Slice of Life: Enzo and Elvis

My Lost Morning with Charlie Trotter

ENZO AND ELVIS - My Lost Morning with Charlie Trotter

Charlie Trotter and the author, minutes before saying goodbye. June 2012. (Photo © Table 12 Productions, Inc)

BROOKLYN, NY—On November 5 of last year, reports that Charlie Trotter had died, at the tragically young age of 54, ripped through the restaurant industry.  In a quirk of timing, I was interviewing Jeremiah Tower in the lobby of the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco that morning.  When he had to take a phone call, I sneaked a peek at my iPhone to see that my wife, Caitlin, had texted me the news.

Tower called it “a shock.”  I agreed. It was shocking, but not as shocking as it should have been.  I had visited Trotter in Chicago for an interview sixteen months earlier, in June 2012.  He didn’t look well.  I won’t speculate as to why because it would be just that–pure speculation–although on the heels of his demise, friends and the media pointed to both a heart condition and a brain aneurysm; a few weeks later, the Cook County Medical Examiner ID’d a stroke, resulting from high blood pressure, as the cause of death.

When I heard the news, and for days afterward, it wasn’t to my actual interview with Trotter that my mind traveled.  Rather, it was to what had happened on its margins, our personal interactions when the recorder wasn’t running.  It was an odd, at times infuriating, and ultimately heartening twenty-four hours, but it was none of those things for the right reasons.

I started writing this piece that fateful week in November, then set it aside; it didn’t feel right to share it then.  But I couldn’t get it out of my head, and enough time has elapsed that I wanted to now.  Having finished it, I wish I had posted it back in the fall, because at the end of the day, it’s a positive yarn:

A few months before Charlie Trotter shuttered his eponymous restaurant, I had been invited to interview him for this website and made the trip to Chicago to do it in person. He was granting a great many audiences in those months, and I had just sold a book project about his generation of chefs and had been meaning to ring him up anyway, and to visit the restaurant before it served its last supper.  Nevertheless, I was a bit hesitant to invest time and money in the trip because he was the only chef who’d ever stood me up for an interview, albeit just a phoner.  I’d also had an uncomfortable encounter with him at the Bocuse d’Or tryouts in Orlando, Florida, in 2008. Nonetheless, having been repeatedly assured that a last-second cancellation — or, worse, a no-show — was out of the question, I bought a ticket and made a date via his publicist.

Part of the reason I decided to go was that I’d long been fascinated by what I referred to as the Two Trotters.  Even those who were close to him, or admired his gifts from afar, acknowledged or had heard that he could be difficult. This was not a secret in the industry. On the other hand, he was a chef of great passion (see clip below) and relevance; counted among his best friends two of the most amiable guys in the industry, Norman Van Aken and Emeril Lagasse; was relentlessly philanthropic; and many people who once cooked in his kitchen—Marcus Samuelsson and Graham Elliot Bowles to name just two–cherish their time with him as invaluable and formative.

My plan had been to have dinner at Trotter’s during my Chicago visit, and to interview the chef while in town.  By the time the trip came together, two chef friends from New York–one a peer of Trotters, one a contemporary of mine–had decided to come along for the ride.  When Trotter heard who would be joining me, he invited us to be his guests for lunch.  The plan, I was told, was that we’d dine at the restaurant and then the chef and I would spend the rest of the afternoon interviewing at his home around the corner.  It wasn’t until I arrived in Chicago that I realized Charlie Trotter’s wasn’t open for lunch.  I called the publicist, who explained to me that we’d be dining in the kitchen.  This was just hours before our lunch, so I also took the opportunity to assuage my lingering doubts and re-confirm that the interview was on.  Etched in stone, I was told.

It was an insanely generous meal at the famous kitchen table.  Each chef de partie cooked a dish for us, personally presenting it.  Veteran sommelier Larry Stone, back in his old stomping grounds for the final summer, was also on hand.  Trotter himself joined us for a spell, sitting at the table’s fourth chair, then disappeared.  It was a splendid, marvelous time, almost surreal in both setting and service.

It was after lunch that things got strange: The three of us were led on a tour of the wine cellars, then ushered to the front door.

“Is Chef meeting me here, or at his home?” I asked.

None of the be-suited staff knew what I was talking about.  I explained about the interview.

“He’s going to call you on your cellphone,” somebody bluffed.

“He doesn’t have my number,” I said, gradually realizing that history was repeating itself and that I was about to be stood up once again.

A lengthy, awkward silence followed.  Not wanting to shatter the halo of our lunch, I said goodbye and left.  Outside, I called Trotter’s publicist and explained the situation.  She was shocked, and hung up with me to try, fruitlessly, to find him.  I told my friends to push off and that I’d meet them for dinner, then called the publicist, told her — among other things — that I was going to plant myself on a bench in a nearby park and not move until I heard from somebody.

And there I sat, in a suit and tie. In the June sun. For two hours.  Periodically, the publicist called to update me:  Nobody could find Trotter, not even his wife.

Finally, my phone rang.  A private caller.  I answered it.

“Andrew, it’s Charlie,” came the voice on the other end, excited and happy…. 

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Slice of Life: The Heartbeat

Remembering Roger Ebert and Jane Kleinman

[Regular Toqueland readers will have to forgive me – this post has nothing to do with chefs or restaurants – but I wanted to share these thoughts.]

Jane Kleinman

I learned of the death of two people who had a tremendous impact on my life last week: One you’ve heard of and one you probably haven’t.  One I knew personally and one I never met.  Both helped me understand myself a little better when I was a teenager and then, unexpectedly, taught me something about death and dying as an adult.

The one you probably never heard of was my high school drama teacher Jane Kleinman.  I have no recollection of when I first met her; when I think back at that time in my life, it just seems that she was always there. As a student at Ransom-Everglades school in South Florida, I took her drama classes and acted in her productions, rehearsing on weekday afternoons and performing on Friday and Saturday nights:  Carnival, Our Town, Guys and Dolls – if you were an adolescent thespian, you can probably guess some of the others.  When I directed our senior class play David and Lisa, she flattered me by playing a small role herself.

Jane’s classroom wasn’t a typical one.  It was a wide, desk-less space and I remember hanging out there before homeroom and during down times between classes. Rehearsals for her plays were the social highlight of my adolescence, along with weekend set-construction sessions, road trips to state acting competitions, post-performance gatherings at the local Swenson’s, and the wrap parties that followed the end of each run.

Jane was also my first connection to the greater artistic world.  She had studied with some up-and-coming actors of the time, such as Jim Puig, a local talent who had gone on to Broadway success in Rum and Coke, and Steven Bauer, who played Al Pacino’s aide de camp in Scarface, and who was married at the time to Melanie Griffith.  This was the early 1980s and our school was a tony private academy on Biscayne Bay, but it was also situated in Coconut Grove, which retained much of its ramshackle 1970s hippie charm — after school, a bunch of us regularly strolled into the Grove, past palm trees and pink, Spanish-style houses to sit at breezy outdoor cafes and on weekends we’d go to the Grove Cinema and participate in midnight showings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Against that backdrop, Jane helped guide my creative awakening, along with the brilliant English teacher Dan Bowden; the big-hearted Beau Siegel, a raspy-voiced New Yorker and art instructor; and another teacher – I’ll leave her nameless here – whom a bunch of us called by the nickname we overheard an adult friend call her one day,  “Doobie,” until she told us we had to stop before we got her fired.  (We didn’t know what it meant!)

Jane was not a slim or glamorous woman, but she had a beautiful face and a heavenly voice. One year, at the school talent show, she stood on a bare platform illuminated by a harsh spotlight and somewhere between Jenna Robinson’s rendition of “Nothing” (the song about Mr. Karp) from A Chorus Line and Jeremy Haft’s monologue from Feiffer’s People, sang “Send In the Clowns.”  Thirty years later, I can still hear the wistful, Patsy Cline-worthy ghost of a laugh she inserted between “Don’t bother” and “they’re here.” Most of us had never heard her sing before and we were spellbound, as though discovering she possessed some kind of superpower that she’d been hiding from us.

My most indelible memory of Jane – Ms. Kleinman to me in those days – is the warm-up exercise she engaged us in before each play we put on.  The cast would gather in a circle backstage and hold hands.  We closed our eyes and she’d talk about “the heartbeat,” a pulse that united us and which would ensure that we were in synch on stage.  As she spoke, she squeezed the hand of the person to her left and told that person to pass it on to the next one, and to keep it going until the heartbeat came back around, over and over again.

And there we stood, eyes closed, waiting for the squeeze on our right hand, then squeezing the hand of the person to our left.  She’d talk us into a trance, describing how we were a unit, how our hearts  beat together, and as she did, she’d direct us to pass the heartbeat along a little faster, and the pulse would make its way around the circle, coming back around almost as soon as it left us. When it seemed to be moving as swiftly as an electron, she’d quietly say, “Break a leg,” and we’d all let go of our hands and open our eyes, a little dizzy from the experience, and go to our respective ready positions for lights up…. 

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Slice of Life: Ciao, Centolire

My Last Lunch at Pino Luongo’s Upper East Side Restaurant

Pino Luongo, at “our” table at Centolire

A few weeks ago, I went up to Centolire on Madison Avenue, for a last lunch there with Pino Luongo.

I’m about the last person capable of writing an objective sentence about Pino. Not only was I briefly his publicist a lifetime ago, but we’ve written three books together and he’s been an exceptional friend to me: the year that I became a professional writer, he gifted me an office in his corporate headquarters over Le Madri so I wouldn’t have to spend all my waking hours in my cramped apartment; when he heard I was going to propose to my then-girlfriend on a trip to Italy, he arranged all of our Tuscany accommodations; and, last year, when I was rocked by a family tragedy, he was among the very few who picked up the phone and made one of those excruciating, supportive calls that nobody wants to make.

Of course, if you know anything about the New York City restaurant business, then you know that this isn’t necessarily everybody’s relationship with Pino. In an affectionate chapter in Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain famously summed up that Pino was “.. . a man envied, feared, despised, emulated and admired by many who have worked for and with him” and acknowledged that much of what his fellow chefs who’d been through “Pino’s wringer” had to say about him was “undoubtedly true.”

I’ve always found those sentences especially memorable, apt, and fair: Pino has his detractors and his enemies, but he also has his fans and friends, a small and strangely silent group of journalists and chefs who will privately tell you that they admire and learned a lot from him. For my part, I’ve generally made it a policy to go by own experience with people, adopting an “innocent until proven guilty” approach. It was with that orientation that I began my working relationship with Pino, and we’ve been tight for more than a decade.

I knew that Centolire’s closing was coming, having had a window onto Pino’s feelings about what he had long considered exorbitant rent, and of his deteriorating relationship with his landlord over the past several months.

And so, there we were at lunch. We only ever sat at one table: the deuce at the top of the stairs to the second floor, from which Pino could thank diners as they left, or urgently wave over a floor manager to tend to them as they arrived. We interviewed for two of our books there and caught up over dinner regularly when we weren’t engaged in a collaboration.

It was a spectacular June afternoon, and the downstairs cafe was full. Upstairs, in the main dining room, the crowd was sparse, as it usually was at lunch. For this momentous occasion, I wanted a pasta and selected the Bolognese, robust and soul-nurturing as ever.

It wasn’t exactly a mournful meal, but Pino was clearly a man with a lot on his mind, because news of the restaurant’s imminent closing was about to break, though we had no idea how soon that would happen. Although he still runs the modest Morso, on East 59th Street, Centolire was the last in a string of grand restaurants that went back to the mid 1980s and included such juggernauts as Le Madri, Coco Pazzo, Mad 61, and Sapore di Mare in East Hampton. Centolire opened at the tail end of Pino’s ill-fated takeover of the Sfuzzi restaurant chain in the late 1990s as well as his personal Everest, Tuscan Square, a combination restaurant and retail concept in Rockefeller Center that never quite found the substantial traction required for such a gargantuan enterprise.

… 

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Slice of Life: Grains of Sand

A Visit to Red Rooster Harlem, and Entirely Too Brief Encounter with Marcus Samuelsson

Marcus Samuelsson at the Bar at Red Rooster Harlem (photo by Paul Brissman)

More than anything, Red Rooster Harlem reminded me of the sand.

About ten years ago, I asked Marcus Samuelsson, then the chef of Restaurant Aquavit, if he’d grant me an interview for use in a proposal for a book I had in mind. He happily obliged, inviting me to the one-bedroom apartment in the West 40s where he lived at the time.

I had first met Marcus during my short, unhappy life as a restaurant publicist in the 1990s. Aquavit‘s owner, Hakan Swan, had recently appointed him, then just 24, the chef, then hired the agency for which I worked to rep the place. Marcus’ celebrity is such that nobody thinks anything of his name anymore; his story–orphaned in Ethiopia at age 3, adopted by a Swedish family thereafter–has become common knowledge. But when he first turned up at Aquavit in Midtown Manhattan, he was incongruity personified: a skinny black kid with a Swedish handle cooking Scandinavian cuisine in a townhouse once occupied by Nelson Rockefeller. Customers who didn’t read the food section flirted with whiplash as they panned along with him whenever he passed through the dining room and it slowly dawned on them: “That’s the chef!”

I’d say that Marcus and I came up together except that it’s a pretty absurd statement given how far he’s ascended. But that’s how it felt at the time, and still does in retrospect, in part because he was so supportive of my own trajectory. It’s not easy making the switch from publicist to professional writer; generally speaking, people want to keep you in whatever box you shipped in. But it can be done; just ask Peter “Lucky Peach” Meehan. When I was first going for it, Marcus was immensely and uncommonly supportive. After my first foray into professional writing, the next few times I saw him, he’d flash a warm grin and say, “You’re a writer now, Andrew.”

… 

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Slice of Life: “For Auld Lang Syne”

Chinese New Year with Two American Chefs? A Burns Supper at … Marea? How It All Went Down…

It’s turning into one of those weeks: One late night after another, each morning bringing a painful reentry, a test of the restorative powers of a hot shower and pot of coffee, the eternal question of why I pony up for that monthly gym membership. But I’ve been powerless to stop it. Such is the lure of great food and drink, the reassuring presence of old friends, and the giddiness of meeting new ones.

Oddly, unpredictably, delightfully, the past two nights have both conjured thoughts of New Year’s Eve. Here’s why:

Remembering Chanterelle

What happens when chefs order: one “course” of dinner for three at Legend.

“Too much food!” cried our waitress at Legend, a Chinese restaurant on Seventh Avenue in Chelsea.

She didn’t know who she was dealing with: David Waltuck of the dear, departed Chanterelle and Harold Dieterle of Perilla and Kin Shop. And a culinary writer always happy to follow their lead.

Both toques are Chinese food enthusiasts, who first met last year, when the Waltucks (David and his wife Karen, former goddess of Chanterelle’s dining room) and I had dinner at Kin Shop.

The two chefs had long respected each other from afar. Both also love Asian food. So it was decided that the three of us would connect for a Chinese dinner. By the time we got around to scheduling it, the two had gotten to know each other a bit by participating in a few of the same charity events, and by David and Karen’s visits to Harold’s restaurants, both of which are in their West Village neighborhood.

We met Harold after service at Kin Shop, around 9:30pm Tuesday night. Given the hour, rather than a Chinatown spot, David picked Legend, which he first discovered by way of a New York Times review last year. We made the five-minute walk and settled into a banquette just past the bar. Despite the fact that this is Chinese New Year’s week, the hour was late and the restaurant was nearly empty, save for a few diners in the subterranean space below.

Sitting with these two guys, I didn’t even bother offering an opinion as to what we should order when our waitress arrived, pad in hand. Harold, in turn, deferred to David: “You go and I’ll fill in.”… 

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