Eating Authors: Walter Jon Williams

1 Comment » Written on August 15th, 2011 by
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Walter Jon Williams

Welcome to another installment of asking authors about their favorite meals. This feature was inspired by my protagonist, the Amazing Conroy, who in addition to being a stage hypnotist is also very much a foodie.

This week we have Walter Jon Williams. I have to confess that for years I went all fanboy around Walter (I’m not proud of it, but I can’t deny it either). Last year I got over it by attending his master class, the Taos Toolbox. It’s hard to be starstruck when you’re busy learning from one of the best in the business.

Walter’s oeuvre is far too massive and complex to go into here, but if you haven’t read Aristoi or Metropolitan (just to name two) then you need to shut off your computer right now and go do so. His latest novel, Deep State, is a sequel to This Is Not A Game and may be one of the best examples of cutting edge (very) near future fiction out there. Walter’s also begun releasing some of his backlist as ebooks, including the delightful trilogy featuring Drake Maijstral, and again if you haven’t read The Crown Jewels what are you waiting for? Huh. I guess I’ve still got a bit of the fan boy in me, but you will too after you read Walter’s answer to the question below.

LMS: Walter, you introduced me to the delight that is a green chili cheese bagel, and the caliber of the dinners you arranged for us in the Taos Ski Valley make it clear you understand the importance of a good meal. So, what’s your best, most memorable meal? My blog readers want to know!

WJW: This is a scary topic. I’m tempted to just say, “It was my mom’s meatloaf,” and leave it at that.

Rather than describe a meal, which would be full of subjective sensations that risk being opaque to the reader, I’m going to describe a dining experience.

In 1979 I was on a steel schooner in the Lesser Antilles, and we stopped at the island of Montserrat, now mostly buried under megatonnes of volcanic ash and cinder, but then a colonial outpost of the British Empire.

Captain John Greene recommended that I stop by the Cafe le Cabotin for dinner. “It ‘s like no place you’ve ever been,” he said. In this judgment he was right.

That morning I had my first scuba lesson, as part of your basic resort course. (I had my first dive later, off Antigua.) I spent the afternoon admiring the island’s black volcanic beaches, and noting the fact that the local fauna (like the substantial crab population) had turned black in order to match the color of the sand.

Late afternoon I went to Cafe le Cabotin, in a big old sprawling colonial-looking building, and soaked up some of the local rum while waiting for dinner time. I was joined by Captain Greene and a group of travelers, and we had a creole dinner that couldn’t be beat. The Waiter, who bore a strong resemblance to the suave Spanish actor Fernando Rey, kept interrupting the meal in order to perform what I can only describe as “eccentric standup.”

“Cabotin,” by the way, is French for ham actor.

And then at 7pm, it was Star Trek Time. There was no television station on the island to play Star Trek or anything else, but the Waiter had a TV set and a primitive reel-to-reel video player that used, I believe, 1.5″ video tape. So while digesting and consuming more of the local rum, we, and everyone else in the dining room, all watched an episode of classic Trek.

Sometime later the Waiter brought out the Chef, to general applause. He also announced that Cafe le Cabotin had seceded from the British Empire (Montserrat was, and still is, an imperial possession), and then declared war on the imperialist powers, Great Britain, France, the U.S., and Russia. He published a newsletter called the War News, in which his victories were documented, and also issued passports and inducted folks into his military.

I acquired a passport and the rank of Colonel in the Eleventh Periscope Group. (I was later promoted General.) The EPG later hit the beaches in Antigua and annexed the island, and our victory was duly reported in the War News. I lost the passport shortly thereafter when my hotel room was burgled in New York, something I have always regretted.

The cook was Chef Francoise. The Waiter was her husband, Baron le Vison. The skewed world-view displayed at le Cabotin was very much a part of their style.

Later that night we were entertained by the Whoop-Wop Band, who later backed up Jimmy Buffet on his Volcano album. It was the first time I’d seen a vacuum cleaner hose used as an instrument. Cap’n Greene passed the word: “Don’t smoke anything weird. These people are all off-duty cops.” My nose, and my lungs, were therefore kept clean.

What did the meal actually consist of? I don’t remember. It was a very good dinner, but its contents elude my memory, in part because they’re layered with many other memories meals by Chef Francoise.

Because, you see, back in 1986 or -7 or something like that, my friend Bob Norton (I think it was Bob Norton) said, “You should check out the Cajun restaurant on south Louisiana. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.

(I should point out that in this particular instance south Louisiana is a street, not a large swampy district of the U.S.)

So I go into the Courtyard Kitchen and there’s this Waiter who resembles Fernando Rey, and every so often he stops everything to make a surreal announcement or do eccentric standup, and this is all beginning to seem very familiar. There are lots of old photos and whatnot on the walls, so I check them out and there are many pictures of Captain Greene chowing down at the Cafe le Cabotin, so now I know that my favorite restaurant from the Windward Islands has magically transplanted itself to Albuquerque.

Now how weird is that?

The menus change every day and are hand-written. On the bottom are instructions for paying. “Put your money in the cash box. Make your own change.” (It has to be said, however, that the cash box is a looong way from the front door, and that the Baron regularly empties out all the large bills.)

There are no salt or pepper shakers on the tables. The menus inform us that “Your food is perfectly seasoned already.”

There is, however, one salt and one pepper shaker on a table at the far side of the room. But again, it’s a loooong walk, the whole time under the Waiter’s disapproving eye.

(This eventually becomes a problem, because I often eat after having spent a sweaty hour at the karate school, and I’m dehydrated and craving salt, so everything tastes undersalted to me. It’s a problem I never solve.)

So I have a cup of black roux gumbo, which is about the most perfect thing I’ve ever tasted in my life, and follow it with one of the lunch items, which is also damned fine.

They don’t do vegetarian. They don’t serve children. Sometimes you get complimentary wine. (Not a glass, a whole bottle.)

A day or two later I come back, and I bring the waiter a copy of the privateer book that I’d dedicated to Cafe le Cabotin, and the Waiter looks at it and says, “Why, that’s us!” It takes him a while to understand that I’m not just some guy, I’m the person who wrote the book.

“I don’t remember you,” he says. I explain that, in person, I’m not all that memorable.

Eventually I dedicated the second Maijstral book to them, too.

The Courtyard is open five days a week for lunch, and Friday and Saturday night for dinner. For the dinners, the Waiter gives you the full-court press. He gives you your drink or whatever, and then he announces that this dinner is actually taking place at the Port de Cassis in France in 1923, and that we’re now going to have a cocktail party. At the Courtyard Kitchen, what you do at cocktail parties is walk up to total strangers and kiss them on both cheeks while saying, “Ooh la la! Ooh la la!” And this goes on for five whole minutes.

We do this. Time after time.

So then you get the first course, which is usually black roux gumbo but may include another kind of soup, and then the Waiter announces it’s time for the news. So you troop into one of the dining rooms where there’s a TV set, and the Baron gets into this little studio he has in the back, and he reads you the news. It’s the same news every week. (The Waiter doesn’t do topical humor.) It’s funny the first time. After a while you get so you can recite the news along with the Waiter. This does not matter.

Then you get your choice of beef filet in brown sauce or veal in Creole mustard sauce, unless you’re one of Francoise’s favorites (like me), in which case you get one of each. Then there’s more standup, and dessert, which is usually bread pudding in whisky sauce. Oh my.

Then at some point you make the long trek to the cash drawer to pay, and then you go home, happy as an oyster Rockefeller.

Deep State
The Crown Jewels

How to describe the Waiter’s style? Best let him introduce himself. Here’s one of his rants from a hand-written menu that I carefully preserved. It’s headlined “Day 982.”

“This is not a good situation. Yesterday, 20 minutes after we opened we had 100 people in here. I had to put up the ‘NO MORE FOOD’ sign at 11:55. Francoise got 80 orders in 15 minutes. There is no way everybody is going to get served in 15 minutes or in 30 minutes. If is not the number of people, it’s everybody coming at once. Somebody needs to figure a way out of this mess. I have put up signs. I have yelled at people. I tell people to go away. I ‘hollar’ and I curse but nothing seems to work for more than a day.’

“So if it is real crowded in here and you have to eat in a hurry, it is probably best to go somewhere else where they serve food that comes out of a can. OR GO TO THE BAR and get some wine on me and drink it. DON’T worry about being late for work, you probably would be better off without your job anyway.

“At the CLUB 21 in New York, They serve approximately the same number of people in the same Length of Time we do. They have seven people in the kitchen cooking. Here there is one person in the kitchen cooking. Their food is good, but not nearly as gutsy and complex as what Francoise is doing. That is probably why Gable + Grey, Publishers, call the Courtyard Kitchen ‘one of the 50 BEST PLACES in the world to have lunch.’ Thank you.”

Here’s another, from the next week:

“[A HINT. If you walk in any restaurant in the world and it has a heat lamp OR salt and pepper shakers on the tables OR doesn’t write their menu every day, you are not in a good restaurant. Don’t care where it’s located. A free tip from the waiter.]

“But I stray from my purpose.

“Anyway, last Friday, Francoise cooked and prepared 109 lunches in 75 minutes, which means that for 60 minutes she averaged, by herself, a lunch every 33 SECONDS. Even with that speed, SOMEBODY is going to have to wait 45 minutes.

“So The Waiter came uyp with the idea of a menu that just said ‘FOOD’ and then Francoise could serve whatever she wanted. But she rejected that idea with the words, ‘I don’t manufacture food.”

“Then the idea of two seatings of 50 came up. But by the time we institute that, it would probably get worse. So we are just going to let things go. That’s why it’s called ‘WHITE WATER SERVICE.’

“As far as today goes, The Waiter’s Gumbo Boy fell overboard last Friday in the middle of lunch and so The Waiter is alone today. So is the Chef, except for ‘Zoom-Zoom Hill’ who delivers her plates. So please don’t bother him, but get ready when you see him coming.

“By the way, when you see ‘5 Star Service’ or ‘3 Star Service’ or whatever on the menu— that doesn’t have anything to do with what The Waiter does, he seems to do whatever he wants anyway. That has always referred to what the customer is supposed to do. I thought everyone knew this.

“The Waiter has also raised the prices. I could tell you that he did this to ‘thin out’ the customers, but he actually did it because he is an evil and greedy man and needs the extra money to bribe the Chef with the flowers and the customers with wine and champagne.

“One can always apply for the Dissatisfied Customer of the Week Award.”

The Courtyard Kitchen was a successful restaurant, and Francoise could have afforded sous-chefs if she’d wanted them. But that might mean hiring someone who might compromise the food, and that would be wrong. So she did it all herself.

The restaurant closed, with great ceremony, in September of 1990. Francoise had burned herself out by holding herself to her own exacting standards. If she’d been able to bring herself to deal with sous-chefs the place might still be open. The last dinners were sellouts. Free videos and cookbooks were handed out. Beth Meacham got her picture taken with Francoise. We all kissed and said our last “Ooh la las.” The Waiter handed me a bottle of champagne, which I carried home.

It was the last time I had a chance to eat Chef Francoise’s cooking, though fortunately she left some recipes behind, and I cook on special occasions, or when I have a lot of company. (Cajun recipes generally call for enough ingredients to fill a 55-gallon drum.)

I can do my best to re-create the recipes, but I can’t come close to re-creating the magical atmosphere of Cafe le Cabotin and the Courtyard Kitchen. That is a glorious memory I share with only a few people.

Maybe some year we can have a reunion, and say our “ooh-la-las” again and again.

Thank you, Walter. If that doesn’t keep the folks happy while the Worldcon rumbles on around us, I don’t know what will.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!


One Response to “Eating Authors: Walter Jon Williams”

Baron “the Waiter” Le Vison was my father! Hadn’t seen him in 50 years, and this makes me so happy

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