Sunday, August 10, 2008

Some People I've Been Thinking About

Emotions sometimes come over us unexpectedly. The last couple of weeks, since back from Peru, mine have been very close to the surface. And I've been looking for some old friends on google and myspace and not having luck. Then, the other day, someone wrote to say they had a video of me with the owners and chef and assistants--along with me--in front of Wilson's Restaurant in 1986, when I was a co-chef there. I wrote the person back but they have not responded. I'd love to see that video of my old pals Sarah, Johnny R, Glen, Debbie and Pedro. They were all my friends and life moves on but we don't forget them. Then there was Annie--with whom I'm occasionally in touch--and Nancy W and Jan and Richie and Fast Eddie and Richard and John D and his brother Dan, and Q and Cleo 7 and a host of others I worked with for nearly 8 years at Wilson's on First Avenue and 75th Street in NYC and then at the old Lucerne Hotel on 79th and Amsterdam. And before that at the Banana Boat and Arthur's Court with Malcolm and Artie Heyman and Doc and all those guys; and then at Jimmy Day's in the Village and the Mad Hatter, and the Lodge and one of my all time favorites, Bayard's on 79th and Lex with Mickey and his partner and Oona and all the rest there.
I loved cooking and one day I'll share some plates we used to make: Linguini with lobster and garlic and shallots in a good brandy-cream; roast duck with lingenberry sauce; cold loin of beef with raspberry and whiskey sauce; chicken breast stuffed with spinach and feta; rack of lamb en crute, parsaillade, with a good burned-off cognac; beef tenderloin on a bed of sauteed spinach topped with sliced bone marrow and strawberries in a brown sauce; sliced loin of pork stuffed with apples and apricots in a port wine sauce with a brown sauce base (a good brown sauce is always at least two days work: one day to make a great beef stock; a second day to reduce 5 gallons of stock with bacon and vegetables and spices to a one-quart brown sauce). We had the greatest times, me and the guys and gals who worked with me, taught me, learned from me, laughed with me, got buried and dug our way out with me. We fought, we laughed, we got terrified when there were lines at the door, and there were nearly always lines at the door.
I miss you all. Thank you for working with me, putting up with me. Calling me El Diablo--as Fast Eddie named me--because I was always screaming. But Eddie learned the secret: Just get done what I needed done and you'd never hear anything but thanks from me. And I'd get you 10 bucks more a day than any other joint in the city was paying.
I loved having people around me, like Jonny R, Sarah the wonderful, and John D, who challenged me. Who asked me to invent a new plate or side dish every day. And some of them, like Sarah, were my bosses, even though I was billed as co-chef. I loved being challenged and I was up to it. I remember one time we had this new guy, Paul, come in. He was going to start with us at Wilson's on the East Side and he'd just finished the restaurant school at Cornell and he walked into my kitchen like he knew stuff. I'd only been trained on the street (with a few months in Europe: France, Portugal, Spain) and didn't even know half the stuff he was talking. But then he saw me working with Dover Sole, which in 1985 cost maybe $11 a filet, and he saw me bread it in crushed walnuts and then flip it in my saute pan and then squeeze fresh lemons with a bit of butter over it and he later said: "When I first entered your kitchen, I thought, this guy doesn't know anything. I just graduated from the finest cooking school in the US. And then I saw you bread that freaking world's best sole in crushed walnuts and flip it in a pan like it was a fried egg and I thought: 'well, maybe I ought to slow down and learn a little something from this crazy guy before I dismiss him altogether.' You blew my mind with that circus act. Nobody flips Dover Sole!"
And I miss you too Paul and know that I appreciated your telling me that.
And I miss my sister Pat, the great designer; and Reg, the school teacher; and Barbara and Paul and their kids; and Mike and Verni and Michelle and Vic; and Peggy and George and Jen, Chris and Alison.
Like I said, my emotions are up to here and I'm gonna ask for some space from readers wanting a funny story about my family cause that's not what I'm doing tonight. Tonight I'm celebrating some people I worked with in hot kitchens doing hands-on earthy work. Kitchens are the earthiest place I know. Much more earthy than the Amazon Jungle. Kitchens are where you kill lobsters and snails and cut up half-cows and mash your fingers into food and use your fingernails to turn steaks (never use a fork cause you will ruin a good steak that way) and so your clothes are full of blood and every time you're called to the dining room to get an ovation or whatever you have to change your coat and apron so that people won't be disgusted. But in the kitchen we loved the blood. We loved the tag the foods left on us. We were playing mud pies and were doing it at $15-$35 a plate. And we were making people happy. We were making them forget their problems. My father Tom, a Broadway actor, used to tell us kids that he opted for acting despite going to med school because as an actor he was a doctor for 1,000 people a night. He was right. And as a chef inventing new things, combining things that no one had ever put into a cookbook, I was a doctor--my team were doctors--to 100 people a night in our little restaurants.
So this is a thank you to them. To those who made my work shine. To those who shined so brightly that even now, 20 years since I quit, I'll bet there are thousands of people who still mention the dish they had and loved as our guests. You were all wonderful and I will never forget you.
I am also remembering a couple of the women I loved today. I remember Kathy O'Sullivan, my high school sweetheart. I remember Gail Burrows, and especially Clare Waugh, now Foley, and the 10-15 years we had together. I'm sorry I wasn't good at committments back then. And Gail Ruscetta, who used to do and make me do pushups before going to bed; and Albie H who gave me so much. And Sandy G. You were the women in my life. There were others-I've already married Chepa and we're still somehow crazily involved so I'm not including her here--and you all were wonderful to me. More wonderful to me than I was to you.
And all the rest of you who have lent me your strength--Phil B and Lynn C, Lar and Chuck in particular--your love, your decency. You are the guys who made me. And if you could see me now you might not be happy with what has become of me. But I will never forget any of you.
Thank you.