Culinary Choreographers

What happens in a fine restaurant's kitchen can truly be amazing art

Dance is what it's all about in the kitchen, and some of the best choreographers I know work hard to make their living there. They have to be creative, expressive, in control, practiced and professional and--perhaps above all--nimble enough to take everything in stride and make the art happen.

Twenty-odd years ago, Janos--then on Main Avenue--invited me to sit on a high stool in the corner of his busy kitchen and watch his world race by one busy evening. Last week, I was honored to be backstage for a bit at Le Bistro. (That's Laurent Reux's theater on North Campbell Avenue, if you don't know.)

Laurent has been performing his art since he was 17. A farm boy and one of six kids, he made his way to Tucson from Brittany 20 years ago with $200 in his pocket and nary a word of Anglaise.

"I had no papers, no English, and I worked for Jean-Claude (Le Rendez-Vous) for a couple of years," he said, adding that he refused to take ESL (English as a Second Language) courses because he wanted to learn faster than the curriculum permitted. That his self-taught method was effective was amply demonstrated in his dinner discussions with Andrew about U.S. politics and strategic domestic policies, the concept of nation-building and our mission in Iraq. Nine months after arriving, Laurent got his green card; six years ago, he became a dual citizen of France and the United States. He's also picked up some Spanish, which he uses like a seasoning in kitchen conversations with his staff.

Laurent is 42 now, halfway to 43. Business has been good. He has loyal customers, close friends, a solid reputation and obviously comfortable relationships with his staff. People care about him. But he's restless, and has been for awhile. Last summer, we had a long chat one evening, just after I came back from the farm and before he made his annual sojourn to France to see family and friends. His mother had passed away the previous March, and he had been thinking about a lot of things. He still is.

"I love this work. Well, most of the time I love it," he laughs. "But I also love to travel, to see new things, new people. I am so ready for a break. ... I know it is time.

"I like small places, the intimacy" he says, looking around at the coziness of Le Bistro, "the community of customers. But sometimes ... sometimes I think that a smaller life may be better." He laughs again. "And, of course, I don't want to die too young!"

Later that evening, away from the heat and bustle of the kitchen, the savory smells, satisfied sighs and the clink of glassware, I thought about what Laurent was talking about and about another friend of mine, also a talented kitchen dancer, some 2,000 miles away in the Midwestern outpost of Rockville, Ind.

Gary Hunter and his wife, Barbara, have an amazingly fine restaurant called The Baker's Table. Why amazing? Because he loves food and it shows, and Rockville--the county seat for some 15,000 hardworking souls--is an epicenter for breaded tenderloins, Miracle Whip and gravy-smothered anything. Gary has brought to the restaurant his zest for finding the best and freshest ingredients, his considerable culinary training and experience in some fine kitchens around the country and the flair of a consummate artist in choreographing it all to produce meals from a tiny kitchen that bring smiles to the most finicky of gourmands (of which class I am not one, but some of my best friends are).

But it's been a struggle on a lot of fronts. It's a small, rural community, and that presents challenges of its own. Gary, Barbara and their son came to Rockville to be near Gary's mother, who also passed away last year, and now they, too, are thinking about what lies ahead. While I selfishly fear that The Baker's Table won't be around Rockville when I am around Rockville, I've never believed that artists need to starve to maximize their talents. The Hunters will find success wherever they are, because they've chosen to embrace excellence.

I think about my friend Jefferson, who, with Ann, created Bowen & Bailey on South Sixth Avenue, in the Odd Fellow's Hall in the '80s. On Fridays, Nancy Bissell and I would trade our "other world" drag for white aprons and work in the kitchen, just to recharge ourselves on the energy of friends and food professionals we respected and loved. Jeffers is pursuing a higher calling of comfort these days, but his skills as a kitchen dancer was respite aplenty for so many years.

All these dancers, all these artists--we who benefit from their talents are so lucky, not simply because of what they give us to delight our palates and fill our bellies, but because of what they do to help us refresh our spirits and replenish our souls. Every time we unfold a napkin, a curtain rises, and the dance begins. How incredibly fortunate we are to be able to see some great art.

From the inbox:

To Harriet B: I'm glad to hear your mom is still in the cookie-making frame of mind. Some things are never lost--a great recipe, a generous heart.

To Charlie P: There's never a lack of stories to tell about the things we love--as you know so well yourself.

To Daryl M.: So, you lost the bandanna and became a vegan--sharing a meal is as much fun as it ever was.