At some point this stopped being about food.
“Tell me, what can people expect from Artisan?” The digital tape recorder rests between New York culinarian, Chef Tairy Livingston, and myself on black sheepskin acting as tablecloth. According to the editor-and-chief of Neo Gourmet Magazine, it’s now standard practice to do interviews with the emotionally unstable and eccentric of the culinary world. “Rock star hash slingers,” they’re called—guys that attend an anger management meeting before outsourcing their pent-up aggression on a filet of veal.
“The more psychotic the guy is, the better,” he told me. “That’s what sells magazines nowadays, Straub.”
As in: Gordon R. Straub, critic of cuisine and respected journalist.
“They should expect the unexpected,” Chef Livingston muses, circling a glass of Californian dry white in-hand, Darvocet particles slowly phantom fade. He takes a healthy draft of his concoction from the breast-shaped crystal before revealing, “The menu shall be based upon my mood-swings and medicinal side-effects,” he says. “So even I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The standard answer of a sociopath. Although this is my first official interview with Chef Livingston, I’m already familiar with him and some of his previous work.
Half-Rack Baby Lamb & Peppercorn Cranberry Chutney: A beautifully tragic dish. The lamb was read “Oliver Twist” by a Canadian Laureate and marinated in Susan Boyle’s tears as she sang, “I Dreamed a Dream.” The lamb then invites you to dine on the carcass as stated in its Last Will & Testament, delivered in a wax-sealed envelope by a half-Catholic altar boy.
A once-in-a-lifetime dish. Literally. It has yet to appear on his menu again.
One reviewer said, “Never have I grieved over a meal before. Livingston serves a main course that was both moving and cathartic, like an Eastwood film.”
Absolute horseshit, if you ask me.
Back when the culinary arts were an institution of class and prestige, dishes were judged on the complexity and balance of flavors, presentations of eloquence and captivating design. It was about food and formula. It was about flavor. Not fad.
“Our slaughterhouse plays Hindu prayers of redemption and sacrifice so the cows retain idol status when they reach the other side,” Livingston explains, taking another drink of Darvocet wine. “Artisan is the only restaurant to serve enlightened beef.”
Shock literature and Hollywood publicity stunts have officially leaked over into the next medium. For years, people have paid money hand-over-fist for the latest sordid affair or juicy gossip. Apparently, that feeling has generalized to the edible.
“The free range pheasant I’m serving tonight,” Chef Livingston leans in, whispering covertly over the tape recorder. “Cheating on his wife.”
After enough of these interviews, you learn a little something called anti-reaction; it’s the ability to keep a straight face, no matter what you’re confronted with. Like playing poker, every chef is an opponent waiting to have their bluff called.
“Do not smile,” my editor said. “Do not grin, snicker or roll your eyes because these people are all nutter butters and will lunge at you with a knife if you offend them.”
Which means I won’t get paid.
Getting prison-shanked by a paring knife isn’t fun, either.
“You talk. The tape recorder listens,” and the chief of food lit pressed two palms flatly together, gazing agnostically forward instead of above. “Please, be tactful with this guy, Straub. I need you on this one.”
The same way those legendary NFL coaches and players get to become color commentators—investigative reporters retire to cushier assignments, too. You get an opinion column or review summer popcorn flicks. Write fluff and puff. After reporting murder and crime for so many years, being a restaurant tourist seemed like a dream job. Boy, was I wrong.
“Just do what comes naturally,” Mr. Editor said.
Meaning: turn the rants of this lunatic into something readable. It’s a journalistic skill few have—being able to walk out of a bloody crime scene with a nice clean article for the public. I’ve done more than my fair share of murder-suicides and serial killers, but only recently did the psychos begin migrating to the kitchens. Same tools. Different victims.
“You will enjoy this appetizer, Mr. Straub,” Chef Livingston brags, as a small dish is set before me by one of the staff.
Scallop Suicide ($187): Take your breath and life away with this forlorn creature of the sea. The scallop is diagnosed with colon cancer by an accredited doctor, sautéed in low-fat Mediterranean garlic butter, and served with a razorblade and Zoloft garnish. It’s simply to die for!
“And that’s our freshest razorblade,” Chef Livingston mentions as he pours another glass of wine. He sees me looking left, looking right, and it’s nothing but itchy black wool on either side of the plate. “What’s the problem, Mr. Straub?” he asks.
“Seems I don’t have any silverware,” and the chef frowns disappointed, cracking yet another capsule over the French beverage.
“The razorblade, Mr. Straub,” he glares. “It’s our freshest one.”
Custom Cutlery: All Artisan dishes are accompanied by specialty flatware hand-selected by Chef Tairy Livingston. Savor our Fondue with a Mont Blanc pen or eat beef & pepper kabobs off a power drill. The possibilities are endless!
“This thing is going to give me Tetanus,” I say, fingering the rounded safe edge of the blade, noticing deep maroon stains mingling with rust that takes me back a few years.
Victims that were chained to decaying radiators or surrounded by aged nails in a dark room—if they started having jaw spasms or difficulty swallowing that meant their chances of survival went down to about 13%. The police would save these people only to have them break out in fever sweats a few days later from bacterial infection.
“I really don’t want to have to report any health issues in my review,” and Chef Livingston begrudgingly passes me a stainless steel fork from the inner pocket of his jacket, openly grinning as I take a harmless bite of scallop. He and I both know the appetizer is only the beginning.
“Doesn’t matter to me if he’s a certified nut job,” my editor told me. “Do whatever it takes to get the goods on this guy so we can print it.”
Just like with skydiving or surfing in shark-infested waters, the rich and eccentric flock to all things dangerous, including people like Chef Tairy Livingston and his new Manhattan restaurant.
Tetrodotoxin, which is found in Blowfish, is 1,200 times more potent than cyanide. Death Cap mushrooms contain over seven toxins that can instantly cause death after only one bite. Chef Livingston is progressive enough to serve them both in a pasta, draped in a light cream sauce.
“So, are you trying to kill your patrons?” I ask flatly, looking over tonight’s sample menu and taking another bite of scallop.
“You are hilarious, Mr. Straub,” he laughs carelessly, wine leaking from the corner of his mouth. “Look,” he reaches over to the tap the white menu card, finger lingering over the letters MP. “It’s clearly marked.”
“How does ‘market price’ indicate anything?”
“No, dummy,” Chef Livingston sighs. “Maybe poisonous.”
It’s a fairly obvious angle to play.
When the lead singer of INXS died from autoerotic asphyxiation and that highlight reel of substances in his blood, the phone lines of the Stamford Plaza Ritz-Carlton nearly crashed from all the people trying to book the room post-mortem.
Same thing happened with the Janis Joplin overdose and Robert Kennedy’s assassination. Cause of death varied, but it all turned into profits.
“Speaking of poison, can I interest you in a Rhubarb Mojito, Mr. Straub?”
This plant consists of toxic leaves containing corrosive acids. Potency increases when mixed with soda or water.
“No thanks,” I say, requesting a bottled water when the next dish is served.
Fig Salad with Pepper Cress and Poe Chicken ($211): Leafy sophistication served with literary poultry. The chicken is raised on the burial site of Edgar Allan Poe, occasionally writing tribute blogs and poetry. On October 7th, the chicken rides business class on Southwest Airlines accompanied by an octogenarian whom escorts it to Artisan where it surrenders to its melancholy and Chef Tairy Livingston, gently rapping, rapping at his chamber door.
“What you do is squeeze on the handle here,” Chef Livingston instructs, a drug-induced smile broadening across his face. He handles a two-foot black rod with the head of a preserved raven at the end. “See? And then his little beak opens up and grabs your salad for you.”
And although this pales in comparison to the dangers a dirty razor blade poses, I decline, opting to continue this venture with the fork.
“You might also note that this particular dish was prepared in a writers’ workshop at NYU,” Tairy says. “Notice how the nostalgic flavors of the poultry mix with the youthful prose of the greens and figs?”
Chef Livingston—if he’s not trying to drug you or stab you, he’s serving mediocre dishes with farcical back-stories, and he’s going to make a mint doing it, regardless of my opinion. Celebrities will go nuts for the salmon that backpacks through Europe or the French apple tart that was deemed OT level 7 by the Church of Scientology.
“See how this dish contrasts classic and contemporary?” Chef Livingston poses, taking another large slug of wine. The bottom of the glass is now thick with sandy white pharmaceuticals, sweeping with the currents of chardonnay.
“Honestly,” my brow furrows, digesting another bite of this average course, “the whole thing seems rather pretentious.”
“That’s because you’re a critic Mr. Straub,” Chef Livingston smirks, undaunted. “Critics, unfortunately, can’t experience dishes beyond their presentation and flavor.”
He’s serving history.
“I should hardly expect you to comprehend the level of genius behind pork dumplings that protested the war in Iraq,” he shrugs. “So perhaps you need something a little more…obvious,” and the chef takes a moment to consider me and my utter lack of acknowledgement to him. The unmatched brilliance of Chef Tairy Livingston—he’s going to make me see it whether I like it or not, a flicker of mischief passing through his eyes now that I’ve called his bluff.
He raises the stakes.
“A slice of Winter Cake for Mr. Straub!” he yells over his shoulder, and a waiter in the middle-distance rushes out of view to retrieve it, footsteps fading quickly as he approaches the kitchens. Tairy seizes the menu card from my side of the table, pushing it snugly into his jacket pocket and out of my view. Whatever he’s about to serve, he doesn’t want me to know what it’s made of.
“Ah, winter,” he sighs blissfully. “The season of snow and ice…when Mother Nature becomes a cruel bitch.”
“Are you about to poison me?” I ask flatly.
“Worse,” he snickers, but lacking any hint of a threat. Chef Livingston leans back in the steal and charcoal vinyl of the chair, completely at ease. “I’m going to serve you our finest dish,” he says.
A waiter emerges from a hallway, balancing a triangle of white on his fingertips. Bright white, and if I’m not mistaken—sparkling.
“No history or preparation method, Mr. Straub. It’s obvious these things are lost on a simple man,” Chef Livingston says.
Or grand pretense.
“I want you to judge it the way you normally would,” he advises as the dish is placed before me: double-layered white cake, white icing, served on a chilled platter.
Chef Livingston winks at me and says, “Flavor and presentation, Mr. Straub—bon appétit,” and he takes another gulp of wine, admiring his work. Icing turrets spiral under fine, powdery dust, but he still hasn’t answered my question.
“Is it poisonous?” I ask again. “Because if it is—“
“—No!” he cuts in. “It’s not poisonous. Relax. Eat.”
I pick up the fork a little more comfortable with this tape-recorded straight answer. The tines ease through the icing and body, breaking the tip of the triangle away as Chef Livingston watches me, waiting for a reaction. Most cake can be judged without even eating it.
The cheap variety will be dry and crumbly with sandy-textured frosting, like the kind you pick up the grocery store. The perfect dessert, I’m told, will be sweet, but not overpowering. It’ll be moist without being muddy. My mouth accepts the first bite.
“That dessert costs over $11,000, Mr. Straub,” Chef Livingston says, just as it passes my lips. He says this as if he was waiting on that.
You break it, you buy it, so to speak.
I give him my best anti-reaction.
“Chew slowly…you’ll start to feel it,” he notifies me, once again, breaking a tablet of something or other into his drink. A pleasant vanilla cool starts to spread through my mouth, my gums and cheeks.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he smirks. “That I’m overcharging in order to appear chic and keep the restaurant exclusive.”
Because only A-listers and multi-million dollar professional athletes would be able to afford something like this. Only the Hollywood eccentric would risk death and pay out the nose for it.
I manage a quaint nod of agreement.
The cake is simply too good, too exotic to disrupt with speaking as the complexity reaches past the back of my tongue. Down my throat where the cool begins to spread through my chest. Another bite is taken. A bigger one.
Chef Livingston continues, saying, “And you’re absolutely right. I don’t want the general public to have any part of this because they haven’t earned it…but these celebrities,” he begins to laugh, giving his own knee a little smack. “They’ll do just about anything to look special, won’t they?”
And at first I thought it was mint. The cool sweet chill was indicative of it, but it’s transcended that, turning into a slight numbness. A slow building rush of euphoria seeping into my gums, swimming through my jaw. This dish alone just might be the redemption of Chef Tairy Livingston, but then I remember something my editor said.
“Do not get too chummy with this guy,” he warned me. “Be professional, but be on guard.”
And I shove another bite of Winter Cake in my mouth, savoring that sweet, thrilling numb. Spreading. Spreading through my skull and neck. And my gums, they begin to burn vanilla menthol warm.
“You don’t remember me, do you, Gordon?”
My gums, burning absently, and I could swear there’s a granule of something floating around in my mouth, pressing a thick cloth napkin to my lips.
“I suppose I’m not surprised,” Tairy shrugs, glowering at me now. Staring with a twitching smile. “You’ve ruined so many people in print, I guess the faces started to blur together, didn’t they?”
Milky blood on the napkin, and I’m tonguing my gum and cheek lining, digging through the numbness for an irregularity. The numb strengthens in pleasant warm, reverberating down my shoulders, my spine. I finally excavate something hard into the fabric, dumping it onto the plate in order to get a better look at it.
My editor told me, “Chef Livingston has never agreed to a sit-down…so we either got lucky or there’s something special about you.”
And I’m looking down at the plate, staring at the shard but oddly calm about it, asking, “Glass?”
He pulls out the menu card, reciting it verbatim.
Winter Cake ($11,777): A one-of-kind dessert, capturing the despair of this cruel season. The batter is cut with real diamond dust procured from Abraham Abramowicz of Abramowicz Diamonds. Pure Columbian cocaine, refined black tar heroin, flunitrazepam, and vanilla with a touch of crème de menthe to compose the icing. And if you’re hearing this Mr. Straub, then you already know it’s too late.
The diamonds sand down your gums and tongue, allowing the drugs to pour in practically unnoticed. Euphoria sets in. Overdose is possible if enough is ingested.
“Then those diamonds will start to go to work on your esophagus and stomach lining,” Chef Tairy tells me, but I’m already familiar with some of his previous work: dishes he used to make before they had elaborate histories and expensive ingredients, the fame and his legions of celebrity clients.
Before he was the eccentric ruler of Artisan, he was known by another name. Another face and different locale. This was the man that I launched a full on character assault upon with my articles.
Headlines that said: The Charles Manson of the Culinary World and Chills & Grills: an Exposé of Psychotic Cooks.
But a new lease on life is only an identity change away. Some plastic surgery. Restaurants aren’t exactly the type of places to give a full-on background check, either.
“Seven years in the joint for a little rat poison in some pancakes hardly seemed fair, Gordon,” he reasons, but my head is swimming so thick with euphoric joy and terror, my face can’t decide on an expression. And it’s numb.
“You really ruined my fun with your little crusade,” he scoffs, giving me a playful slap on the arm. “But I guess it gave me time to study, and when I heard you were wanting to review this place—I just had to see you…if only to show you how much I’ve learned.”
Same M.O. Different materials. Maybe I should’ve seen this one coming.
He’s been extremely careful though, never serving the same dish twice.
“Hey Gordon,” he taps my hand, taps it hard enough so a ghost of feeling registers. “Gord-o, would it be too pretentious if I say you’re getting your just desserts?” and he snickers manically, dunking the tape recorder in his wine glass.
He tilts it by the stem like it’s a microphone, asking me, “Do you care to comment on your current predicament?”
Despite myself, I’ve faded. Folded.
Already, I’ve begun to forget how good revenge can taste.