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16 April 2006

Eat slowly and thank the chef

This one is for Philip.

“I prefer Hostess fruit pies to pop-up toaster tarts because they don't require as much cooking.” - Carrie Snow

Poptarts2My friend Lucy- who- creates- amazing- works- of- art- in- food- and- everyday- life- and- who- might- be- compared- to- Martha- Stewart- except- for- all- those- unfortunate- parts- of- Martha used to live in Chicago, so naturally, I asked her where to eat for a recent trip there. A breathless one-word answer was accompanied by a misty eyed smile at its memory: “Topolobampo.”

Working together in Chicago several months ago, my friend Angela and I made our way to Topolobampo, recognizing after our salads-too-beautiful-to-eat arrived that Lucy wasn’t kidding; this was seriously good food delivered by seriously skilled wait staff.

Two weeks ago, work in Chicago called again, another chance to visit the tall white-haired maitre’ d at Topolobampo, a gentleman’s gentleman if ever there was one, with a manner so kind and caring that when he held out his hand and asked for my friend’s jacket, David gave it to him without even thinking or knowing who he was.

Before the trip, when I had emailed David to tell him I had made a reservation for us, he remarked that he just enjoyed saying the name: To-po-lo-bam-po, To-po-lo-bam-po, To-po-lo-bam-po, and that eating there could only be secondary to that auditory, symphonic, percussive pleasure.

Chili_pepper_1It was a three-hour sensory experience, that meal, from the moment we sat until the moment we begrudgingly left: a salad so pretty it made me weep, soup made and poured for David at the table, a vegetarian mushroom and bean ragout baked in parchment and served with homemade tortillas to cut its spice, and—just to be polite—dessert and a sweet coffee that haunts me still.

Each dish a piece of art—both visual and oral—it was the dessert that slowed us down, that made us dream of a land where tree trunks were crisp, thin chocolate wafers rolled around chocolate mousse like clouds in your mouth; rivers full of warm, rich bread pudding so full of love that it felt like pillows, with rum-soaked raisins like small island nations or, at the very least life rafts, floating in a pomegranate sauce.

This, David said, is what eating should be. This, I responded, is where I’m coming to celebrate my 50th birthday. In fact, let’s all meet there: August 16, 2009; I’ll make the reservation for 7pm. I’ll be the one sitting in the left back corner as you enter (now my favorite table) holding my fork up expectedly and muttering something unintelligible about the evils of counting carbs while tapping out the word “Topolo” in Morse code. I can call it “Topolo” now that I’m a regular.

TomatoesMany moons ago, I had a meal that also stopped me. It was the food, yes, but the place, too—and, of course, the company—a newly minted love, John (aka Mr Brilliant), in a place called La Lunchonette in New York’s Chelsea. Then there was the evening in Helsinki at Alexander Nevksi, a Russian restaurant with a menu as tall as a building; the hot chips and meaningful salsa at the M&J Sanitary Tortilla Factory in Albuquerque; Nana’s pierogies fried in a vat of butter; the sticky toffee pudding at Bettys Café Tea Room in Harrogate; lavender ice cream in Waterford; Steve’s stone-ground grits at the Farm, Mama’s Brownstone Front Cake; nightly forays to Meskerem Ethiopian restaurant while wild-craving-pregnant with Emma; that saag paneer at Heritage India;  those freshly made pitas and every single thing that Chagit Zakay cooks in Hod Ha-sharon, Israel; that curry lunch wrapped in a banana leaf aboard a train bound from Colombo to Kandy in Sri Lanka. “I had a perfect hot dog and a Coke in Central Park in 1970,” my now-vegetarian husband John adds quietly to my litany of memorable food.

Who are the people making these touchstone meals possible, those wafts of aroma that drove Proust to memory? They are life’s chefs, mixing up magic on a plate like my friend Rosemary who can make creating a tomato and olive torte look like a life-altering experience, making much more than sustenance, creating memories, conjuring up sights and sounds and conversations with the very memory of a pomegranate sauce, a banana leaf, a perfect bowl of salsa, a hot knish. It is a true calling, cooking like this. And one among their number is my husband John’s cousin Philip, a chef in San Francisco.

When John’s youngest brother got married in New York fourteen years ago, we traveled there to join in the celebration. Largely pregnant with Emma and with John tucked into a tuxedo up front in the wedding party, I sat with his cousin, Philip, meeting him for the first time and talking for hours amidst the dancing. Philip the Cousin stood out for me, one of the family who had left and made his way in the world; just four years older than John, his favorite cousin.

RestaurantPhilip is a chef; he has spent his whole life making memories for people at restaurant tables where love is proclaimed, where friendships are forged, where anniversaries and birthdays are celebrated with a toast and a satisfied smile at the merging of tastes, like his ravioli with orange-saffron sauce, where families mark milestones, where deals are inked, where careers are changed and arguments are ended or begun and children are named and books are written and negotiations are conducted and jobs are offered and refused, where lists are made and lost, where decisions—big and small—are made. Being a chef is a mission; there is desire in that kitchen heat.

A month ago, John’s parents planned a visit to see Philip in San Francisco; I was put in charge of finding a hotel room for them that would overlook water, a beautiful place where when Philip visited, he could look outside and see beauty at every turn. I was in charge of finding flights and hotels, flights and hotels. I was desperate to find a place with a nice view for Philip. It was the only thing I could do. He was undergoing chemotherapy. It was cancer; it is always cancer.  John’s parents were going to help their nephew, sit with him, bathe him, watch the little boy they knew as he moved quickly to an end.

Philip2Philip provided many a memory to people over the years through his art—his food, his love of fresh produce, his thoughtfulness about flavors. He died this past Thursday while I sat in Des Moines, awaiting my flight home, kvetching about air travel at the moment he died. Fifty-four years was all, then gone.

Somehow, we eat this life way too fast, just way too fast. In a whirling dervish of a world in which our decisions are between Hostess fruit pies and Raspberry Frosted Poptarts for speed’s sake, we need to slow it down, savor each bite, eat dessert, draw life out a bit.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Knife_and_forkGo ahead, eat dessert. And eat your bread pudding slowly, savor it, swim a while in that pomegranate sauce, reach out for a raisin island and rest. Eat well, eat slowly, appreciate the artistry of your food, make your life’s meal last a long time; give up Pop-Tarts and be sure to thank the chef.


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Ah yes, the simple things in life (like eating) when done very well are truly a pleasure. Thanks for the reference to good places to eat. If I find myself in their neighborhood, I'll have a place to go.

Wonderful post. I will indeed savor my bread pudding.

And I would add to your list Pinot Noir, a restaurant on the south end of St. Helena in the Napa Valley. Their gnocchi browned in butter with bits of squash and spinach....ah!

Yes. 54 years of age is too young to die. Let's not just appreciate the food, but the lives in the kitchens or factories that make us those food.


Oh, Patti, I'm sorry to hear that he's passed. What a lovely, and loving, tribute to him.

To-po-lo-bam-po, To-po-lo-bam-po, To-po-lo-bam-po

Like Dorothy, I say it three times and instead of clicking my heals, I lick my lips - I'm hoping it will transport me to that favorite table of yours August 16, 2009!!!

To be included in this company for a humble pot o' grits is amazing, dear! And I thank my dear grandmother "BubberWillie" for teaching me to put that slab of butter in the water as it comes to the boil BEFORE stirring in the grits, and stirring, and stirring, and stirring 'til the spoon stands up.

Ah, the mantra of hospitality: "I love you, ergo I feed you!"

Living intentionally - a good goal for mankind
Dying unintentionally - inevitable for all mankind

In between the two - a beginning and an end - is 37 days. It is an absolutely enchanting inspiration that lights the path to a quality of life we should expect to enjoy.

My best and most life enriching college friend passed away unintentionally on Saturday. His survival for even a few more years was risky but it was the best of outcomes. His passing prematurely and unintentionally was not the outcome he nor his family and friends expected. Reading 37 days eases the pain and encourages me and those who are left behind to actively seek a new path to steer while we have the time to "live intentionally".

Thank you Patti


I'm so sorry to hear about Philip's passing.
I lost my mom to cancer when she was 64; it's a dreadful disease. But in the face of death, we begin to more fully appreciate life. Thanks for a beautiful tribute and the permission to eat dessert! =)

oh! JUST what i needed to read this morning. i'm giving up the pop tarts of my life: the quick and dirty and unintentional, unconscious and non-magical moments. right now. thank you. you've offered the perfect tribute to a chef. i'm sure he's raining good karma down around you as he smiles next to you...

My husband cooked dinner tonight to celebrate a writing victory for me. It was thoughtful and it was good, and you know what? I think I forgot to thank him. Going upstairs right now to do so. Thank you, Patti!

Meals that make you come to full stop and savor, with full respect for ingredients, preparation and presentation are a gift to humanity and self.

thanks to all of you for comments that have made me smile and think and pause. i appreciate hearing about the ways this essay touched you and welcome you all to that 50th birthday dinner!

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