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Musings on Love…Ducasse, Vongerichten, Gras, Portay, Palmer, Keller, Mina and those fabulous Maccioni boys…
By Laura Novak
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It all began with The Red Purse - the exquisite leather one my husband spent princely
sum on in the Kingdom of Dubai where he was designing several kitchens for Arab royalty. We were married only four years when he returned from that trip with a large shopping bag as I awaited him at the San Francisco airport on Valentine’s Day, clothed only in a black trench coat, thigh-high stockings and red suede heels fastened with an ankle strap. The sunroof down, we sped through the mist of the Golden Gate to the glow of Tiburon where we scored a table at Sam’s on the dock. I stroked the blood red shoulder bag in downward motions, following the vertical grain of its finest leather with my corvette red nail. I fondled the tiny bell-shaped case that dangled from the strap. Hidden inside was a tiny brass key to unlock the ceremonious and fanciful lock. The mysteries were only about to unfold. “I wanna have a baby,” I purred, leaning over the appetizers, lifting one leg Claudette Colbert-style behind me. “Holy guacamole!” was Mark’s response, quickly followed by, “but what about that free companion ticket on British Air?”
We were nobody’s, you see, a couple of bohemian Californian’s with East Coast
pedigrees shrugged off in the name of a more casual lifestyle. We were, however, nobodies who dined with Arab princes at private clubs in London and who ate with Alain Ducasse in the fishbowl at the Louis XV in Monte Carlo. That trip coincided with my female hormones running at full throttle shortly before Max was conceived. From the private dining room, I had a panoramic view of Laurent Gras who was then Ducasse’s sous chef before his meteoric rise in New York and San Francisco. A bouquet of pardonez-moi’s to the distinguished Ducasse, but I found Gras irresistibly handsome. He
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was a man in uniform, sharp and in control. We exchanged a few smiles and glances through the glass while Mark and Alain chatted in a kitchen French that could make Anthony Bourdain blush. The lesser cooks yelled “Oui chef!” to Gras’ firm orders and I was smitten. My husband generously began to refer to him as “your guy Laurent” when my knees buckled while sputtering “Je vous remercie” as we shook hands adieu. In the formal dining room the following evening, I had my first bite of gold, which I was instructed was safe to ingest. And I was taught, avec politesse, that the tiny apolstered stool next to my chair was for The Red Purse from Dubai. Aside from lipstick and powder, the only other item I kept in The Purse was a red leather notebook from the Concorde in which I recorded each of Ducasses’ delicacies in intricate detail - despite the fact that we were given personalized menus printed up as the Fourth of July fireworks exploded over the Cote d’Azur: Grosses langoustines roties, fondue d’agrumes des quatre saisons a l’huile d’olive vierge et vieux vinaigre de Modene, zestes caramelises….Grecque tiede de jeunes legumes, lard de porc de ferme, petit navet et poire en copeaux crus, caille de brebis nappe d’une huile d’olives tres mures…Ravioli de cepes et girolles moelleux et dores, fin veloute pour les saucer…...Pavé de loup Mediterranée piqué de fenouil et d’ail confit, cuit lentement (pour être moelleux), la peau craquant,e aubergines en marmelade, jus vinagre au poivre et genievre concasses….Pigeonneau des Alpes de Haute-Provence et foie gras de canard sure la braise, pommes nouvelles a la peau…..Fraises des bois de l’arriere-pays dans leur jus tiede, sorbet au mascarpone (my personal favorite) followed by the famed chocolate praline croustillant garnished with gold leaf of which I wrote in the red book: “it was so ephemeral it only lasted the time we held it in our mouths.”
ℑ Two years later, replete with sinus infection (a natural corollary to our son’s chronic ear
infections) I discovered the notebook buried under a wad of tissues. We were celebrating
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my Thanksgiving birthday at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco where another of Ducasse’s former protégés, Sylvan Portay now holds court. “Oh, remember those Langoustine?” we three chortled as if reminiscing over a high school yearbook. “Nobody did those like Ducasse, eh?” we agreed. Neiman’s ladies in Bulgari jewels sniffed the air at the nobodies sharing a private joke with the Chef de cuisine. As is customary when my husband dines somewhere, we were menu-less. Instead, Portay said “I will cook for you tonight,” and the parade of dishes – recorded in the red notebook - began: Champagne Grand Dame…Mouselline of scallops avec caviar and red and yellow pepper sauce….salad of lobster, avocado and fresh tomato… white truffle rissoto Tartut d’Alba….Prawns, lobster, clams and oysters served with green salad seasoned with vergus with canelli beans….striped bass with crisp skin in lobster ratatouille sauce with a crepinette of provincal vegetables….Squab with yellow fin potatoes and a tranche of foie gras….des fromages and a chocolate dessert for me and caramel for Mark. Les vins included: G. Graham Pinot Noir 1993, Sauvignon Blanc Silverado, Chardonnay Ferrai Carono, 1993; Chassagne Montrachet by Le Faivre, 1985 a Pine Ridge Merlot and a Warre Port, 1963. Other than my birthdays, with the advent of Max (and myriad medical problems), it seemed Mark’s and my days of fine dining and handholding were over.
ℜ The following year on my birthday, my sinuses impacted as usual, Mark and I escaped to
the French Laundry at the invitation of the incomparable Thomas and Joseph Keller, for whom Mark was doing a new design. We had just moved house and I had no idea where The Red Purse was by that point. So, I carried my everyday, oversized, flowered carpetbag, which more or less complimented my oversized, shapeless bag of a dress. We wore rain boots and I blew my nose ceaselessly until I noticed the wait staff timed their appearance at our table to coincide with a cessation in my revolting nasal aerobics. A
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captain had just finished telling a nearby party of haut-foodies that no, Chef Keller does not come out to the floor, when who should bound up behind him but Thomas himself, in immaculate chef’s whites and clogs. “Happy birthday!” he brushed past the fibbing waiter. “We have a special dessert for you,” Thomas said as the five mouths next to us gaped. Who are those people? you could practically hear everyone ask internally of Mark and me. “Hey thanks,” I sniffled, and blew, before kissing his cheek. Mark dug into my canvas bag and pulled out blue prints for the new kitchen down the street at Bouchon. Tall and elegant, Thomas Keller always seems to twinkle. “Hey, did they shave enough truffle on for you? And how did you like the lambs’ brains?” “Lamb’s brains, good,” I managed to say before honking into a hankie. While Mark and Thomas dissected the menu, the party of five watched me sideways as I leaned into the flowered bag and poured a perfect teaspoon of NyQuil into a plastic cup. As Thomas waved goodbye, I clinked Mark’s glass of Grand Siecle 1985 and tossed back a warm green one.
ℵ We eventually recovered from Max’s baby years thereby preventing this from becoming
singularly a tale of dining doom. By the time he was two and a half, we were able to join Mark as a family for the opening of Le Cirque 2000, the kitchen that would place my husband front and center on the map of high-end restaurant kitchen design. Dear old friends from my Barnard days took turns babysitting so I could join Mark for the starstudded festivities. Designer Adam Tihany had outdone himself: the vibrant blue velvet, the red and gold silk fit for a Cardinal. My life had been a study in sturdy, washable cottons and organic green beans and rice. I felt as though I had been let out of a cage. Bored waiting for Duddy to finish another meeting, Max and I became mesmerized by
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the clock rolling back and forth above the bar. I even have a photo of my toddler hurtling himself onto Tihany’s blue velvet, Dr. Seuss-style banquet in Velcro sneakers and bibbed-overalls. “Go home. Tiny bed,” was Max’s mantra that year in New York.
Nevertheless, time had a way of improving our lives and paving the way to multi-star
dining with a child. When he was five, Max actually ate at Le Cirque 2000 for the first time. His mood seemingly had not improved a whole lot when it came to jet lag and too many meetings for Dad. But we finally uncovered the secret to introducing Max to world-class dining: pasta with butter.
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“ A small bowl, really, just a little bit,” we implored the wait staff. But when Mark dines in any establishment where he has designed a show case kitchen, the chef turns a deaf ear to the words “little bit.” The bowl of Orichetti (enough to feed five) came out in royal fashion with a waiter to carry it and a second to shave the Parmesan. “No green stuff,” Max commanded, his finger jutting the Frette linens for emphasis. With the first bite, it dawned on our son that this was not the store-bought butter sitting on the plastic tray in our fridge. Oh no, this was butter from a cow perched on an alp so high it shared air space with heaven. Mark and I exchanged glances and then ever so politely lifted our silver forks to test the pasta ourselves. To say it melted in our mouths is lame. To say “this doesn’t taste like home” is an understatement. We had touched the face of God. It was that simple. What Max did not understand was that the amazing Pierre Schedlin was in the kitchen, and that meant he was not done with Mark and me, or Max, just yet. A veal cutlet the size of a car wheel came out, unannounced, and when the waiter put it in front of a now sated, antsy Max, our son – who couldn’t eat meat for medical reasons - just about bottomed out. He flopped horizontal onto the blue banquet and buried his head in my lap. Fortunately, I was wearing a pair of GAP linen Khakis I had snagged on sale for $36. The pants served as Max’s napkin (the real expensive one lost on the floor somewhere) he rolled his face back and forth across my left leg. We tried to reassure him we only had three more courses to go before we could go see the big dinosaurs across the park. At the next table, a woman d’un certain age turned to look over her shoulder at the writhing monster. She was Prada-Escada’ed from neck to toe, her lips full of silicone and her face lifted, repeatedly no doubt, in a fiercely unattractive way. Her eyes fell on my jersey, which at first made me wonder whether she envied the insouciance of my white GAP stretch cotton. But when I followed her gaze downward I found I had dropped a blob of the fabled butter on my bosom where it pulsed like a neon sign with each heart beat:
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What a slob! Can’t take me anywhere! Ha! The days of thigh-highs and trench coats were a lamentable dream. Max threw his spindly little legs up the length of the blue velvet back of our booth, causing Madame Eerie’s companion to lurch over her shoulder and shutter in disgust at my son’s piggy toes. Fortunately, I had the sense to remove his Teva sandals and thank goodness, who should approach but Sirio Maccioni’s second and most ebullient son, Marco. “Hey boss, heard you were here,” he said to Mark, shaking his hand, kissing mine. He leaned over and tickled Max’s feet, pulling them downward so our son could hear him. “Come feed Monster with me. He’s restless downstairs,” Marco said of his aptly named, enormous Bull Mastiff dog. Max righted himself and helped Marco fasten the sandals. Our neighbor took in the scene with surprise thinly veiled with loathing. Who are these nobodies? I could hear her think. She glanced down again at my dirty Capri’s and stained white shirt. I grabbed the Hermes scarf that had not been dusted off since Monte Carlo and tossed it over my shoulders in a gesture of grand harrumph. With Max off in Le Cirque’s private offices, Mark and I were free to polish off the pasta au beurre, our three remaining courses, not withstanding.
It is a long, arduous walk from the Bellagio to the MGM Grand along Las Vegas
Boulevard. Though Max is now seven years old, he is only six months post bi-lateral leg surgery and he tires easily. He and I take the Tram from the glorious Bellagio as far as the Monte Carlo where we thread our way through the dreaded casino, as Max calls it in a mock ghoulish voice. We go up the glass elevator at New York New York, across the bridge and into the bowels of the mammoth MGM. I clutch my son’s wrist terrified I might lose him in the insanity of kaa-ching, blinking lights and cigar smoke. I scan the signs overhead and finally spot it: Nobhill. Max and I dive for cover into the cool, elegant
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space designed by Tony Chi. We dovetail with Mark and the general Manager, Oliver Wharton who needs to show Daddy just one more kitchen before we eat. “Have a seat at the bar, bud,” Oliver says to a weary Max, steadying a stool for our son to climb on. Mark and I look at one another and laugh. It is illegal, we all know. But it is so early we are the first customers in this brown oasis whose booths are separated by etchedglass walls and sheer drapery - the fabrics sparkling with the subtlest of gold thread. The bartender is a worldly red head with a whiskey voice who says, “what’ll it be?” to my child. Max orders orange juice for which they find the perfect tumbler and straw. Our entertainment is the bartenders blasting the sugarcoated martini glasses with a blowtorch to prepare for the onslaught of Cable Car drinkers. “She is beautiful,” Max whispers to me of the woman pouring our drinks. He has noticed a lot of red heads on this trip. I find this comment a relief after hearing “why is that lady dressed like that?” all day. We are only an hour’s flight from Oakland, but post 9/11, the security measures make it an improbably long trip. I get Max to lie down on a brown booth named for one of San Francisco’s famous venues. We are tucked into California Street when Mark and Oliver return. I fondle the menu knowing that few American mortals do food like Michael Mina. A few months earlier Mark and I dined at Mina’s Aqua in San Francisco with a client from Mark’s new project in Shanghai for ubergenius, Jean Georges Vongerichten. “I’m going to play tonight, if that’s all right?” Michael said to us that night when we sat down. Fifteen courses later, over the heat of the shabu-shabu, the client’s wife and I begged for mercy. In Vegas, we have Max with us and when the first amuse gueule of tuna tartare with sesame vinaigrette arrives, I fear gastronomic overload. But they know how to keep it simple and appropriate for a family. Again, it’s all in the butter. Three variations on a theme arrive with the bread (only seconds out of the oven), which stays warm atop the candles encased in silver. Everything is muted, soothing and Max spots macaroni and cheese on the menu. Macaroni and cheese? Kaa-ching!
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§ We have only two more nights in Las Vegas and too many choices. Mark has many
chefs to meet and not enough time. So, we narrow it down to Circo, which is an easier walk from our room upstairs in the Bellagio, and Aureole. Charlie Palmer is a vivacious, endearing family man who spins tales of his beloved children and wonders where is Max? as he chats with us a table when Mark and I have dined at Aureole in New York. In Las Vegas, we promise Max more pasta with butter and, as if it is possible, this simple dish seems to grow better with each version. We sit just inside the doors leading to the swan pool. Between bites of salmon and homemade pasta, Max feeds the voracious swans whose circadian rhythms have awakened them in time for the dinner crowd. This time, Max is wearing a Nordstrom’s navy blazer and a button down oxford shirt (albeit, not tucked in.) I am in forest green brocade with fake fur cuffs and collar. Mark is in something – I forget what exactly – but it is dark and elegant. We are stain-less; there are no feet on the furniture; our son is busy coloring and eating the proverbial pasta and fish. It is soooo easy! When suddenly, as if to remind us we are not exactly in Kansas anymore, Megan Romano’s outa-this-atmosphere desserts begin to arrive. Max is stunned and we clap our hands in delight at the arabesque of carmel fronds perched against a frozen rum soufflé, stacked on top of a bread pudding next to the billiard rack of six boules of vanilla ice cream with a G Clef of nugatine on top. Pardon me Jacques Torres (who once filled a shopping bag with bon-bons for me in Le Cirque’s kitchen), but Megan’s crème brulée -in a deeper than usual dish – is like snake eyes to a craps shooter. Only one more night of hard-core dining and we promise Max that it will be at the family friendly Circo. He has no recollection of the two Maccioni restaurants in New York, nor does he care about my verbal jaunts down memory lane. He is clutching a new coloring book from Treasure Island at the Mirage (why can’t we stay closer to the pirate ship battle?)
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For the first time in years, The Red Purse from Dubai is slung elegantly over my shoulder. It hugs the hip that is now shaped as close as possible to my pre-baby days. Seven years after I first opened that shopping bag in Tiburon and promised my husband his first (and last) born, I notice a scratch. I dab my finger in water and try to wipe away the scar on the leather, to no avail. The bell pouch containing the key to our future mysteries is missing, most likely in a box of Lego’s somewhere. But The Red Purse is still solid, elegant and, for me, nostalgic. It also contains a zip-lock bag of color markers and crayons, folded over papers with wacky designs of bad pirates killing other pirates with laser guns and two balled up wads of used Kleenex (from which birthday dinner?). I have a cell phone for emergencies but I have forgotten my compact and lipstick upstairs. The proverbial pasta and salmon arrive and the elegant Mario Maccioni and his inimitable sidekick and manager, Antonello Paganuzzi, pull up two chairs. Outside, the fountains explode upward and the water cannons undulate to the leonine sounds of Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme. The three men are deep into a conversation about HVAC systems when Max turns to the oldest Maccioni son and intones, “Yo, whassup?” “Yo, whassup, yourself,” comes the reply. “Hey, I’ve got a tip for you,” Max tells Mario. “Oh ya, what’s that?” Mario leans in, laughing. As the father of three lively kids, he’s up for the game. Max reaches into the pocket of his Khaki trousers and pulls out a quarter. “Here, it’s for you,” he says, handing it to the famed restaurateur, tossing an exaggerated wink in his dad’s direction. “Hey thanks,” the very elegant Mario says, without missing a beat. “And I’ve got something for you.”
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Max looks up from the coloring book. “How would you like to eat some real gold on your dessert?” Mario asks. “Real gold? Oh ya, way cool,” Max exults. The red notebook is long lost, so I turn over one of my son’s pirate etchings and scribble on the back in purple marker: Mac n’ cheese… and gold. Easter, 2002. Way cool, indeed. ©Laura A. Novak, 2011
Laura Novak is a career journalist, debut novelist. Her first book, Finding Clarity: A Mom, A Dwarf and a Posh Private School in the People’s Republic of Berkeley, is almost ready for e-publication. She is at work on a mystery series. You can find Novak at
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http://www.lauranovakauthor.com/ or reach her on Twitter http://twitter.com/#!/LaNovakAuthor. Photos: ~ The author, captured by a Fleet Street photographer, London, February 1993. ~ Max at 23 months, days before the opening of Le Cirque, 2000. April, 1997. ~ Max at Mandalay Bay, 2002.
The Red Purse
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