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Posts Tagged ‘Dining Culture’

I am back from New York. The City. I left there about seventeen years ago, and have only returned three times since – once for a wedding, once for a funeral, and once after a divorce. New York was my home from the time I was fourteen years old till the time I left, basically – except for a few travels here and there – but I always returned.

I left New York to be married. To have children. To grow a family. And I have done so – though not exactly in the way I supposed I would, with a husband by my side, but rather without a husband by my side. That’s another story, for another time perhaps.

I returned to New York this time with my daughter. My daughter headed herself towards the city without any urging from me. It is where her heart has led her at the age of sixteen, to study art at one of the best schools that exists for studying art – and in one of the most challenging programs.

There is pathos in this picture, for the similarities between the way my daughter entered the city to begin her life there (if only for this month of summer school) and the way I entered the city to begin my life there are just about as different as day and night. But this is not about that, this is about the food.

It’s hard to get a grasp on the picture of a person through food, really. It can be drawn, a picture, of anyone – with food. The hidden meanings of the food can be brought forth, the adjectives and verbs tossed into the picture as if with a charcoal pencil, to ink out a personality. Quite useful, very entertaining. Often false. The delicate vegetarian can hold a heart full of driven hate and the meat-gnawing potato chip chomping pagan just might turn out to be a gentle soul cautious of ever saying the least offensive thing to anyone at all who may cross his path.

So I’m not going to try to do that – to draw a picture with food. Nor am I going to draw a picture of food. Instead I’ll just tell of a walk down a street in Brooklyn Heights that has something to do with food.

My daughter and I walked down the street in Brooklyn Heights. I showed her the apartment I lived in, before there was a person called my daughter, who now walked beside me. I pointed to the building where I’d knocked on my father’s door (the address of which I’d found to my great surprise in the phone book)(and to my even greater surprise found that he lived in the same neighborhood I had landed in) for the very first time ever to introduce myself to him without warning, at the age of fourteen. There were several restaurants whose doors had remained open all these years in the neighborhood that I’d lived in (a rare thing in the city) but we passed them by.

We walked way down to the end of Henry Street, and entered a narrow-fronted brick building. After all these years, during the time I’d grown a daughter, this restaurant had remained open. This was the first restaurant I’d ever eaten in, when I was around my daughter’s age – that made food something which held a sense of artistry within it, and a depth that went beyond my perception of what food was – or what it could be.

We sat at a table, and I looked up and saw the same guy cooking as had been cooking at the line all those years ago. It did not seem real, but it was. The menu had changed somewhat, but still had the fine touches but not glaring spotlights that spell a deft touch without a vaudevillian edge.

The food was good. It always was.

But I must say that any food pales in my mind and heart in comparison with that simple walk down the street to get there, with my daughter. One fourteen year old runaway had come back to the city she’d entered with a duffle bag full of clothes and forty dollars. That’s me. And she’d brought her daughter to go to art school, and to eat at the restaurant that had first inspired her to think of food in such a way that led to becoming a professional chef – Henry’s End.

Is this about food? I’m not sure. But if you ask me about food and my trip to New York, this is what comes to my mind.

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When the stakes are measured in billions of dollars, ‘love’ is an action word.  The action isn’t that of a gentle hand drawing little hearts and initials on a sheet of notebook paper . . . and it doesn’t involve pounding your chest and bellowing out Tarzan-like cries. Love, in this case, is an action word meaning the highest level of performance even the most demanding perfectionist might think they could dare to expect.

Life at this honored merchant bank was to be part of a well-oiled machine constantly fueled by this devotional love.

This love offered the ones who participated in it easily defined, measurable, numbers-based results in terms of compensation, benefits, and annual bonuses . . . but that was simply the cherry on top of it all.

My job was to make sure the love could be tasted by those whose rank allowed them the privilege. Tasted, smelled, felt – the love would seep into their beings from not only the foods placed before them to eat . . . but the concentrated essence of the emotion would be magically pulled from the very air somehow, to enter into every single one, individually, as they stepped onto the deep Oriental carpets signaling my domain.

In other words, they were spoiled.

They were well spoiled, and babied too – dubbed with a marvelous sense of laudation from the instant they entered my turf. That was my job, as their executive chef. And what a wonderful thing it was indeed.

As I remember it, the love was really flowing that day.

My pre-service rounds showed a kitchen humming with activity. The cooks, sous-chef, and dishwashers moved together with competent precision in a coordinated dance. Divine aromas arose from hundreds of recipe ingredients being tossed, chopped, seared, caramelized, and steamed. Across the corridor from the kitchen the private dining rooms had been made ready into a shiny perfection, solemnly waiting for guests to arrive to be held, to bask in their warm embrace.

The men began to arrive. In twos and fours they walked with sure and ponderous intent . . . all of them, gentlemen. It could not be any other way here. The code was set as firmly into the place as a well-done tattoo on the arm of an old sailor.

The softest of a rich, muffled peace reigned as drinks were served. China and silverware clinked like a forgotten song, and the deal making began.

I returned to my desk, and stuck my nose into a cookbook – seated warily ready to meet and greet as the need or desire arose. People like to meet the executive chef.

The kitchen did not need me – the chef was pleased to take full charge of everything he could. My job was to plan, to devise strategies, to solve problems with staffing or money, to create menu plans, to create new recipes, to write policy and procedures manuals, to meet with all those who wanted to meet to talk food, their food, the food they wanted so much to reach the highest summit of perfection, my job was to implement operational plans to make things work better, always better – to create a higher love quotient for both kitchen staff and guests.

A ragged panting noise sounded from the hall, but it didn’t make sense. Ragged panting simply didn’t happen here. Jose fell around the corner of the long hallway through the door right into my office, gasping for breath.

“There’s a guy on the floor, he fell off his chair, he’s turning funny colors!” he managed to grunt out. I ran after him halfway back down the hall to the dining room with the open door.

Four men stood gathered together in one corner of the dining room, all staring rigidly at the fifth one who had been with them at the table. He now lay crumpled, twisted off the chair, flat on the floor.

He was old, tall, thin. His hair was a delicate soft white. His face was (as Jose said) turning a funny color. There was a bit of saliva coming out the corner of his mouth. His skin lay flaccid and pale on his cheeks.

As I bent to take his pulse my hands were trembling. I felt as if I might fly right up into the air from shaking so much. “He has a heart condition,” one of the men said. “Who are you?” I asked him. “I’m his brother. And his partner,” he added.

The dining rooms hostess entered the room in a rush, and she and I started CPR, talking the steps out loud together as we leaned over the old man who lay passive and flat on the  thick beige carpeting. It was the first time either one of us had done CPR “for real” – that is, on a person, rather than on a plastic dummy.

His airway was clear.  I took his mouth between my palms – so feeble-looking and lax – and began to breathe into him as Kathy did compressions on his heart. Time suspended itself in thin air, just as his breath and heart had.  There was no time.

I wanted his brother to help. “This is your brother, asshole!” I wanted to scream at him. “It could as well be you. Is this how you would want to be treated by your brother if it was you? Get over here. Talk to him. Hold his hand. Call his doctor. Touch his hair. Get out of the fucking corner and down on this floor!” But his brother was frozen in the corner with the other guys. They were cardboard cut-outs, immobile, shocked into standing in place by what was happening in this room where these things did not happen.

The EMTs arrived after forever. And when I looked up from where I was kneeling on the carpet, up over my shoulder back towards the four stick-men in the corner, I was startled by an odd sight.

Their eyes were not focused on the man who had been their brother, their business partner, their friend and peer. Instead they were honed with machine-like precision upon something else. It was my behind that had captured their attention. They were all staring with attention from their immobility in the corner, directly up my skirt.

One life was gone. Massive heart attack, the doctors said later. Nothing, really, could have saved him in that moment. They took him away, and the men in the room awkwardly dispersed. There was going to be no more lunch at that table, that day.

I walked out the door and up the thick-carpeted cherry-paneled hall hung with oil portraits to the ladies room.
Then closing myself in a cubicle, I cried, sobbed, without making a sound. My mouth opened in a scream, tears like a waterfall poured out from my eyes and when I could stop I did. Then I went back to the dining room.

The walls gleamed softly, dressed up finely in their washed heavy silk – a silk that lay quiet, a silk that never screamed. Did it swear? It may have, from time to time. Maybe at those times the soft deep carpet would cool the wallpaper’s surprise. Maybe the large windows like huge gray eyes where the East River could be seen in slow steady transit – choppy little waves here and there – reminded the wallpaper that life goes on, one way or another. The sun rises, the sun sets. Another day would come filled with usual things: love, sex, death, money, food and, of course, as always, questions of dress.

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