Just when I thought I had completely screwed up my chances of impressing Alan Richman (go ahead, laugh!), he surprised me.
In the process of his characteristic blustery yet kind-hearted rant about my blatant lack of engaging description in my article, he “threatened” to take me on a walk around the block to teach me a thing or two about describing scenes. I took him up on it.
We quickly darted out of his office. As we passed the open door of Jacques Pepin’s office (where he was meeting with Chef Alain Sailhac), Alan called to them that he was taking me out back to teach me a lesson. Boy did he ever!
We took the elevator down 4 floors to the Crosby and Grand Street delivery entrance. Our mission – for me to describe various scenes and shops as we walked around a block that traverses SoHo, Little Italy, and Chinatown. We started at the bodega across the street.
My description of the fresh fruit stand in front was a bit pedestrian – “a rainbow of fruits and vegetables”, “golden and red mangos”, etc. Alan told me how he would describe the woman attending the stand by asking her questions and using her words. He also told me a great anecdote about a time he interviewed Feran Adria, expecting a mundane answer to a question and ending up with a small treasure of information. Lesson: always ask – you never know what amazing things you might learn.
As we walked on, classic New York City scenes played out all around us. At the same little market, a tall thin African man purchased a fresh coconut – obviously wasn’t his first time here… he knew about the large cleaver behind the counter that the woman uses to chop the pointy ends off the coconuts to reveal just enough tender flesh to insert a straw and sip the cool sweet-tart water. The man asked if he could chop his coconut himself. The woman shrugged, he hacked into the light-colored husk and returned the cleaver, she wiped it off and put it back in its usual “hiding” spot.
We continued. Our next stop was an odd scene, even for Grand Street. In front of a restaurant that once had a fairly high-profile (lost when the celebrity chef who opened it quickly departed) there was a scene that looked more like East LA than Manhattan. A dark brown naugahyde loveseat that was tattered and haphazardly patched more times than we could count was occupied by two Latino cooks from the restaurant wearing black hair nets, the knots of the nets arranged in the middle of their foreheads (this look has always made me think of gunshot wounds). They sat smoking cigarettes and carrying on a conversation with no care for the fact that their place of business was probably not going to live as full a life as the couch they were sitting on.
Next stop, the tiniest liquor store I’ve ever been in. It’s one of my favorite spots because it represents the true character of the neighborhood. Squeeze as much as you possibly can into the smallest space possible and make the most of it.
We turned the corner at Lafayette and headed south through the sidewalk construction then turned right onto Howard. Last stop – Lucky Bakery. Another small space. Not terribly welcoming – dimly lit, ancient asphalt tile floors and beat-up mismatched bar stools along a makeshift window-ledge seating area. Glass display cases full of Chinese baked goods – buns, rolls, and precious shiny lemon-yellow egg custard tarts. Next to each tray was a sign in Chinese – some had English translations, but not all (I’m convinced those are the best ones). The three women behind the counter continued their days conversation, loudly, in Chinese while we looked around. We asked about their pork buns and got a quick sharp answer of “no more” in clear English before they returned to their conversation. Alan bought me one of those egg custard tarts. The puff pastry shell was rich and buttery, and so flaky it crumbled in my hand when I bit into it, but it melted in my mouth. Perfect.
I’m going to re-write the article that was so bad. Not because I have to, but because I still want to impress Alan Richman (go ahead, laugh)!