An engrossing work of fiction that features a glamorous alternate universe, one that’s exhausting yet exhilarating, draining yet dazzling, and progressively more complicated the deeper you immerse yourself within it….
by: Alan Swyer
With wounded pride, plus a still somewhat gimpy leg, CJ reported early for work on the first day of what he hoped would be a very brief stint at a fusion restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. Just two months prior, he had been the main man — a rising young star in the daredevil world of movie stuntmen. To CJ no “gag,” in the jargon of that close-knit society, seemed too difficult, dangerous, or daunting. Motorcycles, horses, speeding cars, falls from great heights, leaps from burning buildings — the greater the challenge, the more eager he was to show his prowess.
Until, that is, a stunt gone awry left him with a shattered bone in his leg. Faithful to the code of his craft, CJ took full responsibility for the mishap, though that was hardly the truth. “Owning it,” as such a stance is called, elevated him even higher in the esteem of those in the know, all of whom recognized that the culpability belonged to his cohort in what was carefully designed as a buddy bit. But Texas-born Butch Perry, unfortunately, was far too coked-out to break, as he should have, CJ’s twenty foot leap from a rooftop engulfed in flames.
Promised by the old-timers who had mentored him that work would again be abundant just as soon as he was fully healed, CJ fought valiantly to stave off boredom while stuck first in a hospital bed, then at home, in a toes-to-thigh cast. There were old movies and ball games to watch on TV, the Blues and R&B that he loved thanks to vinyl albums found at swap meets, plus CD reissues, and visits from what his pals called the hopefuls — the wannabe singers, dancers, and actresses, all with less than lustrous day jobs, who were part of his social life. All the while CJ diligently lifted dumbbells as best he could, squeezed handballs, and did an assortment of isometrics in the hope of maintaining some semblance of upper body shape. Then, once the hard cast gave way to a walking boot, his daily exercise regime tripled, with the addition of crunches, pull-ups, and chin-ups, plus countless hours on a stationary bike.
CJ’s goal was to return to the world he loved in better shape than ever, and in record time. But his quest was thwarted by a required insurance physical. Though the doctors acknowledged that he was doing surprisingly well for someone coming back from a serious injury, he was nonetheless, despite a willingness to sign a waiver holding no one else responsible, deemed not yet ready — and therefore uninsurable — even for minor stunts.
To fight his ever-mounting frustration, as well as to bolster his dwindling checking account, CJ set out to find temp work. That, he discovered far too quickly, was anything but easy. Slowed by the recession, the construction jobs that he counted on were hard to come by, as were slots at the equestrian center, where he had toiled part-time when he first arrived in LA. With only limited computer aptitude, and zero experience in sales, prospects went swiftly from dim to dimmer, then onto dimmest.
It was through the roommate of one of his aspiring actress friends that CJ learned about the opening at a restaurant, which proved to be a quintessential LA hybrid: a storefront run by a Japanese chef who prepared Asian-influenced French cuisine with the aid of a largely Mexican staff.
Though CJ knew as much about food as he did about ballet or brain surgery — his personal tastes running primarily to breakfast burritos, Pink’s chili dogs, and take-out rotisserie chicken from Pollo A La Brasa — his entry into Chez Kura was the very definition of being thrown right into the soup. With one staffer out with the flu, and another busted by Immigration, there was no time for introductions or orientation. Instead, he was tossed a white Chez Kura polo shirt, then turned into a whirling dervish.
With nary a chance to catch his breath, CJ was given menus to hand out by the hostess, then a pitcher of water by one of the guys from Oaxaca who, he soon learned, were the heart and soul of every LA restaurant. Next came plates of scallops and tournedos, plus linguini with something called uni, from Chef Kura and his Mexican sous-chef, followed by other appetizers, main courses, and desserts, as well as coffee and assorted teas.
It wasn’t until the last lunch customer had departed, and the front door firmly locked, that CJ got a chance to learn the names of those who had kept him running with task after task as he joined the over-stressed team for a communal meal.
Tasting food the likes of which he had never before seen, heard of, or imagined, all the while trying to understand the melange of Spanish, Japanese, plus an occasional English word or phrase, CJ grasped quickly that there was more to life in LA, and the world at large, than what he had previously experienced.
Whereas before CJ wouldn’t have known the difference between a sauce bearnaise and a Bernese Mountain Dog, or ankimo and an Eskimo, the stuntman-turned restaurant-worker proved to be a quick study. As he learned about souffles and sautes, and was taught how to make a mimosa and a kir, instead of being stuck washing dishes or busing tables, he rapidly became a jack-of-all-trades, filling in wherever necessary to make things run smoothly.
Even more surprising, though it was an admission he was loath to make even to himself, was that the work proved to be not merely interesting, but enjoyable as well. Despite his sense that this realm he had entered was decadent — and, in the eyes of the stunt fraternity, maybe a little sissified — CJ couldn’t deny an ever-growing pride at being able to differentiate between a Kumamoto oyster and a Bluepoint. Or to suggest that a bottle of young Chirouble would be preferable to a Napa merlot.
But even as his self-image was evolving, something every so often gnawed at him. It wasn’t simply the adrenaline rush of a daring or perilous stunt that was missing from his life, but also the approbation from his peers. Above all was the inner glow that came from being the man.
It was because of what he longed for and craved that CJ took to spending more and more of his non-working hours at the gym. And it explained why, though cautioned to wait at least a month, he returned after only three weeks for an insurance re-exam.
To his chagrin, not simply because of the slow-to-heal leg injury, but also because the original tests had shown signs of internal bleeding, no go-ahead was forthcoming.
Then came a quiet Monday night, with the restaurant nearly empty and much of the staff already gone, when CJ’s hopes of escaping for a late workout were squashed by the appearance of four less than appealing characters. Two were dissipated men unlikely to be featured in promotions from the local Tourist Bureau, while their companions, both considerably younger, looked like models from GQ.
Setting up camp at a corner table, the newcomers were sniping merrily at Chez Kura’s thrift shop décor when CJ approached with menus.
“Anything you’d like while you’re having a look?” CJ asked.
“You?” replied the oldest member of the group, a rumpled specimen of fifty or so who gave CJ a far too theatrical once-over.
Ignoring the remark, plus the accompanying giggling, CJ placed menus on the table. “Let me know when you’re ready,” he said quietly.
“Can’t blame a guy for trying,” the overly ebullient customer added. “What are your favorites?”
“I like the duck in vanilla sauce.”
“And for a starter?”
“The sashimi with ponzu.”
“Then that’s what we’ll have, together with your best Champagne. And no hard feelings, okay?”
CJ eyed the man momentarily, then gave the faintest of nods.
Still irked that his plans for an early getaway and a stop at the gym had gone up in smoke, CJ was stepping out of the kitchen an hour later, ready to ask about dessert, when he was confronted by the man who had teased him.
“Do you know who I am?” the heavyset customer asked softly.
“The name Paul Byron mean anything?”
“Only if you watch Top Chef, read Gourmet Magazine, or follow TMZ.”
“Not guilty,” CJ replied.
“What if I say I’d like you to come work at my restaurant?”
“Why should I?”
“Three reasons. First: I’ll double your pay.”
“How do you know what I’m making?”
“Because restaurants are my life. Second: you’ll learn a hundred times more than you’re learning here. Sound good?”
“And reason number three?”
“Sure you’re ready?”
“More pussy than you ever dreamed possible.”
“C-come again?” CJ responded with a mixture of bewilderment and surprise.
“Starlets, if that tickles your fancy. Plus kept women. And, of course, so many unhappily marrieds you’ll have to beat ’em off with sticks.”
“A good-looking kid like you in a place filled with everybody who wants to be somebody? And where every husband, boyfriend and sugar daddy will immediately assume you’re mine? That’s a spot people would kill for.”
“We’re gonna start you as kind of a rover,” Paul Byron said to CJ on his first day at the impossible-to-get-into restaurant called La Toque. “That way you’ll get an overview, and hopefully a feel, for the way things work. Sound good?”
“First a few rules. Nothing against where I found you, but here’s number one: fusion, simply put, means confusion. Clear?”
“Okay, next. Know the expression, Treat every lady like a whore, and every whore like a lady?”
CJ shook his head.
“While it may not be true in other facets of life, it’s one hundred percent true here. If we made the mistake of fawning over everyone who came in, we’d have people vying to be fawned on the most. As in Hooray For Hollywood. So our response? Fawn over no one. Why?”
“To make them desperate for our approval. Instead of us having to cater to them, they bust their humps trying to please us. Up for number three?”
“Lots of pretty things, and some not quite so pretty, will try to get their hands on you. So I’m going to prove I went to college by quoting something inappropriately attributed to Shakespeare, and not Irving Shakespeare, the kosher butcher. Ready?”
Another nod from CJ.
“The real line is Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned. Which has become —?”
“I give up.”
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. You’re gonna be in demand, sonny-boy. Please don’t let the ladies, or me, down.”
CJ grimaced. “But don’t forget —”
“I know,” Paul Byron interrupted. “In your heart you’re a stuntman. But as long as you’re here, the toughest stunt will be scurrying from one bedroom to another. You don’t believe me, huh?”
Once more CJ shrugged.
“You’ll see,” the chef stated confidently.
The leap from a storefront struggling to survive to a see-and-be-seen destination for celebs, power-brokers, visiting statesmen, and the occasional industrialist, made CJ’s head spin. From the Bentleys, Lamborghinis, and Ferraris pulling up at the curb, to the table-hopping and air-kissing, on through a greater concern for dietary peculiarities — no salt, no sugar, no carbs, sauce on the side — than for the obscene mark up on luxury items such as caviar, truffles, and wine, La Toque seemed to him like a restaurant seen through a fun house mirror.
Whereas the goal at Chez Kura had been to make every customer feel welcome, at Paul Byron’s place everything was reversed, forcing the diners to show their appreciation for having gained entry into such a privileged environment.
Still, Paul Byron’s promise that CJ’s learning would skyrocket became a reality from the first amuse bouche on. Whether it was how to bone a fish, how to prepare a perfect vinaigrette, how to create an appropriate bouquet of flowers, how to seat competing studio heads at corner spots of equal value on opposite sides of the room, or even how to deal with an angry spouse determined to embarrass her husband by sticking her tongue down his partner’s trophy wife’s throat, the new protege was instructed, coached, then given hands-on experience.
The prediction that proved to be truest of all was the one involving women. From the moment that Paul Byron included CJ on his nightly stroll from table to table, with an arm draped around the handsome newcomer’s shoulder, there was immediate entry into an alternate universe.
Hailing from a small town in Arizona, where the males of the species were expected to pursue the local females, CJ was accustomed to women who behaved, at least initially, with a measure of reserve. Though his looks and athleticism enabled him to fare better than most, first back home, then once he arrived in Hollywood, nothing at all could have served as preparation for the role reversal at La Toque. Surreptitious winks became commonplace, as did phone numbers snuck into his hands and pockets, sometimes accompanied by a ten, twenty, or fifty dollar bill. Plus, there were instances when CJ found himself intercepted while stepping out from the kitchen, or while in transit from one room to another.
Generally it was a future rendezvous that was suggested. Occasionally the proposition was far more immediate: that he and a bejeweled wife, girlfriend, or angry ex, duck into one the bathrooms or, weather permitting, the alley behind the restaurant.
Initially the invitations seemed bizarre, yet oddly flattering. But over time they came to be more of an occupational hazard — commonplace, yet not always amusing, in the same way as the salsa music blasting twenty-four seven around CJ’s apartment complex, or the non-stop blaring of car alarms near the gym he frequented.
Encouraged by Paul Byron, CJ allowed himself to be snared into intrigues, escapades, and moments of what he learned were known as “flagrante delicto,” few of which, he realized, owed entirely to his charm, his personality, or his intellect.
He was first and foremost, it dawned on him, an object — one used by women who were angry, frustrated, taken for granted, or some combination thereof. Their hope was that above and beyond physical satisfaction, sex would provide either a secret they could withhold from their boyfriends, husbands, or sugar daddies, or alternatively a payback for frequent betrayals or inattention.
As time went on, other needs were also revealed. For some women, such as Olga, the Russian beauty married to a blustery agent, or Stella, the ex-model kept by a music impresario, CJ became a sympathetic shoulder to cry on. For others, including Lydia, the heiress to a Kosher salami fortune who had been abandoned emotionally by her entrepreneur hubby, and Lori, whose spiky-haired spouse had gotten rich thanks to a series of unfunny comedies, he provided an opportunity for them to pour out their hearts. And to others, like Ula, the aging German beauty who had been dumped by a hip-hop mogul, or Justine, who lived with a fast-talking movie biz attorney, he was simply a kind soul who provided a glass of wine, a joint to smoke, plus much-needed companionship. But beyond these other roles, for an ever-increasing number of women, there was also, invariably, the involvement of something far more direct: a young and willing body part able to function without artificial stimulation from Viagra, Cialis, or porn.
In no time CJ, who had been known as the young stud among stuntmen, came to acquire the same moniker, but for an entirely different reason, in and around La Toque. Consequently, the entire staff — from valet parkers, waiters, and in the kitchen, on through the upper echelons — treated him with ever greater deference and respect. With each passing day, more and more women wondered how to arrange a taste for themselves of what their friends, or enemies, were getting.
Instead of his free hours being spent at the gym, CJ’s time away from the restaurant evolved into a non-stop series of dashes from rendezvous to rendezvous, tryst to tryst, hook-up to hook-up. At times it felt almost like a return to the stunt world, thanks to breakneck sprints on his motorcycle, plus the occasional jump from a window, not to mention scrambles down hotel fire escapes to avoid returning husbands, jealous boyfriends, or the unannounced arrival of a sugar daddy.
What made CJ uncomfortable wasn’t the close calls, or the potential for danger, or even having women show up at his front door at the strangest of hours. It was the “tokens,” as they were termed, that disturbed him the most. Some were simply expensive but foolish gestures: bracelets, rings, and even cufflinks that CJ would never in a million years be caught wearing. More awkward still were envelopes filled with cash that he discovered stuffed into his pockets. Then there were the few considerations that actually showed an awareness of who he was, and what he liked: rare vinyl albums by the likes of Lowell Fulson, Howlin’ Wolf, or Sister Rosetta Tharpe, or front row tickets to the Clippers or to a Manny Pacquiao fight in Vegas.
A life that was already exhausting but exhilarating, draining yet dazzling, and progressively more complicated as the days at La Toque turned to weeks, took an expected turn when CJ drove one afternoon toward his favorite Hollywood landmark: Amoeba Records. Hoping for some respite from the madness, he parked his aging BMW motorcycle at a meter, then heard a shriek. The source, to his dismay, was a young woman with a guitar who was trying to stop a biker-gone-to-seed from stealing tips given to her by passers-by who had paused to hear her play.
Seeing the biker escape by flinging the singer against a wall, CJ immediately gave chase, easily rounding the corner, then nailing the perp with a flying tackle. As dollars and coins flew in every possible direction, the biker countered CJ’s sudden attack with a powerful right hand, then scrambled to his feet and fled.
Instead of pursuing, CJ was busy gathering the money that had scattered when the pretty musician approached with a red bandanna in hand. “You have blood,” she said in accented English, motioning toward CJ’s mouth. “Probably not fatal,” CJ quipped as he touched his newly split lip before accepting the bandanna. “You okay?”
“I am, what is the word, peachy,” she said with a shrug that CJ found surprisingly enchanting.
It was over a cup of coffee at a little spot not far from Amoeba that CJ realized how refreshing it was to be with a woman who wasn’t needy, one who didn’t seem the least bit desperate and, despite what had happened, had no tale of woe. Veronique, he came to learn, had been a law student in Paris when she mustered the courage to follow her heart. Instantly, her study of rules, regulations, and legal precedents gave way to hours spent singing first in subways, then in little boites where someone passed a hat, and finally at festivals in towns like Arles, Bresse, and Saint-Tropez.
Thanks to parents who favored Slim Harpo, Ray Charles, and Solomon Burke over Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg, and Georges Brassens, Veronique was the first woman CJ had ever encountered who was steeped in the music he loved. When coupled with her natural effervescence, plus her incredible blue eyes, she seemed almost too good to be true.
Smitten, CJ wanted immediately to ask her to join him for excursions to the beach, trips to the mountains, and quiet dinners on his nights off. But in contrast to, or perhaps because of, his experiences with the Olgas, and Stellas, and Lydias, and others in his life, where he was the pursued rather than the pursuer, he found himself nearly overcome with shyness.
“W-when can I come hear you play someplace other than on the street?,” he finally mustered the courage to ask, far from certain that he’d even be able to get a night off from La Toque.
The following Monday evening, having fed Paul Byron a story about needing to spend time with an aunt who was visiting, CJ found himself seated uncomfortably amidst a bunch of self-styled hipsters in a coffee house in Echo Park. After white-knuckling through two songs by someone he silently dubbed “Beck-lite,” then two by a young woman whose lamentations were nearly cause for justifiable homicide, plus an achingly bad ten minutes by a self-styled comic whose jokes landed with a thud, CJ was relieved when Veronique finally stepped in front of the microphone.
Quickly, his relief turned into something far stronger when her first tune proved to be one of CJ’s favorites, a soulful cover of Irma Thomas’ “Wish Someone Would Care,” which she made her own in part because of her French accent. Then came an original with lyrics half in English and half in French, accompanied by guitar work in which Veronique seemed to be channeling Django Reinhardt. But to CJ’s dismay, the spell she was casting was broken when a couple of guys seated behind him started a far too loud conversation.
CJ waited a moment in the hope they would stop, then turned and glared, eliciting a frown from the larger of the two, a brawny specimen with heavily inked arms, a felt hat, and a soul patch.
“What’s your problem?” the guy asked too aggressively.
“You,” CJ replied defiantly.
“In case you missed it, there’s two of us,” the guy replied.
“Nope,” his companion interjected. “You’re on your own, Freddie.” Watching the tattooed guy lose much of his bluster, CJ turned so as to focus on Veronique.
Later over pizza, CJ found himself responding to Veronique’s curiosity about his life with an abridged version, as though he’d somehow gone through One-Hour Martinizing. He had no hesitation about discussing either his stunt work or his duties at the restaurant. But when it came to his social life, and especially certain extracurricular activities, he became uncharacteristically, and uncomfortably, evasive.
Though that made the conversation somewhat awkward, CJ took some solace in being able to convince Veronique to let him introduce her to parts of LA that she hadn’t yet seen. And, since La Toque served dinner only, that, he proposed, could include both the beach and the mountains, plus a lunchtime excursion to the Chinese community he’d been hearing about in the San Gabriel Valley.
A stroll through Venice allowed for people-watching on Ocean Front Walk, plus a look, greatly appreciated by Veronique, at the immense mural called “A Touch Of Venice” on Windward, then the giant portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger around the corner. A jaunt up to Malibu enabled them not merely to stroll along the water, but also to spend time at the tide pools. A drive to San Gabriel led them to a place CJ had heard about called Chengdu Taste, where they had a Chinese meal the likes of which neither of them had ever experienced.
For CJ the result was a bizarre combination of joy and bewilderment. The joy owed to the feeling he got from being with Veronique, whose “joie de vivre” — an expression that was new to him — was almost intoxicating. It was a new and wonderful experience for him to be with someone who was so upbeat and jovial. The bewilderment, in contrast, came from the predicament in which CJ found himself. Whereas time with Veronique was imbued with a special kind of innocence, time with the other women felt more and more like the opposite. Life, he realized, was weighing heavily on him.
Nor were matters made easier when, while he was driving with Veronique, there would be a series of honks, plus a woman in a Jaguar, Mercedes, or Porsche convertible — be it Olga, Stella, Lydia, or someone else — yelling his name while headed in the opposite direction. Or when, during a quick stop they made at CJ’s apartment, Lori suddenly knocked on the door, which CJ did his best to downplay with an explanation that the visit owed to something related to La Toque.
It was a double life that he was leading, one that was progressively more onerous with each and every passing day. Unhappy with the situation, CJ requested another insurance physical, and was pleased when informed that at last he had passed.
Any hope for a fresh start was quickly squelched by a visit to a studio lot, where friends were doing a stunt. Any hope for a fresh start was quickly squelched by a visit to a studio lot, where a few of CJ’s friends were doing a stunt. He was stunned to find cocaine use everywhere, to the point where it could easily be life-threatening.
Feeling like the world was closing in on him, CJ showed up at La Toque late that afternoon with a strange sense that the woes he was facing had only just begun. As though sleepwalking, he went through his tasks, both official and otherwise, in what was at best a perfunctory manner, as though he were there in body but not in spirit.
Just his luck, it was that very evening that Veronique chose to make a surprise appearance. Entering La Toque, she explained her reason for visiting to the hostess who greeted her, then was given a choice of having someone look for CJ or alternatively of circulating on her own in the hope of surprising him. Choosing the latter, Veronique made her way here and there through the restaurant with no success — until, that is, the door to one of the bathrooms opened. Seeing a bejeweled woman in her early forties emerge, all the while straightening her designer dress, then watching CJ step forth a moment later, also fixing his clothes, Veronique let out a gasp.
Veronique flew through the restaurant, barely avoiding a busboy carrying a tray of dirty dishes. CJ, however, was nowhere near as lucky, crashing into the startled youth and sending plates, glasses, and silverware in every direction.
By the time CJ caught up to Veronique, she was well out of the restaurant and nearly halfway down the street.
“I can explain everything,” CJ insisted.
Veronique had no interest in explanations.
Though his apartment was in Hollywood, CJ’s story failed to have the kind of Hollywood ending in which boy and girl wind up reunited.
When, with flowers in hand, he stopped by the apartment where Veronique was crashing with a friend, CJ learned, to his dismay, that she had left town. Nor did she ever respond to his emails, texts, or messages on Facebook. Soured on stunt work, and no longer eager to remain at La Toque, CJ took his friends by surprise by applying to the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, New York. After finishing his course work there, then doing an internship at a restaurant in Lyon with three stars in the Guide Michelin, CJ worked his way up the food chain first in Boston, then in Manhattan. He is now the chef at a small place in San Francisco known for serving what’s known there as “Country French.”
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.