2003 Anne Horton Writing Award
Past the brass elevators; past the antique armoire embellished with fully-opened red roses floating in square glass containers; past the polylingual registrars at the marble registration desk; past the concierges at the guests' beck and call; past the foyer scented with a five foot-tall bouquet of fresh pearl-colored flowers - there I stand - inside the world-class Four Seasons Hotel on Doheny Drive in Los Angeles.
"Good evening, sir and ladies. Welcome back to the cafe," says the host - tall, dark, and handsome -- as he greets my parents and me in the entrance to the five-star eatery.
"Good evening to you too, sir. Thank you," I reply as he pulls out my chair - his politeness a rare commodity.
As I glance around the room, a woman, perhaps thirty (perhaps forty with regular injections of Botox), dines with a much older male companion. A beautiful garden with aromatic orange and palm trees encircling a lighted fountain is in view outside the wall-length Monticello windows. Music from a private party in Wetherly Gardens - a nearly secluded reception area bedecked with white camellias and contemporary sculptures --echoes quietly through the cafe. Everyone at the party is wearing black - different styles and cuts, but all black. Prada and Versace rest on the shoulders and hips of the partygoers; neither a woman in more than a size six nor a man with more than ten percent body fat is in sight.
After we are seated, a hostess approaches my dad and takes his white cloth napkin away from him. She gracefully paces to her walnut executive-style desk, opens the bottom drawer, and pulls out a black cloth napkin. She returns with the same polished stride and gives the new napkin to my dad, who is wearing black pants; dining guests with light-colored clothing are given the light-colored napkins, and those with dark-colored clothing are given the dark-colored napkins, in order to prevent the conventional speck of lint. In most places, white paper napkins are the norm. Take McDonald's for instance: when an industrious mother of three gets a drop of mustard on her new black chinos, she takes the napkin, dips it in a little water, and swipes the affected area until a darker ring of wet pant leg and white paper residue reside there, remaining until the next load of laundry. At the Four Seasons, however, a well-renowned image consultant wearing a black Vera Wang cocktail dress can't hob-nob with celebrities with white paper on her thigh. At the Four Seasons, black cloth napkins are a necessity.
The waiter asks if I will have a bottle of Coca-Cola as I did the night before. I nod in agreement, and he says that he will bring it right out. I try to unfold the white napkin that is neatly folded in front of me. A napkin sculptor has folded the cloth with detail intricate enough to consider him a table linen Rodin. As I undo the work of art and place it neatly on my khaki capris (probably the only pair in the building), a different waiter, dressed in the familiar black pants and white starched shirt dress code as the waiter that brought our beverages, approaches. "I'll have the grilled free-range chicken, please," is the phrase of the table. My palate begins to salivate in anticipation of a carefully scared chicken breast and grilled green asparagus stalks positioned next to a twice-baked potato intricately returned into its skin with a parchment bag and decorating tip.
Another waiter places a basket of bread on our table. A large triangular piece that's really thin, but hard and crispy, protrudes out of the woven container. I try to hide my rural-bred ignorance in front of the Rodeo Drive regulars at the next table. It's not every day in cornfield-saturated Illinois that one can try exotic crackers. After much contemplation, I decide to go for it and try the isosceles crisp; it tastes like a five-star Cheez-it.
A sprinkling of crumb confetti decorates the once-spotless pastel yellowtablecloth. A waiter comes overwith a device that looks like a miniature windshield cleaner similar to those at the gas station. As he approaches the table I feel as if 1 am a patient watching a doctor closing in on me with scalpel in hand, ready to make an incision. As he gets closer and closer my imagination gets wilder and wilder. It turns out that the squeegee is merely a crumb scraper. After each course, a man in black pants creased down the middle comes and scrapes crumbs off the starched linens.
At that moment, a startled look emerges on my mom's face. I think that she is aspirating or choking or whatever one does when food doesn't go where it should. Just before rushing to her side and going into Heimlich mode, I turn around and see Don Knotts from the Andy Griffith Show. He is dressed in a tan suit, probably vintage Armani or Dior, and is seated at the round table next to us. 1 le nonchalantly sits there, glancing around the room, flashing a celebrity smile to all those watching. As tempting as it is, I will not ask for an autograph; I don't want to look any more out of place than I already do.
Trying my best not to look star-struck, I try to focus on the scrumptious meal that has been placed in front of me. I try to recall what Betty Crocker cookbooks and my immediate family have taught me about table manners: start with the outside fork and go in, small bites, mouth closed, back up straight against the chair, head up, no leaning. Who would have thought that eating chicken could be so difficult?
After only scraps remain of what used to he known as grilled free-range chicken, the crumb scraper is put to use and our plates are taken away. Tan parchment dessert menus are placed in front of us. As I scan the menu, I realize that pecan pie and cheesecake (fairly popular desserts on menus in the Midwest) aren't served at the Four Seasons. Somehow creme brulec sounds familiar; I recall some of Julia Roberts' lines in My Best Friend's Wedding. She compares Jello to creme brulee. Since I've never heard of anything else on the menu, creme brulee it is.
As a new face appears with the creme brulee sampler for me, cherry something or other for my dad, and chocolate raspberry for my mom, all three of us are faced with yet another challenge: how to take the desserts apart. This is not apple pie a la mode or a twist cone from Mickey D's; this is creme brulee at the Four Seasons Hotel. After much thought about proper dissection of the dessert, f pick up the spoon and dig in. I savor the warm, creamy delicacy placed in front of me. and the contrast between creme brulee and wiggly-squiggly J-E-L-L-O becomes clearer.
Dessert plates are emptied, crumbs are scraped after every course, and room charges are made. The same tall, dark, and handsome host that greeted us at the door pulls out my chair (which happens to be about three feet from Don Knotts and his much younger female companion).
As I exit the grand cafe and pass the five-foot tall bouquet of fresh pearl-colored flowers in the foyer and the concierges and polylingual registrars and the red roses in their glass containers on the antique armoire, I mark this meal in my memory; I don't expect to dine next to retired film stars or to eat Five-Star Cheez-its for a while.