I am the last person on the planet to be writing about chefs. The very last person. Food is not my thing and hasn’t been since I was twelve. Before that I must say food was indeed my thing. I loved it, I thought about it, I experimented with it, I cooked it and made up recipes for it. My sausage sandwich on a Kaiser roll with the inside bread scooped out was a wonderful concoction I thought up myself. With hot sausage rounds, neatly cut from a link and a fried egg dripping bacon grease on top with a ketchup / mayonnaise dressing. I made that up at age ten and lived for it every Sunday after church. On the way home we’d stop and get the fresh rolls from Hyman’s Bakery. Delish.
The year before when I was nine, I figured out that cooking tomato sauce for hours and hours and sometimes days, adding things like butter and a pinch of sugar, would make it better and so I made sauce a lot that year. Watching my mom make chocolate pudding, whisking in the hot milk, waiting, almost drooling, for her to hand me the mixer to lick is a cherished memory.
What started my disinterest in food is something that happened when I was eleven. It was on a Sunday morning. I was standing in front of my mother who was struggling to zip up the top of my dress. “Oh I see your going to be the chubby one in the family.” She says this with a small and sweet laugh, my sweet mother does, no judgment or zinger intended. “Gulp” was the only sound out of me. Plump little me, bursting out of my red plaid dress, freckled face aflame.
My mother was the eldest of 12 children. All of them chubby except for her and the next in line, her sister, Ann. Most of them had what my two sisters and I referred to as Sheridan legs. Short fat pins. None of us wanted Sheridan legs. So I began to lose interest in food and didn’t have the taste for my sausage sandwich after church that Sunday.
But the real nail in the pound cake coffin came one day a year later while crossing Park Ave. Right there on the Park Ave divider, while waiting for the light to change, my sister, who is only eleven months older, turns to me and calls me a butterball. A fucking butterball.
It must have been around November/December. The turkey eating months. I don’t know, but she may just as well have called me a pig. That was it. Yes, if you were a head of lettuce, I was interested, ripe cantaloupe, I’d jump in and explore new ways of slicing you, but basically it was over. Me and food. Over.
It was so bad and I was so repressed and in such denial of the many pleasures that food had to offer that I even had a huge lovers spat in the middle of a romantic Parisian holiday. Only a stupid twit would cause a fight in a place so beautiful. Almost broke up with my main man at the time, on our first trip to Paris, in the middle of Tuileries Gardens. Before he started to speak I could see it was going to be something serious. We hadn’t been together long enough for “Will you marry me?” but I was not expecting “I hate the way you eat.”
Me: “What…Excuse me? I am a very polite eater.” Stunned and dumbfounded, I was totally unprepared for the tirade coming at me. Him: “No you are not a polite eater. You don’t eat and that’s not polite. You are just no fun to eat with.”
Ok I am not going to bore with the rest of the dialogue or any more detail, but it did end with this embarrassing statement. “You should love me for me, not for what I eat”, I said getting in the last word but truly not getting it at all.
Thank God I’m much better now and have put all of that macrobiotic business behind me. My palate is not as refined as it could and should be after living with a restaurateur and serious food lover for 10 years, but I know what I like and want it well prepared, limited as it is to tuna sandwiches, fried eggs, BLT’s and Wise potato chips. Let us not leave out, washed down with an ice-cold Coca Cola in an 8 oz glass bottle. That, I am very particular about.
It wasn’t the hot time in Paris that caused the shift, though. It was Michael, my friend Michael Roberts, who I loved so much and miss so dearly. There are times, even though I detest making phone calls, when I just want to call him up and hear his voice. He had a lilt to his tone, happy, like a young boy, and genuine. Surprised and happy you were calling him and ready to have a laugh with you. He was my first chef. He was the man who set me straight as best as any man can. He was my first chef, the first I’d really ever met, actually, so let’s hear it for starting at the top.
My friend, Michael Roberts was “The Chef”, a pioneer on many levels and a dear and wonderful man. It’s only fitting that I begin my series on chefs and what motivates, inspires, nourishes and continues to ignite their fires, with my dearly departed pal Mikie, as some people could call him, but not too often! It’s with love, humility and gratitude I share my friendship with Michael Roberts, partner and chef of the Los Angeles Restaurant, Trumps, the place to see and be seen, at lunch, dinner and high tea from 1980 until 1992.
My royal friend Michael is resting in peace fully engrossed in a fabulous piece of classical music, eating, drinking, doing what the great ones get to do when they pass on, having left all the fine cooking to the chefs I’ll be introducing you to over the next few weeks. In noodling this series, thinking about the hook, the common denominator, the thread of the story, it became obvious to me that what the chefs I was interested in all have in common and are propelled by, is heart.
Ain’t it always that way?
LA based Writer, Annie Stein, has written for C and More Magazines, NYTimes and is a regular blogger on Huffington Post. She runs creative writing workshops for at risk teens.