In 1999, after 46 years of independent existence, to achieve greater efficiency at lower cost so it was said, the U.S.Information Agency was absorbed into the State Department. This was not front page news and hardly came as any surprise to the vast majority of Americans who had been unaware of USIA’s existence all along. Of those few who had heard of it, the word “information” nagging uncomfortably undefined in the backs of their minds, many believed erroneously that the organization had “something to do” with the Central Intelligence Agency. Indeed, concerned that foreign audiences might also wonder if that was the case, especially it tin-word “Agency” was exported, those in Washington in charge of nomenclature changed the overseas name of the organization to the “U.S.Information Service” and so, in the early 1960’s after working for a while in Washington for the Voice of America, a branch of USIA, I began an overseas tour of duty in Calcutta as an “Information Officer” for USIS, the “information” being information about American foreign policy, politics, and culture which we disseminated in the usual ways, through publications, films, and so forth (television and the Internet would be added much later, after my time). And through personal contact with newspaper editors and other opinion molders. Cold War Warriors we were, yes, but not spies. We were propagandists.
By and large this fact seemed to be accepted even, for example, by Indian journalists who, though not necessarily pro-Soviet, were not exactly pro-American either. Still, there were times when we were accused of being something other than what we claimed to be.
This was the most notable example of that in my experience:
Calcutta was an extremely volatile city during my four years of service there—1963—1967—and there were ample opportunities for trouble makers to stir up even more of it than already existed. The Communist Party of India had split into right and left factions, bitter opponents reflecting the Khrushchev-Mao ideological quarrel, the majority right wing aligned with the Soviet Union, the left with China. Rivalries and violent feuding seethed and erupted among a bewildering spectrum of leftist parties and political groups.
The USIS offices on Chowringhee Road, a main thoroughfare, were housed in the former Whiteways & Laidlaw department store, its old show windows then decorated with USIS exhibits (usually reflecting scientific advances in such fields as Space Exploration and Oceanography). Massive processions of strikers and university students paraded past almost daily it sometimes seemed, shaking raised fists, shouting slogans and occasionally throwing stones. None of our windows got broken but one of my two assistant American information officers, curious to witness a demonstration while standing on the sidewalk one afternoon, received a minor scalp wound from a flying rock. Elsewhere, factory owners were imprisoned in their own offices. Tram cars were set on fire. In the newspapers were photographs of police, protected by wicker shields, making lathi charges and cracking heads. Army troops inside Fort William along the Hooghly River were reported on the alert. After a while this state of affairs seemed to be part of the normal flow of events in the West Bengal capital.
USIS Calcutta had also established a branch cultural center in the University area, several miles away, staffed by assistants to the CAO, the Cultural Affairs Officer. I had gone out there once when the facility first opened, but it was not in my bailiwick and I had not needed to pay any further visits. The day a communal riot broke out near the university, as usual I was nowhere near the place. This riot was particularly notable because it was not a traditional clash between Hindus and Muslims but between Hindus and Sikhs. Over what alleged outrage I cannot recall, only that police and army units quelled the fighting, the worst of it anyway, in a relatively short time. What was astonishing to read in one of the three English language newspapers the morning after—the Hindustan Standard I believe— was that a member of the West Bengal state legislature had accused me, by name, of being an agent provocateur who had instigated the communal clash. Proof of this, claimed this deputy, was that I had been seen in an official U. S. vehicle (we were driven around in black Fords) near the location where and just before the rioting had broken out. No one of any repute took the fellow seriously. Attributing such sinister power to a lone U.S. consul, or even to the entire U.S. consular-USIS staff for that matter, was scarcely credible even to Communist or pro Communist politicians and journalists perfectly willing to denounce U.S. activities on almost any pretext. Especially not credible since my accuser had a reputation as a notorious police informer. For a few days my chief Bengali contacts—reporters, editors and columnists in the lively Calcutta newspaper world—there were six large circulation dailies and many smaller dailies and periodicals in those years—kidded me unmercifully, all of them, even one or two I had reason to suspect were two-faced, albeit charming, rascals, being well aware I was too busy pursuing above-board activities to have time either for spying or fomenting riots. But under the circumstances I wouldn’t have missed being denounced as an evil master-mind, even by a despicable fink. I suppose it was my proudest moment.
Without auditioning for this role or having the slightest talent for it, I had been cast as a secret agent in the theater of the absurd, not any sort of everyday occurrence that would be repeated in Calcutta itself or at any of my four other foreign service posts. But back in Washington for good after 11 years overseas, I did for quite some time lead an actual clandestine life and played a double role, each hidden from the other, that is the true subject of this narrative.
Bengal, Israel, the Soviet Union, the Netherlands and Morocco, there, in that order, my wife and I and our children served from 1963 to 1976.In the first four lands the art of cooking was not high on the list of national achievements, though a few home cooks in Calcutta were accomplished; there were a few excellent Italian and Greek restaurants in Tel Aviv, and the Dutch grew outstanding vegetables. About cooking in the Soviet Union, the less said the better. But Holland is next door to Belgium and beyond Belgium is France, where we spent several fortnightly holidays which restored our faith in the possibilities of the table. Then Morocco! Ah, Morocco, turned out to be a reward for the years our palates had been deprived. Morocco not only had an interesting, delicious cuisine of its own but in various locations the French culinary tradition was still strong. Splendid seafood, wonderful lamb, expertly cooked, could be enjoyed all along the Atlantic coast from Agadir to Tangier and at auberges in the Atlas mountains. In the north where the Atlantic curves into the strait of Gibraltar and on into the Mediterranean, Spanish dishes, notably grilled fresh sardines, thin-sliced grilled swordfish, and tapas, added welcome variety. I was inspired. I loved to cook. I had been cooking seriously since the age of ten. I’d collected cookbooks for almost 20 years. When the Moroccan tour of duty ended and I was reassigned to Washington would it be possible to switch careers from diplomacy to restauranting? In the meantime, the raw materials for memorable dishes were ready at hand. To learn, to perfect.
With some professional training and experience in one or another of the French, Italian and eclectic restaurants burgeoning exponentially in the Washington area, I believed I might become a chef and eventually open my own place, a prospect that seemed to hold out the possibility of a rewarding, even glittering future, more rewarding than that offered by mid-level government bureaucracy. Thus began what I have for some years now called a period of temporary insanity. To their everlasting credit, neither my wife, two teen-aged children and one nine-year-old (in 1976) ever told me I was crazy though they knew perfectly well I was. I was 51.We lived on my salary. There was no other financing in sight. But they knew I had to discover for myself whatever cold, hard reality was out there lying in wait.
It took a while. Over the next two years I worked five days a week at USIA and on weekends in a half dozen different restaurants in the District of Columbia and Virginia, primarily in a D.C. luxury hotel, at an inn in the Northern Virginia horse country, at a place in Georgetown with an eclectic menu and at a Creole restaurant in Old Town Alexandria. No one at USIA knew what I was up to, and no one at any of the restaurants knew exactly what I did during the week.
“L’Auberge in Middleburg” was nestled in that upscale village in sight of the Blue Ridge mountains. My wife and I had dined there once, and I’d been impressed by the quality of the food and service and the agreeable atmosphere. The lady who seemed to be in charge struck me as someone I could talk to, who would listen.
Her name was Sally. She turned out to be the owner and she had done pretty much what I hoped to do—leave one profession, in her case (after a divorce) that of a small city housewife, or more accurately, society matron, and open up her own restaurant in which she could do at least some of the cooking and otherwise preside over an oasis designed to provide one of life’s greatest pleasures for those who could afford it (though Sally’s prices were quite reasonable).
The big difference between us was that Sally, as I did not, had the capital, in her case to buy a big old Main Street house in Middleburg which had been an inn around the turn of the 20th century, then had been a private residence until heirs of the last late owner had put it on the market. She installed a professional kitchen, turned three downstairs parlors into dining rooms seating 60 all told and lived and had her office in the second story rooms reached by a grand staircase off a spacious front hall.
I got up the nerve and drove out there alone one Saturday afternoon. Like many quality restaurants, L’Auberge did not serve lunch on Saturday but the front door was open and Sally happened to be in the front hall looking over the reservation book on the lectern out there. I told her about myself as quickly as possible in a rehearsed speech and asked her for a job as a weekend chef’s assistant.
“Come and take a look at the kitchen,” Sally said, and a few strides later I got the point quickly. The kitchen was small. “It’s a one-man operation,” she said. “I’m the one man at lunch, Bernard is the one man at dinner.” The only helpers were a salad/dessert girl at a separate station, and a dishwasher. Three waitresses, a bartender and a bus girl worked out front.
But Sally offered me a job as the headwaiter she didn’t have, and I accepted. Presiding over the front of the house was, after all, the essential half of any restaurant operation and here was an opportunity to learn how things were managed at the reservation and serving end. Cooking could come later, somewhere else. In the late afternoon before the first customers arrived I thought I’d also have an opportunity to study the kitchen operation and watch Bernard at work as he prepped for the evening service.
When all goes well, when all tables are filled, when all diners appear pleased, when no one refuses the Sauce Bearnaise and asks for catsup, when a few more adventurous eaters order, say, the mussels or sweetbreads or the civet of rabbit or the roast lamb rare, when esthetic satisfaction and well-being radiates from dining room to kitchen and back again and assumes solid form in the cash drawer, the rewards of this profession can be considerable. But the risks are high. Success depends on imponderables as evanescent and frivolous as customer whim and pique. And of course on the strength of the competition and the state of the economy. Sally had competition. It was no good saying the older inn down the street served only ordinary American fare. The place had been established for years and was always crowded with the rich who didn’t much care what they ate as long as the Surf & Turf, prime ribs and apple pie could be washed down with quantities of booze and coffee. The horsey set who patronized “L’Auberge,” mostly women at lunch, perhaps more women than men at dinner, had traveled more widely and ordered wine, but they didn’t exist on some significantly higher plane of culinary sophistication. The black barman at “L’Auberge” could get as busy as a one-legged man at an ass-kicking, as he put it, dispensing martinis and bourbon and Scotch on the rocks before dinner and cognac afterwards. A regular, I’ll call her “Mrs. Fitzhugh,” was one of the last to leave one Sunday evening. She was in her 60’s, wore classic $500 designer dresses, a couple of rings and a pin the only jewelry but containing a large number of carats. She invariably sat with other people but none of them appeared to be her husband. Sometimes she left with friends, sometimes, as on this particular evening, alone. Her driver waited for her at the curb. As I was about to open one half of the big double doors for her she looked at me with the direct, though slightly alcohol unsteady gaze of a face that had never reflected the slightest concern over lack of money.
“You’re new around here, I believe,” she said, her voice slurred. “Let me give you some advice. Three things you have to know about the rich. They drink too much. They’re stingy. And they don’t pay their bills.”
She left quickly then and spared me the necessity of trying to respond to this enlightenment.
As usual, she had left a perfectly adequate 15 percent tip.
So the weeks passed. I felt like a spy in that rich, horsey world to which I had never belonged and never would belong, with Mrs. Fitzhugh, a kind of traitor to her class, feeding me inside information as she had that one time, though never did again. In the meantime, my all too short glimpses of Bernard’s work in L’Auberge’s kitchen only increased my restless need for hands-on work in some kitchen somewhere.
An incident that propelled me toward this goal even more quickly occurred not long afterward. Did it have to happen sooner or later? Evidently. But I would have set the odds at 30—70 that I wouldn’t run into anybody who knew me, a false hunch yet possibly right at that. And I was lucky.
Possessing only a single corporeality, if I happened to be seating a party in one dining room or another I wouldn’t be able at the same time to greet new arrivals in the front hall. On busy Saturday and Sunday evenings, the only evenings I worked, Sally floated around as a backup. So it was that it was Sally who seated one of the geographic area directors of USIA one evening. Now I had never served in any country in this man’s geographic area and had never met him outside of it. He might not know me by name, though it was possible he did. I had passed him numerous times along USIA corridors and had he been on his way to lunch or wherever with one of my area directors I would have exchanged greetings, by name, with his companion. I certainly recognized him. Would he recognize me? It wasn’t something I wanted to happen. And for the next hour or so that was a distinct possibility, perhaps unavoidable. Not all the tables were filled in the dining room where he and his party were seated and other tables would be vacated as early diners departed. And so, as I was forced to usher in new customers to tables adjoining his, I felt the need to perform a routine that might have been written for Peter Sellers or Stanley Tucci. L’Auberge’s menus were large, stiff, four-page affairs. To the extent possible I hid behind them, holding them a bit higher than usual as I entered the room, bringing an extra one to serve as a screen as I went out. I stood with my back to the USIA executive whenever I could. A couple of times I exited through the kitchen, my back to everyone. The experience was nerve-wracking. Rattled, I accidentally dumped a tray of wine glasses in a gentleman’s lap. Fortunately the glasses were empty and none of them broke. And fortunately the incident took place in one of the other dining rooms and the gentleman did not explode into outrage, (though he wrote a testy note to Sally later on.)
I was in the front hall when the USIA man emerged at last but he wasn’t looking my way and I spun away as though summoned, or stung, and disappeared into the dining room on the opposite side of the hall.
I had survived a close call, but it was clear my role out front was risky.
I had worked at “L’Auberge” about three months. Sally wished me well as I went on my way and from then on my clandestine career was truly that, strictly behind the scenes.
“The Colonial Inn,” not its real name, was in Alexandria near the route to and from Mt. Vernon and accommodated busloads of old people and other touring tourists at lunch and dinner. It was mentioned in a guide book listing “recommended” inns across the U.S. “Since 1935” its Yellow Pages ad noted. Firmly established. Heavy volume of business. Maybe there would be room for an extra weekend cook. And there was! Explained, I supposed, by inevitable turnover among a large staff of employees.
I stayed two weekends. The food was disheartening. The grease on the kitchen floor was truly hazardous. One refrigerator door was broken and could not, in its present condition, be made to close properly. Roaches leapt out of the cutlery drawer. The half-blind old black dishwasher left clots of congealed food on virtually every piece he worked on. Why the place had not been closed down for health violations I cannot say. Though I would have been perfectly justified in alerting the appropriate Virginia health authorities I did not. I probably should have done so but I did not. I might have been a spy but I was not a snitch. I simply never went back, collected no pay and took the deep breath of freedom denied the all black kitchen staff behind me.
Along M Street and on Wisconsin Avenue, the Restaurant Rows of Georgetown, I made the rounds, Saturday afternoons, trying to talk executive chefs and chef-owners into letting me work in their kitchens. Surprisingly, they were understanding, even sympathetic. These were the days before such schools as the Culinary Institute of America were turning out brigades of trained young cooks, and on-the-job training was still possible. But the chefs I spoke to had all the help they needed at the moment. One Frenchman, however, recommended I talk to the executive chef at the “Hotel Jamestown,” also a fictional name. A hotel kitchen was where I needed to start, he advised. But rather than marching into the Jamestown’s kitchen cold I decided to write a letter to the executive chef. I’ll call him “Henri Jouvet.” Had it been up to Jouvet I believe he would have tossed my letter in the trash. Instead, possibly concerned that I could be some eccentric with connections who might complain to the hotel’s owner, a D.C. socialite I’ll call “Mr Canterbury,” Jouvet turned the letter over to Canterbury himself. Who got me on the phone at home, said “I like your attitude. Come in and see me,” and the following day—I took annual leave to do it—Canterbury was walking me from his paneled office in the hotel to Jouvet’s office in the Jamestown’s kitchen. And thus I became the world’s oldest restaurant apprentice in a country that has no apprentice system.
The Jamestown’s big kitchen serviced all three of the hotel’s restaurants: the rather fussily fancy “Pocahontas Room,” the more casual “Powhatan Grill” and the coffee shop, as well as group luncheons, banquets, and room service.
I’m not qualified to judge on what level the Washington D. C. restaurant world belongs now; my wife and I get up there seldom and when we do, our range is too narrow; we head for one or another favorite Thai place, both excellent. But in the 1970’s Washington was not Paris (or anywhere else in France). It was not New York. No need to rush to the defense of any establishment. There were exceptions. L’Auberge Chez Francois, still going strong 20 years later (now in Great Falls, Virginia), was one. But the restaurants of the “Jamestown Hotel” were not. Individual dishes could be satisfying enough, certain soups for example, the specialties of individual black chefs; steaks, chops and roasts; desserts. Overnight guests with room service and coffee house patrons should have had no complaints about the American breakfasts offered. Hamburgers and sandwiches were consistently satisfactory. But overall “The Pocahontas Room” and the “Powhatan Grill” served, well, hotel food, and I don’t mean the first-rate variety now established in Manhattan. Country club banquet food. Fancy, edible but not memorable, definitely not sublime. And here and there, faked. The “Sauce Perigueux,” not that 99 out of 100 customers knew or cared what its ingredients were supposed to include, did not contain genuine bits of black truffle but rather a canned product made of food-dyed cooked egg white. The “marcassin” was not young wild boar but pork loin marinated in soy sauce. Again, for most customers such deceptions were really unnecessary. Many compound brown sauces with names quite as elegant as “Perigueux” contain less expensive ingredients than truffles. A truthful, let’s say an Alsatian, name for the pork loin dish, which was really quite good, could have been devised. But like exposés of KGB trickery from the Soviet era, my revelations are historic rather than present-day indictments. Perhaps the culinary revolution in America that has evolved over the past quarter century has produced a generation of more sophisticated diners who know enough to demand not only better quality but authenticity and are able to detect any absence of it.
In any case, for eight months without a day off (five days a week at USIA, weekends in the “Jamestown” kitchen) I worked and worked hard from day one. I memorized the contents of three walk-in refrigerators, fetched and toted, chopped, sliced and stirred. I opened hundreds and more hundreds of oysters, broiled Oysters Rockefeller at the grill station, ladled sauce over production line plates of banquet food, poached eggs for Sunday brunch, worked alongside a Central American woman on the garde-manger station composing first courses and salads; alongside a woman from the Mid-East on the sandwich and waffle station, and learned to loath double-decker club sandwiches that take anyone, beginner or veteran, too much time to assemble, cut, and anchor in place with toothpicks. On Saturday mornings I made espagnole, basic brown sauce, in a huge steam cauldron, which was not, to my great regret, produced by the exacting, multi-stage, two-day method decreed by Auguste Escoffier or even by the more simplified formula developed by Julia Child and her French collaborators, but essentially in one morning operation with predictable results: it was less than first rate. But I had no authority or time to attempt to improve it. Before I was permitted to handle the operation alone, I watched in horror one Saturday as an arrogant young French chef made it even worse. At best, oven-browned bones were combined with a brown roux, water, aromatic vegetables, herbs and tomato puree, the amalgam simmered several hours and strained. The French twit skipped the roux and simply thickened the sauce with a flour and water wash. An elderly black cook who also witnessed this abomination was as deeply offended as I was and the end result tasted like something akin to library paste. From then on I could at least religiously make and add a respectable brown roux.
I don’t know if French chefs in the 90’s still make espagnole much any more. Nouvelle Cuisine innovators and their successors got away from flour-based brown sauces and substituted rich stock reductions and pan juices mounted with butter. I did enjoy a classic sauce grand veneur over a filet of venison at “La Chouanniere,” a village inn in Brittany last year. But this seemed an establishment entrenched in the past: its name goes back two centuries and might be translated “Nest of Breton Royalists.” But for my money the most succulent brown sauces are produced by slow-braised dishes like the splendid jarret de veau (“Ossobuco” in Italian) I savored that same October in 1998 at “La Caleche” in Paris, a little place on the rue cle Lille which is both traditional and branché, trendy.
It was another world behind the in and out swinging doors of the “Jamestown” hotel’s kitchen, a world of every race and three dozen nationalities, in a state of uneasy truce, on the edge of physical violence. In the meantime, those who were primed for it, the scattering of troublemakers in every crowd, substituted the frequent violence of words—the every other sentence obscenities and profanities of the resentful, the haters, the quick to anger, the anarchists, the rabble of any revolution. Perhaps Henri Jouvet’s most important task was to police this motley cluster of humanity.
There were one or more men and women from more than 30 countries—France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Iran, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Korea, Ethiopia, Morocco, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Spain and a dozen Latin-American nations. Some of the world’s most bitter political-territorial quarrels were also fought at this level. A Palestinian and an Israeli waiter generally avoided each other but occasionally clashed. An Iraqi, an Iranian, two Iranians from different factions, Moroccans and Algerians, leftists and rightists from Central America shouted insults at each other in Arabic, Farsi, Spanish. Still other quarrels probably smoldered beneath the surface.
Among this crowd were exemplary individuals: a Chinese chef I will call “Mr Wu” who was skilled and used at every station, who spoke little and never quarreled with anyone. The Greek couple, he a waiter, she a waitress, both handsome, though she had crossed the line from voluptuousness into overweight, both there working hard every day (a grandmother at home with the babies), the new immigrants, still making it in America, who would work and save, work and save, spend little on themselves, and in a few years might own their own business and maybe get rich.
There were others. The black grill chef, “Obie Higgenbotham,” though that was not his real name, who broke me in gradually and patiently on the grill station, here and there when I was baking hot oyster dishes or snails a la bourguignonne in his convection oven or broiling Clams Casino. Or later in the evening when most diners had finished their first courses and activity diminished at my garde-manger station. Cinnamon-hued with reddish hair, a man in his 50’s like myself, Obie had a certain polish in his manner and speech and a certain amused curiosity about me which I tried to satisfy up to a point, and we struck up an acquaintance. He told me basic facts about his life. Obie never raised his voice or cursed and appeared in every other way to have an even disposition. He needed it. Skilled volume broiling-to-order steaks, chops, chicken, fish, required a clear head, a good memory, unflappable coolness, and the timing of an air traffic controller. Obie might have a dozen orders working at once—steaks ordered very rare, rare, medium rare, medium, medium well—by fussy people who would send them back if they didn’t meet specifications, and he never looked at a clock. I was not aware of any complaints.
Obie was versatile. Though he never presided over the saucier’s station during my tenure I have no doubt he would have done every bit as well as and probably better than, for instance, “Patrice,” the arrogant young French chef. The “Jamestown” kitchen officially closed for restaurant service at 10 p.m. At about that hour one evening a waiter came out and said “Lady wants a cauliflower soufflé.” Patrice detonated into an obscene rage of refusal. Translated into: Kitchen closed! Not on the menu in the first place! Obie, who was calmly cleaning his station, said “Tell her it’ll be ready in about half an hour.” He strolled back to the bakery, then to one of the walk-ins and returned with a small fluted mold and a cauliflower. He already had on hand for his Yorkshire pudding all but one of the other necessary ingredients, and butter was near at hand. He consulted no recipe but simply went to work. Half an hour later he removed a puffed and golden masterpiece from his roasting oven. It was an impressive performance.
Calm and unflappable, though evidently not a man to cross.
I didn’t witness the incident; it happened in midweek but I heard about it the following Saturday.
Next to the grill station, across a narrow corridor, was the saucier’s position and beyond that the vegetable position. The vegetable cook from four to midnight was “Leon,” a young, handsome and cocky black man. Obie had commented to me once that Leon put too much nutmeg in the spinach. I heard about their midweek dispute from my partner on the garde-manger station, a gentle little Honduran woman. The exact nature of the altercation was not clear to her and I never asked Obie about it. All she knew was that Leon had trespassed on Obie’s station and when Leon did not depart immediately as ordered, Obie had stuck him in one rear cheek with a long, double-pronged turning fork. A trip to a hospital emergency room had been considered necessary though the word was Leon had been discharged that same evening after bandaging and a tetanus shot. But Leon was not on duty that weekend and in fact never reappeared in all the time I worked at the “Jamestown.” But Obie was there as usual, unhurriedly putting roasts into his oven, making his Yorkshire pudding and transferring beef and fish steaks from the walk-in to the grill station, calm and genial as always. When I finally left the “Jamestown” I missed his company.
My secret restaurant career was nearing its apogee, or rather its plateau, with a steep drop at the end of it. After eight months at the “Jamestown” I felt I had learned everything I could be expected, or allowed, to learn and that it was time to move on to a smaller operation closer to the size I hoped to manage myself one day. I was accepted as a prep cook in a Georgetown restaurant I’ll call “The Galley,” not because it specialized in seafood but because it turned out to be a slave ship. Oh the owner, executive chef, and sous-chef were congenial enough individuals who cracked no whips, but the owner changed the menu every month and fancied complicated multi-layered dishes that took an inordinate amount of time to assemble. You might call them those awful club sandwiches raised to the nth power. Before the first customer ordered and the service began—and I worked too as an assistant line cook—I was exhausted. And frequently, between prepping and filling orders, I was assigned to cook dinner for the employees, cooks, waiters, and dishwashers, numbering about ten. The food was first-rate at “The Galley,” and I learned some good and useful recipes and methods, but also the great virtue of a consistent menu of fine, full-flavored dishes which can be prepared much more easily and quickly by a small staff, such as I had found at “L’Auberge.”
I might have stayed on longer but an exciting new restaurant was due to open in Old Town Alexandria relatively near to where I lived and where I might learn new and valuable techniques. “The 219,” its real name, on picturesque lower King Street, was hiring and its managers hired me as a weekend prep cook. The owner had gutted an old Victorian era house and had created three stunningly beautiful dining rooms with fine carpets and woodwork, crystal chandeliers, period furniture and such decorative accoutrements as a gorgeous antique marble mantelpiece imported from England. The menu was New Orleans and Charleston South Carolina Creole—the black executive chef had trained in Charleston—and featured wonderfully fresh seafood shipped up from the Gulf. A large part of my work was to filet 25- and 30-pound red snappers and groupers, filets that would end up baked in parchment or grilled to perfection. Only one thing pained me. I had no choice but to throw away the heads and bones from those beautiful fish. The delicious stock for soups and sauces that could be made from them! But the fixed and consistent menu had no room for such. It did highlight green turtle soup From the Caribbean—until, unexpectedly, not long alter I came on board, green turtles were declared an endangered species and my chance had come. From those Gulf fish heads and bones 1 perfected a soup I called “Louisiana Snapper Chowder” that took the place of turtle soup and significantly increased the profits of the restaurant. Years later, long after I had left “The 219,” it was still on the menu.
Some six months after I had been working at “The 219.” (where I also shucked a million oysters and made toppings for broiled bivalves and other staple preparations) I realized I had reached the steep edge of that plateau. The owner of “The 219” had spent more than a million, maybe a lot more, to create his handsome but relatively small restaurant. Even the most modest 60-seat place would cost hundreds of thousands to open and keep going, and the failure rate was high. The mom-and-pop days were long over. Two other restaurant ventures I got involved in, one in the Virginia countryside, the other on the Lowcountry coast outside Charleston came to naught and cost me a couple of thousand bucks in the bargain (or reasons too tedious and dreary to go into. I wasn’t getting any younger, and I was tired of working seven days a week. Just plain tired period. To the great relief of my loyal family I announced my semi-retirement.(I would still work for the U.S.Information Agency another eight years.)
Well 20 years now have passed since I came in from the cold. There seems little reason any longer to keep my old clandestine life a secret. Maybe the time has come for the file to be opened.