Classic in Aspic

Some Mighty Good Eatin'!

1. Hot New Cooks: Raetheon van Buskirk, L’Auberge Sanitaire

Starting a trendy new restaurant in the piney-woods backcountry of central North Carolina sounds like a daunting enough task, but consider this: when Raetheon van Buskirk first opened her farm-to-table eatery in 2012, it was built into the lavatory facilities of a 1930s tourist camp.

“We had no choice,” Chef van Buskirk laughs. “It was the only property in Scunthorpe County that had indoor plumbing!”

The eccentricity of L’Auberge Sanitaire didn’t end there. From the beginning, the entire staff of the restaurant dressed in dental hygenist smocks, bought in bulk from a military-surplus catalogue.

“We had no choice,” the 29-year-old explains with another laugh. “We couldn’t afford real chefs’ and waitpersons’ outfits.”

Her fortunes turned in 2013 when the food reviewer of the Greensboro newspaper paid a surprise visit.

“He was the oddest little gentleman, van Buskirk recalls. He came all alone and insisted on the table in the far corner. I said to myself, I said: That little gentleman is a restaurant reviewer.”

 

Which prompts the inevitable question: How did you know he was a gentleman?

“That was easy,” van Buskirk chuckles. “He was wearing a top hat!”

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What this is

Here are scraps and bits of a satirical novel that I was writing in a notebook a couple of years ago, based on my time at Food & Wine magazine. I see that most of the bits are not ‘published’ and those that are, are just rough drafts. I don’t know if I’ll finish this ever. It needs a couple weeks of hard work, and I don’t do the same intoxicating substances anymore.

You Can Use the Privy in the Rain and Never Wet Your Feet

Seated behind his vast, dark, antique elephant-teak desk ($500 at Abercrombie & Fitch in 1920, back when that was a lot of money even at Abercrombie & Fitch), Michael Patrick Puffington leaned back contentedly and shut his eyes. Weightless on his reclining SuspensaChair, he was oblivious to all sensation except the soft chirps of his beloved niece and nephew, Jilly and Dilly. They were somewhere off in the middle of the floor, cutting out photos from back issues of Privy.

“Uncle Puff! Uncle Puff!,” the twins cried out, or at least one of them did. “There is a picture here where you have a great big live seal on your desk! Did you used to have a pet seal, Uncle Puff?” Then somebody started going “Arp! Arp!” like the barking of a harbor seal.

“Oho, I know what you’re looking at,”Puffington said, not opening his eyes. “Big old smelly seal we brought in here about ten years back. Sammy the Seal. Yes, he was going to be the model for our magazine’s mascot. We didn’t have a mascot, and I always think a high-toned magazine should have a mascot. You know, like Esky.”

“What’s Esky?” asked one of the twins.

“Little little cartoon man with the cane and moustache. Think he wore a homburg too.”

“What are you talking about, Uncle Puff?” said the other twin.

“Before your time. He was the mascot for Esquire magazine. You know, like the bunny-rabbit for Playboy. I believe he once danced in a movie musical with Ben Blue.”

“You’re crazy, Uncle Puff!” said the twins together.

“Before your time, I suppose.” Mr. Puffington tapped his fingertips together and gazed at the ceiling. “Anyway! We were going to have a seal for our mascot, a cartoon seal. I had the art department sketch one out, but it was a little too stylized, looked like ad for Glass Wax. (Never mind, you probably don’t remember Glass Wax.) So that’s when we hired this great big harbor seal, name of Sammy, so we could sketch him from life. We had plastic dolls made up by a promotional house out in Jersey. I’ve got one around here someplace…”

He fumbled in a desk drawer, at length extracting a twelve-inch-high plastic figurine of a black harbor seal wearing a top hat, monocle and white bow-tie. “There he is,” said Puffington, standing the toy upon the desk and inspecting it closely with one eye. “Lord Privy Seal! I got a closet full of ’em someplace. We were going to give them to our advertisers and new subscribers to Privy magazine.

“See, the top hat here is hollow”—Mr. Puffington stuck in his index finger—”so you can store matches or cigarettes in here. That was my idea. Like the toy storks they used to have on the tables at the Stork Club. You kids probably don’t remember the Stork Club.”

“Unh-unh,” said Dilly.

“Was that like the Mudd Club?” asked Jilly. “Our mother always talks about going to the Mudd Club back in the Olden Days.”

“I suspect not. But let me finish my story. We started giving them away to people, our Lord Privy Seals. The marketing people downstairs made us stop. Bunch of jerks. They said giving away plastic figurines was inappropriate because we were an upscale magazine.  I was absolutely livid. I go: ‘How can you get more upscale than Lord Privy Seal, for lordy sake?’

“They say, ‘It’s sending out the wrong message. Somebody called from Baume & Mercier. What is this shit?’ (Excuse me, kids.) ‘We’re in the hi-class timepiece trade, and you send us this plastic junk? Head of Hammacher-Schlemmer gets on the squawkbox and demands to know how it works. Does it need batteries? Do you wind it up?  ‘ Okay, I say, should we make them in gold? That’s going to cost us a bundle.

“‘No, no, no,’ they say, ‘forget it, it’s the seal part that’s the problem. It sends the wrong message. If it were a lion or a tiger or an elephant it would be a different story.  But people don’t look up to seals, they don’t admire them. They don’t consider them classy.'”

“What about sea lions?” the twins asked. “Would they have liked a sea lion?”

“I didn’t raise that point,” said the uncle.” Lord Privy Sea Lion? Might have been okay. Sea lions have back feet, don’t they? But I just gave up, I was so sick of the whole thing. Okay, have it your way, we won’t have a mascot, I thought. Nyaah!”

glass wax

Over in the new Bank of America building, an attractive young lady on the 20-oddth floor was talking on the telephone and contorting herself. Well she might be attractive, but she had her back mostly turned to the window, and anyway she was a little too far away for the naked eye. David owned a nice pair of Ghurka binoculars, but the art director borrowed them a few weeks ago for a feature shoot and never brought them back.

on the top floor of the Photoplay building

Dressed in white sailor suits

 

Offbeat TALKATIVE FELLOW who has ambitions well beyond Privy,
SETS THE WHEELS IN MOTION with the kids and Puff:

German, yes. Like the Parent Trap, you know. In the original version of the story, it was a pair of boy-and-girl twins who met at a summer camp near Berlin in the 20s and discovered they had been separated at birth, so they switched identities. Very kinky, very Weimar Germany, this was like 1930. The girl cuts her hair short, the boy grows his a little longer—not much, because not much time here, like three weeks—and they switch clothes, and they pretend to be each other, so they can get to meet the parent they never met, and perhaps they can figure out a way to bring their parents back together. Well sir! It was a brilliant tale in this first telling, so a  publisher snapped it up…but then balked! It was just too…too. Now, this was the same author and publisher who’d just scored a bit hit with something called Emil and the Detectives. Emil was very kinky in its own way, with submerged themes of pederasty and child abuse, but all that was acceptable in a children’s book; you’ll find worse things in Pinocchio and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. But two kids switching sexes…a little too much for 1930 Germany. So the author rewrote it, turned the boy into a girl, made them into two girl twins, and all was safe. But it wasn’t as interesting, and the company forgot to publish it. The Nazis came in, the company went out of business, the author was politically suspect. At one point he tried to turn it into a screenplay called ‘The Two Lotties” and there was mild interest in some European studios but no one was ready to lens, as Variety would say, till one of Walt Disney’s people picked it. Disney had a onetime animator named David Swift who ended up working on the Disney live-action films. He was very driven and talented—he married that fab 50s actress Maggie McNamara, and then later she committed suicide—and in fact David Swift is the main reason why Disney turned from animated cartoons to live-action in the late 40s, the 50s, the early 60s. He wrote and directed all the Hayley Mills films: Pollyanna, The Parent Trap, Summer Magic, etc., but the biggest one was The Parent Trap. Which of course was based on  Kästner’s old story/screenplay about ‘The Two Lotties.’ (That was the writer’s name, yes, Eric Kästner.) It’s interesting how many of the original plot elements remain in the Hayley Mills film. Do you know the film? I don’t want to bore you. You do? Okay. Good. Let’s see, so in the original they meet at summer camp, and encounter each other at a dance between the boys’ camp and the girls’ camp. The girl cuts her hair short, and the boy is able to pass as a girl. Now this is all carried over into the Disney film with Hayley Mills: one of the girls is boyish, with short hair; whilst  the other one has long, curled hair. Long-hair cuts her coiffure, masquerades as the tomboy twin,  goes out to her father’s California ranch where she rides horses, although she does it English-style, being from Boston and all. (This was a minor plot-point in the script, and I think it was cut. What’s the difference between Western riding and English riding anyway? It required too much explanation.) In the original story, the girl twin, pretending to be a boy, pretends to be very sick and dying, and demands to meet her/his mother, and the father is reluctant, says he doesn’t know how to get with his ex-spouse. And the only reason the two parents and twins ever get together is that the girl twin (pretending to be a boy) ends up in the hospital where she is going to operated upon. And that’s when the doctors find out she’s a girl. The father searches for his ex-spouse just to get his son back, and the son comes back (dressed as a girl, because the neighbors and relatives see him and his mother off at the train station), and so does the mother, but it’s unclear whether it’s all going to work out. Kästner just sort of left it there as a domestic comedy.

What Fresh Swill Is This?

Argument, old argument, between Shorty and Cookie. Hi Cookie. It’s about horsemeat. Sluggo Bender was on the Today Show with Cookie and he’s starting a big horsemeat thing.

Saved by the bell. Its the twins. Jilly and Dilly. Shorty has to go away because DPP is there asking a favor. There is no job for Jilly and Dilly at Wine & Dine. “What’s the point of being Editor in Chief if you can’t give people jobs?” Besides, Cookie owes DPP a favor. DPP brought Dodi Purefoy aboard. All that miscellaneous food-and-restaurant stuff that they had to have a half-dozen assistant editors pry and curate from a hundred occasional writers, Dodi could crank that stuff out by herself. She said, people always thought the radio shows were spontaneous. I took a few calls, sure. But I can’t work without a script. I sit down, write whatever comes to mind, stick in the name of some actual establishment, say something nice about it, and move on. Except here I don’t have to read it while taking phone calls from people who ask me if I’ve been to that new brasserie in the Hotel Del Coronado.

Meantime Jilly and Dilly go out to sample the food that’s always left on the counter outside Cookie’s office. Chocolate-covered parsnips or something. They pretend to get violently ill. Somehow they then get a job. for a few days among the proofreaders in the carrels beyond Cookie’s office. They call up various food shows and get news and crap. It’s a stupid job. They make it interesting by wearing funny clothes. One day they come dressed as Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, then they come as Becky Thatcher and Becky Sharp. And you didn’t know, really, which was the boy snd which the girl. Then they both come as boy scouts and then both come as girl scouts. One day they were both dressed in the pillbox-hat costume, with little white gloves and skirt suit,  from an early Cindy Sherman photograph. This went on for about three weeks.

A Problematic Place

“This is a problematic place,” Shorty Tufts said, all alone.

It was a favored word of his. He didn’t speak it much aloud, not since his early days Midtown Magazines, when once or twice he used it at a quarterly staff update in the Big Conference Room on the Tenth Floor, and then he found out way afterwards that some of the nimrods thought “problematic” was some kind of computer program. He still murmured it, though, whenever he could.

“Prob-blem-matic.” Shorty was in the elevator. In the elevator Shorty could murmur to his heart’s content: “Wine & Dine is particularly problematic, festooned with a myriad of difficult personalities that do not, do not, they do not—GET it. This itself is problematic…

“It is much more problematic than, say, dealing with the people at Fly + Buy. Why is it more problematic than dealing with the people at Fly + Buy? It is more problematic because the people at Fly + Buy (and I’m talking here about both print  and  web) know they’re just supposed to produce pretty photographs with captions—yeah, if a caption goes on for more than 50 words they call it an ‘article,’ sure, whatever— thereby providing a nice environment for touting high-priced cruises to Cinquecitta or quickie gay getaways to Belize. (Old ladies, secretaries, and fags: what would we do without them?) Fly + Buy is a tackier book, no doubt about it, but the Fly + Buy crew know the score, you bet!

“The Wine & Dine people. Conversely. Pretentious and stupid.  Equals problematic. ”

All this cogitation and muttering took no more than seven seconds, because Shorty went through this drill about three times a week, whenever he was particularly agitated by one of the Wine & Dine kooks.  The kook who was bothering him right now was the overbearing, obnoxious halfwit called Jeremy Preen. Jeremy Preen arrived as a temp about 18 months ago, originally in the Online Marketing department for Wine & Dine. By the time his project was ending, Jeremy had wormed his way into Online Development, by dint of meeting almost everyone in the company and telling them that he, Jeremy Preen, could Design! Develop! Execute! Manage! Oh, and did I say I come from an entrepreneurial background?

 Oh ho! Entrepreneurial background! Shorty had heard it a thousand times. The usual cover story for people who had never had a real job, or who had ten-year holes in their résumés. You’d be interviewing them for some shitty job no sensible person would ever want, and they’d tell you, with a forced smile: “Oh! I had my own company!” “That’s when I Worked For Myself!” “Yes, I’ve been self-employed recently.” Shorty fervently hoped that someday, someday, someone would say—Oh that’s when I was in the McLean Sanitarium for three years! Utterly barking mad I was! I’ve tried to look at my notebooks from the asylum, but they make no sense whatsoever. Wrote a couple of good poems, though. Not sure what they mean. And then Shorty would hire this person, just for the hell of it.

While Jeremy Preen was delivering this sales pitch (it was some Online Marketing meeting that Shorty had to sit in on), Shorty had glanced around and seen a couple of other people in the room giving him a half-wink. One of them was Veronica Concannon, the bubbly little Chinese woman whose office was next to Shorty’s. As soon as the meeting ended, Veronica sidled up to Shorty and giggled,“He’s a genius at self-promotion, I’ve give him that!” 

“Yaah. Not much of a genius if he really thinks we’re buying his bullshit.”

“What difference does it make? He knows it doesn’t matter!” Then Veronica giggled, in her midget-Chinese way; and Shorty—who was not much given to giggling but not an awful lot taller than Veronica, truth be told—well, Shorty giggled too. Despite himself.

That was a year ago. Jeremy Preen was still around, and Shorty Tufts was amazed by him. “Seven years out of Bee Joo—where he majored in Gay American History or something similarly edifying —and he’s never had a fucking job worth mentioning. Till now of course. Veronica sure called that one right. Prob-blem-matic! Does Preen Queen not realize we see through him?”

Still a temp, Jeremy had moved to a tiny carrel in Online Development and began to call himself a Front-End Developer. His basic knowledge of HTML was sufficient for him to chat convincingly about a web page’s source code. Alas, he knew nothing about Flash or ColdFusion, two things the department really needed help in. Jeremy said his lack of knowledge was deliberate. “I don’t bother to learn old technologies. Why should I? In a year or two they’ll be completely dead!” He added helpfully that he was learning Ruby on Rails “and really enjoying it!”

As there wasn’t really much for him to do in Online Development, Jeremy made himself seem busy by filling up his day with lunches, “check-ins,” and all-afternoon conference-room meetings with his old colleagues from Online Marketing. They were invariably friendly to Jeremy. Only occasionally did they wonder why he was there, inasmuch as he didn’t work for them anymore.

Shorty got off the elevator on Nine and went to the Men’s Room to talk to himself a little further. The nice thing about the Men’s Room on Nine was that it was always very clean because there were almost no men on Nine. A couple of print designers on the print side of the floor, and the big black guy, Lefantoon, who ran the shipping desk. Those were the only males. You could take a dump at 5:30pm and there would be full rolls of toilet paper in the stalls. Like a hotel!

my Jeremy’s

“Howya doin’ Mistah Tufts?” Lefantoon, the immense black man who occupied the mailroom and shipping desk, gave a curt wave as

The Hunt for Dodi Purefoy

Our Executive Bottle Editor, Gunnar McNab, is a dab hand at matching the proper wine or whiskey to your plate of food. He can even match it to your face. Just show Gunnar your mug and he’ll tell you what kind of hootch you drink. Or should drink.

As fans of his frequent appearances on The Today Show know, Gunnar is also an inspired mimic. Recently we spent a lush afternoon with him at the trendy Axolotl 45 bar and bistro. In the course of five minutes, Gunnar enacted a vast rogues’ gallery of Beverage Faces. There’s the jowly pout of the inveterate chianti guzzler; the heavy-lidded, flaccid face of the bottle-a-day Stoli man; the lean, keen, aggressive smirk of the Jack Daniels regular; the wall-eyed stare of the blowsy old floozy with the chardonnay-all-day habit…

“That’ll do, McNab,” said Shorty Tufts, with a stressful half-smile.  “People are staring.”

“Of course. They’ve seen me on TV.” Gunnar McNab waved across the room at a table of French people who had never, in fact, seen him on TV. “Hi, fans!”

“Hard work, being a celebrity,” Gunnar said. “What are you having, Shorty, drink-wise?”

“Glass of something,” said Shorty. Shorty was not known for his charm or conversation.

They felt someone hovering behind them. Without looking up, Gunnar knew it was the proprietor, one of Wine & Dine Magazine’s favorite Hot Young Cooks (June 2012 issue). Out of the corner of his eye, he’d seem him sidle in from a smoke break.

Time for a little fun. “Ah, garcon!” Gunnar said, not looking around. ” I see Jean-Georges has put my Kick-the-Bucket California Riesling on the menu. Bring us a bottle. And what goes good with that, you think? Some braised amphibian perhaps? Do you still have the mudpuppy appetizer?”

“Mudpuppy is a dessert, McNab. You know that.” O’Callaghan saw Shorty Tufts grimace as he mouthed the word (Mud? Puppy?) so the chef helpfully explained: “It’s chocolate, dark Mexican chocolate, molded in the shape of a mudpuppy. Everyone loves it. Except people who get migraines.”

“What happens to people who get migraines?” asked Shorty.

“Well, they could get a migraine. It’s that kind of chocolate.”

“Guaranteed migraine-inducer if you get migraines, but otherwise delicious as all hell.”

“No dog meat in

“You be nice to this one,” said Shorty, wagging a finger, “or he’ll make you sit through his bestiary of lush faces.

1. Hot New Cooks: Jean-Georges O’Callaghan


Axolotl 45, New York City

“It was Mexico that made me aware of the existence of food,” says Jean-Georges O’Callaghan, whose original six-table upstairs bistro with the bad ventilation and unspellable name, Axolotl, was the great sleeper hit of the West 43rd St. eating scene in 2011. According to legend, you had to book six months in advance and tip the hostess $100 just for the privilege of putting your name down. But now the restaurant has moved two blocks to the north, to a  ground-floor space with five times the seating, a working HVAC system, and a fair chance of getting a table if you call a week ahead.

But O’Callaghan doesn’t want to talk about reservations. He wants to talk about Mexico.

“It’s not like America at all,” says the star chef. “It’s a completely different place.”

Like many young chefs, O’Callaghan came to his profession through a roundabout route. He grew up in the suburbs as plain old Jack Callahan. “We were just a standard, normal family, eating standard food. What we knew about haute cuisine was, basically, if you could smell it, you probably shouldn’t eat it.”

O’Callaghan chuckles and rolls his eyes back  until only the whites show. “One day I met this Italian kid in Cub Scouts. We went over to his house. I’m, like, totally blown away. All these weird odors! Of course, when you’re eight you can smell everything. But I got used to it. They had a huge color TV, and a Sony PlayStation.”

The Mexican epiphany didn’t happen until he was 21. “I went down there on a visit, trying to finish my senior thesis on Christopher Isherwood, and hoping to get in some scuba-diving too. But I never saw the ocean because I got lost. I ended up deep in the interior.”

He ended up in a place named Qcxqua. “It’s pronounced ‘Ga,'” says O’Callaghan, “or maybe ‘Goo,’  depending on the dialect. Anyway, it’s way down there, in the jungle, near the equator.

“Most college kids think Mexico is all green Jell-o shooters. But these people were so backwards they didn’t even have Jell-o! Genuine savages, they were. But they did have a lot of bizarre spices to cook with, and they needed these spices because mostly they lived on dried cactus and iguana. They ate a few other things, but only on special occasions. There’s this slow-cooked giant salamander that you bury under a rock and  roast for three days. Then they have some funny little rodent I forget the name of. Actually they have a lot of funny little animals, but I never knew what they were, because they all tasted like chicken. That’s why we have so much chicken on the menu. Because funny little animals are hard to get here, and most people wouldn’t know the difference anyway.”

O’Callaghan drags on his cigarette and warms to the theme: “It’s not a compliment down there to say something tastes like chicken. In fact if you want to insult someone, you say, ‘I theenk you taste like cheecken!’ I got that all the time. ‘Greengo! Taste like cheecken! Cheecka-cheecka-cheecka!” The chef flaps his wings and jumps about on the sidewalk, terrifying the tourists heading for Shubert Alley.