It might come as a shock to hardcore Roadfooders and diner devotees that the exalted chef James Beard was one of the first people who made Roadfood popular. When the original book was published in 1977, Beard wrote a rave review of it in his syndicated newspaper column, the gist of which was that he was delighted that someone was putting a focus on American regional cuisine in a sea of everything “continental.” At our editor’s insistence, we awkwardly called the great man to thank him. To our surprise, he invited us to visit him in his Greenwich Village townhouse. We did, and soon became fast friends. It was an unlikely friendship. Beard was a culinary legend and we were newbies. Jane and Michael Stern ate at blue-collar cafes and diners in small towns while James Beard was the last word in gourmet dining in New York City and around the world.
Jim took pleasure in taking us to the fanciest and most expensive restaurants in New York City. We were always his guests, which was a good thing because on our own we could never have scored a reservation nor paid the bill at the end of the meal. One day he asked us if we had ever dined at Lutèce. At the time, Lutèce was the king of all restaurants in New York: the best, the fanciest, the most revered, and the “Frenchiest” haute cuisine in the city. It wore this crown for years; and if you dined at Lutèce it meant you were a real gourmet, rich, and maybe famous, too. Needless to say we had never been there.
The owner and chef was a man named André Soltner. He and Jim Beard had been friends for many years and had witnessed each other’s rise to fame in the food world. Beard used to run a cooking school above the restaurant. Michael and I were a bit cowed at the idea of dining at Lutèce, but also wildly excited. If things went south we could always hide behind Jim’s very portly frame.
Jim was in his 80’s – an immense man who was magisterially tall, wearing a dramatic cape and leaning on a cane. We followed him into the restaurant where Monsieur Soltner was waiting at the front door for him. After a cavalcade of hugs and kisses, he escorted Jim (and us) to the Best Table In The House. The best table was smack in the middle of the tropically wallpapered Garden Room, a coveted area generally reserved for VIPs. Our table was strategically placed in a way that allowed all the other patrons to see the celebrity center stage. When Jim Beard walked in, the crowded room came to an immediate hush.
Once seated, Michael and I could not wait to see the menu. Rubes that we were, we did not know that very famous gastronomes were not shown a menu. Instead, the chef composed the best meal he could come up with in their honor and that was what was served. An uncorked bottle of expensive ice cold champagne was placed beside our table and since we did not have to consult a menu or talk to waiters, Michael, Jim, and I had lots of time to talk.
One of the things we had in common with him, other than food, was a love of dogs. At that time, Jim owned Percy the pug. Percy was adorable, but a snob. The one time we brought him a dog biscuit, he ate it and then immediately threw it up on my shoes.
Waiting for our meal, Jim sat back in his chair with a champagne flute in his outsized hand. One thing you should know is that before James Beard was a chef and writer he was an opera singer. Although he was in his eighties (and quite deaf) he still had a booming voice that could be heard in the back row of a theater.
“Michael…Jane,” he bellowed. The room came to a hush again. Everyone at the other tables leaned forward wanting to hear what James Beard had to say while seated at Lutèce waiting for his custom meal.
“I am having a problem with Percy,” he declaimed. “He has impacted anal glands and I do NOT know what to do!”
Michael and I may have known nothing about what André Soltner was up to in the kitchen, but we did know a thing or two about dogs. Because Jim was hard of hearing and Michael has a naturally robust voice, Michael replied so Jim could hear him across the vast white tablecloth.
“Jim,” he blasted. “It is not very difficult, but you do have to place one finger on each side of Percy’s rectum, and then squeeze very hard.”
The rest of the meal is lost in my memory. I remember the look on the other diners’ faces as the discussion among the God of cooking and his young acolytes continued at full blast. I vaguely recall many courses brought from the kitchen to our table by Soltner himself. There was lots of poached fish, fancy cream sauces and high-rise souffles, followed by Jim receiving flurries of farewell hugs and kisses from the chef-owner (and of course no bill). Once he was snuggly wrapped in his operatic cape, we all walked out the door.
After we stuffed Jim Beard into our VW bug, we drove back to his townhouse. “Jane and Michael,” Jim loudly incanted, “When we get home would you come in and take a look at Percy’s behind?”
“Of course,” Michael said, and the car was quiet until we got Jim home.
Once provided with more champagne and a plate of French butter cookies, we spent quality time examining Percy’s ass, and then because we hated to make Jim have to take him to the vet, we performed the magical canine maneuver ourselves on a kitchen table covered with layers of paper towels. It did not endear us to Percy, that’s for sure, but it made Jim happy.
In retrospect, to be honest, both of us were far more comfortable looking at Percy’s rear end then sitting at the VIP table at Lutèce. We might not have known if we were eating a “Quenelle” or a “Pissaladière,” but we were confident masters of this smelly skill.