Chef du Jour David Bouley Boils Over

Controversy is always simmering on David Bouley’s stove.

After almost two years of dormancy and setbacks-highlighted by a brief but intense legal battle with his former partner, restaurateur Warner LeRoy-Mr. Bouley finally has something to talk about. On Sept. 25, he is scheduled to open his first new restaurant in two years, a lush, jacket-and-tie-required, Austrian-themed place called Danube, at the intersection of Duane and Hudson streets in TriBeCa.

Yet, even as Mr. Bouley has begun to work the media with a talent worthy of Don King-a talent that keeps the media focused on his future potential and not on the skirmishes of his past-New York’s culinary establishment, which mostly holds about as much personal affection for Mr. Bouley as it does for the Cipriani family, has been whispering about sparks between Mr. Bouley and the celebrated French pastry chef Pierre Herme.

In August 1998, shortly after Mr. Bouley’s legal contretemps with Mr. LeRoy ended, the chef issued a press release announcing that he had formed a joint venture with Mr. Herme. “I will have the opportunity to indulge my taste for my favorite pastries!” read part of Mr. Bouley’s statement.

Yet, one year later, sources familiar with the situation said that in late August, Mr. Bouley and Mr. Herme had a falling out. Reasons that have been cited are that Mr. Bouley’s company was late in paying Mr. Herme’s company for his services. There are also reports that Mr. Bouley-who in addition to having experience as a pastry chef is known for his “my soufflé or the highway” approach to cooking-may have been second-guessing Mr. Herme’s confectionary instincts. One version of the story involved fisticuffs, with Mr. Herme pulling his staff from the kitchen at Bouley Bakery and threatening a lawsuit.

Repeated calls to Mr. Bouley went unanswered, but on Sept. 14 a man who answered the phone at Mr. Bouley’s office denied the story. “That’s definitely not true. Pierre and David are still working together and still full of passion. They were talking long distance from Tokyo recently,” said the man, who first identified himself as Michael, then as Peter Smith. When The Transom pointed out the discrepancy, the man said that his name is actually Michael Browne, but declined to give his title. He did say, however, “One of the things I do is take care of the books, and I know they are working together. While there are different changes in terms of Mr. Bouley’s full-growth schedule, outside of that, everything is the same with Pierre. I’m sure you could call Paris and have someone confirm that.”

No such luck. An assistant in Mr. Herme’s Paris office, who said only that her name is Anne, claimed that Mr. Herme is away until the end of the month and added: “I don’t know a thing about it.”

Don’t expect Mr. Bouley to discuss it in any of the press he does to plug the opening of Danube. His most recent interview, with New York magazine, did not mention the LeRoy episode, nor did Mr. Bouley talk about having had to relinquish this past summer the 18,000-square-foot space on Duane Street in which he had planned to open Bouley at Home, a three-story emporium of fresh, organic produce, meats, fish and prepared foods.

Another person whom Mr. Bouley did not mention was Austrian chef Kurt Gutenbrunner, who had once been slated to be executive chef of Danube, and who had worked with Mr. Bouley for a good five years before they parted ways in 1997. After reading the New York piece, Mr. Gutenbrunner told The Transom, “It looked like David Bouley all of a sudden found out how to cook Austrian.” Mr. Gutenbrunner, who said he spent a lot of time discussing Austrian cuisine and Danube with Mr. Bouley, said, “There’s a lot of my influence in this kind of cuisine.” Then he added, “It’s not only me. Warner LeRoy had a huge influence on what was going on in there.” One person who worked with Mr. Bouley and Mr. LeRoy during their partnership and who has seen Danube’s décor said, “It’s gorgeous and rich, and it looks like vintage Warner LeRoy to me.”

Mr. Gutenbrunner said he has no beef with Mr. Bouley. After a short stint as chef of the Monkey Bar, Mr. Gutenbrunner said he is looking to open his own Austrian restaurant. “I remember the day I told him I was leaving,” Mr. Gutenbrunner said. “He looked at me and said, ‘I am going to sue you.’”

One prominent chef said he thought the pairing of Mr. Herme and Mr. Bouley was a bad idea from the beginning. Of Mr. Bouley, the chef said, “Like when you are looking for a wife, he can look so beautiful in front of you, but behind the scenes, you don’t know.”

Bellow’s Gift?

At 84, Saul Bellow may have more than his firm literary achievement to crow about: The literary world is whispering that Mr. Bellow’s wife, Janis Freedman, who is said to be 40-ish, is pregnant with his child. “Is he happy? I would imagine he would be. Even for appearance’s sake,” said one person familiar with the situation. But Mr. Bellow’s camp wasn’t exactly handing out cigars. “I can neither confirm nor deny that,” said Jeffrey Posternak, an agent at the Wylie Agency, which represents Mr. Bellow.

If Mr. Bellow is indeed about to become a father again, this would be his fourth child. Ms. Freedman is his fifth wife. His other offspring are said to be in their 30′s, 40′s and 50′s.

A Working Marriage

When the Historic Landmarks Preservation Center holds its $1,000-a-plate benefit dinner on Oct. 5 to celebrate the local V.I.P.’s it has deemed the “Cultural Laureates” of 1999, the group of honorees who are slated to gather at the newly reopened Russian Tea Room include designer Geoffrey Beene, artists Chuck Close and Ross Bleckner, architect Robert A.M. Stern, NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw and even gossip columnists Liz Smith and Aileen (Suzy) Mehle.

Yet, for some eagle-eyed invitees, one of the 43 designated Cultural Laureates stands out among all the rest: former advertising executive Carl Spielvogel. Mr. Spielvogel just happens to be the husband of Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, who is the chair of the Historic Landmarks Preservation Center and the honorary chairman for the event.

When The Transom got Mr. Spielvogel on the phone and pointed this out to him, he replied only: “I sit on eight cultural boards. Thank you for calling.” Then Mr. Spielvogel hung up.

When we phoned back in an attempt to get Mr. Spielvogel to elaborate on his answer, Ms. Diamonstein-Spielvogel took the call and took full responsibility for appointing her husband. “I nominated him,” said Ms. Diamonstein-Spielvogel. “I decided not to let romance stand in the way of merit.” She explained that Mr. Spielvogel serves on the boards of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philharmonic Society of New York and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. (Mr. Spielvogel has also been nominated by President Clinton to be U.S. Ambassador to the Slovak Republic.) “A number of people who are my friends applauded me for not penalizing my husband by including him.”

Ms. Diamonstein-Spielvogel added, “Since we believe in full disclosure,” her relationship to Mr. Spielvogel “would be cited during the evening” of the gala. At another point in the conversation, she also said: “If you can’t count on your nepots, upon whom can you count?”

Hackett’s Back in Action

“What can I do for you?” Buddy Hackett asked. The Transom blinked. What could Buddy Hackett do for us ? The man had already done so much already. In 1969, he made us laugh so hard in a movie theater that 7-Up came out of our nose. Mr. Hackett was appearing as Tennessee Steinmetz, trusty, googly-eyed mechanic to a thinking Volkswagen in The Love Bug . It was our baptism by Friar (Buddy), so to speak. The moment when we discovered that there was a whole world of live comedy beyond Tom and Jerry and Rocky & Bullwinkle . From there, it was only a matter of time before we encountered the exhilaratingly profane worlds of Don Rickles, Pat Cooper and Richard Pryor and the Friars Club roasts.

So, staring at Mr. Hackett in his sand-colored suit at Moomba on Sept. 7, we had only one request. “Tell us a joke,” we said.

“Well, I haven’t worked for a long time,” said Mr. Hackett. What he meant was that he had retired from the world of live performances on Dec. 1, 1996. Indeed, his presence at Moomba was to promote his new (taped) Hollywood satire television series, Action , with his fellow co-stars Jay Mohr, Illeana Douglas and the series’ producer, Joel Silver.

“They don’t just flow up to the top of my head like that,” said Mr. Hackett, and he searched for an appropriate joke. His voice sounded unusually calm, like he had been doing yoga for the last hour and a half, although yoga would probably make Mr. Hackett anything but calm.

Then he had it. “I tell you, Milton Berle’s new wife. She said to him, ‘Wherever we go, they talk about the size of your penis. I arrived kind of late, I’ve never seen it. Why don’t you take a bunch of Viagra and let me see what it’s like.’ And he said, ‘I’m afraid it’s bad for the heart.’”

“So she starts grinding the Viagra up and putting them in his food,” Mr. Hackett said. “Milton woke up in the middle of the night with such an erection that he thought a burglar was standing over him, and he whacked it with a golf club.

“He’s back in the hospital now,” said Mr. Hackett, his voice still serene.

Next, we asked Mr. Hackett if he had read Bill Murray’s comments in the December 1998 issue of Esquire . Mr. Murray was reminiscing about filming a scene in the movie Scrooged where, instead of speaking his lines, Mr. Hackett had allegedly gone off on what Mr. Murray termed an “unbelievably obscene” rant before a group of horrified extras, many of them children. In the Esquire piece, Mr. Murray remembered Mr. Hackett doing some sort of a limerick involving the Virgin Mary.

“Oh, you know what?” he said. “There was a bunch of children, and I taught them a song.”

There in the crowded confines of Moomba’s upstairs room, with Lulu de Kwiatkowski and MTV news co-anchor Serena Altschul, Mr. Hackett launched into a rousing version of the song he remembered teaching the Scrooged extras.

It started off softly to the tune of “Colonel Bogey’s March,” from Bridge on the River Kwai .

“Hitler/

Had one big ball/

Goering had two but very small/

Himmler’s were even slimmer/

And Goebbels had no balls at all.”

“That’s what I taught them,” said Mr. Hackett.

“That’s what you taught the little kids?” The Transom asked.

“They weren’t little kids,” he replied. “In their early teens, I guess.”

Would Mr. Hackett ever consider doing stand-up again?

“Never. Never.” (If that didn’t sound final enough, producer and Hackett-ologist Robert Morton said that when he retired, Mr. Hackett bequeathed one of his funniest routines, “The Chinese Waiter,” to his son, Sandy Hackett, who also does stand-up. “It was like a father passing the business to his son,” said Mr. Morton.)

“Why?” we asked Mr. Hackett.

“You never have to say why when you say No. You only have to have a reason when you say Yes.”