Sandra Messer, sixty-seven, a native of Chicago, her short gray hair colored dirty blonde, is the legendary owner/chef of Le Scélérat in Berkeley, California. While shopping at Monterey Market on a foggy morning in August, Sandra runs into Philip, headwaiter at Le Scélérat.
In the ten years Philip has worked for Sandra, they have only met away from the restaurant a few other times, and each of those times Sandra was in a terrible hurry and barely said Hello.
But today Sandra is uncharacteristically not in a hurry, nor is Philip, so they have a long chat while moving around together among the outdoor fruit and vegetable stands.
Philip is forty-seven, attractive with dark brown eyes and curly black hair. Born in Connecticut to a French mother and an Italian-American father, he grew up speaking French at home, English otherwise, and he still often dreams in French.
When speaking to fellow restaurateurs, Sandra refers to Philip as my Philip, indicating her special fondness for him lest they entertain any thoughts of trying to woo him away from her. She entrusts Philip with her most important guests, and though he is not the least gregarious, his intuition regarding the needs of his customers is so remarkable and his service so full of grace, those he serves at Le Scélérat feel they have been cared for by an otherworldly savant.
“Diego,” says Sandra, referring to her second-in-command in the kitchen, “tells me you’re writing a cookbook.”
“Yes,” says Philip, shyly. “For over a decade now. Endlessly adding and tinkering with recipes, so I may never finish, but the process is endlessly fascinating to me.”
“I hope you’ll show me the manuscript,” says Sandra, who is a millionaire many times over from her cookbooks.
“I wouldn’t think to impose on you,” says Philip, sincerely.
“Don’t be silly, Philip,” says Sandra, selecting a few dozen bell peppers to stuff with sole. “I’m genuinely interested.”
“Thank you, Sandra,” he says, nodding graciously. “I’ll put you at the top of my list.”
“Speaking of tops of lists and recipes,” she says, moving to the eggplant, “I spoke with Emile Costas yesterday. He’s coming out to steal some of my recipes, and someone told me you worked for Emile at Le Bouffon. Did you?”
“Yes,” says Philip, taking a deep breath. “But in his kitchen, not at his tables.”
Sandra frowns. “You cooked for him?”
“I did,” says Philip, clearing his throat. “Twenty years ago he asked me to be head chef at Le Bouffon, I declined, and thereafter became a waiter.”
“I had no idea,” says Sandra, shocked by this revelation.
“Long time ago,” says Philip, laughing and crying a little and feeling very glad not to be head chef of Le Bouffon or anywhere, and to have finally told Sandra. “I much prefer waiting tables for you.”
“His loss is my gain,” she says, looking at Philip as if seeing him for the first time. “Now I really want to read your cookbook, and I’ll spare you the ordeal of working on the nights Emile comes to dine.”
“No, no. I enjoy waiting on him,” says Philip, his eyes sparkling. “He and I made our peace a few years after I fled his kitchen. I waited on him twice in New York and once at Le Vagabond before I moved across the bay to work for you. He was a father to me, and like a good father he forgave me for going my own way.”
Philip and Lisa have been friends for six years, lovers for the last three. For Lisa’s fortieth birthday, Philip throws a dinner party in the cottage he rents in the Berkeley hills and invites the five people he cooks for every few weeks, his guinea pigs as he calls them, who give him their reactions to the latest versions of recipes he’s perfecting for his cookbook.
The five are: Marcel a waiter at Le Vagabond in San Francisco, Marcel’s wife Andrea, a sous-chef at Le Vagabond, Joan, a professor of European History at Mills College, Joan’s husband Fred, a landscape architect, and Hilda, a psychotherapist who dines regularly at Le Scélérat.
Andrea and Marcel arrive an hour before the other guests so Andrea can assist Philip in the kitchen while Marcel sets the table, decants the wine, and plays his accordion to accompany the cooks.
“Mon dieu, Philip,” says Andrea, a girlish forty-one with short black hair and small tattoos of flowers on her arms, her accent faintly German, “for a chef of your caliber you need a bigger kitchen. Much bigger.”
“Ah but I want these recipes to work in any sized kitchen,” he says, checking the soufflé. “This is a cookbook for everyone.”
“Of course,” says Andrea, who adores Philip, “but everyone doesn’t make a five-course dinner in a kitchen the size of a…” She looks around the tiny kitchen. “Small bathroom.”
“When the cookbook becomes a bestseller,” says Marcel, who also has short black hair, no tattoos, his accent loudly French, “Philip will buy a chateau in a vineyard with a vast kitchen and enormous bathrooms and we will go there and live with him and make wine and help him write his next cookbook.”
“From your lips to God’s ears,” says Philip, enjoying Marcel’s fantasy. “And we’ll raise chickens and peacocks.”
“Oh if only we could,” says Andrea, sighing. “I’m weary of living in our three little rooms in the foggy avenues.”
“Our friends Pierre and Charlene want us to move to Portland,” says Marcel, sipping his wine. “There are many jobs for us there and we could rent a house with a yard. Have a garden. Grow roses. Much less expensive than here. It’s tempting.”
“Lisa and I talk about getting out of here, too,” says Philip, looking from Andrea to Marcel. “A small town somewhere. In Oregon perhaps. We would miss you so much.”
“I don’t want to think about it right now,” says Andrea, shaking her head. “Tonight we celebrate Lisa.”
Ere long, Philip’s neighbors Joan and Fred Birchfield arrive, Fred fifty-eight, big and lumbering, Joan fifty-seven, petite and nimble, both born in South Dakota. Married since they were twenty, Joan and Fred routinely finish each other’s sentences, disagree about almost everything, and love each other madly. Their one child, Aurora, is thirty-four, a professor of Linguistics at Stanford.
Marcel serves Fred and Joan wine, Fred white, Joan red, and Hilda Rubenstein arrives resplendent in a dress of her own design made of purple Guatemalan fabric, her long silvery gray hair in a braid. A Jungian psychoanalyst, Hilda is seventy-five and has lived in Berkeley for forty years. Widowed ten years ago, Hilda’s one child, Tamara, is a playwright, no grandchildren in sight.
Moments after Hilda arrives, Lisa appears in a billowy red blouse and a long gray skirt, a red rose in her dark brown hair. Lisa’s mother Bianca was a mix of African and Indio, Lisa’s father Herschel an Ashkenazi Jew from Los Angeles. Bianca and Herschel had a love affair in Buenos Aires when Herschel was there on business for his father’s jewelry company and Bianca became pregnant with Lisa. Herschel fled back to California and assuaged his guilt by sending money to Bianca, though not often or very much. When Lisa was ten, Bianca died, and a few months later Lisa flew from Buenos Aires to Los Angeles to live with Herschel’s parents.
Herschel, who Lisa had never met before arriving in Los Angeles, was by then married and had two small children with his unhappy wife. Had it been up to him, he would have ignored the pleas of Lisa’s beleaguered aunt to take responsibility for Lisa, but Herschel’s mother insisted they bring the child to America. And so Lisa went from living in dangerous poverty in Brazil to being the pampered granddaughter of Myron and Shirley Goldstein in Beverly Hills.
When everyone is seated around Philip’s dining table, the salad served, Joan asks Lisa how her birthday is going so far and Lisa says, “I took the day off, had a long bath here before Philip made me blackberry crepes for breakfast, then I went home to feed my cat, did a little shopping with some money my grandmother sent me, bought this blouse, and then I met three friends for lunch at Nakapan and we blabbed and blabbed, and then I went home and talked on the phone with my grandmother, got dressed, and here I am.”
“I would never guess you were forty,” says Fred, who finds Lisa surpassingly lovely. “Thirty at most.”
“I feel forty,” says Lisa, looking at Hilda who has become something of a mother to her since they became friends a year ago. “Feels very different than thirty-nine.”
“How so?” asks Joan, squinting at Lisa. “Not that I don’t agree, it’s just I’ve never been able to elucidate why my entry into the fifth decade was such a profound change.”
“I think it’s that we’re coming to the end of being able to make babies,” says Lisa, looking at Andrea. “Approaching a time when that’s no longer possible.”
“Turning forty has brought more people to me for therapy than anything else,” says Hilda, smiling fondly at Lisa. “Both women and men. It is a huge turning point in this culture, this youth-worshiping culture. We begin to more consciously question why we are here if not to procreate or at least be able to, which is, in a way, the definition of youth, especially for a woman.”
“I’m forty-two,” says Andrea, sighing. “We talk about having a child, but the years go by and we don’t, so…” She looks at Marcel. “We are too busy making money to pay the rent and we can’t see how we would fit a child into our lives.”
“Oh you don’t see how they’ll fit until they arrive,” says Fred, who doubts their daughter Aurora will ever give them a grandchild. “And then you do whatever you can to make them feel at home. That’s how we all got here, with parents who couldn’t see how we’d fit, and then we did. Somehow.”
“Now why would you say that, dear?” says Joan, frowning at Fred. “We assiduously prepared for Aurora’s arrival. You added a room to the house in anticipation of her birth and I got a two-year extension on my doctoral thesis.”
“I still couldn’t see how she’d fit until she got here,” he says, laughing. “And when she did, the room we added became your study and we ended up converting half the living room into her bedroom because that’s where she wanted to be. Remember?”
Hilda laughs. “I will never forget the first night I put my daughter Tamara into her very own bed, rather than have her go on sleeping with us in our bed as she had for her first two years, and she looked up at me and said, “Mama, you can’t be serious.”
The guests gone—Joan and Fred having helped with the dishes—Philip and Lisa go to bed and make love, and in the aftermath Lisa says, “I want to have a child with you. But if I have to choose between having a child and being with you, I choose you.”
“Well then lets at least get married,” he says, taking her in his arms. “We’ve lived apart long enough.”
Philip comes to the table where the roguishly handsome Emile Costa, sixty-four, is dining with his stunning young Swedish assistant Olga, Emile one of the most famous chef/restaurateurs in the world with renowned restaurants in New York, London, Paris, and Las Vegas.
“Perfect timing as always, Philip,” says Emile, born in the Bronx to Sicilian parents. “What is the mystery spice in her rice? Not cardamom, is it?”
“No cardamom,” says Philip, replenishing their wine glasses. “Perhaps you are tasting her subtle use of smoked paprika.”
“Of course,” says Emile, winking at Olga to make note of that. “So… you are happy here?”
“Yes,” says Philip, knowing Emile would love to employ him. “Eventually I want to move to a small town, but for now working here is ideal for me.”
“So mellow,” says Olga, loving how quiet Le Scélérat is compared to Emile’s enormous cacophonous restaurants.
“Too mellow for me,” says Emile, shaking his head. “Feels dead. Even the young people who come here seem dead.”
“Did you want to sample anything else tonight?” asks Philip, smiling fondly at Emile. “Another glass of wine?”
“No, we’re done,” says Emile, shaking his head. “I always come away from Sandra’s food feeling she missed the high notes.” He gives Philip a special smile. “I know you know what I mean. You never missed the high notes when you cooked for me.”
“She is not bombastic,” says Philip, pouring the last drops of wine into Olga’s glass. “But she’s very good.”
“And how are you away from here?” says Emile, shifting from restaurateur to old friend. “Are you in love?”
“I am,” says Philip, touched by Emile wanting to know. “I’m getting married soon.”
“Tell me,” says Emile, surprised. “I thought you might never again after the first two disasters.”
Philip laughs. “I thought the same. But then the gods sent me Lisa, and so… here I go again.”
“I’m happy for you,” says Emile, who considered Philip a culinary Mozart. “I, as you know, love getting married and do so often.”
“Will you have children?” asks Olga, who is next in line to marry Emile.
“We might,” says Philip, taken over by sudden sorrow. “We have yet to decide.”
Philip sits on a small sofa in Hilda’s studio and looks across the small red and green Persian rug where Hilda is sitting in a brown leather armchair. This is Philip’s first time availing himself of Hilda’s offer of free psychotherapy, the question of fatherhood inspiring his request for a session with her.
“My father was a brute,” says Philip, seeing his father sitting at the kitchen table drinking whiskey from a bottle. “He was twenty years older than my mother, a salesman, gone most of the time, had other women, smoked constantly, was a terrible drunk, and died of lung cancer when he was fifty-six and I was fourteen.”
“Was he a mean drunk?” asks Hilda, suspecting he was.
“A monster,” says Philip, nodding. “We lived for him to go away and hid from him when he was home.”
“Why did she marry him?”
“He was handsome and charming and a good salesman,” says Philip, thinking of the many times his mother fled with him and his sisters on the train into New York City to stay with his mother’s friend in a little apartment until the terror passed. “When she got pregnant with my older sister, she insisted my father marry her, and he did, though he had at least one other wife concurrently with my mother.”
“And you begin with this because…?”
“I think he must have something to do with why I never wanted children, why the idea of becoming a father is so…” He frowns. “Alien to me. I’ve never imagined being a father.”
“Do you like children?”
“I get along with them, but I wouldn’t say I like them. When Lisa and I go walking, she loves seeing children and talking to them, and they adore her. And when we socialize with friends who have kids, I always have a good time playing with them, though I don’t seek them out.”
“Do they seek you out?” Hilda smiles expectantly. “I imagine they do.”
“Yes,” he says, surprised she knew. “Why did you think so?”
“You have an innocence about you, an openness. Children love that, as do women and some men, but children especially.”
“Yet I have never thought, ‘Oh kids love me. I should be a father.’ It has never occurred to me.”
“Imagine Lisa is pregnant with your child. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind?”
“I might do something wrong,” he says, anguished. “I might by accident hurt the baby, or the child might die and Lisa would never forgive me and I could never forgive myself.”
“What would you do wrong?”
“Anything. Everything. I know nothing about babies or changing diapers or feeding them or holding them or burping them or anything.”
“Dear Philip,” says Hilda, loving his honesty, “it’s just like being a waiter. The customer has certain needs requiring certain actions on your part, and once you learn those necessary actions, they become automatic, a dance with constant variations, just as your service is a dance. And remember, much of caring for a child is feeding them, and you are a master at feeding people.”
“When you put it that way,” says Philip, laughing with relief, “I feel less afraid.”
Joan and Fred have Philip and Lisa over for a summertime barbecue in their big backyard, but cold fog sends them indoors to dine.
“We feel confident about cooking shish kebobs and corn on the cob for you,” says Fred, a few moments into the feast. “And beer is beer.”
“Your food is every bit as good as mine,” says Philip, loving the barbecued chicken. “We’re thrilled every time you invite us.”
“I love your salads,” says Lisa, happier than she’s ever been, knowing she and Philip will soon to be married. “And your rice is always delicious.”
“We were not good cooks until Aurora became interested in cooking,” says Joan, speaking of their daughter. “In fact, she became so interested, we thought she was going to culinary school until one night she called from college to tell us she’d fallen in love with linguistics.”
“How old was she when she got interested in cooking?” asks Lisa, hoping Philip won’t mind talk of children.
“Six,” says Fred, nodding. “We went out to dinner one night to a Mexican restaurant.”
“We frequently ate out,” says Joan, nodding. “Because we were not good cooks, but loved good food.”
“And when the waitress came to see how everything was going,” Fred continues, “Aurora said to her, ‘How do make your beans so yummy?’”
“And the waitress held out her hand to Aurora,” says Joan, holding out her hand to Fred.
“Aurora took it,” says Fred, taking his wife’s hand.
“And the waitress led her into the kitchen and put her on a stool next to the stove,” says Joan, smiling as she remembers.
“Then the cook stood beside Aurora and explained in great detail how she made her beans so yummy,” says Fred, kissing his wife’s hand.
“And thereafter Aurora was mad for cooking,” says Joan, kissing her husband’s hand in return.
“So of course we had to learn with her,” says Fred, grinning at Philip, “which as you know is an adventure without end.”
At the end of a Friday night at Le Scélérat, Sandra beckons Philip to follow her to her office where she tells him she thinks his cookbook is a masterwork, she would be honored to write the Forward, and she can’t wait to show the book to her publisher.
“And,” she says, pausing for effect, “I would very much like to use some of your recipes here.”
On a warm day in September, a month before their wedding, Lisa and Philip engage Andrea and Marcel and Fred, and Fred’s large pickup truck, to move Lisa’s things from her apartment in the noisy flats of Berkeley to Philip’s cottage in the quieter hills; and to celebrate Lisa’s move, Joan and Fred host a barbecue on their deck looking out over San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate illuminated by the setting sun.
Going to bed that night, the little cottage full of Lisa’s things yet to find their places, Lisa’s cat hiding under the living room sofa, Lisa stands beside the bed in her nighty and says, “My darling fiancé, I was about to put in my diaphragm when I realized two things.”
“What did you realize, my darling fiancé?” asks Philip, already in bed and awaiting his beloved.
“I’m ovulating,” she says, blushing, “and I wonder what you think about us leaving the gate open tonight.”
And having no doubt they will be together for the duration, he holds out his arms to her, seeing no reason to speak.