“How can you tell, Bakhmutov, what significance such a communion of one individual with another will have in the latter’s destiny? For here, you have a whole lifetime, with an infinity of ramifications, which are hidden from us. The best chess player, the very cleverest, can think only a few moves ahead; a French player who could calculate ten moves ahead was written about as a marvel.” Dostoyevsky.
The Cook had sat peering over chessboards for the better part of four decades. Initially as a rapt observer watching grown-ups with their thoughtfully knitted brows pondering their options and planning their strategies, then as soon as he could convince someone to indulge him, as a player himself. The sixty-four squares held a hypnotic fascination for The Cook, offering an alternative world inhabited by characters he imagined as real as the players who actually breathed life into their iconic, wooden bodies. The concentration required became an escapist retreat, while the strategies and tactical considerations of the game appealed to every boy’s Napoleonic pretensions.
Over the following years, it seemed perfectly natural to The Cook, as he blundered through his own adventures and occasional disappointments, to apply its rich metaphoric language to qualify and explain the events of his life that would otherwise have perplexed him. After all, the game is not lost until the surrender of the king!
The Cook’s other life……
The French, as they so often maddeningly do, have a better expression with which to conjure an image of eating as something other than absorbing protein! Across the Channel, you are ‘a table’. During a French dinner it is forbidden to be unmoved by the rituals of the table. Ceremonies are followed; passions and sentiments are laid bare. Most importantly, opinions are not only tolerated, they are actually demanded. Whether discussing the consistency of the sauce, the duty of the French in teaching the barbarous Anglo-Saxons how to live, or whether the rotund farmers who magnanimously provided the diners with the such fine ingredients, deserve a degree of protection by the State not extended to anyone else. Food matters!
Mealtimes are simply too important to be violated by apathy or indifference, for it represents the last place on earth where we can actually enjoy a moment of companionship and uninterrupted conversation away from the nonsensical rigours and demands of modern life. To be ‘a table’ with our friends, our lovers, or new faces that might evolve into either, chinking glasses full of wine made with passion by artisans who understand their duty in transforming a simple grape into a transcendental pleasure.
Then the food arrives, maybe created by a naïve, romantic lunatic who respects only the dead animals and other materials that have given him this rare chance to create. He bundles together evocative smells, tastes and textures and throws out his chest with vainglorious conceit, placing his work, his labour, his opus, before his client, secretly praying to a god he cannot name that all is well received. This is after all, his privileged opportunity in life to display some generosity.
And where is a setting worthy of such theatre? A Mediterranean villa that’s manicured garden is punctuated with rosemary bushes which on a warm summer evening might coquettishly exude their soft aromas. A place where an orchestra of crickets might serenade the guests, and during the brief interludes you might swear you hear the lapping of nearby surf, as exhausted waves crumple upon a welcoming shoreline. Alternatively, a roof terrace in a far away town where mysterious chants and pungent smoke columns enthral the diners, an exotic location demanding that the actors assume previously unimaginable roles as they stray momentarily from their usual context.
In such settings, it seems unforgivably gauche to discuss such mundane things as business or the vertiginous cost of living. Elemental forces have been at work, senses and passions have been aroused. It would appear criminally negligent to bore your companion with the quotidian, to lazily regale yourself with some electronic gadget. Instead, the moment demands an ambitious dissertation of what you truly believe in. The wine will lubricate your speech, the food will elevate your vision.
The Cook was conscious that restaurants and gastronomy had been a privileged vantage point from which to observe the many people who passed through his doors. He recognised the wonderful linearity of an evening’s dinner, “please come in”, “may I take your coat”, “what a wonderful place you have here”, “could I get you a drink”. Courtesies, civilities and compliments are easily reciprocated. A trade has taken place, pleasure has been exchanged for appreciation and livelihood, all parties are happy with their acquisitions. The evening progresses, everyone recognizes the fungibility of the food, wine, passions and ideas that are being traded. It is an act of childlike enthusiasm to share one’s most personal desires and thoughts, an act of generosity to listen. People, friendships, the exchange of dreams and ideas are part of what makes life liveable.
Conversations evolve, more wine is ordered, one person talks of ‘ambition’ with conviction and total clarity, yet another person at the table crinkles their forehead, straining to understand a word that was so familiar, yet now appears unrecognisable. The Duck breast perched high upon it’s red wine sauce is momentarily forgotten, cutlery is placed at the edge of the plate, and the deuteragonist swirls his wine around the generously shaped glass, politely waiting before requesting clarification. Of course nothing has been solved, but at least everyone took part in a pleasant distraction from the vicissitudes of life.
And so the end game. Victory? Or simply just to have played well. The Cook wondered whether it had been remotely worth it. It had been hard, chaotic and painful. As Schopenhauer might have gloomily observed, it’s moments of pleasure being out of all proportion to the misery and boredom that made-up the greater proportion of life’s waking hours. Yet with closer inspection, The Cook could grasp that having restaurants had afforded him an unparalleled opportunity to meet some of life’s really sterling people and while befriending probably too few of them, they had otherwise agreeably punctuated an occasionally difficult life.