A work of culinary-centric fiction, where pride and self-respect clashes with, and eventually triumphs over, glamour, fortune and fame…
by: Alan Swyer ((Header ar by Tony Brooks.))
Seated in a restaurant in Thai Town, Phil Bloom stared at Lou Peretta for a moment before shaking his head. “You really locked Gruber in the walk-in freezer?”
“Only for ten minutes or so.”
“Then served Rodney Phelps a concoction of Diet Coke, garlic, and ketchup?”
“He said sauce on the side, but didn’t say what kind.”
“And you also nixed Rothbart’s wife’s request for soup?”
“Creamless cream of mushroom soup?”
“Pissing off three of L.A.’s top restaurant investors? So now that you’re out on the street, what’s next?”
“Maybe a food truck.”
“With what money?”
“Let me explain something,” Bloom continued. “You’re right they’re cretins. And if you were a Food Network star, people would call you colorful, eccentric, and irresistible. But while you’re still making your name —”
“They’ll just say you’re difficult. What do you think of the fish in banana leaves?”
“Better than anything by Wolfgang Puck.”
Bloom took a sip of the Singha in front of him. “I may have something for you.”
“Where, Fatburger? Chipotle? Some greasy spoon?”
“As a personal chef.”
“Hold on, hear me out. You’ll make serious bucks while meeting folks who could bankroll a place of your own.”
Peretta took a bite of duck larb. “What’s the catch?”
“Why should there be a catch?”
“Because there’s always a catch.”
“She likes your politics.”
“What’s that got to do with soufflés, caponata, or Dover sole?”
“She prefers kindred spirits.”
“And this mystery person is?”
“Someone who transcends stardom.”
“Bette Midler? Diana Ross?”
“Small potatoes next to her.”
Peretta shook his head. “I’m the wrong guy.”
“People would kill for a break like this. Be a sport.”
“Drive to Malibu and meet her.”
The next afternoon, Peretta begrudgingly roared up the Pacific Coast Highway in his battered Mustang convertible. Instead of savoring the ocean and the verdant hillsides, he found himself thinking that only in Southern California could there be so many people — surfers, boogie-boarders, skaters, yogies, pilates enthusiasts — living well with no visible means of support.
Nearing his destination, Peretta turned off the highway and approached the checkpoint of a gated beachfront community, where after a once-over by a uniformed guard he was allowed to drive down a well cared-for private road.
Peretta rang the bell at the appropriate address, whose market value he refused to contemplate, then waited until the door was opened by a distinguished-looking Latino man whose name was Juan and whose job description was somewhere between butler and houseboy. “Welcome, Mr. Peretta,” Juan said as he welcomed Peretta inside.
Once inside the spacious living room, Peretta eyed the breathtaking view of the Pacific, then turned his attention first to a Rauschenberg featuring a portrait of John F. Kennedy, then to a Lichtenstein Mickey Mouse, and finally, to an Oldenburg soft sculpture of a hamburger.
“Do they make you jealous?” asked a very familiar female voice.
“Hungry,” said Peretta, turning to see one of the most recognizable faces on the planet.
“So I understand we have a lot in common.”
“Bank accounts? Real estate? Stock portfolios?”
“Bloom said you were funny. What did he say about me?”
“That you were sweet, humble, and self-effacing.”
“Now I’ll tell one,” she said with a chuckle. “Did he call me a prima donna, or did he use the c-word? No, don’t answer that. Let’s get something out of the way. Which of my albums is your favorite?”
“Can I plead the fifth?”
She laughed. “How old are you?”
“According to my ex-girlfriends.”
“So you’re not big on show tunes or the classics?”
“Show tunes, nope. The classics, yup.”
“Other than today’s dreck, who do you listen to?”
“Ray Charles. Dinah Washington. Bobby “Blue” Bland.”
“Give me that again?”
“Hiring fans always backfires. The job’s yours.”
“Not so fast.”
Peretta found himself scrutinized in a peculiar way. “Problems with the salary?”
“Then what bothers you?”
That elicited another laugh. “I am known as the Diva. Tell me exactly what your concern is.”
“I’m not good at being yelled at.”
“And you’ve heard I’m a screamer?”
“So if I at some point I call you a schmuck, a shitbag, or a cocksucker?”
“I’d be out of here in record time.”
Peretta watched the Diva pace back and forth before facing him. “If I’m up for the challenge, are you?”
“Let me think about it.”
With Phil Bloom hounding him, plus an ever-mounting pile of unpaid bills, Peretta agreed to a second get-together with the Diva. A potential framework was discussed: the number of meals per week, likes and dislikes, what kind of dinner parties were envisioned, and how often. Once all that was established, Peretta was surprised by the question that was followed.
“So other than being called shit-for-brains or scumbag,” the Diva began, “what’s your biggest fear?”
“Besides being castrated or dying?” His questioner nodded. “A dinner party where one person’s vegan, another paleo, somebody eats only raw vegetables, someone else is gluten-free, there’s an allergy to shellfish, and some guy’s kosher. Plus let’s not forget sodium-free, sauces on the side, and the poor soul who’s lactose-intolerant.”
“And such an evening would constitute?”
The Diva smiled. “You’re funny.”
“Not to mention cranky, irascible, and a pain in the ass.”
“Then we should get along just fine. You in?”
Peretta shrugged. “On a trial basis.”
Above and beyond his need for money, plus the hope of meeting potential investors, Peretta spent the drive home searching for justifications for the job he accepted. First was that he would be in Malibu, which meant no rotten parking, foul air, or gang violence. Plus he’d be commuting against traffic in both directions. And more than likely, he’d wind up with amazing stories to tell.
To his surprise, instead of being a source of tension, his demand about how he should be addressed became a running joke. “What if I call you darling?” the Diva asked one morning. “Or honey?” she queried the next afternoon. That led to questions about pumpkin, dimples, and sugar plum. In the days that followed, their conversations about dishes she might enjoy, or possible menus for brunch or dinner parties, were filled with playful back-and-forths in which she referred to Peretta as snookums, baby doll, and big boy, and he countered with sweetie-pie, goosy-poo, and doll face.
“Word is it’s going well,” Bloom said over Bluetooth one Tuesday morning as Peretta was headed northbound on the Pacific Coast Highway.
“No screaming, name-calling, or tantrums?”
“Not toward me, at least.”
“You can take the girl out of Brooklyn, but it’s hard to take the Brooklyn out of the girl. By the way, she loves your blueberry muffins and ceviche.”
“Then everything’s wonderful in the world.”
“So what did you think of Nigel?” the Diva asked on the second Saturday morning as Peretta served her a breakfast of raspberries, freshly baked scones, and a double espresso.
“Nice day, isn’t it?” Peretta replied.
“You’ve got a keen eye for detail.”
“Not part of my job description.”
“Pretty please with jimmies on it?”
“Who am I to comment about a British twit?”
“He is a twit, isn’t he? Want to read the script he gave me?”
“What will it take to get you to read it?”
“Go easy on everybody else for a while.”
“Who’ve I been tough on?”
“Want me to name names?”
The Diva plopped a couple of raspberries into her mouth, took a sip of espresso, then shook her head. “You’ve really got a pair, don’t you?”
Monday morning, when Peretta arrived at work with the script in hand, he heard screams, screams, and more screams.
“You fucking imbecile!” shouted a familiar voice from the master bedroom. “I’ve heard of shit-for-brains, but this goes way beyond!”
“Senora, please —” Peretta heard Juan respond.
“Please, my ass! Once more and you’re done!”
A moment later, into the living room slunk Juan. Watching him trudge out through the side door, Peretta followed.
“You okay?” he whispered.
“I am fine.”
Juan grimaced. “Want to know why I stay? Because I have two kids, and life is very expensive.”
The Diva was standing in her glorious kitchen, which might have evoked Cannes or Nice if not for the platinum records and posters from films she starred in on the walls, when Peretta entered. “You’re late.”
“Nice to see you, too. And I’m right on time.”
“So what do you think of the script?”
“The one you’re carrying.”
“I thought we had a deal.”
“What the hell’s that mean?”
“For you to go easy on everyone.”
The Diva glared. “I’d like a Spanish Omelet and a bowl of berries.”
“With or without cheese?”
Peretta walked to the refrigerator and pulled out eggs, peppers, cheese, butter, and berries, then grabbed a tomato, a green pepper, and an onion. “You know where the pans are,” he said as he started toward the back deck.
“Where you going?”
“For a walk on the beach.”
The Diva fumed for a moment, then bit her lip. “Okay.”
“So you’re a pacifist?” the Diva stated when Peretta served her Spanish omelet.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Seems you find fighting objectionable.”
“For the record, I boxed at the Police Athletic League as a kid, and still spar from time to time. I just don’t like bullies.”
“That’s how you see me?”
“How do you see you?”
She took a sip of espresso. “And the script?”
“Slow, heavy-handed, and trite.”
“So what’s good that you’ve seen lately?”
“Mainly, foreign series.”
“Peaky Blinders. The Best Of Youth from Italy. Spiral from France. Danish stuff like Borgen, The Bridge, and Rita.”
“So you’re a snob.”
“Let’s say discerning.”
The Diva shook her head. “What’s it say about a chef who uses words like lugubrious and discerning?”
“That not everyone working stiff is a dolt?”
“That a shot at me?”
Peretta chose not to answer.
Suspense arose as to when Peretta’s first dinner party assignment might appear on the schedule. The wait ended on a Thursday morning while he served a breakfast of smoked salmon eggs Benedict with dill hollandaise. “Eight people this Saturday at 7:30,” the Diva announced. “One Muslim who only eats halal, one fruitarian, one ovo-vegetarian —”
“And one chef who’s calling in sick.”
“Just joking. They’re pretty normal, or as normal as you can find in show biz. How do you feel about French Mediterranean?”
“We headed to Saint-Tropez?”
“So are you leaving me?” the Diva asked on Saturday when she strolled into the kitchen near midnight.
“What’s that mean?” Peretta asked.
“That amazing pissaladiere. The bouillabaisse. The beautiful Tarte Tropezienne. The men want to adopt you, and the women want to run away with you. Come in and talk to ’em, or they’ll probably invade the kitchen.”
As 2 AM approached, Peretta was straightening up the kitchen when the Diva again ambled in. “Join me for a cognac?” she asked.
“Not before driving home.”
“Then sleep in one of the guest rooms. Or with me, if you’d like.”
Peretta shook his head.
“Which one are you turning down?”
“Changing the subject, what movies do you like?”
“American or foreign?”
“Start with American.”
“The Hustler, The Apartment, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, A Face In The Crowd.”
“Nothing from after you were born?”
“The older stuff from Midnight In Paris. The Big Short. A documentary called Abacus.”
“So what kind of stuff do you think I should do?”
“Can we do this some other time?”
“In a year or so?”
“Somebody doesn’t want to get involved.”
“Can’t put anything past you.”
“Guess who thinks you’re an enigma,” Phil Bloom said to Peretta over dim sum a couple of mornings later.
“I’ve been called worse.”
“Including by me. Anyway, she seems happy.”
“Really happy? Or happy for someone who’s never quite happy?”
“I really think it’ll turn out well.”
“You know something I don’t know?”
“Me? I’m just a guy who’s difficult.”
“She’d like you to sign a contract saying you’ll stay on.
“For how long?”
“She wanted a year, but I said six months with an option to renew if there’s no funding yet for a place of your own.”
“Or if her inner monster decides to make an appearance.”
“You make it sound like you still have questions.”
“I have questions about everything.”
“What I want to be when I grow up.”
“But admit it. You’re comfortable there.”
On a Wednesday, as the Diva was finishing a lunch of crab cakes with a salad of arugula and fennel, Peretta stepped in from the kitchen. “Espresso and dessert?”
“Have it with me on the deck.”
A few minutes later, when Peretta emerged with a tray of biscotti, strawberries, and two espressos, the Diva tapped a beach chair beside hers. “Sit. So tell me, how’d you get into cooking?”
“I was a stuntman.”
“On a two-man thing for a caper film, I was teamed-up with a guy who was coked up.”
“Guess who wound up with a broken leg. Once it was healing, I got a restaurant gig for what I thought would be just a couple of months. Except —”
“I liked it.”
“Until I applied to the Culinary Institute.”
“And the rest is history?”
“Hopefully only the first chapter or so.”
The two of them dipped biscotti into their espressos, then sat in silence until the Diva spoke again. “You’re making this hard for me.”
“I’ve got a history of sleeping with most everybody I’ve worked with. Producers. Co-stars. Composers. Stoned birdbrains who play killer guitar. But with you I’m getting nowhere.”
“Is that an ‘I’m sorry yes,’ or an ‘I’m sorry no.’”
“Look, I like you —”
“Then prove it.”
Peretta stood. “This is getting awkward.”
“Which means I’m too old? Not pretty enough? Too much of a bitch?”
“Know what? Take the rest of the day off. I’m having dinner with friends tonight, and we’ll go out.”
The next day the Diva said hardly a word to Peretta. The following day she was equally laconic until the late afternoon when she wandered into the kitchen. “Dinner party tomorrow at eight for ten people,” she announced curtly. “Italian food and wine.”
Saturday, from early morning on, there was palpable tension in the house, with the Diva snapping relentlessly first at Juan, next at her personal trainer, then at the woman who came to blow dry her hair, and eventually at the poor delivery man who arrived with a case of wine. All the while Peretta was given the cold shoulder, even while serving breakfast and lunch.
At 7 PM, dressed in a robe and wearing no makeup, the lady of the house burst into the kitchen. “Let me taste the pesto,” she demanded.
“We’re not having pesto.”
“But I said gnocchi with pesto, followed by scampi with Santa Barbara shrimp.”
“Not to me, you didn’t.”
“You telling me I’m lying? Or making shit up?
“I’m explaining what was said or not said.”
The Diva glared, then stormed away.
Ten minutes later, while Peretta was cutting up garlic, she returned. “So what exactly are we having?”
“Ravioli nudi with spinach and parmesan, a fennel and tangerine salad, and for the main course, branzino.”
“And if I don’t like branzino?”
“Last Tuesday you said you loved it.”
“That was then. You need to know not just what I want, but also when I want it.”
“I’m a chef, not a mind-reader.”
“What you are is a pain in the fucking ass!”
“Whoa, nothing, you arrogant little prick! There’s only one person who matters here, you hear me? And it sure as hell ain’t you!”
Peretta studied the Diva for a moment, then took a deep breath. “Is somebody forgetting a conversation we had?”
“Fuck the conversation.”
Peretta started to say something, then instead began gathering his knives.
“What the fuck are you doing?” the Diva exploded.
“Heading home,” Peretta replied, holding up an extremely sharp boning knife. “I wouldn’t try to stop me.”
Perralta’s anger slowly gave way to a sense of relief as he wheeled his old Mustang through Saturday evening traffic. He thanked his lucky stars that he didn’t have mouths to feed, a cocaine habit, or alimony to pay.
He realized that though he might never find fortune or have much fame, his pride mattered far more to him, as did a conviction, however far-fetched, that something positive would somehow materialize.
If worse came to worst, he could wind up being the first guy ever to flip burgers at a Fatburger, or make burritos at Chipotle, who spent time toiling for the Diva of Malibu.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera, plus a new one called “When Houston Had The Blues.” In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel The Beard was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.