Authors: Charles Blackstone
A few nights later, Izzy finally took me to her apartment in
Chris, Dominique's general manager, and, for the last few years, Izzy's roommate, was still at the bistro. With the oversight of the waiters' sidework, vacuuming, end-of-shift inventory, and, most crucially, a few sake bombs at the sushi bar down the block ahead of him, he was unlikely to return for at least several hours. This meant we'd have privacy otherwise unavailable to us here. But it didn't mean we were actually by ourselves. In the dusty flat, which was warm and cluttered with furniture, Izzy turned on lights as she went ahead of me to a bedroom. After she entered, a honey-colored furry rocket shot out, and began frantically zigzagging, glancing off the walls. Ishiguro spotted me, the interloper, right away, but made several circuits of the kitchen and a launch into the living room before coming back to inspect. He stood in front of me on his hind paws. His front pair batted the legs of the faded, loosely-fitting jeans I'd had to wear to the Hard Rock Hotel because there wasn't enough time to get from campus to my place before meeting Izzy and Chef Dominique downtown.
“Nice to meet you,” I said to the pug. He inhaled and exhaled and yipped and sneezed before me. “Izzy's told me a lot about you.”
He growled, a low, serious rumble, evidently wary.
“Just ignore him,” Izzy said, now behind the dog. She'd changed into a T-shirt and sweatpants, but looked no less magnificent than she did earlier, all dressed up. Ishiguro conducted a final inspiration and granted my presence his approval. He then went off in search of amusement in the back rooms.
“So, this is your place,” I said.
“For now,” she said, somewhat dejectedly. “I'm too old to have a roommate. I need something a little more permanent.”
“I think I'll be renting for life,” I said, distracted by an array of outdated sports team calendar magnets on the beige refrigerator.
We sat on the couch and watched TV. I couldn't see the time on a clock across the room, but Izzy was obviously single-digit tired. She apologized for an immoderate yawn.
“These silly events take a lot out of me,” she went on. “They don't sound like much, on paper, but with all the talking and talking, it might as well be a twelve-hour shift at the bistro all over again.”
I hoped this wouldn't sound like prying. “Do they . . . pay well, at least?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Very well. That's why Dominique wants me to do it all. The restaurant, the TV show, the appearances, the speaking engagements, the trips.”
“As long as you're getting a good percentage, right?”
Tonight at the Hard Rock, I'd watched Chef Dominique canting with the servers and others exhibiting attention deficits at the buffet while his sommelier and Jim Williams, her charismatic newscaster counterpart on the stage, read name after name of what seemed like a million different regional Emmy-award nominated segments (Outstanding Achievement Within a Regularly Scheduled News Program: “Elmwood Park Accident,” “Plane Off Runway,” “Tempting Toxins,” “Catholic School Rabbi”). However tedious the performance, it should have been accorded the focusâor at least the quiet. What was Chef Dominique even doing at these things with Izzy? She recited her lines beneath a spotlight and engaged the crowd. He stood in the dark audience and talked loudly. She kept an operatic smile near-continuously affixed to her face. He stuffed his with desserts and cava from the open bar. The disparity in their work had been apparent the night we met at the Metropolitan Club, and nothing had changed as long as I'd been around them. He was hardly a partner. He didn't even make a charming sidekick. It seemed abundantly unfair for him to receive a manager's ten percent, let alone to split the proceeds a partnership fifty-fifty. I had a feeling, which would someday be confirmed, that the true take-home figures weren't even
“How did you end up hooking up with Dominique, anyway?” I asked.
I listened to the story, my hand on Ishiguro's spine moving fore and aft and back again. There'd been a food and wine event Izzy had found online, which needed pourers for a weekend gig. The pay wasn't much. What she'd spend in getting herself to Chicago and staying in a youth hostel for two days and three nights to work was almost twice the amount of the check to turn up eight weeks later at the apartment she shared with three other waitresses downstate. But working the event would give her something more important than money: an opportunity to put herself in the orbit of chefs and sommeliers, and to taste some wines that didn't ever seem to make it to Carbondale. At the close of the second night, the cognoscenti ended up convening at a winery's table in the tasting tent. They didn't seem at all provoked to leave by the anonymous staff's dismantling taking place around them, and nobody was about to send them back to their rooms. Izzy knew all the chefs' faces from trade magazines. There was Jean-Louis Palladin, Chef Dominique, Michel Richard, Jacques PÃ©pin. Without obvious impetus, Palladin, who'd been the acclaimed culinary genius behind Jean-Louis at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC, turned to Izzy, who was then collecting abandoned glassware. He and Dominique were arguing about a wine and Palladin asked her to blind-taste it. Izzy took the challenge by the stem, held the glass this way and that, looked into the liquid from a variety of angles of the harsh light available at that late hour, and swirled up the contents. She inhaled deeply and took a short but deft sip. After only having the wine there to corporeally process a picosecond before she'd swallowed it, she said, “That's easy. It's Pinot Noir.”
The winemaker pantomimed putting a medal over Izzy's head.
All night, Izzy couldn't keep herself from gaping at Palladin, and not just because he was a celebrity she'd read so much about. He and his date were completely mismatched, an incongruous pair. She was a blonde siren of a young lady in a blue cocktail dress. With his big glasses and bushy moustache and eighties blowout near-shoulder-length hairstyle, the chef resembled Weird Al Yankovic. This could only have meant the girl was a hooker or a relative. And now here they stood.
Izzy shook hands all around. “It's such an honor to meet you, Chef Palladin,” Izzy said. She once more caught sight of the girl's glossy pink lips, bearing no indications of having touched a single glass. Her charcoaled eyelids gradually drew nearer to each other as she stood there without word. “And your beautiful daughter.”
Everybody laughed and laughed.
“Oh, she's his daughter, all right,” Chef Dominique said. “Tell her, tell her,” he demanded of the other chefs. They ignored him, so he pressed Izzy, “They look alike, no?” Palladin, face reddening, informed Izzy who his companion was. “What, you think I'm not man enough?” And, without even a beat of awkwardness, Izzy returned, “Well, Chef, if she's your girlfriend, your foie gras must really be good.”
He nodded, pleased, and waved at Chef Dominique. “You fat German, why do you just stand there? What kind of shit host are you? Get
” The winemaker had opened another bottle, and they invited Izzy to stay for a drink.
The talk that unfurled revealed that Dominique was looking to hire a sommelier. He liked Izzy and said she should give him a call the following week. And she did.
A month later, she had a room in Chicago and a job at the bistro. Chef Dominique didn't care that her wine knowledge had come from waiting tables at a chain steakhouse and reading library books. He was impressed. He knew she knew what she needed to in order to run his program. Whatever she didn't know, she could learn. He was the first person who'd taken a chance on her. And it was high time to go; there was no future for her downstate. Nobody in Carbondale had ever really given a shit. If she was to have a life, a future, she was going to have to go out there and create it for herself.
But somewhere along the way, she'd made the mistake of becoming famous in her own right. It wasn't long before she'd eclipsed the chef and his restaurant in popular culture. She'd never wanted that, but it had happened. “I sometimes seriously don't know what I'm doing here,” she said, by way of epilogue. “I've fantasized about telling Dominique to fuck off and going back to Carbondale and getting my old job waitressing at the goddamn Cattle Company.”
“I wouldn't make any sudden southward moves,” I said when her head met my shoulder. “These people want you for the gigs, and you can use the money right now, especially if you're going to buy a place. You know?”
“Yeah,” she said. “What would I do without you, Hapworth? You're my stalwart. You're my voice of reason.”
I grinned. “It has to get easier, at some point, right?”
Izzy got up and walked behind the couch, as though trying to pace her way to an answer. “Oh, sure,” she finally said, “if you can figure out a way to clone me.”
“Don't you know? I'm a scientist, a scientist and a CIA operative, Wine Service Division. I've been sent to study you and to secret away samples of your genetic material.”
“Well, you can tell your bosses that it's no secret. I'm a vampire.” She came behind me, put her hands on the back of the couch, leaned down, pressed her lips to my neck, and stage-bit it. I played along. I improvised her suck to be a much more forceful vacuum than the gentle sensual embrace it actually was and let my head hang over the edge of the couch, as though she were draining me. I pleaded theatrically for her to stop, but she only returned comic maniacal laughter. All of this frightened the pug and he skittered over to intercede. He leapt to my side and barkedâthe first time I'd heard him make any sounds of the seriously aggrievedâuntil Izzy pulled away. The dog, now silent again, with a paw that resembled a hand on my leg, glared at her like she'd gone mad, which got her apologizing to him, amid our avalanching laughter.
“That's so sweet,” Izzy said to me once she'd collected herself. “He was trying to protect you.”
“I appreciate your coming to my rescue,” I said to the dog. He grumbled intermittently, still unconvinced I hadn't been harmed. I was touched by the pug's instant unequivocal endearment, which I couldn't help reciprocating. “I owe you one.”
“He likes you,” Izzy said. She coyly added, “I think you'll have to spend the night now.”
Ishiguro snorted and sneezed in agreement and jumped down from the couch. He sat facing me, a pragmatically sober yet amply hopeful expression on his face. With his head angled up, he held my eyes in his.
“I think you're probably right.”
Friday afternoon, I couldn't get out of teaching in time to ride along with Chef Dominique and Izzy to Kohler in Chef's Range Rover. So I'd had to drive up to the sleepy, rarefied, moneyed town, one-hundred-forty-five miles from Chicago, alone. Armed with nothing more than dubious MapQuest directions I could barely make out on the poorly illuminated side roads I took after I'd gotten off the highway, I feared getting lost in the Wisconsin hinterlands. I also doubted the Mustang would survive the trip. It did, and I eventually found my way to town, though not before missing the first event of the weekend, a cocktail reception held at the Kohler Design Center, the brightly lit loft that showcased all the latest bathroom fixtures and appliance prototypes. When Izzy told me about the party, I was actually disappointed not to have been able to attend. I cheerfully complained about the unique and wry opportunity to eat a canapÃ© under an abeyant rain shower and to drink a glass of sparkling wine while seated, in mixed elite company, atop a toilet, now gone for me. “You didn't miss much,” she said. “It was fairly ridiculous.”
Izzy had come to the ritzy golf and tennis resort destination to present a menu of budget pairings at this fall's Kohler Food and Wine Experience, a bucolic paean to consumption held each October. Upper-middle-class epicuresâ“foodies,” as they were commonly knownâtraveled the country and beyond to sample the cuisine of the latest celebrated chefs and seek the advice of the touted sommeliers. This festival drew thousands of them.
On Saturday, between her seminars, Izzy and I were at Riverbend, a historic mansion that provided its members-only guest quarters to the Kohler dignitaries for the weekend. In our luxury-grade suite, we sat on the bed that raised us nearly four feet above the ground and drank most of a bottle of Krug that a MoÃ«t rep had handed Izzy and I smuggled back. By the time we finished the Champagne, we were starving.
“Do you think there's time for room service?” I asked.
“Probably not,” she said. “See what's in the basket.”
We routed around in the gift basket that the promoters from
magazine had delivered before we arrived. Along with several wines, a jar of sesame seeds, a bag of coffee, a silver Grey Goose bottle stopper, a set of Kitchen Aid measuring cups, spatula, and cheese slicer, it contained a bevy of snacks. We shared an apple and a banana. Izzy mined the mixed nuts for cashews. I impeached the nutritional facts on the side of an organic granola bar.
“Can you believe this?” she asked. She unwrapped a brownie and tore off a corner. “Isn't it all kind of crazy? And you don't even want to know how much these people paid for tickets.”
“They seem very pleased with themselves,” I said.
“Okay, so they have money. We
it. They're what we call Window Tables at the bistro. Always trying to show off, handing out cash to the maÃ®tre d' and the captains and flashing their capped teeth and Black Cards. As if anybody really cares where they're sitting or what clichÃ© wine they're drinking so proudly. Those silly sleeveless fleece things with the embroidered Kohler Experience logo the three guys from Chicago in the front row had on? Total Window Table move. Do they think they're going to forget they're here? Or that anyone else might have missed noticing they're here?”