The same four women have gathered together to celebrate their birthdays for 30 years: Alexandra, Brenda, Cassie and me. We’ve never missed one.
Imagine the lives we’ve shared in our birthday dinner chatter, our tales of businesses started and prospering, wedding plans, divorce proceedings, death, travel to exotic places, new careers and retirement adventures.
We’ve celebrated with casual backyard barbecues, catered dinners at home served on heirloom lace, silver and porcelain. A chef gave us lessons on preparing Indian cuisine in one of our kitchens. We went to the Cirque de Soleil. We skinny dipped in a neighbor’s pool.
For my birthday, for the first time in these 30 years we gathered around a table far from home. The place was the Culinary Institute of America, outside of Calistoga, California. Alexandra and Brenda ordered from the menu, but Cassie and I surrendered ourselves into the hands of the student chefs by ordering from the four course, prix fixe menu with wine pairings. Every mouthful of food and every sip of wine aroused my nostrils and titillated every taste bud as it all rolled over my tongue and down my throat.
First course, panna coti with mushrooms; second course, a salad that looked simple and surprised Cassie and me with its complex flavors; third course, spicy beef mounded on polenta (I only ate half and forgot the remains nestled in their white box in the refrigerator of Brenda’s cabin, a foreshadowing, perhaps, of The Great Chicken Caper);fourth course, a frothy, creamy strawberry confection which Cassie and I shared with Alexandra and Brenda. Each course and each wine blended with the first yet stood on its own.As delightful as this evening was, it couldn’t match the food orgy a few years ago that marked Alexandra’s 50th birthday. A famous Swedish chef with a restaurant, Aquavit, in New York, had expanded to our town, which is known for the lasting influence Sweden has had on its culture.
The United States has room for one famous Swedish chef, so if you’re assuming I mean Marcus Samuelsson, you’re assuming correctly. Marcus relishes telling anyone who will listen that he learned Swedish cooking from his grandmother. When you see his picture, you’ll understand his joy in confusing people. He’s an adoptee. From Ethiopia.
We’d reserved the chef’s table, in the kitchen of Aquivit for our friend’s birthday. This put us at the mercy of the chef of the evening, who happened to be Marcus, since he was in town. We sat, ate and drank as plate after plate was placed in front of us. The dishes themselves were part of the experience. Some looked like blocks of ice. Some looked like heirloom art deco porcelain. Six courses, I do believe, were laid in front of us, only to slide
down into our stomachs.
When we were satiated and slightly intoxicated, and trying not to appear so as we left the kitchen, Alexandra sidled up to me and whispered, “I’d love a picture of all of us with Marcus.”
When I was in my 30’s and living in France, I would have categorized taking a group snapshot in a restaurant gauche behaviour in the extreme. But I was now 50, we weren’t in Paris and my dear friend had a special request.
I said, “If you have the camera, I’ll make this happen.”
The restaurant was empty by now except for us and two gentlemen at the bar. One was Marcus, the other a friend of his. I approached him with my best unassuming Scandinavian-American smile and said, “Hello, Mr. Samuelsson. I have a favor to ask of you.”
He flashed the brightest smite at me, full of pearly white teeth, and said, “You want me to kiss you, don’t you?”
That thought had not been on my mind. But, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea. So, I said, “That will do for starters.”
He stood in front of me, smiled again, and planted a sweet, confidant kiss right on my lips.
Then I said, “What I really want is a picture of you with all of us. We’re celebrating my friend’s 50th birthday.”
Alexandra handed her camera to the other gentleman at the bar, we four ladies cuddled up close to Marcus, who snuggled in the middle, we beamed and the photographer snapped several shots.
None of them came out. Not a one. Which is why I’m ending with a photograph of Marcus Samuelsson, naked, holding a blender. This was part of an advertising campaign popping up in culinary magazines around the country right at the time of the dinner.
I know this picture is what Alexandra had in mind when she requested a photo with Chef Samuelsson.