It was midpoint in what was going to be a year kicking around Europe; no itinerary, no deadlines, no schedules, and unfortunately, after six months, no money. The twelve hundred dollars that I'd had with me when I got off the plane in Luxembourg in August was history and I'd never been a credit card holder. Not that I was living lavishly. The nights were mostly spent on droopy beds in cramped rooms in youth hostels where there was inevitably at least one guy whose snoring could drown out the sound of a Harley with a bad muffler, and my meals were fixed out of stuff that I bought in little stores and outdoor markets. In Germany, the one time I asked a store clerk for peanut butter she looked at me like it was the most preposterous request she'd ever heard. “Nuss butter fur brot?” Then suddenly her eyes sparkled and she uttered an “ach ja!” and got me a jar of Nutella Hazelnut Chocolate Cream spread. I didn't have the heart to tell her that putting hazelnut chocolate cream spread on rye bread was a lot more preposterous than peanut butter and so I bought the stuff. The surprising thing is, though, that it really isn't half bad. In fact Nutella sandwiches, fruit and hot coffee is pretty much what I lived on. It was life on the cheap and it suited me perfectly.
There had, however, been one major expense: a old VW bug that I'd reasoned was actually going to save me money due to all the train, bus, and subway tickets I wasn't going to be purchasing. This, of course, was a ridiculous notion in view of the fact that the public transportation system in every country in Europe, and between every country in Europe, is superbly organized, always on time and always on the move. One has only to visit the train station in any European city at any time of the day or night and watch the trains roll in and take off right on schedule to know that a car is unnecessary.
Besides being unnecessary, the $800.00 bug was not a good buy. I had been the proud owner for about twelve hours when the head gasket blew apart on the autobahn in the early afternoon just after I crossed over from Germany into Switzerland. It was one of those situations where you look at the damage and realize immediately that it wouldn't pay to repair it.
The car was dead, I was perilously low on cash and so unless I wanted to cut my trip short, I was going to need to find a job.
The hitchhiking in Switzerland was good; I waved my thumb out and right away a meaty fellow named Helmut gave me a lift in his bright yellow Porsche. He scoffed at my poor Bug and advised me to just leave it for the authorities to take away. “No problem, it will be gone in less than a day.” Helmut was quite proud of that fact that he'd been to Las Vegas some years ago and had won big. As soon as he found out I was American he started babbling on about the casino slots and the top-secret system he had for beating them. Actually, as it turned out, not very top secret because he tried to describe it in minute detail. “Every surd time a zingle cherry shows up you need to pull za handle down extra quvick und keep your hand on it until just before za dials stop sphinning. Then you let go of za handle mit a flick of za wrist. Za timing is crucial unt very delicate, but once you perfect za system you can take as much money away from za machines as you vant.” In my most obsequious tone I asked him how he'd figured it out. “I vait, I vatch, I take notes, I examine mit scientific mind; its not so hard.” He was a man who loved to talk; the type who appreciates a good listener more than just about anything in the world. Keep your mouth shut except for a couple of well placed questions, throw in some nods of approval and an admiring whistle or two and you can have this sort of fellow eating out of your hand. In fact, it seemed that Helmut was so happy to have me to talk at that he decided to take me out for a meal in his home town, a little village named Diessenhoffen. And the place where he took me was no Hardee’s. Gasthaus Rhine was an elegant, white linen, china and sterling silver four-star restaurant situated at the edge of town and overlooking the Rhine.
Helmut parked the Porsche and strolled in through the doors like he owned the place. It was just after three p.m.; too late for lunch and too early for dinner and so there were plenty of tables available. Despite this, he made a big presentation out of greeting the maitre d', whom he appeared to know well, and then giving him a ten euro tip for showing us to a table. I shot the maitre d' a knowing look and I'll be dammed if he didn't give me the subtlest of winks. He knew that I knew that Helmut was a blowhard; actually a blowhard with a big supply of cash, presumably Vegas winnings. The food was top notch, at least mine was. I had fresh whitefish with asparagus tips and buttery boiled new potatoes. A tasty wine was brought up from the cellar and opened with a flourish by the headwaiter and then expertly sampled and pronounced superb by Helmut. Unfortunately this fine wine was wasted on Helmut; due to what he consumed with it, a Germanic specialty that I couldn't eat if you paid me: bloodwurst. (It looks like a bratwurst only it's dark red and when you stick it with a knife it actually oozes this very diseased looking lumpy blood all over your plate.) The look on Helmut's face when this revolting stuff was placed before him on an innocent bed of spaetzle was a clever mixture of anticipation, true love, lust, and joy, and he actually rubbed his hands together. It all reminded me of the way Count Dracula looks just before he goes for the throat of a nubile victim. Helmut made short work of the stuff, finishing every corpuscle in just a matter of a couple of minutes. For dessert we had slices of Schwartzwalder Torte, a cake so rich and heavy that my upper lip filmed over with perspiration after just two bites. This was followed by several small glasses of pear brandy that stung my tongue and heated my chest. Finally coffee was ordered. But just as it arrived Helmut got up and made a beeline for the lobby, presumably to visit the men's room. And he was gone an unnaturally long time, even considering the disgusting mess that he'd just eaten. I finished my coffee and then sat alone picking my teeth. For about fifteen minutes. Then twenty. Finally the maitre d' arrived at the table and, sporting a peculiar look, which was a mixture of irritation, shame and boredom, and presented me with the check. “If there's nothing else, sir,” he said, “you may pay me directly.” My face must have turned a brilliant shade of red while I pondered whether I should make a break for it or head straight to the kitchen and start washing dishes. I also wondered what the absent Helmut might have done with my backpack, which I'd left in his Porsche. Just as I decided to come clean to the maitre d', good old Helmut raced into the room laughing with more intonation and enthusiasm than a paid laughter at a comedy show. “It's a joke; you know? You have very little moneys unt so vee see how you react to havink to pay za bill. Its extra comical to see your face.” I laughed just as heartily as Helmut, while at the same time calling him an ass-wiper and a few other choice names that I figured he was too slow to translate. The maitre d' had been laughing too, and clapping Helmut on the back and congratulating him on such a successful prank. Good old Helmut mopped his brow which was all beaded up from the exertion of laughing so hard and then passed the maitre d' another 10 euros. I got right into the spirit of the thing and laughed some more, but Helmut didn't pick up on the fact that he should pass some euros my way. While he paid the bill I excused myself to make my own trip to the bathroom. Once there I couldn't decide whether I should take a leak or go out to the parking lot and heave a rock through the windshield of the Porsche. But before I could make up my mind, in came the maitre d'.
“What a cockknocker, eh?” he said, nodding his head out towards the dining room.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“And,” he continued, “a cockknocker with lots of money is always the worst kind of cockknocker. You know why, don't you?”
“Yeah,” I answered, “because nine times out of ten there isn't a thing you can do about it.”
“That's right,” he said, “my name is Rico and I run this place. Do you want a job?”
Just that morning it had been discovered that the all-purpose boy at the Gasthaus Rhine had decided sometime during the previous evening that it was time to head back to Spain with a case of single malt scotch that he had liberated from the restaurant's stock. For a change my timing was right on the nuts.
The pay was not going to be much, the equivalent of about $200.00 a week, but the position included room and board and a couple of other perks that I was soon to find out about. The room assigned to me for sleeping quarters was worthy of a Van Gogh painting. It was a little space in the mansard-roofed attic with French windows that opened to a romantic view of the Rhine and the hillside about 150 yards across the water which was dotted with houses, churches, and various other vintage structures. All day the waterway in front of the restaurant was crowded with old wooden fishing vessels and little sailboats, and I could stir up a gigantic flock of sea birds just by tossing a few scraps of bread out my window.
The work was, for the most part, not challenging. My primary task was to be stationed behind the bar where I set up drinks for the waiters to take to tables so that they could prepare their concoctions in the presence of the patrons. If someone ordered a gin and tonic I set a bottle of Sapphire, a bottle of Schweppes, a lime, a glass and a bucket of ice on a silver tray. The waiter then transported the whole thing to a small table next to the diners where he could professionally mix the drink. Very elaborate. I suppose that some of the luster would have worn off if the patrons knew that an inferior brand of gin had been poured into the Sapphire bottle and that even the tonic was a cheap off-brand. It quickly became evident that what the customers couldn't see they couldn't taste.
Fetching bottles of wine was another task. The restaurant had five reds and five whites that were the house wines. An adequate store of these was kept in back of the bar where I could get to them in a hurry. The rest of the wine, the good stuff, was kept in the cellar. Whenever a special wine was ordered I was to dash to the basement, locate the wine and bring it up. Here again, some of the patrons displayed a definite lack of sophistication. For example, on about my third night I was sent into the cellar to fetch one of the most expensive wines on the menu, a 1980 Chateauneuf-du something or other. I located the wine, dashed up the stairs and gave it to the waiter to be presented at table. After giving it the complete three step test: visual inspection; cork sniff and mouthwash, the wine was pronounced “superb,” by the guest. The bottle was quickly drained along with the lobster dinner he and his date were eating, and I was sent down for more of the same. And it wasn't until this second bottle had passed the taste test and been drained dry that Rico quietly informed me that I had mistakenly brought up a far inferior wine, something about equivalent of a Boone's Farm, 1999. Luckily, no one else had noticed.
The waiters were very professional; each of them could fillet the boniest fish right in front of a patron with just a few strokes of a knife, and of course they could recommend a very expensive correct wine to go with whatever you ordered. Any of them could describe passionately and in minute detail the wonders of the rich sauces and unique specialties that were prepared by the chef. So it was quite laughable to see some of the things that went on behind the scenes. On the rare occasion that food was dropped on the floor it was whisked away, returned to the kitchen where, if the cook was too busy to start over, the fallen article would be washed off, quickly re-sauced, heated up and whisked back to the table. On particularly busy nights when the restaurant's supply of, say, fresh salmon was exhausted, waiters were allowed to make a judgment call as to whether or not the patron ordering salmon appeared to be the type whose taste buds might be discerning enough to recognize the difference between fresh and frozen. If said patron did not appear to have a sensitive pallet, and if the microwave were working properly ... well, frozen was fine.
The owner of the place was Frau Bagraum, a pruney, silver-haired woman of about 75. She showed up every evening for supper and to check for dust on the chairs and for tarnished silverware and generally to chastise the staff about one thing or another. On the day that I first met her she drew me aside and gave me a severe lecture about how I must always be ready to beat a quick and permanent retreat from the premises at a moment's notice. This was because I was working “black,” which means working without the proper papers, without paying taxes, and without the benefit of a retirement plan or health care. None of those things meant squat to me. What it all did mean, however, was that in the event that a government official was to show up looking for illegal workers I was to be prepared to leave posthaste, no questions asked, no goodbyes: if I was owed money I could write for it later and it would be sent. At the time there was almost zero percent unemployment in Switzerland and so Frau Bagraum assured me that it was extremely unlikely that I would actually have to slink out. However, to ensure that a quick exit was always possible, she made me leave my backpack filled with my essentials, passport, money and whatever clothes I wasn't needing, in a little storage shed just outside the back door of the kitchen. There was a hasp and a padlock on the shed door and before I was put to work I was made to memorize the combination to the lock.
Frau Bagraum had a dazzling smile that was all mouth, and brilliantly white dentures, but no eyes. She turned it on the moment a guest walked through the door and it was a thing of wonder to watch it become a scowl that was mostly eyes and just a bit of a downturn at the lips as soon as she was out of view of the patrons. There was a definite order to her behavior towards the staff: she was quite hard on those from Spain who did the menial tasks: dishwashers, clean-up crew and bus boys. Routinely she would yell vigorously at them in Spanish while they stared back unblinking with puzzled looks on their faces. She was generally civil to the waiters and the cook's helper, was somewhat differential to the Rico, and was downright fawning to the head chef. It was hard to say exactly where I fit into this pecking order, but I think I was cut a lot of slack just by virtue of being an American.
The one time I saw Frau Bagraum's eyes light up to match her smile was the morning that she took me to the basement to refill some bottles of Kirshwasser, pear brandy, and a couple of different kinds of schnapps. It was just before breakfast on a Wednesday and I was still waking up and looking forward to a cup of espresso when Frau Bagraum showed up unexpectedly, handed me a tray with a half dozen bottles on it, and told me to follow her down to the basement. The labels on the bottles she had handed me indicated that these were fine liqueurs possibly produced by discerning monks high up in the Alps.
But as soon as we got to the cellar it became evident that this was another of the Gasthaus' refill jobs. Most of the basement was filled with wooden racks holding bottles of wine. Most of the bottles were covered in a fine layer of dust, which was probably applied to the bottles by staff just to remind customers just how ancient the stuff they were drinking was. The crumbly-looking stone walls of the basement were draped in cobwebs and the floor was dirt. Off in a far corner were several barrels and when we reached them Frau Bagraum told me that she was going to teach me how to refill the bottles that we had brought from upstairs. First she showed me where there was a little hole in the top of each of the barrels. Hanging on a rusty nail on the wall next to the barrels was a coil of rubber tubing. After shoving one end of the tube into the hole in the top of a barrel and pushing it down to the bottom, she handed me the other end and told me to suck on it until I had a mouthful. “Never,” she warned me, “must you spit out the liquid onto the floor, it might attract rats. Instead,” she said giving me a piercing look, “you will swallow every last drop and then quickly stick the tube into the correct bottle until the bottle is just about full. Then you remove the tube from the bottle and quick like a cat put it back in your mouth to swallow the rest of the liquid from the tube.” The first mouthful was of Kirshwasser and it burned and seemed to fumigate my sinuses, the taste was what I imagined that cherry-flavored rubbing alcohol might be like. Next I took in a couple of mouthfuls of mint schnapps. This had a soothing feel after the cherry stuff and went down smoothly. It wasn't until I started stuffing the tubing into the sixth bottle that I realized Frau Barroom was smiling at me like I never seen her smile before, at anyone. It was a smile full of mirth and joy and amusement and a couple of other things that I was suddenly unsure of because I was spinning drunk. I realized that I was staring at her and ruminating to myself about her smile and she must have thought that my wide-open and rude stare was quite funny, for I could see that she was stifling a giggle. For a moment her smile and her giggling made her almost pretty and in the dim light I caught a glimpse of what she must have looked like in her youth, yellow hair offset by clear blue eyes and bright red lips. The last barrel contained green liquor made from some sort of melon and unlike the others there was no bite to it. Instead it had a sticky sweet and, I thought, revolting taste. My lips, and in fact my whole face was feeling numb and I must have sucked too hard and inhaled some of the stuff because I ended up coughing it out and all over my shirt. Frau Bagraum's giggles ceased immediately and her face turned positively skeletal. Not quite under her breath I heard her mutter that I was as stupid as a dog. When the last bottle was filled she grabbed the tray and started up the stairs. I followed, but about half way up I retched up a good part of what I had sucked in and left it in a puddle on the stone steps. “A special treat for the rats,” was all I could think as I staggered the rest of the way up.
On New Years Eve there was a dinner dance at the Gasthaus. The fixed menu noted, with no detail whatsoever, a four-course meal with soup, pasta, fish, venison steaks and desert. There was no mention of the manner in which any of these items was to be cooked or what sorts of exotic reduced sauces would be included. The fact that a full house of locals and some from many miles away would flock to the restaurant, and pay top dollar to dine there on this briefly described fare on New Years Eve was a tribute to the greatness of Anders, the chef.
Anders was Italian. A slightly-built man whose temperament and ego were commensurate with his status as a four-star chef. Like all great chefs, Anders was allowed plenty of latitude in his personal behavior. The magnificence of his cooking made him the one person on staff at the Gasthaus who Frau Bagraum was reluctant to criticize; this for fear that he would pack up his apron and hat and head down the line to the next four star restaurant. Even on the extremely rare occasions when he served something that was not exceptional, Frau Bagraum kept her thoughts to herself, knowing full well that Anders recognized his own failures and would never repeat them.
Anders appeared to be wobbling as he entered the restaurant in the late afternoon of December thirty-first to begin his preparations. With him he carried a liter bottle of mineral water, which I quickly ascertained, by the protective way he cradled it in his arms between swigs, did not contain water. One of the busboys confided in me that Anders was depressed because his sous chef had never returned from his Christmas day off and no replacement had been secured for this, the biggest and busiest night of the year. As the late afternoon faded to early evening his mood became darker and darker and his admonitions and orders to the rest of the staff became louder and louder until finally Frau Bagraum leaned in through the kitchen door and informed us that the guests had started arriving and that we were making far too much noise.
Anders made it through the pasta course, some sort of pesto affair, and was just starting with the fish when he forgot what he was doing and leaned down too close to the range, where his vodka-soaked beard ignited with a poof. Rico had to quietly get him out of the place and drive him to the nearest clinic. As he was being helped out the rear door of the kitchen Anders insisted on stopping and he mumbled something in Italian to Rico, who turned to the rest of us and translated: “The chef asks you to prepare a subtle sauce for the fish and to ensure that it is not overcooked, and also to time the vegetables to be done with the venison. Oh, and don't let Frau Bagraum know what has happened or we'll all be fired in the morning.” As he said all this Rico looked directly at me. But then again, where else could he have looked; the chef and the sous chef were history, the busboys were in shock from seeing a man's head engulfed in flames and the waiters all looked away as soon as he began speaking, as if to say: “I want no part of this tragedy.”
Half a moment after the rear door closed behind Anders and Rico, Frau Bagraum entered from the dining room and sniffed the air, which had the acrid aroma of burnt human and scorched hair. She shuddered involuntarily and noticing that Anders was not in the room said, somewhat under her breath, “What the devil is he cooking?” Then much louder in a forced happy voice, “Smells terrific!!!”
As soon as she left I cracked the door to the enormous oven. In the enormous oven were three enormous trays of fish, baking away. Three images and one concrete thought popped into my mind. The first image was of blackened redfish which I'd never seen nor tasted, but which I supposed was a delicacy of some sort in some place or other. The second image was of sushi, the raw fish that I'd heard was popular in Japan. The third image was of myself in white apron and wearing Anders' tall puffy chef's hat, poking my head out of the kitchen of a four-star restaurant to see how my clients were enjoying my handiwork. The concrete thought was this: butter. Most foods taste delicious when drenched in melted butter. Potatoes, eggs, English muffins, green beans, lobster; you name it: with melted butter the taste is improved. Butter, I thought, would be my subtle fish sauce and was about to make my reputation as a great chef. I went to the refrigerator and pulled out a block of beautiful white butter the size of a small suitcase and threw it into a large saucepan and started it melting. Then I yanked one of the enormous trays out of the oven and jabbed the fish nearest me with a fork. It seemed to be about half way between sushi and blackened and so I quickly removed the entire school. I beckoned for Klaus, one of the waiters, to come over and give me his opinion. He bent down to where his nose was within an inch of the fish and inhaled. “It might be about ready for the sauce,” he said, “but I'm not allowed to comment to cook about the food. I only serve.” A peculiar smell had permeated the kitchen and as I went over to fetch the sauce I noted that what I had thought was butter was actually a block of Camembert-like cheese. With its chalk-white coating melted off, it was now turning into a yellowish paste, which was not taking the heat well.
Meanwhile the waiters had finished clearing off the pasta dishes, and were now waiting to deliver the fish. What the hell, I thought to myself as I painted globs of the heated cheese onto the sides of the fish, many things taste good with melted Velveeta on them, and this stuff must be substantially higher quality than Velveeta. Still the smell of the fish and the cheese together with the lingering scent of burnt beard was quite rank. Obviously something was needed to moderate the taste of hot Camembert. The answer came to me at once: Wine! Wine and cheese. It took me forty-five seconds to dash to the cellar and return with five bottles of Pouilly-Fuisse 2004. (Even I knew that one does not mix fish with red wine.) Working as fast as I could, I uncorked the wine and poured it over the now congealing cheesefish. Then the three enormous trays went back into the oven with the heat adjusted to broil. By now the waiters were surrounding me, very impatient to get on with the next course. In my mind I could almost see the headlines in the January issue of True Culinary Magazine, “Wunderkind Chef Invents Swissbrie Wine Halibut to Wow New Years' Eve Diners at 4-Star.” The odor of the fish interrupted my reverie. It was a sinus-wrenching smell and I pulled one of the waiters aside and pleaded with him to tell me that all the guests were drinking heavily, very heavily... But then, suddenly, I thought of Helmut and began to relax. Rico and I had laughed about my introduction to the Gasthaus several times and Rico had told me more about Helmut. “He's new money,” Rico had said, “the guy grew up relatively poor in Northern Germany; he's only had real money for about five years and you know as well as I do that you can't develop culture in less than a generation and a half. He's now a regular here at the Gasthaus, and you can tell by the desperate way he spends money and makes sure that others see him spending it that he has no idea of real class. Here watch, I'll prove it to you.” Rico had then taken a piece of weizenbrote bread and buttered it. Then he sprinkled a quarter teaspoon of fresh basil onto it and took it over to the table where Helmut and his date were eating. “I want you to try a new specialty that I discovered when I was last in Paris,” he said, “give this a taste and let me know what you think.” Helmut chomped into the bread and then stopped in mid-chew and got a very thoughtful look on his face. “It's superb he gushed, just terrific; bring me a couple of slices. Fantastic.” As Rico returned to the kitchen Helmut bunched his fingertips together and kissed them. Rico came back into the kitchen... “You see what I mean, you could serve that guy birdshit on birch bark and as long as you charged him enough for it he he'd rave about the texture, the taste and the aroma.”
Finally the waiters' impatience prevailed and I had to send the fish out to diners. Together with the chef's helper I loaded one fish on each plate and ladled a bit more of the gooey cheese onto it. In a final act of inspiration I thought of surrounding each fish with sprigs of parsley. When they left the kitchen the things looked pretty decent. The smell, however, was evocative of sewer gas on a hot day. “Whatever you do,” I instructed the headwaiter, “you must bring the first plate of fish to Herr Helmut. And make sure that he starts eating before anyone else gets served. Make him feel special, make him feel like royalty; but whatever you do, make sure that he eats first.” I peeked through the door as the first plate of cheesy fish was laid down in front of Helmut. He looked somewhat puzzled when the waiters motioned for him to start eating, but tucked into the fish without too much encouragement. I have no idea what his true thoughts were, but he beamed with delight as he hoisted a forkful of the wretched-smelling stuff to his mouth and chewed it. Half way through the first mouthful he stopped chewing, stood up, and looking in the direction of the kitchen spread his arms wide and pronounced for all to hear: “Sehr wunderbar.” And for an instant I actually believed that maybe the thing was going to work out, that maybe, like a brilliant and expensive cheese that smells decidedly like mold-encrusted dog food, the diners would look beyond the acrid aroma of the stuff and find the fish to be rather good.
My moment in the sun was decidedly short-lived. Unfortunately there were many other diners in the Gasthaus that evening whose pallets were considerably more sophisticated than Helmut's, and shortly plates of Swissbrie Wine Halibut started returning to the kitchen uneaten and mostly untouched by knife or fork.
“Where is cook?” demanded Frau Bagraum in an unsympathetic tone of voice as she barged into the kitchen. I stammered for a moment and then told her that he was in the cellar getting wine. “That's your job,” she barked, as she stormed through the door at the top of the cellar stairs. As she descended I pushed the door shut, turned the key in the lock and calmly walked out the back door of the restaurant.
Outside I retrieved my essentials pack from the little shed and started walking.
The air smelled fresh and crisp and so exceptionally clean, and I breathed it in deeply as I walked the half-mile to the train station. I had the equivalent of about six hundred dollars in my pocket and I figured that in less than an hour I could be in Zurich or Bern or even on my way to Paris. After all, this was Europe and in Europe there is always a train going somewhere, even on New Years' Eve.
I bought a ticket to Basel, and just before I boarded the train I felt around in my pack. Sure enough, there at the bottom was a jar of Nutella Hazelnut Chocolate Cream spread. I bought a small package of crackers and a cup of hot coffee at a kiosk and started salivating at the thought of the feast I was going to have once I settled into my seat on the train.