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In another month the New Orleans lakefront would stink of fish, filth, and boat fuel, but right now it was a softly gorgeous spring day on Lakeshore Drive. Two young men sat on the seawall, their feet propped on the algae-slimed steps that descended into the murky brown water. Behind them, the levee rose up lush and green; before them was a vista of sailboats, small yachts, an occasional Coast Guard cutter, and far in the distance, the causeway that stretches twenty-four miles across Lake Pontchartrain to Mandeville, Covington, and other pretty little towns collectively known by sardonic city dwellers as “New Orleans North.”
One of the young men—his name was Gary Stubbs, but everyone called him G-man—had a cane pole baited with a rubber worm. He sat with his long legs crossed, the pole balanced on the fulcrum of his knee, and stared out at the boats on the sparkling water. His myopic eyes had always been painfully sensitive to light, and his omnipresent dark glasses could not ward off the beginnings of a headache. G-man wasn’t the kind of person who got a lot of headaches, though two years of restaurant co-ownership had certainly increased his familiarity with them. Like many native New Orleanians, he had known how to fish for most of his life, but he was not especially dedicated to the practice. Today he would have been unlikely to notice if Leviathan had risen from the depths and clamped onto his line. His attention was wholly absorbed by a creased and partly crumpled piece of newspaper from which his friend was reading aloud.
His friend was John Rickey, generally addressed as Rickey except by the younger and more timid underlings in the restaurant’s kitchen, who just called him Chef. He read in a loud, fierce voice, gesticulating to emphasize points that struck him as particularly egregious. Rickey was very much the kind of person who got a lot of headaches.
They had been together for more than a decade, had worked in kitchens all over New Orleans, had sautéed, chopped, guzzled, and scammed their way from fifteen-year-old dishwashers at a Lower Ninth Ward diner to chef-owners of an award-winning and successful restaurant. The restaurant had been Rickey’s idea from the beginning, and though he had recently insisted on making G-man his co-chef rather than his sous chef, he was still in charge. Rickey always had to be in charge of everything he did; otherwise it didn’t strike him as worth doing. He was sharp-featured and intense, handsome despite a slight tendency toward paunchiness. Even the article he was reading commented on his good looks, though that seemed to irk him as much as everything else about it.
“‘Like so many youthful ventures, Liquor is a fine example of why no one under thirty-five should be put in charge of anything.’” Liquor was their restaurant, so named because all the dishes featured that ingredient; as Rickey had predicted, it was an idea perfectly suited to this most alcoholic of cities. “ ‘The menu shows a certain ambition, verve, and raw talent. So may have the young Michelangelo’s daubings, but they do not belong in the Louvre.’ What the fuck is the Louvre, G? What does any of that mean?”
“I think it’s a museum,” said G-man, hoping Rickey wouldn’t pursue the other question, though he knew he might as well hope for Jesus Christ to come strolling across the lake and put a nice bull redfish on his line. He tilted his face up to the cloudless sky, concentrated on the lapping water, the bass on a passing car’s stereo, the gulls screeching and mewing and saying “You! You!” It was relaxing out here, or would be if Rickey would let it. This was one of the places they’d always come for peace: from their families when they were still teenagers living at home, from the stress and exhaustion of the various kitchen jobs they’d held during most of their twenties, from their own restaurant over the past couple of years. He felt as if Rickey wasn’t honoring that peace now, and it made him a little sad.
“ ‘Of course, most young entrepreneurs have to come up with their own cash,’ ” Rickey read. “ ‘These two gentlemen haven’t even done that, instead relying on Daddy’s money. Celebrity restaurateur and Maine native Lenny Duveteaux isn’t really either chef’s father, but he may as well be for all the work they had to do to obtain his considerable financing. The question of why he chose to bankroll them remains—’ ”
G-man tucked the end of his fishing pole under his arm, reached over, and snatched the article out of Rickey’s hand. Before Rickey could grab it back, he had torn it into small pieces and scattered it on the surface of the lake. “There,” he said. “Maybe now I’ll get a bite. I always heard it helps if you chum the water with something really rank.”
Rickey stared at him, speechless. G-man stared back, meeting Rickey’s bright blue eyes with his own calm brown ones. There weren’t many people who could hold that blazing near-turquoise glare, but they had known each other since elementary school, had fallen in love at sixteen, had pretty much stood together against everything life threw at them since then. Rickey could do a lot of things, but he couldn’t intimidate G-man. After a couple of minutes, Rickey shook his head and laughed. There wasn’t much humor in that laugh, but G-man supposed it was a start.
“You know I’m just gonna get another copy,” Rickey said. “The goddamn paper’s free. You can pick it up all over town.”
“Yeah, but until you do, I won’t have to listen to it anymore.”
“I think I got parts of it memorized.”
Whatever G-man had been about to say was cut off by the ringing of Rickey’s cell phone. Rickey removed it from the side pocket of his mushroom-patterned chef pants, glanced briefly at the caller ID. “Lenny,” he said. “Again.”
“You gonna talk to him this time?”
“I don’t feel like it.”
The phone stopped ringing.
“You ought to do it sometime today. That article fucked him over pretty good too.”
“I know. I just can’t do it yet. Daddy’s money,” Rickey said bitterly. He’d been making wishful noises about buying out Lenny’s share of the restaurant for a while now, and this phrase in particular rankled. He started to return the phone to his pocket, but before he could, it rang again. Without any apparent premeditation, Rickey pulled his arm back, snapped his wrist forward, and sent the phone flying out across Lake Pontchartrain. It skipped a couple of times and was gone forever.
“I didn’t even know I was gonna do that,” said Rickey, who looked just as surprised as G-man.
“Was that the phone from the walk-in?”
“Yeah,” Rickey admitted guiltily. “Ungrateful bastard, aren’t I?”
Lenny Duveteaux sat in his office at Crescent, one of two successful local restaurants he owned. He had come to New Orleans more than a decade ago, fallen in love with the place, and proceeded to make his own indelible mark on its culinary landscape. Now he ran a pair of restaurants, had published a bestselling series of cookbooks, marketed his own spice line, made frequent appearances on Leno and Letterman. A couple of years ago he’d heard about a young cook who had a great idea for a restaurant, but no money to pull it off. In a city where public drunkenness was considered a right and sometimes even an obligation, Lenny knew a menu based on liquor would pull in both tourists and locals. Fortunately, the young cook was talented enough to back up his gimmick with excellent food. Lenny decided to invest in the idea. That was how he’d gotten involved with Rickey and G-man.
Lenny was a stocky man, broad through the shoulders and thick in the neck, slightly seedy-looking. He shaved every day, but usually looked as if he were thinking about starting a beard. His square face was otherwise unremarkable except when he smiled, which made him appear demented. He was not smiling now. He had a closet full of expensive clothes, but right now he wore a pair of houndstooth check pants with frayed cuffs, a white chef jacket, and a New Orleans Saints baseball cap. He didn’t look like a multimillionaire, let alone the “dangerously ruthless businessman” this rag accused him of being.
On his desk was a copy of Cornet, a biweekly giveaway paper that covered New Orleans entertainment, food, and politics. This issue’s cover story was about a dowser who had been brought to town in hopes of divining the exact location of Buddy Bolden’s grave in Holt Cemetery, the local potter’s field. A marker shaped like a musical note had already been erected for the jazz pioneer, but no one was sure whether it marked the right spot; he’d been buried in an unmarked grave in 1931, and the city had since lost track of him. Ordinarily Lenny would have been interested in the story—he liked old-time jazz, and the dowser was from Maine, his home state—but today he was only interested in what passed for Cornet’s restaurant review.
LIQUOR? I HARDLY KNOW HER!
By Humphrey Wildblood
Much has been made recently of the so-called Broad Street restaurant renaissance. It is true that a certain Mid-City stretch of Broad near the New Orleans courthouse/jail complex—formerly a rather bleak industrial area rife with bail bondsmen, gas stations, muffler shops, and the like—now boasts a number of upscale restaurants of varying quality. The restaurant usually credited with beginning this renaissance is Liquor, located at Toulouse and Broad. Though Chef John Rickey describes the menu as “eclectic French-influenced,” local diners know it better as “that place that puts booze in everything.” As well they might, for that is the first gimmick that made this restaurant famous, though unfortunately not the last.
Food cognoscenti and haunters of bookstores’ true-crime sections may recall the gripping events that took place shortly after Liquor’s opening, almost as if choreographed. A grudge-bearing former boss of Rickey’s trapped him in the restaurant’s walk-in cooler, threatened his life, and actually winged him with a bullet before Rickey was able to use his cell phone to alert coworkers to his plight. Readers who wish to know more can find the full story in Dark Kitchen, a sensational little paperback penned by Chase Haricot, the former Times-Picayune food critic who gave Liquor a glowing four-out-of-five-bean review. I am here neither to question Haricot’s motives nor to examine the questionable wisdom of using red beans to rate fine-dining establishments. I am here only to suggest that a near-tragedy in the kitchen—though it may fascinate Gourmet, Bon Appétit, and other denizens of the American food press—does not a great restaurant make.
The aforementioned publications came to Liquor for the story, stayed for the food, and appear to have been impressed. (Bon Appétit spoke of “innovative cuisine with an impeccable grounding in local and global culinary tradition,” whatever that may mean.) It is worth mentioning that both magazines also ran prominent color photographs of Rickey, a handsome fellow with a winning smile. Chefs are sexy these days, you know. Doubtless it is only a matter of time before the better culinary schools require 8x10 glossies to be submitted with all applications.
Rickey runs the kitchen with his co-chef, Gary “G-man” Stubbs, a lanky young man with the slightly dazed expression of a California surfer who’s just smoked a lid of dynamite grass. The two have worked together for most of their careers. Both are thirty years old, both lifelong New Orleanians complete with dat scrappy ole how’s-ya-mama’n’em Lower Ninth Ward accent, just a couple local boys who done made good. Horatio Alger meets A Confederacy of Dunces, perhaps. Of course, most young entrepreneurs have to come up with their own cash. These two gentlemen haven’t even done that, instead relying on Daddy’s money. Celebrity restaurateur and Maine native Lenny Duveteaux isn’t really either chef’s father, but he may as well be for all the work they had to do to obtain his considerable financing (Liquor is reportedly turning a handsome profit now, and Duveteaux still owns a share of the business). The question of why he chose to bankroll them remains unanswered. Some sources say Duveteaux—chef/owner of Lenny’s in the French Quarter and Crescent on Magazine Street—believed he had lost touch with contemporary cuisine and hoped these hip young chefs would restore his credibility. This seems unlikely, since Crescent is already excruciatingly hip and the two young chefs were nobodies when Duveteaux met them. More sinister motives have also been suggested. Lenny Duveteaux is known in certain circles as “the Nixon of the New Orleans restaurant world.” He is said to record all his telephone conversations, indexing the tapes in his office by the hundreds, and to have the sort of business connections you don’t want to cross if you value your health. A former associate remarked on the condition of anonymity, “Lenny is a dangerously ruthless businessman. He plays by the rules—the problem is that he also makes the rules.”
But most local diners could care less who’s paying the rent as long as the food is good. Is it? Like so many youthful ventures, Liquor is a fine example of why no one under thirty-five should be put in charge of anything. The menu shows a certain ambition, verve, and raw talent. So may have the young Michelangelo’s daubings, but they do not belong in the Louvre. I concede that my meals at Liquor have been well-prepared and reasonably tasty. The problem lies not in the execution but in the conception. A year after it opened, Liquor won a James Beard award for Best Newcomer, something that doesn’t impress locals much but continues to bring in culinary tourists by the score. Sadly, the publicity and acclaim seem to have gone to the heads of Chefs Rickey and Stubbs; they want to have it both ways, wooing the out-of-town foodies but still professing to stay true to their roots. The result is a menu that lacks basic coherence—it’s almost a stunt. Pecan-crusted Gulf fish with rum beurre blanc nestles uneasily alongside grappa-flamed pork shank with rattlesnake beans. Tequila-scented Creole tomatoes joust for attention with Galliano-marinated fresh sardines (a fish fit only for cat food, in this diner’s not-so-humble opinion).
Is Liquor a contemporary Louisiana restaurant? Is it one of those upscale American places that mingle the culinary traditions of France, Italy, and other hazily imagined Old Countries with no regard for accuracy or palatability? You may decide for yourself, since the chefs surely can’t—these days, “eclectic” seems to be a code word for “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”
But at least they look good doing it.
Lenny had already read the article three or four times, but he still couldn’t quite take it in. Though he’d had his share of bad reviews, he had never seen one like this. He wasn’t even certain it was a review; it scarcely mentioned the food, seeming rather to take umbrage at Liquor’s hype, Rickey’s looks, and, of course, Lenny’s involvement. That had to be the kicker. He’d had Rickey and G-man investigated before he went into business with them. G-man, who was so easygoing that Lenny occasionally wanted to give him a good shake, had no known enemies. Rickey’s only enemy—Mike Mouton, the former boss who’d tried to shoot him—was currently cooling his heels in Angola Prison. Lenny, though, had plenty of enemies. He knew the article was directed at him, though he didn’t suppose that would be any comfort to Rickey.
He dialed Rickey’s cell number again. This time it didn’t even ring, but shunted him off to a recording that told him the number was temporarily out of service. He checked the recording light on the tape machine attached to his phone, then called his attorney, Oscar De La Cerda. He knew De La Cerda had read the article, because he’d faxed it to the lawyer earlier today. “Run down our options for me,” he said without preamble when De La Cerda answered. “I know this is actionable, but tell me the best way to approach it.”
“The best way to approach it is to stay the hell away from it,” said De La Cerda. “It’s obvious this guy’s a wingnut. Don’t give him the satisfaction of acknowledging him, and make sure Rickey doesn’t either.”
“Bullshit. We don’t answer the charges, we look like we’re admitting to them.”
“That’s what I figured you’d say,” sighed De La Cerda. “OK. Everything he says about the restaurant is a matter of opinion—that’s not actionable. The stuff he says about you is murkier, legally speaking. We can make a good case for libel, but he can probably duck all the charges.”