Short Diversion

This story was dying to be told, and I needed a creative break from my novel to tell it.  I’ll get my words in for my novel this evening, but for now, enjoy.

A Unique Flavor
by David Harris

The problem with modern dining, Henry Dickerson was used to saying, was that most restaurateurs had a goal of serving as many customers as possible, as quickly as possible, and with as little fuss as possible.  The problem, in short, was derived from the obsession of the owners to creating a profitable business rather than a work of art.  Take, for example, Vitalia, which for three weeks in the late nineties was the fashionable place for dinner for all manner of celebrities and well-to-dos in Los Angeles, owing to the popularity of its founding chef and proprietor, Antonio Lugiano, winner of a James Beard award and two Michelin stars for his work as the executive chef of Piccola Italia in San Francisco.

If Lugiano had spent half the time in his kitchen that he spent coddling his guests, Henry wrote, he might have produced a meal that warranted, at least, a fair critique.  As it was, Henry was still wondering if he might have been too lenient in his description of the chef’s veal parmigiana.  He was, however, rather fond of the phrase ‘noxious slag.’

In the days following the review’s publication, Chef Lugiano sent a number of kind letters to the paper, requesting that Henry Dickerson return to the restaurant and give his cuisine a fair second chance.  Henry’s editor forwarded these letters on to him as a matter of course, and he even read a few of them.  He had not, in thirty-seven years of dining, given any restaurant a second review.  It was a matter of pride, if not one of scheduling.  Henry ate at a different restaurant six nights a week, and his wife, Emily, prepared dinner for him on the seventh.

Vitalia shut its doors less than eight days after the dismal critique, and Henry Dickerson’s reputation as the harshest and most influential critic on the West Coast was maintained.  To his credit, Lugiano opened another restaurant in Seattle, but that restaurant served only greasy fast food to unseasoned and untrained palates.  Like Lugiano, dozens of chefs found their careers escalated or shattered by Henry’s weekly restaurant column.  Henry estimated once, that over the course of his nearly forty year tenure at the Los Angeles Daily News, he has completely ruined no less than three hundred chefs, both established and aspiring.  He claimed no shame and no regret over his reviews, and was proud to say that in that time he had also brought up and promoted two dozen or so chefs who had become internationally renowned in the culinary field.

It was never personal, Henry stated in a recent interview with Food & Wine Magazine. But, he would say, if a chef didn’t have what it would take to be successful, he felt an obligation to help that chef along in his decision to pursue another line of work. With no small amount of pride, and his cheesy sideways grin, he reminded the interviewer that, for almost four decades, the dining experience in Los Angeles owed its excellence and good taste to no one else but Henry Dickerson and his typewriter.

That particular Thursday evening belonged to the grand opening of BonVivre, an intriguing concept restaurant which, despite the misleading name, was not going to serve French cuisine at all, but instead, the chef, only five years removed from his culinary training promised a ‘unique fusion of classic Mediterranean and Asian flavors served with a modern flair,’ according to the invitation that Henry received from his editor.  It was not at all customary to invite a critic to such an opening and Henry’s editor was appalled that he was even willing to accept it.  Along with the personalized invitation, though, there was a letter in which the new chef, Isaac Florence, had expressed his admiration of Dickerson’s work and confessed that it was a weekly reading of Henry’s column that inspired him to take up cooking in the first place.  Under the circumstances, how could he refuse?

The exterior of the restaurant, Henry noted on his arrival, was nothing remarkable, but he would have thought less if it had been.  Too many chefs and restaurateurs, in their attempt to attract customers, relied on flashy signs and expensive marketing campaigns to bring diners to their tables.  None of that was really necessary, though, Henry always said.  Cook and they will come, he would say.  Cook well, and they will come back.  A small outdoor patio to the left of the door housed a half dozen bistro tables.  It was a nice touch, Henry thought, but all too predictable these days.  Starbucks had outdoor dining, for heavens’ sake.

A hostess opened the door for him as he approached, and he was polite enough to tip his hat to her as he entered.  There was no excuse for poor manners.  The lighting inside reminded Henry of a seedy bar that he had frequented in his mid-thirties, and while any other comparison to such an establishment would have meant the instant demise of a restaurant, Henry had pleasant memories of that bar, and so the feelings which accompanied the memories were nostalgic rather than disagreeable.  The grand opening was smaller than most, as the space appeared to accommodate no more than forty guests at one time.

He gave his name to the young man behind the counter and found himself immediately escorted to a tiny, out-of-the-way table in the corner, next to a fountain, the sound of which Henry was forced to admit he found pleasing, rather like a symphony of splashes and ripples.  Yes, he replied to the server’s question, he would take a glass of wine, and no, he did not need a menu.  Whatever the chef decided to serve would be fine.  He would need an appetizer first and a salad.  He rather thought he should like something with beef.  Dessert, he concluded, would be completely at the fancy of the chef.

The server disappeared toward the kitchen and Henry took the opportunity to observe the rest of the clientele.  Much would be said of the restaurant’s first guests, and a surprise appearance from one or two well-liked celebrities would have almost the impact of a positive critique from Henry.  He smiled. Almost the same, but not quite, he thought.

He fumbled around in his coat for the index card he brought with him for his notes and discovered along with it a pen and the medication which his wife insisted he take.  She must have stashed it into his coat while he wasn’t looking.  Henry despised the medication and told Emily as often as he could that the blasted pills ruined his sense of taste, and what use would a food critic be without his taste buds.  It would be on the nature of a symphony conductor with no arms, he argued.

Henry left the bottle of pills where they were and put the card and his pen on the table.  Three things were handwritten on the card already: the date, the name of the restaurant and the name of the chef.  He could fill in the gaps throughout the evening.  Other critics used notepads, but Henry complained that the weight of the pad in his pocket might throw off his balance.  A flimsy excuse perhaps, but Henry was sixty-seven years old and who was going to argue with him?

The first course arrived after only a few minutes: a salad of beans, sprouts and carrots served over pan noodles and a spicy chickpea soup.  Henry jotted the names of the dishes onto his card and began eating.

Food represented a spiritual experience for Henry, and such experiences required time to marinate and absorb.  He relished every bite, analyzing each flavor and component as only a true connoisseur of fine dining can do.  Each spice and seasoning flowed through his senses like a river, touching every part of his soul.  There was no way really to explain it, but he always tried.

Chef Florence came out before the entrée was served and introduced himself.  He asked pleasant questions about Henry and made small talk for a few moments.  At last he thanked Henry for coming and offered his assistance if he had any questions or concerns about anything.  Henry smiled and said he would be fine, and the nervous chef returned to manage the kitchen just as Henry’s meal arrived.

The aroma from the dish overwhelmed him before he even saw it, and he knew that this would be a spectacular meal.  The main course was a deconstructed gyro, and although Henry had requested beef, he was not unhappy to smell the lamb on his plate.  The lamb was sliced thin and sauced with spicy tzatziki and spread over brown rice and vegetables with a half-slice of pita bread to the side.

Henry did not have words to describe how marvelous the flavors were.  The moments he spent savoring the essence of a spicy Mediterranean sandwich mixed with a hint savory Eastern color were practically divine.

His dessert, a slice of simple chocolate pie with a touch of mint, was no less appealing even if it wasn’t as original as the rest of the meal.  In all, he spent nearly ninety minutes enjoying his food.  At the end, he sipped the last of his wine, paid his bill on the Daily News’ account and left a generous tip for the server from his own pocket.  Henry caught just a long enough glimpse of Chef Florence to incline his head in farewell just before he left the restaurant.

His wife, all smiles as always, greeted him at the front door, took his coat, removing the contents of the pocket in the process, and handed his notecard to him.  She then smiled and left him to his work.  Henry took the creaky stairs down to the basement and set the notecard on the desk beside his typewriter.

As part of his tradition, he threw a round of darts before sitting down to type.  It wasn’t a bad score, either.  His first shot landed inside the triple seventeen, and the second inside a double twelve.  The third and final shot landed in the black of the twenty, just outside bull’s-eye.  He frowned at the last throw and made a motion toward the board to retrieve the darts.  Duty called, though, and he sat himself down at his desk.

The letter from Chef Florence still rested beside the typewriter, and Henry opened a drawer to put it away.  In that same drawer laid two small books, one with a white cover, the other black.  He removed the black book and closed the drawer after.

Henry sighed.  It just wasn’t fair to poor Chef Florence.  He opened the book to the seventeenth page and chose the last of the three words listed: repugnant.  It was a close call, too, because it was the first word from that seventeenth page that had created the promising phrase from the week before.  A half inch in either direction, and his readers might have started to suspect something odd, or more likely thought his vocabulary was slipping.  In thirty-seven years, though, Henry Dickerson had never repeated a phrase two weeks in a row.  He typed his review and placed it neatly on his desk to be delivered to the paper in the morning.

In his memoirs, ten years later, Henry claimed that his lamb was undercooked and the dessert had been burned.  It was a difficult review to write, he explained, because the young chef had so valued his opinion.  Fortunately, Isaac Florence turned out to have a talent for finance, and succeeded beyond belief in the stock market and several profitable hedge fund investments.  Some chefs have it and some don’t, Henry Dickerson said in his book.  It was his job for over forty years to decide which chefs were which.

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