Once in those early years he’d gone into a Starbucks, seen the human forms cowled over white paper cups in the gloaming indoor light. Their mouths slack. Their eyes listlessly running over printed pages. Dull whooshings of a cappuccino machine at the baristas’ backs. Green apron concealing breast.
What can I get for you?
He hadnt heard. Had been staring at muffins behind scaly glass. The muffintops speckled with bits of nut and seed. Oily crinkled paper cradling the muffinstumps.
His fingers at play in the deeps of a pocketcorner. Finding coins there. Sifting through them. The nickels, the dimes.
I’d like a tall cappuccino, skim milk, please.
Tall nonfat cappuccino.
And a voice from near the whooshing machine in echo of that of the barista.
Tall nonfat cappuccino.
Like being in some Javanese echo chamber. The cars rumbling outside.
A heavyloaded truck chuffing. A squat police officer inspecting the parking meter standing like absurd punctuation at the prow of his car. Its lean shadow splitting the pale hood. The police officer writing a ticket.
Goddamn. He had forgotten to slip a coin in the meterslot. His fingers still at play in the pocketcorner. The whoosh of the cappuccino machine. He was like some mewling creature no longer godspoken-for and he watched the pale light. Watched the squat officer lift a wiperblade. Watched the officer let it go and the springforce took effect and now its rubber held the ticket to the glass.
Tall nonfat cappuccino.
The coffee he’d ordered was ready.
With international foodies palpitating over everything Spanish these days—satiny cured hams, artisan cheeses, world-class wines, outré restaurants—last Thursday’s Iberian gala and auction to benefit the James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes the culinary arts, was a cardio clinic of frenzied creativity. After four hours of fêting and feasting, the foundation was enriched by more than $360,000—demonstrating that, when it comes to big-ticket fund-raising, Spain may be the new France.
“This is really amazing,” said Dorothy Cann Hamilton, chairman of the James Beard Foundation and founder of the French Culinary Institute. “People are spending so much money on all of these Spanish items.”
Convened under the lofty granite arches of Guastavino’s, a party space under the 59th Street Bridge, the event drew 300 diners at $1,000 apiece ($750 for Beard members) to sample the gastronomic legerdemain of 10 of Spain’s most innovative chefs—with a total of 14 Michelin stars among them.
The affair was put on by the Spanish Institute of Foreign Trade (ICEX), Madrid Fusión (a Spanish restaurant association) and the International Culinary Center in Soho.
During a silent auction, guests visited a half-dozen tapas stations to sample curiosities like sherry-marinated mackerel with mango (quite sweet, but with an intriguing layering of flavors), cod fritters with baby vegetables (creamy and pleasantly salty), muscatel-glazed pork belly in breadcrumbs (how can you not love that?), and sundry aged cheeses.
The 10 chefs hailed from all corners of Spain. The roster included Alberto Chicote (Nodo/Madrid), Quique Dacosta (El Poblet, Denia/Alicante), Daniel García (El Calima/Marbella), Enrique Martínez (Restaurant Maher/Cintruénigo, Navarra), Joan Roca (El Celler de Can Roca/Girona), Paco Roncero (La Terraza/Madrid) and Paco Torreblanca (Pastelería Totel/Madrid).
The brightest star in the evening’s culinary firmament was Ferran “Sr. Foam” Adrià, whose Michelin three-star restaurant, El Bulli, on the Catalan coast north of Barcelona, gave rise to what is widely (if unappetizingly) referred to as “molecular gastronomy.”
Diners at his establishment, which opens six months a year, settle in for a four-to-five-hour, 25-course roller derby of the palate—some of it epiphanic, some of it excruciating. To snag one of the 40 seats at El Bulli is akin to getting an unruly C- student into the Dalton School; nonetheless, about a quarter of the diners I spoke with had dined there—some twice.
“It’s quite a networking task,” allowed Michael Haydu, an independent video producer. “I had to suck up to some of the people in this room to pull that off.”
So revered is Mr. Adrià, routinely hailed as the “Greatest Chef in the World,” that the Beard group decided to hawk each of the 10 seats at his table. All 10 were snapped up and passed around to friends by one Jason H. Wright, a senior V.P. for communications and public affairs at Merrill Lynch, who also serves as the secretary/treasurer of the Beard Foundation.
Chef Adrià, a short, unassuming man with receding curly black hair, appeared tired, as would anyone who was expected to furnish $35,000 worth of diversion over the course of two hours—and in a second language. Trying to talk to him would be a very pricy intrusion on the tablemates, who, by rough calculation, had rented the chef for $17,500 per hour, or $292 a minute. During a lull in the auction, I walked over and asked, in Spanish, how he was enjoying New York.
“Very fine,” he replied.
“Have you been to any good restaurants while in New York?”
“Le Bernardin, Morimoto,” he said tersely.
“Le Bernardin, Morimoto.”
“Did you like them?”
Among the big-ticket items at auction were a lavish tapas party for 24 guests by Spanish chef José Andrés of Jaleo restaurant in Washington, D.C. ($26,000) and a gourmet tour of Spain with stops at each of the auction chefs’ restaurants ($40,000).
Ironically, the priciest item was issued by two French interlopers: the revered Jöel Robuchon (L’Atelier Jöel Robuchon, in Manhattan as well as Europe and Asia), and Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin, also in Manhattan). Dinner for 30: $75,000. And as if to rub it in, the dinner came with $2,000 worth of gift certificates—from Yves St. Laurent.