Don't Try This at Home

Don’t Try This at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World’s Greatest Chefs. Edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman.
Don’t Try This at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World’s Greatest Chefs edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman.

In this entertaining collection of stories, forty preeminent chefs share “their biggest mishaps, missteps, misadventures, and misfortunes”, as editors Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman write in their introduction. California chef Hubert Keller tells about a wedding reception he catered at a gorgeous home in Carmel overlooking the Pacific. The bride’s parents had spared no expense in giving their daughter a dream wedding.

Along with a $30,000 wedding cake flown in from New York City, Keller had prepared a five course menu for two hundred and fifty guests. The day of the event, while Keller and his staff were in the kitchen making preparations for the first course, a major water line broke just outside the front gate of the home.

The gated entrance and driveway started at street level and descended down the side of a hill, so the huge amount of water released from the water line flooded the driveway and began flooding the kitchen, causing a waiter to slip in a puddle. No sooner had the water line spill been stopped than a “monster” of a thunderstorm hit just as the guests were arriving. The subsequent downpour went on for hours precipitating one disaster after another; utterly thwarting the mother of the bride’s meticulous plans for a perfect wedding.

“New Year’s Meltdown” is Anthony Bourdain’s blow-by-blow account of a horrendous New Year’s Eve he endured as a sous chef in a very upscale New York restaurant. Customers drunk on champagne after waiting an hour and a half for their food, fights breaking out, a waitress choked by a customer; these were but a few of the incidents which made that night “the all-time, award-winning, jumbo-sized restaurant train wreck, a night that absolutely everything went wrong that could go wrong…”. Responsible for this catastrophe was the chef, who didn’t bother to inform his staff what would be on the menu until a few hours before whatever was on it had to be served. A true egomaniac, the chef realized too late what had been obvious to his staff: that even he was not capable of producing a multi-course gourmet dinner for three hundred in a few hours and have it go well. This resulted in the chef’s monumental, ridiculously funny meltdown.

Although a few of the anecdotes in this collection were rather dull, they were exceptions in what was otherwise an enjoyable read.

Many of the anecdotes in Don’t Try This at Home take place in restaurants, bringing back memories of my first (and only) restaurant job. In the early eighties I lived in Tel-Aviv, where I worked for a few months as a ‘peekalo’ [busboy/girl in Hebrew] in a popular local restaurant. Several nights a week, from 5:30 to 11pm, I and a few other peekalos would set tables, remove dirty dishes, clean tables, sweep floors, serve water and coffee to customers as well as whatever else was needed. During my shift, it was invariably crowded and busy giving rise to a number of incidents (and accidents) in which I was involved, two of which I’ll relate here.

My Hebrew was passable, but there were times when I found it difficult to understand native Hebrew speakers who talk very fast and swallow words. This fact, combined with exhaustion from hours of running around, is the only explanation I can offer (to myself as well as anyone else) of why one night I idiotically brought an ashtray to a guy who had asked for a menu. At first looking surprised, he quickly recovered and loudly demanded in Hebrew, “DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND HEBREW?” He followed up by bellowing in English, “A MENU! I WANT A MENU! IS THAT SO HARD TO UNDERSTAND?!”

This guy was so exceptionally and obnoxiously loud that despite the ambient cacophony of a roomful of Israelis trying to talk (i.e., yell) over each other, it was impossible for everyone not to hear him. Conversation came to an abrupt halt, and there was an embarrassing silence. Well, embarrassing to me, anyway. (On the other hand, he, who should have been embarrassed, wasn’t.) Fortunately for me, silence is not an Israeli thing, and a few moments later the noise level returned to its previous din. Gritting my teeth, I apologized to the jerk - in Hebrew - quickly brought a menu, and kept as far away from him as I could.

But it was my brief encounter with Abi Natan that I remember best. Abi Natan, also known as Abie Nathan, was undoubtedly a legend in his own time. Originally from Iran, Abi’s family later moved to India. It was there that he joined the Royal Air Force and trained as a fighter pilot. When India was partitioned in 1947, he transported Hindu and Muslim refugees between India and Pakistan. The violence he witnessed during that bloody conflict no doubt served to motivate the deep anti-war convictions that were to define his life.

In 1948 he immigrated to Israel during its war of independence, served in the Israeli Air Force, then flew for El Al, Israel’s national airlines. After leaving the airline, he bought a restaurant and in the early sixties, introduced hamburgers to Israel. In 1965, Abi ran for a seat in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament). One of his campaign promises was to fly to Egypt (Israel’s biggest enemy at the time) to meet with Egyptian President Game Abdel Nasser.

After losing his bid for the Knesset, he kept his promise to fly to Egypt. In 1966, he took off for Cairo in a 1927 bi-plane to present President Nasser with a 60,000 signature peace petition. Running low on fuel, he landed in Port Said where he was suspected of spying by Egyptian authorities. Deciding he was just a nut, they sent him back to Israel, where he spent twenty days in jail for unauthorized contact with the enemy. Flying to Egypt again in 1967, he was sent back to Israel and sentenced to forty days in jail. His flights made worldwide headlines, launching his career as a peace activist and humanitarian, known for the aid he brought to disaster areas around the world. Abi never met Nasser, but a decade and two wars later, he met and spoke with the next Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, during peace talks with Israel in 1977
All the same, Abie Nathan (as he was known outside of Israel) was and will remain best known for the “Voice of Peace” (Kol HaShalom) an offshore pirate radio station he founded and oversaw from 1973 – 1993. The station broadcast western pop music (not then played on local stations) to Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East from the MV Peace, a former cargo ship anchored off Israel’s coast. Most of the programs were in English, and professional English speaking DJs (many from Britain) played a large role in the VOP’s popularity with Israelis, along with well over 20 million other listeners. Since I often listened to the VOP I knew Abie Nathan by name, but had never seen him.

Early one evening, when the restaurant was relatively quiet, one of its owners, who I’ll call Dani, walked in accompanied by a good looking man with dark hair and eyes. They sat down at a table, and motioning me over, Dani asked for two cups of hot tea. I prepared the tea, carefully placed the cups on a tray, and brought them to the table. As I started to serve them, the tray tipped and both cups with their saucers slid off the tray, clattering onto the table, some of the hot tea spilling on the table, but most of it splashing on Dani’s friend’s clothes. Dani grabbed some napkins to give him, and I got a towel. I tried to sop up the mess and also apologize to Dani’s friend. He gave me a warm smile and, waving away my apology, told me to forget about it. I brought out more tea and this time managed to serve it without spilling a drop. After the two men left, I went to clear the table and was very surprised to find a generous tip, especially because peekalos usually didn’t get tips. A little while later, one of the waiters mentioned that Abi Natan had been in the restaurant that day.

When I asked what he looked like, it turned out he was the same guy I nearly scalded with hot tea.

In 1989 and 1991 Abi served two prison terms for meeting with PLO. leader, Yasser Arafat, in defiance of a law forbidding contact between Israelis and members of the PLO. He later played a role in the 1993 Oslo Accords which were expected to open the way for eventual peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Due to financial and legal problems, he decided to scuttle the MV Peace in November 1993. The last song played on it was Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome.” Even now, the station’s slogan remains a household catch phrase in Israel - “From somewhere in the Mediterranean, we are the Voice of Peace”.

On November 4, 1995, I was living at my husband’s kibbutz in northern Israel watching a massive peace rally in Tel-Aviv on live television. Over one hundred thousand people had gathered in support of continuing the peace process in spite of violence and terrorist attacks by its opponents. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was there and with him on the podium I saw Abi Natan, who was a good friend of Rabin’s. The rally ended with everyone singing the popular Israeli song, Shir Hashalom (A Song of Peace). As Rabin left the rally, he was shot by an ultra-nationalist Jew who considered Rabin a traitor for his negotiations with the Palestinians. Two hours later came the shocking news that he was dead. We couldn’t know it then, but the peace process had died with him.

In commemoration of Veteran’s Day, I’ll conclude with a quote from Yitzhak Rabin’s 1994 Nobel Peace Prize address.

“Military cemeteries in every corner of the world are silent testimony to the failure of national leaders to sanctify human life”.

-Elka Frankel


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