Ribs In Paris? Mais Oui! -- All It Takes Is One Enterprising Graduate Of Garfield High

IS THERE A SINGLE cook in Seattle, from the lowliest pantry assistant to the most veteran executive chef, who has not at one time or another had this dream:

A small little place in Paris, perhaps on the Left Bank, a distinctive, cozy place of my own - that's all I want.

Randy Garrett did it - almost as an afterthought. And he wasn't even a professional cook. Heck, starting out at Garfield High School, class of '63, the only profession he really dreamed of was baseball.

The Rib Joint. Paris. Left Bank. 14 Rue Thouin. You walk in the door and the first thing you notice is the unmistakable aroma of sizzling American barbecue.

The second thing you notice is the Ken Griffey Jr. pennant tacked to the wall. It's in an honored position. There isn't much room on the walls for display. For that matter, there isn't much wall at all.

The Rib Joint is one of the smallest restaurants in Paris, although there is room down the cave-like winding stairs for a 10-table cafe theater in the cellar. Garrett has cooked there, hosted a mixed bag of French and American friends there and produced theater there for seven years.

Located a few steps from the serpentine wending of the bustling, narrow Rue Mouffetard (where Hemingway once lived in near-poverty writing his first fiction), The Rib Joint fringes on one of Paris' most colorful neighborhoods.

How did a one-time semi-pro baseball player, theater producer and special-ed teacher from Seattle end up there?

Randy Garrett thought about it. It had been a long, uncertain way from the playing fields of Garfield, '63.

"I had gone to the UW in journalism for a while," he said. "And after that came Black Arts West with Doug Barnett in the old Cirque Theater. Then I played some baseball. Taught Special Education. I went back to the U, finished in '72 and took off to see the world."

He went to Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Sicily, Austria, Yugoslavia and points beyond, far beyond. Odd-jobbing, working all the ski resorts, man. Running discos as a DJ, you know. In and out of Paris a few times.

"I really didn't decide to stay in Paris until the '80s," he said, almost as if surprised by the circumstance.

We had stepped out of The Rib Joint, where his partner, Pascal Volberg, on a balmy late afternoon in summer, was firing up the pre-dinner grills. Garrett and I went to a nearby bistro. Two American flight attendants yelled greetings as he walked in and went to the bar for two glasses of vin rouge from the proprietor, Nellie, who also greeted him effusively.

"He's something," one of the women said. "He's incredible. He has more energy than anybody in Paris. And his restaurant? We're hoping the yuppies never show up and ruin it. It's become THE place for the patriots to go."

I assumed she meant expatriates but never got a chance to ask. Garrett, who is now 47, came back and filled in his odd odyssey.

He had discovered selling used VW vans to tourists in Paris back in the 1970s, he recalled. A curbstone dealer in wheels. They'd buy the van, drive it around the continent for a few months and bring it back, not much the worse for wear. How he got in the car business was, "I had planned to bring my van to Paris and sell it. I figured I'd be here three days. I stayed a year and a half.

"The tourists would sell their used vans back for a few hundred and a trip to the airport, man. Like: `You give me $500 and get me to my plane on time and it's yours.'

"I'd drive it back into Paris and sell it for $2,000 to an incoming tourist. Back in those days, you could make three, four, sometimes $10,000 a month just hanging out in front of American Express."

He shifted scene to London for a while, hung around with actors and writers. "London drove me crazy, man. I wasn't making any money. So I came back to Paris and started selling cars again."

When had he first aspired to opening a restaurant?

"I'm getting to that. There was big group of Americans in Paris that used to play baseball - Sundays in the Bois. Girls played, guys played, everybody played. Afterward, I used to make barbecue. Then the yuppies discovered us and ruined everything. They came in and all they wanted to do was WIN, man!"

Regardless, Garrett grilled his barbecues: "Basically from my family's recipes. Adding in a few spices I'd tasted from around the world. Simple. But that was the whole point, simplicity. Good cooking IS simplicity."

There was a lot of that back then, he said. Informal cooking by technically unemployed black Americans in an underground French economy.

"Like Patrick Kelly, the fashion designer you know, when times got tough, he was selling fried chicken all over Paris! I was looking for barbecue in Europe. There wasn't any. All they had was a few hibachis. So, I said, `Open up your own barbecue. Do a few things and do them well.' "

That he did. And that he does. Beautifully trimmed pork ribs, chicken hindquarters, slaw and beans.

"He gets five stars from me," crowed a flight attendant.

Garrett looked distracted; his laundry was finishing up in a laundromat across the Rue Mouffetard: "You ever had barbecued barracuda?"

No, I said.

"I did. At Memphis in May, the Woodstock of barbecue. Beer, rain and barbecue. They flew me over to be a judge. Yeah, beer, rain and barbecue."

He left to find a vacant dryer, his personal laundry mixed in with restaurant tablecloths, baseball shirts with dish towels.

The sun was setting down the Seine. The high haze that seems forever to hang over the city took on its nightly amber glow. Back at The Rib Place, Pascal performed a two-step cooking method on the ribs. First the dry grill; then a dip in the Kansas City-style barbecue sauce (originated by Garrett's grandfather), then a return trip to the coals ("We use real French oak, man." Randy kissed his fingertips).

A bilingual crowd began to fill the place. Actors assembled on the sidewalk for the night's mini-drama; no room for dressing rooms. The director pleads for free ribs for the cast. Two French cops, holsters unsnapped, hassle Garrett about illegal parking while more tubs of ribs arrive and are unloaded from the trunk of a curbstone-straddled sedan. The play, in French, starts downstairs.

I thought we were going to do it in French AND English, Garrett tells the director. Not enough time, Randy, he says, these actors need advance warning (and dinner). The two attendants from TWA show up. The place is filled. The gendarmes have split. Fragrant bags of take-out orders go out the front door. Moveable feasts.

Garrett's in business one more night, 20 years after leaving Seattle to see the world.

"We ought to hold the 30-year reunions of Garfield and Franklin high schools here next summer," he said. "Nobody ever had a 30th reunion like that."

I was a high school dropout, I said, but I'd come. Pass the sauce. (Copyright 1992, John Hinterberger. All rights reserved.)

John Hinterberger's food columns and restaurant reviews appear Sundays in Pacific and Fridays in Tempo. Molly Martin is Pacific's assistant editor.