Sunday, February 7, 2010
NO RESERVATIONS: IN THE CARIBBEAN WITH TONY
Tuesday, January 26th:
It was cool and pitch dark when the alarm rang to get us moving toward a speck of land far down in the Caribbean known only recently to me. It is called ‘Petit St. Vincent’. I learned about it from a producer of our friend Tony Bourdain’s smash hit TV show “No Reservations”. Her name is Chloe Kaplan. We had not met yet. But dozens of emails had been exchanged and now the day had arrived. We were invited to meet Tony in the Caribbean and shoot a new episode. We would tape pretty much all of two and one half days. We had a car service arranged to get us to Miami International from Homestead. We watched the sun rise through the windshield of his speeding black automobile.
It was nice to work with a show of such success. We had seats in first-class on the jet and even though we had to sit on the runway and endure a one-hour delay due to a chump, who packed his bags but didn’t get on the plane we, at least sat in comfort. I understood security’s reasoning completely this time.
In about three hours we arrived in Barbados. Tony and the crew were there. Tony came forward and we hugged one another. He looked good if pale. He wore a New York Yankees t-shirt and jeans. He had a bagged sandwich from some kiosk called “Island Spice” as well as a tiny can of very cold Heineken. A made a mental note of that for when we would be passing back through this airport in a few days.
The crew and Tony were on a chartered plane and it was packed with camera equipment. Aside from Tony there was Nick, the director, Chloe on all kinds of logistics, Todd, Tony’s long time cameraman, and “Mo” a new cameraman. Janet and I flew on Mustique Airways on a plane that held two pilots and 8 very closely packed souls that took all of seats on that plane. We had one stop at a small island with a different resort than the one we were heading to and then we landed on the island of Union. The airport there makes Key West’s look gigantic and modern. Team members of the Petit St. Vincent Resort met us. Tony was waving from inside the small terminal as we walked woozily down the tarmac in the fading light. We came to know the resort’s staff in the next days in that they were there for many aspects of our getting around and our simple comforts. They were native to the islands and had that gentle quality that one rarely sees in busy northern places.
We took a boat ride with our guides and a captain to ‘PSV’ as it is more commonly called. The craft heaved gently up and down the darkening surf. The frames where windows might have been were empty. Janet sat on a bench and Tony and stood up and I peered over the waves. The weather was fine and breezy. After about 45 minutes on the water we docked and hopped ashore with the men handling our bags. An woman brought us a wooden tray with cut out inserts in it containing tumblers of chilled piña coladas. They were delicious; the first I had consumed in a decade. We were taken directly to dinner.
We ate on the deck overlooking the ocean. The menu was pretty limited and the choice was easy. I ordered salt cod fritters with a dipping sauce and pan-cooked barracuda. The waiter told me I could be assured the fish was “safe” here in these waters and I believed him. I would be risking ciguatera toxic poisoning in many waters eating this fish but not here. It was firm like grouper and had a buttery sweetness. Janet had baked Spiny Lobster. We shared. Curried carrots seemed to be on every plate. I was asked to order a white wine for the table though almost everyone had rum punch to start. The Chef came out as the entrees were cleared. He was a big, soft-spoken and intelligent gentleman named Trevor.
We sat and talked with Tony after dinner. He’d recently done a show in Montana with former Key Westers, some of whom I’d cooked for over the years like authors Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane as well as the amazing painter Russell Chatham.
We got a golf cart ride to our Oceanside bungalow.
At PSV there are no phones, no Internet, no TV, nada to disturb one from the noise of the recent century. Soon we were sleeping with the waves crashing softly outside our suite.
Wednesday, January 27th:
I awoke to see only sky, ocean and the stone bungalow we were to staying in. No humans were anywhere in view. The sun was just beginning to rise. I went back out a few minutes later to take in my view. There was a “double” rainbow in the sky to the west. I was feeling a special kind of luck.
We went up to the same open air dining room we dined in last night. Aside from two of the resort’s crew we had breakfast alone. We ordered bowls of mango and papaya with a container each of yogurt; one lime and one vanilla. The fruit was ripe and perfect, so beyond what we normally get in a hotel of any kind in the States. The yogurt was made just over on Union Island. A basket of breads arrived. I knew there would be a taped breakfast again with Tony so eating light made sense despite my interest in a dish named “Fish Broth”. The production crew radioed for us, as we were about to finish. A white haired-local man with a preacher’s mien drove us to the beach. Tony walked up barefoot. The crew was doing the typical things crews do which means figuring out how to make interesting television and dealing with shifting light and the sounds around us. A thin pier reached out into the surf. A table was down there under a thatched roof. Tony started quoting a line from Yeats. (“Slouching toward Bethlehem”). I surprised him and finished the quote from the old Irish bard and that always lights a candle of recognition when readers recognize shared passions.
With Tony the conversation is quick, deep, funny, informative, and even challenging. We were off camera and we conversed about the topics of our business. He is about to come out with his next book. Though he has released other material subsequent to his millions selling, “Kitchen Confidential” this one is really his next big book.
He told me one of the topics of the book is about the new “hot button” one dubbed, locavorism and “how ridiculous it is that folks in the upper peninsula of Michigan should be remonstrated with if they don’t eat “locally” in the winter. In India and Vietnam parents who have been farming all of their lives would slit their throats if their children who were almost ready to attend college due to the decades of hard work the parents had killed themselves doing if the kids announced, “Mom, Dad, I’m gonna be farmer!” Hell… the Vietnamese cover themselves up from head to foot to not look like they have been working in the sun drenched paddies. For them a tan is a sign of poverty”.
We talked about writers. We talked about restaurants. He has the ability to “hate” a certain restaurant but really like the Chef of the same place. He thinks the food truck thing is one of the most important things to happen in America. “It is going to be huge”.
We were called to move out and be ready for the “breakfast scene”. A crew from the restaurant had arrived on golf carts with plates of covered food and drinks and set them out on the table on the dock. I was to be pre-seated and wait for Tony to arrive. Tony got his cue and sauntered down the deck moving with his customary slack-limbed grace. I greeted him as directed (without standing) and he joined me at the somewhat lavish spread. I had a “soup” of barracuda. I sent up an additional prayer that the folks here were right about this fish being safe. Tony had spiny lobster and an omelet in front of him.
We were gathered up via the little transports on the island called “Mokes”. I had been referring them to as golf carts but now was more informed. The name seems to come from a British place. They are essentially golf carts with back seats. But “mokes” it is. We went to the dock and a small motorboat ferried us out to a catamaran. We boarded and Tony and I made way for the front meshed area and lay down. The sun was now finally fully out. A crew member brought us each a local beer. I looked at my watch. It was 11 o’clock somewhere…
We were taken out near a sand bar in the area about 2 miles off shore. A small boat retrieved the crew, Tony and me. Janet stayed aboard the larger vessel. We chugged through the surf to the very small patch of jutting sand. This was to become the “opening” of the show. It was as if Tony were stranded on a deserted island. I won’t spoil things by telling you what happens. See the show. See it often! We finished the scene and went back to the restaurant and had a buffet lunch. Talk centered on odd things to eat and the planning of the shooting schedule ahead.
We walked back to our cottage and I fell asleep for 20 minutes lulled by the hypnotic rhythms of the surf. Chloe and the crew began to gather on our porch. They wanted to take a shot of me lying in the hammock their and I happily obliged. Next I walked down the stone steps with cameraman “Mo” to the surf at the swirling at the rocks beneath our suite. I made my way into the water. It was not as warm as the water I usually would get into but after a moment I became accustomed to it and then back to enjoy stretching out and feeling the cleansing qualities of the salt. Mo had a submersible camera that they were using for the very first time. The director shouted out some simple instructions from time to time. I tried to float and relax but the surf made it challenging with the action of it there. I would have swum more and more vigorously but my old swimming trunks were too beat and stretched out and wanted to slip off my body. That I didn’t want. I finally waded back to shore with Mo and up to the deck to dry off. It was nearing 6 and our next shoot was to be at 7 so it was time for showers, a change of clothes and a walk back to the dining room once again.
We arrived at the bar and were greeted with a South African Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc blend. Tony arrived and plunked his laptop on the bar with a thud, laid his reading glasses on it and announced that he had just cyber-sent his book off to his publisher. He was nervous and excited. He ordered a Bombay Gin and Tonic and took a gulp. The Captain of our catamaran, John, was there and Tony explained to him about the process and the reason for the “nervous father” kind of emotions. Tony is a new father and his life has been redirected in this role. It is sweet and touching. As a father I remember his current state of mind but I was a much younger man when I had a 2 year old. But the bond we share as cooks and writers is also found in the “nation of daddy’s” now too.
We were all pretty red from the tropical sunlight bearing down on us most of the day. The camera crew had been getting things situated while we relaxed at the bar and now they were ready for us to head to the table. For this scene it was be just Tony and I having dinner and conversation. And we did. Tony has a propulsive mind and certain topics make him rev off in an arc. He made me laugh and like in his books he uses salty language and circumstances like a surgeon uses a scalpel. Tony cuts out the bullshit with his. Anyone who has seen his show or read his books knows the probabilities. They are never dull and his intelligence and humor make you love him and being with him. At the end of the day what is true about Tony is that he cares deeply about food, how it is made and the honesty of what it can be and should be. He is a proselytizer; make no doubt about that, and a very entertaining one. The camera and microphones faded from our awareness as the dinner went on. We were two old friends who were catching up and having a good talk over well-made Caribbean food on a hilltop perched restaurant overlooking a rolling sea and it was a damn fine was to spend an evening.
Janet and some of the other crew were seated at other tables around us to fill in the scene. When we wrapped our bit Janet joined us. She hadn’t been served so she ate a few bites of mine. I buttered some focaccia and she dabbed it into the barracuda stew. Tony checked his phone. His book had been officially received! We toasted and high-fived.
As we were leaving some of the guests of the resorts spoke up to say, “We love your show Anthony!” Tony waved shyly. We got into our little “mokes” and the driver took us to our respective cottages for another night of slumber.
Thursday, January 28th:
Coffee and a breadbasket plus a bowl of fruit arrived in our room at 7:45. We enjoyed that and packed up for the full day of sailing and taping ahead. We were driven over to the pier and boarded Captain John’s fine boat. It was not a luxury yacht but it had all we needed. Chloe, Nick, Mo and Todd alternately used other boats through the day to track us as we sailed from one vista to another. The skies were a bit cloudy but without that cover we would have either had to remain below cover on the boat or fried to a crisp. There were times the sun came out and occasionally both Tony and I headed to the webbed area between the hulls of the catamaran and basked in it. Occasionally the surf was somewhat rolling if not outright rough. Janet was fine throughout as usual remembering to follow her father’s advice to simply “stare at the horizon if you begin to get dizzy”.
We arrived at an area with a fine beach a few hours later and Tony and I took an inflatable, motorized dinghy in and took a swim. The beachgoers must have wondered why a camera crew would follow these two guys as they splashed around and swam in the Caribbean waters. Mo pulled out his submersible camera again and surprised me as I surfaced. We didn’t stay long we had other things to accomplish and we got back to Captain John’s boat.
Around 3 p.m. we took on a landing party. It was a young chef named Ian, (but with an unusual spelling) who was now cooking at “The Raffles Canouan Resort of The Grenadines”. He’d come to prepare us a lunch on the boat as part of the show. He brought two young women with him. One was a woman of part Indian heritage and a magazine owner and one was an Italian beauty that had recently had her first child. She now lived on Canouan. They were delightful. The talk turned to soccer and then Italian food. Both are passions of Tony’s wife and also of Tony’s. The camera crew went down into the belly of the boat and taped as the chef prepared his lunch for six. He was half Trinidadian as it turned out and despite working in Paris, London and New York was now back “home” in the islands seeking to offer a refined and well-informed cuisine utilizing island produce. (I could relate!)
He was telegenic, sweet natured, articulate and from the first plate of a crudo of barracuda with various tropical fruits with some tangy acidity clearly a gifted chef. We enjoyed the food while Tony took on the role of interviewer. He’s very good at it and his questions are insightful as much as the dialog is humorous. The next course was a crispy fillet of skin on snapper. It was presented sparingly which let the pristine qualities of each ingredient shine. He served it with a puree of a local citrus and another sauce made with “shadow bennie”. It was beat looking specimen he showed us from the ice chest, but I’m sure it was what we call culantro. For dessert he fashioned”ravioli of pineapple” which was thinly shaved fruit along with soursop sorbet. It was brilliantly light and refreshing; perfect for the day on the water.
We drank some simple white wine with the lunch. The sun was pretty full by then and the conversation due to Tony turned to “fusion”. He said “Hey Guys” and pointed at me with his thumb and mock complained something like, “If you ever want to know who we can blame for “Fusion Cooking” this is the guy right here”. I will say once again, just watch the show and see how that turns out.
The chef and the ladies bundled up their supplies and headed back to their island. We had another destination. It was a place an island gent fashioned as legend has it out of conch shells and concrete. He called his speck of commerce and relaxation, “Happy Island”. Captain John motored us over to it and about one hour later we were taken via the dinghy to the raffish place. Some Aussies were having a good time seated at picnic tables or on plastic chairs when we arrived. The camera crew was already there and had taped Tony and I coming in. We were taken to a table. We were actually hungry. Being on the water does that but despite the lunch you don’t really dine in the normal way when the cameras are rolling. Besides they didn’t have Janet in the scene, (her preference) so I sent half of each of mine back in hopes she’d have something to eat too. So when we arrived at Happy Island we were ready for some of the “barbeque” he reportedly made. But that was not to be. The chef-owner and his one other worker were too busy making rum punches and supplying beers to the party crowd so we drank.
We needed to get in a pod cast so Tony set up a kind of “parlor game” he likes to play at times like these and asked me to think of songs with the most idiotic lyrics. It was a good bar game and one I enjoyed playing with him.
The sun was beginning to set. We’d been on the water the entire day and it was about time to head back to our retreat at Petit St. Vincent. We said good-bye to the small crew. They would sleep on John’s boat again tonight. Tony, Janet and I were dropped at the dock. We went back to our room to get on a dry shirt and then met Tony back in the bar.
Tony asked for Chef Trevor to come out and he did. Tony sweetly and humbly asked the big man if we could possibly trouble him for three steak sandwiches. Trevor smiled. He got it immediately. He understood chefs like to eat simple food often times and he made it happen.
We moved out toward the water and had our meal. We shared some personal stories. We talked about books. I asked him his favorite American work. He replied, “Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita”. I said, “Interesting you view that as an American work. It seems more cast in the European model”. He said, “Then no doubt I would choose “The Great Gatsby”.
We hugged goodbye with Tony giving Janet a kiss on each cheek. We went to bed happy. The waves of Petit St. Vincent seduced us one more time. The next morning we took the same ferry we had arrived on. The sun shone brightly. As we crossed the ocean toward Union Island and our upcoming plane ride to Barbados and then Miami again. I couldn’t help but think of the last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, “So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past”. But it was different for us. It was all good and…going forward.
Norman Van Aken © 2010