Look Back With Embarrassment
I’m frankly delighted to be out of the country when tonight’s WHERE IT ALL BEGAN special airs. While it’s a very good piece of film making by a very distinguished gentleman named Dmitri Kasterine (who put over a year of his life into it), I dearly wish I were not the subject. I just can’t bear looking back at that black-haired, post-crack-skinny, arrogant twerp. I’ve said elsewhere that I “had” to be arrogant to get through the day but looking at this guy (me) eleven years ago, not fifty dollars to my name, unpaid rent hanging over my head, years of back taxes and credit card debt, no real accomplishments (and plenty of wasted advantages) to my credit….and I thought, already, that I knew everything. Standing there in my restaurant, my first real book newly situated on the best seller list–and I was clueless. I had no idea–no IDEA what kind of tractor trailer was headed down the pike and straight up my ass. I see a guy standing on the precipice…and my instinct is (after slapping him a few times) to yell back at him. Warn him. But what would I tell him? And would I have listened?
It turned out okay in the end, I guess. I won’t be watching the contortions of my younger self on TV because I’m on family vacation near my wife’s hometown on Lago di Garda in Italy. Absurdly delicious gelati in the medieval village down from my hotel, bigoli con sarde for lunch, later, maybe some fegato a la Veneziana with some rough, country-ass wine. There are Roman ruins strewn around the area like the discarded party favors of the Gods. My daughter is learning to swim. I will be answering all e-mails with a curt “no” or “regrets”.
An e-mail I am responding to, however, is the one informing me of the death of Michael Batterberry, founder and publisher (along with his wife, Ariane) of Food Arts magazine.
Michael was one of the first people anywhere to treat me like a writer–back when I was an anonymous, line-cooking journeyman chef, long before Kitchen Confidential. The Food Arts offices were down the street from Les Halles and he’d stop in often, always–always–impeccable in pin-striped, bespoke suits. He seemed, from outward appearances, the last person in the world who would know me–or care much what the hell I had to say. But he did. He assigned me articles, talked with me about the industry, asked my opinion at a time when no one else cared. The cover photo of Kitchen Confidential was, in fact, originally commissioned by Michael for Food Arts. It illustrated the article I wrote for him, “Mission To Tokyo”, which later appeared in slightly different form in the book.
The menacing looking blade I’m holding in that picture is a 16th century Japanese ceremonial sword that Michael borrowed from the Asia Society. He was from before the beginning–and until the end of his life, fiercely supportive of my writing. It should be noted that he and his wife were also the founders of Food and Wine magazine, created specifically as an antidote to the stuffy content in food magazines of the day. That together they wrote a number of excellent books–including the superb ON THE TOWN IN NEW YORK, probably the best history of the New York restaurant and dining scene you can find. (I relied heavily on it for Typhoid Mary).
That Food Arts was way ahead of its time in that it focused on CHEFS at a time when everybody else was looking at bundt cakes or refrigerators. Their column on chefs’ movements from restaurant to restaurant–as close to a gossip column as it got in the industry, was something of a revelation. Clearly somebody was reading about chefs. Somebody cared about them. I filed that knowledge away for future use.
My fondest memory of Michael Batterberry is when he called me up out of the blue and invited me to dinner at LE VEAU D’OR, an old, criminally neglected restaurant on the Upper East Side near Bloomingdales. I must have walked by the place a hundred times but I’d never been in. Michael delightedly pointed out the menu–unchanged since the forties–and assured me that I would love the place. He was right. It was–and remains–one of the last places in New York where you can get the good old stuff, the French food of my childhood, a selection of dishes so passe, so out of fashion–and in an environment untouched by time. It is a magical place and it spoke volumes about Michael that he would choose it–of all places–to take me to dinner. It says you have a big heart when you love LE VEAU D’OR –and a sentimental streak a mile wide. Michael had both.
You can see Michael and I reliving that meal on the Disappearing Manhattan episode of NO RESERVATIONS. I’m grateful to him for so many things. That restaurant is just one of them.