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Friday, January 01, 2016

Finally: Food

From the Digipages of Metroland Dept.: A bunch of us put the paper to rest with an online-only final edition, to which I contributed this worthy parable for my last-ever Metroland food column.

                                                                                              

HE WORKED IN THE KITCHEN of a red-sauce restaurant during the last half of high school, and parlayed that experience into a front-of-house job when college began. College was a disaster, at least from the point of view of the college and his parents. The friendships he sought, the parties, the romance–these he found in the restaurant.

Gathering what money he could muster, he switched schools. Although Hyde Park’s Culinary Institute sprawled like a hotel complex, it demanded a far more grueling work and study schedule than the college he’d been about to fail. This time, however, he was motivated.

He was too shy to strut and brag like the handful of classmates clearly destined for restaurant-business fame. But he felt confident of achieving more success than the ones who aspired to no more than a line-cook job at a backwoods Marriott. He studied hard. He aced his labs. His knife skills grew instinctive. His externships taught him how to talk to people: bosses, suppliers, customers.

Even before he graduated, one of his instructors recommended him to a prestigious Manhattan chef, and his trajectory of success became spectacular. The drugs didn’t hurt him. Nor did the affairs. He could see the destructive evidence of such pursuits on the face of an older sous-chef who clearly would rise to nothing greater, but he himself wasn’t persuaded to jam on the brakes until one of the affairs got pregnant and insisted on keeping the child. It was her first, and she was leaving her husband anyway, and he guessed he loved her and he married her and discovered that he actually did.

She talked him into buying the Hudson Valley farm. He still spent most of the week in Manhattan, so they leased the fields to some starry-eyed kids. The place seemed ever more idyllic as the commute and the hours and the partying closed in. He mortgaged and borrowed and pleaded and bled and financed an eatery in Hudson or Rhinebeck or wherever it was. He named it after himself. I’m sure you heard about it.

The reviewers went crazy, including the arts writer for the New York Times who wrote that piece about his plating techniques. He won a James Beard award, but it was the Food Network gig that clinched his fame. He was a natural on TV, barely breaking a sweat as he was thrown into competition against other chefs, including the episode where he made the news by calling Guy Fieri a pissant.

He got his own show, which meant he had to bring in a chef to run the restaurant that bore his name. This fellow helped develop the ideas that seemed crazy on paper but which won him acclaim. Like the time they decided that stuffing a pheasant with berries was old hat – how about a sparrow. Better still, how about a pair of sparrow’s wings, frozen till crunchy and dusted with blueberry powder, served on a slice of sake-roasted chanterelle.

No foodstuff was immune to this type of teardown, but the more obscure the ingredient, the more the critics twittered and the more the customers happily paid. And they paid, three figures into four, spread over many many months at 24 percent, because they needed to buy their way into the realm of the self-styled cognoscenti.

You couldn’t call it contempt for the customers, exactly, because they seemed so eager to nibble the bizarre-sounding bark that he scraped from his trees and the hams that he told them he’d smuggled, little transformed dots of which barely soiled the plates of the costly tasting menus he devised. And the TV cameras loved all that stuff, as did the cookbook where the photos made it all seem so colorful and huge and inaccessible.

The fame took its toll on his marriage, of course, because he had an agent, a publicist, and a hungry attorney to heed, and he fetched high fees at fancy dinner gatherings where he didn’t have to do a damn thing except talk and eat. And drink.

His daughter entered kindergarten. His wife suggested a divorce. His girlfriend stole three grand from his wallet. He got a takedown notice from some asshole in Seattle who insisted that his most successful YouTube video was a direct steal, and even though the hungry attorney assured him otherwise, it nagged at him enough to drive him to take a break. “I’m going to spend a couple of weeks on the farm with you, honey,” he told his wife.

“It’s too late,” she replied. He hoped that it wasn’t. It was late in August, hot as a kitchen out there in the fields, and he worked alongside the starry-eyed kids for a day or two until his goddamn back gave out and he lay down, supine, in the middle of a field and breathed in the mustardy post-harvest smell.

Alongside him, a little red berry sat hidden, unpicked. He plucked it from its stalk and studied it. A strawberry, but tiny, not at all like those monsters the produce guys stock. It was crimson and warm and exploded as soon as it sat on his teeth. It erupted, in fact, with a force out of keeping with something so small, with a sweetness so deep and intense that he’d swear he had eaten a handful, at least.

Nothing he’d served in the past twenty months had a flavor as wholesome as this. No possible way could you mess with that berry and come up with something as good. In the morning he watched as his daughter had fun with her meal: macaroni and cheese.

For lunch he enlisted her aid in designing a batch with a b├ęchamel base, refining the type and proportion of cheese till it came somewhat close to the stuff-in-a-box. “But it’s fresh,” he insisted. His daughter just shrugged.

He gave up the restaurant bearing his name. He bought a small hashhouse on Main Street. He’s serving a menu that’s brought him right back to his roots. The red sauce is crafted from San Marzano tomatoes that the kids grow for him in his fields and he tries to make his pasta from scratch when he can. The fish comes in fresh and he re-learned how to break down a leg of veal.

His agent and publicist washed their hands of him; his new, lower-priced attorney is a regular customer. The fame he now courts is the pleasure of giving a six-top an excellent meal with a take-home box or two.

He’s back to working the line, of course, and that’s why he wants his marriage to survive. He needs someone to snuggle against after a hard night of work. Life, like the restaurant business, is for conviviality, not competition.

Metroland Magazine, 31 December 2015

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