Second Blogiversary – Welcome to the Virtual Party Part II

1 June 2010

In celebration of the 2 year blogiversary, I decided to open the phone lines for all questions… apparently I also decided to start writing like a talk-radio host.  I wish to thank everyone for their kind wishes and thoughtful questions.  The answers, which have been split into two posts for better readability (part I is here,) follow.

  1. From Carla of Whip My Assets: What is one question nobody asked that you wish somebody had? It’s really funny that you should ask me that question because I have long used that question as the last query when I am interviewing.  I think it is a terrific question to really get inside someone’s head.  I would have loved for someone to have asked “what happens when the immovable object meets the irresistible force?”
  2. From another reader without a blog: What food would you cook for a non foodie father for father’s day? The trick to cooking for non foodie people is to do something that combines classical flavors with techniques and ingredients that will keep you interested.  Braised Short Ribs with Truffled French Fries satisfies those needs to my way of thinking.
  3. From my favorite Bah-stan Blogg-ahr, Megabrooke of Skrinkering Hearts: Here’s kind of a silly one, because my head is a bit in the clouds this week.  What TV shows do you regularly tune in to? The only appointment television I watch, via the internet machine and generally the following day, is The Rachel Maddow Show, The Daily Show, Friday Night Lights, Weeds, Real Time with Bill Maher, and Southland.  I am also a big fan of, but won’t be terribly disappointed if I miss, the following: Modern Family, Burn Notice, and In Plain Sight.
  4. From a reader who has a blog but never leaves the link in her comments so I will omit it here in an abundance of caution: At what point in a dating relationship do you throw caution into the wind? I think that on some level the mere act of dating, in the face of all contrary evidence, is an exercise in optimism that throws caution to the wind just by inviting and accepting.  That was a more philosophical answer; the pragmatic version is probably “too often, too early, and I really wouldn’t have it any other way.”
  5. From a Florida blogger you should be reading, Planet Dan-E: Simple, but kind of dumb, question: What is it exactly that you do? Restaurant consultant? Private chef? Event planner? Some combination of the above? Yes.
  6. The lovely Rahree has a couple of questions: what’s your summer go-to home dinner, when you want something tasty but with little effort? And The meaning of life? Clue me in, please? If it’s just me, I am happy to slice a couple of the tomatoes I always keep in the house during the summer, pair them with some mozzarella and basil and call it a day… after drizzles of olive oil balsamic, and sprinkles of sea salt and fresh black pepper.  If I have guest(s), I am going to the grill with whatever proteins I have around.

All of the following questions are from email and shall be anonymous

  1. What was the weirdest thing you did in high school? It’s a jump ball.  I once didn’t wash the socks I wore for an entire football season because we were going undefeated and I didn’t want to change the karma/luck associated with them.  In my freshman year, all students had to take a typing class in which we would select various periodicals to use as text to type.  Everyone tried to get there early to grab a Sports Illustrated; I was happy with the New Yorker. On dress-down Fridays and during the warm weather months, I would frequently wear a pair of shockingly yellow linen trousers because my senior big brother often did.
  2. How many cigars do you smoke a day, a week? I usually smoke about a cigar a day, though sometimes I will go days without, and other times I have smoked several in day.  A week usually averages 8 give or take a couple.
  3. What do you suck at doing but wish that you could do well? I cannot carry a note with the help of a forklift.  I do pretty well at self-diagnosis, but I suck at self repairs.  I cannot for the life of me consistently make a good pot of rice.  I am a terrible shortstop.  Though I think I give good email, I am frequently terrible at the prompt reply.  Given that last sentence, I am not so good at discussing my faults without couching them in a more favorable context.
  4. What is your biggest pet peeve in restaurants? If you force me to narrow it down to one, it is bad management – all bad outcomes in the front of the house extend from bad management.
  5. Who would play you in a movie about your life? Larenz Tate, a younger Andre Brougher, Don Cheadle if I am really lucky.

Second Blogiversary – Welcome to the Virtual Party Part I

1 June 2010

In celebration of the 2 year blogiversary, I decided to open the phone lines for all questions… apparently I also decided to start writing like a talk-radio host.  I wish to thank everyone for their kind wishes and thoughtful questions.  The answers, which have been split into two posts for better readability, follow.

  1. Amalgam of three questions from anonymous email: How much of the bullshit that you write about yourself is true / to what degree do you think people believe the idealized version of yourself that you portray? As there is no virtue in responding to rudeness in kind, I will keep my initial thoughts to myself.  In answer to your questions, there may be some minor elements of stories that I alter/augment/omit, but only for the purpose of literary cohesion / continuity.  I have never omitted a substantive element of a story or made adjustment for the purposes of self-aggrandizement.  The degree to which other people assign truth… I will not pretend to give voice to that which exists in the minds of other people.  As a general note, what Jon Stewart said.
  2. From Christina of Musings, Graces, and Fate: Here is my question, what food did you not like when you were younger but can’t get enough of now? Tomatoes.  I was always an adventurous eater as a child but for some reason tomatoes were anathema to me.  Now, just give me an heirloom tomato and some sea salt and I am a happy kid.
  3. From Foilwoman: as someone who played the cello as a youth, did you practice because your mother made you practice or because you wanted to practice?  And if it was the former, how did your mother achieve that? I started playing the cello because I knew it was different and I believed it to be more difficult than most instruments.  It was an effort to stand apart from the crowd and with the clarity of hindsight, I can state that the effort was inspired, at least in part, by some insecurity from being the only black male in the school.  I needed no inspiration to practice because I had an internal desire to prove something.
  4. From an anonymous email: can you recommend a good vegetarian restaurant (needn’t be purely vegetarian — so long as there are some interesting vegetarian dishes — most place have a dish or two as an afterthought. CityZen, Palena, and Restaurant Eve, Passage to India, all do an excellent job with vegetarian dishes and treat non-meat eaters with high regard.  On the more casual side, I am a big fan of Regent Thai, and Hollywood East/
  5. From the blogger most likely to make me blush, City Girl asks: What inspires you to write? To cook? I wish that I had a better answer, but the inelegant truth is that I have no idea what would happen to me if I stopped cooking or writing.  I write to help me stay sane and almost exclusively for me.  I cook to express art, love for friends, and because I believe on some level that it is what I was born to do.
  6. From an anonymous email: Why did you leave me in a gentleman’s club last week? First, the strip joint was your idea.  Second, I didn’t leave you alone; the Only Slightly Sleazy Lobbyist was there with you. Third, I got a phone call from a woman who wanted to remove her clothes for me without the explicit exchange of cash… oh and I I’d been drinking just long enough to think that was a good idea.
  7. From an anonymous email: What was the first moment the light bulb went on? I love questions that are pointed yet sufficiently ambiguous that how the respondent chooses to answer tells one at least as much as the answer itself.  My advanced writing instructor (junior year of high school) once gave me an F on an essay.  It was lazily and sloppily written but probably didn’t deserve a failing grade, so I went to ask him about it. Dr. M laced into me with a lightly profanity laced tirade about his fatigue with my unfulfilled potential. He told me that “writers don’t have a choice, they just are, and you’re a Writer. Writers get an F on that dribble you scribbled the night before it was due, other people might get a C. I decided that I need to treat you like a Writer.” It got a lot brighter in my head right then.
  8. From C of Hilarity in Shoes: It’s spring and I’m going to the farmers market on Sunday.  What should I cook with my haul that is seasonal and delicious? The beauty of this time of year is that the fruits and vegetables straddle the line between spring and summer.  I am a big fan of stinging nettle risotto with sweet corn and crispy shallots… and yes, I will work on writing that recipe down for you.
  9. From the irascible LiLu: Why on earth haven’t you started a dictionary for all the words we’ve invented over the years? I wish that I could say that I’ve been waiting on you so we could collaborate on the effort, but alas, the true reason is #Fail.
  10. From the eponymous and generally awesome Lemon Gloria: Could you recommend a couple bottles of red wine in the $10-20 price range? I generally try to avoid making specific recommendations as that would limit me to the world of wines that are most commonly available.  Since my personal preferences are for boutique wines which by definition have small productions, that is particularly limiting.  That being said, I am a big fan of Sipino Pinot Noir, Andrew Murray Tour Les Jour Syrah, Alto Moncaya Veraton Garnacha (a little more than $20 but often on sale,) and even though this is a sparkling rosé, I am going to include the La Torderra Prosecco Rosato because it is one of my favorite summertime quaffs.
  11. From a reader without a blog: What does one have to do to have a drink with you? Generally speaking it’s pretty easy – just ask.  Additionally, there is always the option of attending one of the Blogger Happy Hours.

Writing the Preface on How We Met

22 April 2010

I love hearing the stories of how couples met.  I’m not sure where or when the fascination began, but I’ve had it for a rather long time.  Having heard hundreds of “how we met” stories (this is among my all-time favorites,) I have learned the following:

  • One member of the couple always tells the story better (if not more accurately) than the other.
  • There is neither correlation nor causation between interesting stories and successful relationships.
  • It doesn’t matter how two people have met, no matter how boring or even bleak the circumstance, when a man’s eyes don’t get a little brighter when recalling the meeting of his partner… well, let’s just say that I’m rarely optimistic for their prospects.

A couple of months ago the Washington Post added the “On Love” section to the Sunday Arts & Style.  The stories of meeting and courtship quickly became mandatory reading for me.  I have blogged about being affected by that section, been frustrated by stories that made me think “Why the fuck did they getting married?” and certainly have been alternately challenged and charmed.  (The editor has made it clear in responding to reader complaints to the ombudsmen that the section is, by design, not always a bucket of sunshine and kittens.)

This Sunday the article opened with the shocking (to some) declaration that they “had spent fewer than 30 days in each others company before they got hitched.” As the kinda guy who is thoroughly enamored of The Story,  I was a completely interested in the tale of the Nurse and the Military Officer.  As any good writer wants to happen, I, the reader became invested.

I was invested in their childhood meeting, moving, and eventual reconnection many years later.  I invested in his divorce, her dying father, their friendship.  I invested in their moment when potential became possible. I invested in their engagement and mostly electronic courtship.  I invested in his difficult times when he identified with Tom Hanks & the volleyball on the island.  I invested when she said “you’ll never be a castaway again.”  I invested in their individual and collective steps to deal with his pending deployment to the Afghan Theater.

And then I had to put the article down.  I was about 80% through the piece but I was emotionally petrified and gripped with a fear that this couple, this lovely couple with the bravery to love ambitiously, would be felled by his bravery in service.  In my head, I was stomping my feet and throwing a tantrum at the Washington Post.

“Promise me there’s a happy ending, promise me he makes it back” I actually said aloud, giving voice to my demand but not sure to whom it was directed.  “There’s no way that they would make me care that much only to…” I didn’t finish the thought.

I did finish the article, and then I went shopping for a care package for a friend in Iraq because I didn’t know what else to do.


In Other News, Clichés are Clichés for a Reason

17 April 2010

“There is nothing more dangerous that a woman does than getting drunk in public.”

That chauvinistic declaration, with some elements of truth, belonged to my father and the first time I can recall hearing it was around age eight.  For reasons best left to a therapist to explain, those words have stuck with me and resonated in my behavior.

The thought crossed my mind recently as I watched a 30somthing woman weeble her way down a subway platform taking anything but the shortest distance between points A and B.  She wasn’t my responsibility and I had no intention of making her so, but I did keep a cautious eye on her… just in case something really bad was to happen.

When the train arrived we both made our way to the same door.  She grabbed different poles with each hand but still was less than steady as the train moved.  At one point, she leaned her hip against the pole I was holding, pinning my hand there.  My instinct was to prop her up, offer a steadying hand, but I resisted because no one wants to be seen as the guy trying to take advantage of the drunk girl.  Two stops after our boarding location, we exited the train. She walked the first set of escalators – zigzagging her way.  When we reached the second set of escalators, she again walked for a bit before surrendering and standing still.  I walked past her for a few steps before the momentum of nature or nurture (jump ball) could not be quelled and I turned to ask her “When we get topside, may I help you get a cab?”

“No, no, I’ll be ok” she replied with a surprising level of syllabic acuity.

I assured her that “we’ve all been there” and that it’s “not a big deal” while I tried to make the argument that walking home, even the two blocks she needed to travel, wasn’t a good idea.  I volleyed, she countered but her protestations where not very vehement.  Eventually, after we had ascended the last escalator, I had to exercise the guilt option – “My grandma would be really upset if I let you walk home by yourself; I’d walk you home myself but you don’t know me so that wouldn’t be a good thing.”

“It’s only two blocks, I can make it” she said before taking my face in her hands, getting kissing-distance close and saying “I’ll be fine.”

“I’m not worried about your ability to get there, I’m concerned about all of the people you’ll pass on your way there – look there’s a cab right now” I said while waving him over. “Cab’s here, just take it as fait accompli.”

She got in the cab and I paid the driver enough to take her those two blocks with a sufficiently large tip that I am hoping he made sure she got inside as I asked him to do.

Two nights later, I was sitting in the bar where I was headed the night that I helped that woman into a cab when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

“We met the other night, but I never caught your name” the same woman said.

“I’m Restaurant Refugee” I replied using my full name for introductions the way that Miss Manners has taught me.

She thanked me for getting her home, insisted on buying me a drink as compensation, and then explained that despite the fact that she was grateful, thinks me a gentleman and kinda cute, cannot date me because she could never get past the embarrassment of our first meeting.

…and the trend of good deeds not going unpunished continues.

…as does the trend of attractive women mistakenly thinking that the dating decision is entirely theirs regardless of their behavior.


The Date I’ll Never Forget

1 April 2010

I will never forget this date because it’s the day when I finally, blissfully, decided to stop fighting the want within me.

Like the song says, It began to tell round midnight.  Round midnight we shed the artifice of friendship and accepted what had been fait accompli to those around us, to strangers on the street and close friends alike.  In random places, random people would frequently comment “you make such a lovely couple” while friends would charge “really… nothing happening there????” with the usual follow of “why not?”

We dated for more than a year but none of our dates were capital D dates with a capital C crush, or a big R romance.  We dined, we went to theatre, we walked down streets arm in arm only to part each night with fond memories and protestations of friendship.  I don’t know what took me so long and my only defense is that whenever you decide you want to start the rest of your life to begin, everything before – the good, the other dates, the mistakes, the placeholders – was not time wasted, but precursors and preparation… to this date.

So round midnight on this date, this celebrated day in spring, I asked the question and she gave the answer that will bring our lives together, welcome what we ignored until ignoring it wasn’t an option.

On this date, we’ve each had our last date.  On this date, we grabbed the haystack needle and agreed to happily tilt at windmills together. On this date, I happily entwine my life with a woman on my blogroll.  On this date I introduce you all to my future wife I’m Gonna Break Your Heart.


Front, Back, Side to Side… and Don’t Forget to Dodge the Divide

15 March 2010

Andi, Monica and I were a couple of hours into our salutatory conversation, yet it already had the patina of easy friendship – two old friends and the imperfect stranger having a drink in their neighborhood Chicago bar. The Katty Kay revelation and discussion of my blog were the impetus for our bonding – sharing secrets with people who don’t live in your town is an infectious habit.  I shared, Andi shared, Monica shared, and I shared some more.  We covered lost loves, drunken sexcapades, famous crushes, and a few things that I cannot recall.

When Monica asked about my plans for the rest of the weekend, it felt like a natural extension of the conversation rather than a veiled invitation.

I’ve got a lot of work to finish in reviewing this business plan” I said while patting the stack of papers to my left.  “So that should take me through most of the day tomorrow.  I was thinking about finding a place to Step tomorrow night, but a) most people go to the Step joints with a partner, and b) I might not be finished with my report by then so it might be a moot point anyway.”

“You’ve got to finish in time because you need to take us steppin’ with you” Andi exclaimed.  To bolster the point, she added “we never get to go any more… just can’t convince our friends to learn.”

I began to chuckle a bit before Andi gave me a playful punch in the shoulder and asked “What’s so funny; are you laughing because I just asked you out?”

“No, I’m laughing cuz I’m wondering how Irish and Italian girls from Evanston learned to step” I replied still laughing.  My continued snickering earned me another punch to the shoulder.

Monica jumped into the conversation to correct me; “I’m from Evanston, Andi’s from Highland Park.”

“There’s a difference?” I mocked while moving out of punching range.

“Yes, and we’re all going stepping tomorrow night or I’m gonna find your blog and leave a bunch of comments about how you refused to take two hot women dancing so you could hole up in a hotel room with a bunch of spreadsheets” Monica stated with a tone that was a mix of joke and threat.

The Lady had a point.

“OK, we’re going steppin’ tomorrow night” I replied in what was a not too difficult capitulation.  “There is one problem – despite the rumors on the bathroom walls, I don’t have an ego big enough to think that I can take two women dancing at the same time.”

Andi was quick to intone “Monica will bring her ex – he can step, and they need to have some post-break-up-sex anyway.”

The statement was a small conversation grenade.  Monica gave Andi a look that seemed to say “that’s true, but did you need to share that with the stranger at the bar?” I blushed at the candor but tried to ignore it… it was consistent with our theme of sharing after all.

“Since I’m the out-of-towner, I’ll leave it to you two to pick the place; and if you’ll grant me one more indulgence, can we meet at the bar of my hotel for a cocktail first so I can have as much time as possible to finish my work?” I offered as a solution.

The plan was accepted, digits were exchanged, and a friendship, the seeds of which were planted earlier in the evening, had its first bloom.

Saturday’s sun came and went quickly.  I spent most of the day in a coffeeshop’s corner trying to preemptively rid myself of work guilt.  Ninety percent complete would have to suffice because just after 8pm and a little over an hour to get back to my hotel, eat, shower, and get dressed was about the right amount of time.

Scrubbed, shined and with my steppin’ shoes on, I elevatored down to the hotel bar.  Having made friends with the bartender earlier in the week, I took him up on his offer to “let [him] know about anything [he] could do while I was staying there.” I was fairly certain that he was referencing call girls and blow (there are certain signs that industry pros will notice) but all I wanted was a table by the fireplace, which he kindly reserved for me.

I took the liberty of ordering a bottle of Prosecco (bubbles before all things – my wine mentor used to say.)  Monica’s ex was the first to arrive.  Derrick was my almost five inches taller mirror image, African-American, the frame of a former athlete whose lines had softened just a bit, short grown-up hair, clean shaven, and well tailored black three button suit with a dark shirt underneath. He walked straight towards me and introduced himself with “you must be Refugee, I’m Derrick.”

I stood and met his hand before Derrick said, by way of explanation, “Monica said that I should look for a guy who looks and dresses a lot like me; since you’re the only other brother in here, I was pretty sure I headed to the right table.”

We shared a slight laugh that was more shared knowledge than humor.

I poured a glass of Prosecco for Derrick, we toasted to “new friends” and took our seats.  Monica and Andi entered a few minutes later, turning every head in the room in the process.  They were both casually, but well, attired last night when we met; tonight however, they were dressed in cocktail attire.  They both shared Italian and Irish lineage but did so inversely – Monica took the shockingly pale skin from her Irish mother and dark curly hair from her Italian dad; Andi had the red hair and green eyes of her Irish father, but the lightly olive skin and strong features of her Italian mom.  They both were simply stunning in dresses that fell just above and just below the knee.

Derrick and I watched them cross the room towards us and both stood to greet our nominal, but questionably accurate, dates.  Cheek kisses were sent all around as was mutual admiration for how well all of us “cleaned-up.”

After we drained the bottle, again leaning on the bartender’s offer for assistance, I had the hotel’s town car waiting curbside – there was a fifty dollar handshake on my exit.

Twenty minutes later we walked into an uptown ballroom filled with late 30 to mid 50 something Black Chicago Society.  I’ve been, and frequently am, the only Black person in the room for many situations.  It’s never been by design just circumstance of social/professional circles; and I rarely take stock of that circumstance.  Yet there I was suddenly, instantly aware, and slightly discomfited by the fact that Derrick and I were the two “Black guys who brought the White girls.”

The socio-political implications of race are too fraught with peril but never more delicate than within the Black community.  The far too simplistic explanation of my feeling is: I know that I am not that stereotypical successful Black man who wears a Caucasian woman on his arm as an accessory or trapping of that success, and I know that our pairing that evening developed organically.  However, I sensed that too many people in that room, rightly or wrongly, assumed that we were that cliché because the evidence of their life and the media told them it was most likely the case.

Our foursome ordered drinks at the bar and chatted with just a touch of the awkwardness of 8th graders at their first junior high dance – who will be the first to ask whom for that dance?  Right about the midpoint of our collective and individual glasses, the song changed and it seemed like the logical moment to extend my hand to Andi.  Derrick followed suit.

Andi stepped better than me – she never answered that question about how she learned – like, I-need-to-really-pay-attention-to-not-screw-up, better.  When I had moment to glance over at Derrick and Monica, they were really good too.

We took a few turns on the dance floor before the ladies went to the restroom and Derrick and I adjourned to the bar.

Standing at the bar next to a couple of early 50s Black women, Derrick and I ordered a couple of Bourbons for me and Monica, and a couple of glasses of generic red wine for him and Andi.  The woman nearest me, a younger Nancy Wilson clone, leaned over to me and whispered, almost conspiratorially, “at least they know how to step.”


Missing My Mentor, Drinking to My Mentor

7 March 2010
I’ve never done any research on this, but I suspect that anyone who bothers to keep a journal could lose an entire afternoon reading through a randomly found old one.
X
Earlier today I was perusing an old OpenTable database looking for the aliases a prominent food critic to pass them to a friend who is about to open a restaurant.  All of the notes that we recorded about our guests read like the well worn pages of a journal chronicling a particularly lovely, enthralling, and more than occasionally difficult part of my life.
X
My jaw landed on the table when I reached the note about one of my wine mentors who happened to be a regular.  The grief I felt the day I learned of his death two years ago came rushing back.  Then I began to think of his incredible generosity  – with his time, knowledge, experience, and, yes, his wine too.
X
TJ would call me the mornings of his reservations and in an almost conspiratorial tone, he would tell me about some spectacular bottle with an impossible to find combination of vintage and winery.  He would drop it off before the opera and give me precise instructions on its opening – “OK, Refugee, crack it about 3; at 5, give it a taste and decant it if you think it’s ready; you’re gonna wanna taste it again ’round 8 and maybe double-decant it then but probably no later than 9:30 or so.”
X
He would arrive about 10:30 adorned with a smile as big as a Pagliacci grin… but real.  “Did ya like that wine, Refugee” he would ask despite knowing that it was nothing short of sublime; and we would talk wine in the bar for a few minutes before taking him to a table.  I always learned more during his 90 minute meal than I did in any 90 minutes of my sommelier courses and that was only from the random two minute bursts of conversation peppered with wine talk.
X
One night he walked into the restaurant – solo and without reservation as he often did during the week – and placed a winicorn* bottle on the bar.
X
“Refugee, it’s been a really shitty day, you know what we do on really great or really crappy days right” he asked with his usual ebullience  – it was classic MT; he loved life so much that even bad days were reason to be happy.
X
I replied with the philosophy learned from him, “Exceptional wines are for days that are exceptionally good or exceptionally shitty.”
X
“Damn right! Get a coupla glasses and have a drink with an old man.”
X
We were about halfway through our glasses when TJ rhetorically asked “Do you know why I come here, why we do this?”
X
Knowing him well enough to know that he would answer his own question, I just took another sip to fill the beat before he continued.
X
“There’s enough crappy sommeliers ‘round here with enough hoity-toity pretentious bullshit to fill every Tastevin** in the world.  You’re not like that, your staff’s isn’t like that, and I figure if I can help a young somm be better, and have some fun in the process, well… well, that just makes the wine world a better place.”
X
With that, he drained the rest of his glass and said “I gotta run, a few more bartenders*** to say hello to tonight; share the rest with your guys at the end of the night.”
X
The night TJ died I went to one of my favorite restaurants with one of the best bottles in my cellar.  I had a glass with my friend, the manager; I told him about MT.  I asked him to share the rest of the bottle with his staff.
X
I am pretty sure that someone bartender will be hearing a few TJ stories this evening… and drinking really well later.
X
X
X
* refers to some impossible to find bottle, usually very small production and about as much cash as a mortgage payment.
X
** refers to the ceremonial cup awarded to people who have been admitted to the International Court of Sommeliers
X
*** in TJ vernacular, “every time a great bartender becomes a manager a little piece of [his] soul dies.”  There is no higher compliment that he gave to managers than to call him/her a bartender.

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