Eating Authors: Michael Johnston

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Michael Johnston

If things are going according to plan, then I’ve just returned from the 24th annual conference of the Klingon Language Institute, having survived numerous linguist and alien challenges, charted out some of the milestones of the next year for the world’s Klingon speakers, done a couple interviews for television and print, and made some real progress on my edits for the BARSquel.

This week I’ll attempt to log plenty of hours at the DayJob, but also to complete my work on the novel so I can send it to my editor so I can leave for Europe with a clean conscience. The housesitter has been briefed, but I still need to have several long talks with the dog to make sure he understands that I’m going away but that I’ll be coming back too.

The trip is probably the grandest excursion I’ve ever planned, chock full of amazing experiences and unique research opportunities (because these books don’t write themselves). One might almost go so far as to describe the trip as “epic,” which is a nice segue to this week’s EATING AUTHORS guest, architect turned novelist Michael Johnston.

I think there’s something sublime about using the grandeur of architecture as a metaphor to inform speculative fiction, and that’s exactly what Michael does in Soleri, his first solo novel (though I’d be remiss not to note that he’s also co-authored several books with Melissa de la Cruz).

Michael says he found inspiration in the history of ancient Egypt and the tragedy of Shakespeare’s Leer, producing an eternal civilization and a family of gods, all described with the clean lines that you’d expect from an architect. What’s not to love? I’d tell you more, but you’ve probably already clicked a link and headed off to buy the book (which came out just last month).

I hope you remember to come back and read his memorable meal below.

LMS: Welcome, Michael. What lingers in your mind as your most memorable meal?

MJ: Without question my most memorable meal was at the Four Season restaurant in the Seagram’s building in New York City. For those who are not familiar with the building and the restaurant, Mies van der Roe, one of the principle figures of minimal modernist architecture, designed the Seagram building. The tower, often dubbed “the brown-booze building” for its bronze façade, was so expensive that it prompted the city of New York to change the way it taxed buildings. The restaurant itself was no exception to this excess. Philip Johnson, who had himself once worked for Mies and was famous for pilfering Mies’s design for the first “glass house” and building it for himself, designed the restaurant.

The Four Seasons was built in two parts, both of which elegantly straddled the office tower’s lobby. The grille occupied the south side and sported a large bar and small seating areas. A fantastic chandelier hung above the bar, hugging its perimeter. The chandelier was less light fixture and more light sculpture, a series of bronze tubes suspended in the air and designed by Richard Lippold. It floated, shimmering amid the buzz of the room. A hallway separated the grille from the other half of the restaurant. I say hallway, but it was more of a gallery, a grand passage between two modernist shrines. A two-story tapestry by Picasso hung on the wall of that hallway and it was breathtaking to behold.

Soleri

In its prime, the Four Seasons was as much a temple to art as it was to architecture. Mark Rothko was famously hired to produce the first murals for the space. He immediately replied that he would create “something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room.” He didn’t get the job, but many other famous artists did install their work in the restaurant. The pool room took its name, obviously, from the large body of water at its center. The pool was majestic. So much so that the tables were arranged so that dinners sat side-by-side facing the water.

Now, I’ve provided a little background on the restaurant; so let me explain that I came to all of this as a twenty-two year graduate student of architecture at Columbia. My then girlfriend and now wife had received a rather large Christmas bonus and we were determined to spend the entire thing on this one meal. So I arrived at the Four Seasons as a somewhat financially challenged student, a kid from a nowhere town in the Midwest who had come to one of the most storied and fabulous rooms in New York City. The restaurant itself sits high above street level. So we entered at the street level where my coat was taken, where I admired the walls and floor, all of which were clad in travertine, in traditional modernist fashion, and where a tapestry from Miro hung on the wall, the chairs designed by Mies, the carpet too. From there we were ushered up a switchback set up stairs. Visitors literally ascend into the Grille Room where they first catch sight of that scintillating chandelier. It truly dazzled the eye (I’m not exaggerating, the chandelier is amazing). We had a drink that cost more than most folk expect to pay for a respectable dinner. We waited for our names to be called. Then we were ushered across that gorgeous hallway, past the towering Picasso and into the pool room.

We sat and were immediately set upon by an army of servants. Not only did we have our own waiter but that waiter had a set of subwaiters (probably not a word, is there a word for this?). I don’t recall the food, which might disqualify me for this column. I only recall the experience, the elegance of the place, the pageantry, the size of the bill.

It’s easily my most memorable meal. Sadly the restaurant closed a few years back and much of the art was sold off by ruthless real estate folk. Recently an effort was made to restore the grille, which has now reopened and I understand that the pool room will also reopen. Both are landmarked, so they can’t be destroyed or significantly altered. I’m glad they are both returning to service. After almost twenty years I’d love to go back and perhaps this time I’ll remember if I liked the food.

Thanks, Michael. Despite the passage of more than 30 years, my meal-spending sensibility is still rooted in the poverty of my graduate school years. I dine out nowadays and spend way more than I’m comfortable with, but your meal sounds at least an order of magnitude beyond anything I could relax enough to enjoy. I wouldn’t remember what I ate either.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

author photo by Cathryn Farnsworth

#SFWApro

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