At approximately six feet tall, with his sunbleached hair pulled back into a ponytail, our dive instructor Arnaud looks like a pirate or Viking. Not a French sommelier who lived in New York for 22 years working at the city’s finest restaurants.
We didn’t go to Vieques with the intention of meeting the Most Interesting Man in the World. But over the course of four days, XFE and I were continuously amazed and delighted by our gentle diving giant. With each new modestly offered detail of Arnaud’s incredible life story, we would look at each other and mouth “the Most Interesting Man in the World.”
Here are a few reasons our dive instructor Arnaud is the Most Interesting Man in the World:
1) As I mentioned, Arnaud was in New York for 22 years, working in or managing places like Balthazar, Orsay and La Goulue. Subsequently, he knows EVERYONE in the restaurant business, including Thomas Keller. When we told him of our difficulty in getting a reservation at French Laundry in Napa a couple of years ago, Arnaud just offers up, all casually, “I know Thomas. I can get you a reservation. Just let me know.”
2) Arnaud was a minority owner of a large, well-financed restaurant that shut down after 9-11. The Wall Street backers bailed after September 11, leaving Arnaud without a job and broke. A few months later, he struck a deal with a real estate friend of his who had a tiny, vacant property (zoned for mixed use, not a restaurant) in what was then, the fairly dodgy neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn. Arnaud maxed out all his credit cards to build his ideal restaurant, called in favors from suppliers, carpenters, plumbers and anyone else he knew with a skill, and a year later, opened up his own restaurant, 360. He sold it after seven successful years because he was burned out on the restaurant business. Now Red Hook is all trendy and cool. Probably because the Most Interesting Man in the World slept there.
3) Here’s a description of Arnaud, the restaurantuer, from one of his reviews:
“As we toasted to more dinners in Red Hook, Arnaud was working the room, welcoming guests, pouring wine, chatting up locals families sitting at the sidewalk tables with their new babies. As I watched him stroll from table to table, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Gerard Depardieu. (If a movie ever gets made, Depardieu must play Arnaud.) Like Depardieu, Arnaud is sweet and sort of big and burly, with long hair that he keeps tied back in a ponytail, and a rich gravely voice with a sexy French accent. He is quite the consummate French host—warm and welcoming and devilishly charming.
Dizam! Girlfriend was smitten! I guess being in the presence of the Most Interesting Man in the World will do that to a reviewer. (And, she needs to learn how to spell “gravelly.”)
4) Steve Wynn once offered Arnaud what he called an “insane amount of money” to open a restaurant in Vegas, but Arnaud didn’t want to live in Vegas. He sounded almost a bit regretful of that decision. But then he looked out at his “office” in Vieques and seems to have gotten over it.
5) Now onto the diving: Arnaud has been diving since he was 11 years old. You read that right. He had an uncle who was a search and rescue diver (we’re talking jumping from helicopters in full dive gear) and he used to take him diving, all clandestine-like. He finally got his diver certification at around 16, which is still too young, so he lied about his age.
6) His most recent personal diving trip? Egypt. Because that’s a stable and safe place to dive. (Actually, he says the Sinai is quite nice and removed from the turmoil. I’m just going to take his word on that one.)
7) Arnaud, like everyone in Vieques, has about three jobs. One of his other jobs is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He does, among other things, turtle surveys (he knows an amazing amount of info on turtles), and lionfish eradication.
8. Oh, and EVERYONE in Vieques knows and loves Arnaud. Just mentioning his name got you instant cred. And he hooked us up with some of the best food in Vieques. Every place he recommended was amazing and we ate like kings. And everywhere we mentioned him, folks would be like, “Oh Arnaud? He’s a major foodie. Did you know he’s like the best sommelier?” And we’d be like, “yeah, we know. We’ve heard.”
9) He moved his entire wine cellar to Vieques from New York. Like, 3,000 bottles. That’s insane.
10) Arnaud was wearing a Sea Shepherd’s shirt one day, which I didn’t even notice, but XFE did. While we were standing near the dive boat on our last day, I mentioned that Zodiacs (which is what the dive boat was) were used by the Sea Shepherd’s, those crazy environmentalists in Antarctica. Cool as a cucumber, Arnaud is like, “yeah, I’ve worked with those guys.” Totally incredulous, I’m like, “The hell you say. Where?” Arnaud: “On their Mediterranean campaign stopping bluefin tuna poachers. Wish I could join them down in Antarctica sometime,” and then he got called into the dive shop. My jaw? On the ground. My head? Exploding. SO MANY QUESTIONS.
11) And finally, Arnaud has a reef named after him. Honestly, I don’t know if anything gets more pimp than that. And he didn’t just pick a spot and name it after himself. Oh no. Not our Arnaud. A local fisherman named it Arnaud’s Reef. As he humbly said, “When someone offers to name a reef after you, you don’t say no.” Oh, and by the way, that reef is straight up, tha shit. Some of the best diving and most awesome fish we saw during the four days. Including a nurse shark that XFE and Arnaud saw as we were getting back in the boat after the final dive. It was as if the shark was all, “hey Arnaud, what’s up. Saw you hanging around, thought I’d say hi.”
The Most Interesting Man in the World was the same guy who patiently went over the same beginner diving stuff with us day after day (sample dialogue, “Guys, you’ve got to learn to maintain your buoyancy. Check where you are in the water column and then slowly adjust” – yeah, I know, riveting right?).
This was the same guy who carried all our crap, made sure we drank enough water and wore sunscreen, the same man who rinsed our dive suits and cleaned our equipment every day, and filled out our little dive logs.
Yes, the man who got excited showing us different types of sea worms (seriously, he was waaay enthusiastic about this field of garden worms that poked up out of the ocean bottom), has lived and done some of the most amazing things. And that’s why Arnaud IS the Most Interesting Man in the World.
Stay Thirsty, Arnaud.