The eels arrived in a large Styrofoam box full of salt water, like a sloshy white coffin. The French waiters expressed weary interest, Yaz, the energetic Lebanese expediter, was nervous, and Kelli, the manager, was stone-faced. Chef Frank Ruta yanked the lid off and stared in delight at the undulating nest of black creatures. Then Frank hung a small piece of wood up on the wall, got a hammer and nail, and set them on a nearby counter. He sharpened a paring knife and said to me, “Watch out, Pete, this is going to get messy.”
A brawny Midwesterner, Frank was ghoulishly pale, his complexion like a candle that’d been out near the oven too long. He hadn’t seen the light of day, as far as I could tell, since the restaurant had opened four months before. Like some delirious madman, he worked sixteen hours a day in Palena’s windowless basement kitchen, a sweaty and profane little space.
That day with the eels, an hour before we opened, Frank snatched the first eel up from the water with one of his enormous hands and pinned it to the board by its neck—he put a nail up against its throat, grabbed the hammer, and with a single hard strike, drove the nail into the board. Pinned there, the two-foot long eel writhed. With a steadiness you’d hope for in your brain surgeon, he grasped the flailing animal firmly, cut two shallow slits around its neck and, using both hands, in a single gesture, skinned it alive. He tossed the skin into the trash. The eel quivered stiffly as it died.
I went upstairs and sighed loudly near Kelli.
She glanced at me, noting my trauma, and said, “I should have warned you.” Then she went back to editing the night’s menu. Kelli had put on her foundation but not the rest of her makeup, so her face was stark, cadaverous. After a pause, she gazed back at me, all alabaster, and informed me severely that the eel would be a salad. Then, perhaps sensing that I needed more, she said, “As soon as they die, their skin sticks to the muscle. So that’s, you know…”
I nodded. That’d have to do.
Apart from me, everyone on staff was a diehard foodie. They’d all know about eel skins. Meanwhile, I had a degree in international relations and my father was in the upper management of the IMF. By most measures, I had more in common with our customers than I did with the staff, or that’s what I told myself.
Back in the kitchen a little later, I saw bloody footprints. Frank’s face was spattered with gore. “Sup, Pete?” he asked as he worked away, preparing sea urchins.
“You’ve got blood on your face,” I said.
“It’s fucking incredible eel,” he said. “You only get them like that this time of year. You gotta push it tonight. It’s going to be delicious, and the texture—it’s fucking…” He just shook his head.
I had never worked with an artist before, had never really seen one up close, so I still didn’t understand what I was looking at.
Frank made his own prosciutto, his own pancetta, buffalo-milk mozzarella, he made his own vinegars, his own boudin blanc (from an inexplicably airy mix of chicken and fois gras); he butchered his own spring lambs, made his own mortadella (mortadella-making day was twice as gruesome as eel-skinning day). Frank made his own wine, which was, as he’d say, delicious. It wasn’t for sale, but it was a boozy Zin blend, some of the best young wine I’ve ever tasted. The few pasta dishes he made were gorgeous, paper-thin pouches full of Muscovy duck confit, or downy sheep cheese. He pickled his own vegetables, made his own quince jam, baked his own bread.
As a waiter, I was not remotely up to snuff, but this was just a job to tide me over while I plotted my next move. I worked the front of the restaurant, which was slightly less highbrow.
The atmosphere throughout was ochre walls and luxurious napery, two-hundred-year-old Italian paintings. It was Washington DC, so most of our customers were high-powered DC elites: ruddy bloviators with massive superiority complexes.
The French waiters, Guy and Frederick, ruled over the back dining room with a sternness that only French waiters can pull off. Chests inflated, heads high, they’d actually sneer at a diner, literally stare down their noses at the good senator, one eyebrow arched, while he perused the wine list. People seemed to appreciate their withering judgment. Without the contempt of a supercilious Frenchman, you might not realize that you’re at a serious restaurant.
What made me a lousy waiter, above all, was that I was neither sufficiently haughty and high-class, nor was I sufficiently trampled-upon and low-class. Wasn’t a future senator, and wasn’t a battle-scarred line-cook (or an imperious French waiter, for that matter). No, I was a well-educated kid who’d attended the same expensive school that many of these senators sent their children to. And, to the parents of my former classmates it was assumed—incorrectly, it turned out—that I was just passing time there before waltzing off into some impressive career.
When I expressed uncertainty about my plans, they’d seize up a little, search the wall for a clue of how to reconcile my upbringing with my diminishing prospects. At the time, I didn’t see it, but I realize now that they saw, in me, the frightening possibility that the politically valuable notion of class mobility might, in fact, have space for precipitous descent.
When I started at Palena, I also assumed that I’d quit soon enough and go get a sensible job. After university, I spent two years writing about international affairs for a think tank. When I quit the think tank and started at Palena, the trajectory I’d embarked on—Brooks Brothers suits, working meetings over martinis near K Street, commuting in a large German automobile—still seemed completely attainable. But, at age 24, I was wavering. Still, based on the ease with which my peers seemed to be making their way in the world, I believed that I too would casually pole-vault into some illustrious career soon enough.
Along with my other faults as a waiter, I got into the habit of miming the animals involved in the dishes while speaking about the specials. When mentioning the lobster and beetroot salad, I’d pinch my index fingers against my thumbs like lobster claws, snapping away. I’d do it at my side, so at least it was kind of subtle, but still. A Dover sole, mimed by an open hand, palm-down, swimming though the air like a flatfish, would be greeted by perplexed expressions from my dour customers.
Quail = a subtle flapping of my hands by my side.
Veal = I’d put my index fingers out, side-by-side, like horns.
King salmon = like Dover sole, but vertical.
The director of the Central Intelligence Agency would gaze up at me, unsure whether he should believe what I was doing, as I pantomimed the lobster claws, or the pins of a sea urchin. The French waiters thought it was hilarious, they wouldn’t stop talking about my mime routine back at the bread station. But they also couldn’t bring themselves to do it. For them, this was a career, after all. For them, this was actual life—not a rough draft of life. I was still young enough, still naive enough, to believe that I was not yet quite living, not yet.
After work, the kitchen staff and the waiters would all decamp to a bar called Aroma, down the street, where the bartenders rarely, if ever, charged us for our drinks.
In the wee hours, I’d return to the giant empty house where I was living—a turn-of-the-century six-bedroom Tudor, which had only one piece of furniture in it: my mattress, on the floor of the attic. It had been my childhood home. My father had moved away years earlier and had given up on trying to sell it. At the house, I had a frying pan, a bowl, and three utensils. Meals didn’t really happen there. Meals only happened at Palena.
Growing up amid the children of ambassadors and powerful attorneys in DC, going to that prep school, an ambition incubator for children, I had believed that the arts were frivolous. But now, on the cusp of abandoning my nascent career in international affairs, I decided—with what I now see was extraordinary naiveté—to make a go of writing. After purchasing a typewriter from Value Village, I started a novel. I didn’t own a TV or a computer—this was 2001, and I was fairly poor despite my job; I didn’t even have a cell phone—so I read a lot. Almost by chance, I discovered Nabokov (I was sufficiently oblivious that I’d thought I was in for something like Anna Karenina when I picked up Lolita). Smitten, I tried to copy his style, and failed in that particularly dopey way that people who try to imitate Nabokov will do. Then I read A Farewell to Arms, and wept at the end, and so I tried to write like Hemingway, but ended up sounding autistic.
Though he couldn’t stand to talk to the customers himself, Frank was desperate to know what they thought. “Table twelve, what’d they say?” he’d bark at me.
“What do you mean?”
“The wood pigeon. What’d they think?” he’d say.
I hadn’t particularly noticed their reaction, but I’d lie, just to appease him. “They seemed to like it. They ate it all.”
“They didn’t say anything specific?” He was like a grade-school pal who had a crush on a girl who you’d been on a field trip with, and now he wanted to know every detail of everything she said about everything in the world while you were at the museum.
“They said the pigeon was moist,” I’d say.
He’d sigh, deflated. “Jesus, that’s fucking pathetic.”
Hours later when I returned to pick up a plate of profiteroles and pomegranate gelato, Frank would shout, “I hope that’s moist enough for you, Pete!” And I’d know that he’d been standing there stewing on my unacceptably vague praise all night.
But restaurants get famous like people get famous. That is to say: talent is generally necessary, and there are the hours involved, plus, the requisite obsession—all of this Frank had, in spades—but then there’s the schmooze. He clearly detested it—upstairs, working the room, he was either a glorified servant, or he was the great chef. Either way, he was a kind of jester at court. He couldn’t play along. As a result, he never attained the level of celebrity you’d expect for a chef of his abilities. He didn’t have time to write a goddamn cookbook and he didn’t care to try to get himself a show on the Food Channel, wouldn’t have done well under those lights, anyway. When he won a James Beard award in 2007, he failed to show up to the award ceremony—he was in his basement kitchen, making sure the braised cod wasn’t overcooked.
He made a gorgeous creamy red pepper sauce to accompany the veal chop. The veal he used was older than normal veal, adolescent, starting to eat grass, halfway to beef, and the sauce was a creamy red pepper veluté. I once asked him once how he made it.
“Aw, don’t bother,” he replied, “it’s just fucking decoration. You get a cut that good, best thing is to just salt and pepper it and treat it well. Don’t fuck around with some silly sauce.”
And that’s it: an artist’s mind at work. For him, despite all the years of training that went into learning how to make that delicate sauce, at the end of the day it just flourish. What really mattered was the main ingredient and how you handled it.
Proust talked of the great painter whose chief ability was to become “stupid before the empty canvas.” What else is an artist, but an idiot who can fall victim to the true, unembarrassed wonderment of his medium’s potential on a daily basis?
But I wasn’t Frank. Not by a long shot. For all his blue-collar discomfort, Frank had the vision and talent to make Palena a reality. Whereas I—for all my private school polish—was far too much an idiot in front of that canvas to get anything meaningful done.
Then there was the night that Robert Parker—the world’s most feared and respected wine critic—showed up with ten of his wine-crazy friends for a prix-fixe ten-course menu that Frank had designed for them. The kitchen blazed with even more furious energy than usual as it fired off wave after wave of courses.
Parker had brought an array of 1982 Bordeaux (easily the best vintage to be had at the time). Every single one of the bottles, each from a different chateau, scored more or less off the charts with Parker. You could have traded those bottles for a luxury car, and they opened them all upon arrival.
It was a weeknight, not an especially active night. I had a nice four-top in the front, and that was all.
Meanwhile, in the back of the restaurant, things were getting chaotic, as the umpteen plates and bottles came and went at once.
Parker was having everyone at their table taste from a bottle, and then they’d send the rest down to the kitchen. The French waiters were running back and forth, up and down the stairs, sweating profusely. I helped, as far as I could, without diminishing their cachet. Downstairs, half-finished bottles of ’82 Bordeaux quickly lining up in front of the garde manger’s prep area. The cooks were all too busy to drink the stuff, but the rest of us started making frequent trips downstairs to sample the bottles of this—the most sought-after wine in the world. The bottles kept coming. Before long, we were swilling ’82 Bordeaux straight from the bottle, passing it around like paper-bag hooch. Not Frank, though. He sipped a few, but he couldn’t drink more, not because he was afraid of getting drunk. It was, I think, just overwhelming for him. He’d have a taste and then stand there at his station with his eyes closed, as if he were trying to wrap his mind around this thing. When his eyes opened, he looked almost troubled. It turns out that encountering something like true perfection can be a horror if you’re in the business of aiming for perfection.
Frank had no difficulty talking to Parker and his guests, people as obsessed about food and drink as he was. He came up during their cheese course and just pulled up a chair.
Swaying before my one table of young diners at table twelve, I rubbed my teeth with a paper towel, and, I apologized for slurring, but anyway, what I was there to tell them about, I went on, what—wait—um—?
“Dessert,” one of them prompted.
“Right!” I exhorted.
I spoke of the pumpkin goat cheese cheesecake, the chocolate ganache, and other things, like the champagne grapefruit sorbet made with vintage champagne. I told them about the caramels that melted at room temperature, how they had to be refrigerated until being brought to the table, and how they were flecked with real gold. I tried to tell them about our cheese plate, but was overwhelmed. The cheese was usually my strong suit, but that night I was flummoxed. There were red cows, I said, in Italy, and that’s why our cheese was special.
They were good sports. They were much younger than our normal customers—young people almost never dined at Palena without their parents—and their joy was so memorable compared to the grim dinnertime duty of the rest of Washington, DC. They laughed along with me, because it was, after all, a celebration, and they tipped me generously at the end of the night.
But as I was cleaning up, washing their glasses, a new uneasiness came over me. Maybe it was because I’d never had a table like them, so young, so much like me. The fact was we were similar, but not the same. I could never afford dinner at Palena. Couldn’t even afford to pay rent, let alone buy myself furniture. For the first time, I realized I wasn’t just slumming with the help, I was the help. Frank was, at best, amused by me. He had no reason to take me seriously, because I had done nothing worthy of respect. I wasn’t a good waiter. I wasn’t good at anything. And, no, I wasn’t going to casually pole-vault into a great career. I certainly wasn’t going to stumble into a life as a well-regarded novelist.
As we wandered to Aroma after closing that night, bottles of half-finished’82 Bordeaux poking out from the pockets in our winter coats, the taste of all that borrowed opulence was making me queasy.
Apart from that night with Parker, and the other nights he sat with chefs talking shop, Frank was never really comfortable upstairs in his own restaurant. Upstairs was too blue-blooded, or he was too blue collared—either way, it never carried. He’d peer around the corner and beckon me, ask if Judge so-and-so was still there, if not he’d sigh in relief and go back down. Maybe it was all that, or maybe it was his penchant for expensive ingredients, or maybe it was all of the above and more, but the restaurant was finally killed, after thirteen years, by failure to pay rent. They owed over a hundred thousand dollars to their landlord.
Frank made a shambling and humble Facebook post about the matter in late April 2014. He said his thanks, and offered his apologies, and two days later he was locked out of that kitchen. In retrospect, you could see Palena’s demise in its birth—the impossible dissonance between him, this working class foodie, and his frusty clientele with their gold tie clips, and their guffawing Meet The Press banter.
My own stint at Palena was mercifully short. I was there maybe six months before New York beckoned—the opportunity to do low-impact data entry for AOL while writing lousy short stories at night in a horrid little sloped-floored apartment.
On my last night there, Frank brought up a magnum of Rioja. Everyone hugged me, mussed my hair. My blonde line-cook punched my arm, told me I shouldn’t make a life of food service, that I had other talents. Everyone agreed. They meant I was a lousy waiter, yes, but also even they, my peers, seemed to assume that I was about to launch off into some lofty career. In fact, I spent the rest of my twenties lost in menial labor, with a two year break for grad-school, entirely funded by student loans that I’ll spend two decades paying off. For six years after Palena, I faced an uninterrupted stream of rejection—threw away two novels, twenty stories. I imagine detailing my monumental failures to Frank, and he’s just laughing at me. One way or another, you need to put in your hours.
That night, my last night, I left early, skipping out on Aroma. I was itching to get home to my typewriter, to my tiny attic—about the same size as Frank’s kitchen—where I’d type away for five hours, unfettered, before passing out mid-sentence. I wish I could say Frank taught me how to see the world with magical clarity, like an artist, but he didn’t. He just showed me how to adjust to a life without sunlight, which was exactly what I needed.
Peter Mountford is the author of the novels The Dismal Science and A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism. For a few years after college he was the token liberal in a right-wing think tank. He now lives in Seattle, Washington, and teaches at Sierra Nevada College.