America's future stars to find their way to Olney in those years.
With one phone call from Olney to Simone Beck—one of the coauthors with Julia Child of Mastering the Art of French Cooking—Grimes landed a plum position helping Beck with her cooking classes, near Cannes. It turned into a regular three- to six-month gig that went on for close to five years.
When Grimes eventually returned to the United States in 1982, with a Grand Diplôme from Paris' La Varenne tucked under his arm, he went back to work in restaurants and also tried to return to drawing and painting, but his art wasn't going well. In frustration, he called Martin Garhart, his former drawing professor at Kenyon. "I'm floundering," Grimes confessed.
"What are you, crazy?" exclaimed Garhart. "What you're doing is creative! You simply substituted your pencils, paintbrushes, and paints for food and knives."
Eventually, it was the field of food styling—something Grimes fell into by chance—that allowed him the fullest expression of his talents. In 1994, Grimes was running the corporate dining room at Food & Wine magazine when a stylist failed to show up for a photo shoot scheduled for that day. Grimes volunteered to step in, and his styling career promptly took off. Restaurant training made him not only fast but also a team player—key for working with the photographer and creative director on a shoot—and the gift of gab he'd inherited from his father's Irish family made him a favorite with editors and corporate clients.
Food styling, like any other art form, has gone through many stages of evolution, with various looks and techniques trending in and out of fashion. Over the years, Grimes has easily adapted to the shifting currents—he's been actively styling for 18 years, including a seven-year stint at Gourmet magazine as a food editor/senior stylist. Grimes sums up recent decades in a ladleful of sauce: The '80s were all about overly handled food plated on top of the sauce; picture the sauce as the backdrop for a fixation with fanning thin slices of meat, fruit, or vegetables. The resurgence of more casual, bistro-style food in the '90s brought the sauce back to its proper place and purpose: drizzled on top to flavor and enhance the food below.