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Memoirs Of A Chef: Gottier & Me

Pickled Watermelon Rind In JarRandall Gottier CateringRandall Gottier Catering LimitedPickled Watermelon Rind

The first time I ever entered Randall Gottier’s spacious apartment, located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, was to interview for the head chef position for Randall Gottier Catering. A flustered, middle-aged woman named Trudy pointed me down a narrow corridor leading to Randall’s office. I passed numerous framed photos and clippings on the walls of the hallway, but one stood out: A classic Moët & Chandon ad from the Seventies that was very familiar to me and likely to most folks who lived through that era. The photo on the poster was that of a dashing, dark-haired, barefoot man strolling a beach along the waters edge, white tuxedo jacket open, black pants legs rolled up, his left hand casually grasping the neck of a Moët champagne bottle. A few moments later I was greeted by the less carefree, now-38-year-old person in that poster, Randall Gottier.

Randall Gottier Catering

Above his desk was another framed print, this one a meticulous calligraphy with the words: “Life is a game. Whoever finishes with the most toys wins.”

As I was answering a question shortly after the interview began, Randall grabbed a camera from his desk drawer, flashed a photo of me, and then put the camera back in the drawer. Amazingly, while a student at the Culinary Institute of America I was taught about this tactic (done to test whether the prospective employee would rattle easily) and how to react: Unflustered. So I just stopped talking while the picture was being snapped, after which Randall explained that he liked to keep a photo of his employees on file. After a few more questions, he told me I was hired.

I was overqualified for the job, but a low-pressure catering gig appealed as a means of taking a short breather after a lengthy stretch of intense restaurant kitchen work.The prep area for the operation was in Randall’s apartment, a portion of which was set up in commercial kitchen fashion. He specialized in hors d’oeuvres-based cocktail parties, but also had a loyal, upscale clientele who adored his dinner soirees.

This was 1989, and crudités were in vogue. Randall centered his with a Curried Yogurt Dip that I still occasionally use today (yogurt, mayonnaise, curry powder and, most importantly, a puree of Major Grey’s Mango Chutney). The hors d’oeuvre I remember best featured a cube of smoked turkey skewered with a slice of pickled watermelon rind – the latter ingredient was and probably still is available in jars at Manhattan supermarkets (and available online). Smoked turkey and pickled watermelon rind might not sound enticing, but the combination of flavors -- sweet, smoky, salty, pickled -- works remarkably well. People swooned over them.

Pickled Watermelon Rind

Randall was big on presentation and one of the first caterers to really exploit flowers – from floating violets in consommé to serving turnovers in black lacquered baskets piled with white rose petals.

It was three-person operation: Randall, who worked the business end and hosted the affairs; Trudy, his loyal secretary/errand-runner/nervous prep cook (her motto: “We’re never going to finish this on time!”); and me, his new head chef. Ads in the classified section of New York Magazine brought enough business to keep us quite busy through the spring, which is when I started my stint, but Upper East Siders and readers of New York Magazine tended to flee to the Hamptons or elsewhere during the summer. In order to keep me in his employ, Randall had me come in during these months and work at creating new menu ideas and recipes.

Randall was a snippy, bluntly sarcastic, not particularly likeable gay man. He dismissed most of my attempts that summer, often with a mean but clever quip. I recall that when I presented him with my tweaked, modernized rendition of beef bourguignon he said, “This is fantastic! Now all I need to do is find a group of rich French peasants who want to throw a dinner party!”

He rarely smiled, but his snarkiness was funny -- and honest. Besides, I did manage to add an all-Spanish dinner menu and a number of salads to his repertoire, as well as lemon-poppy seed madeleines.

Randall had plenty of toys, from a Harley-Davidson to a knockout sound system to a lavish wardrobe that included an enviable collection of leather jackets and coats. He didn’t seem to have much in the way of friends or family, though he was absolutely charming in his encounters with clientele. The two of us often bickered over this or that, but Christmas season brought us to the tipping point. Literally. He’d lined up parties throughout the month of December, which meant I’d do prep work in the day and work the event at night. Besides the actual cooking and plating (he would hire a wait staff), this entailed loading a rented van with the foods, beverages, accessories and often tables and chairs. Randall’s apartment was located on the second steep floor of a walk-up. I would then drive to the site, do the requisite unloading and unpacking, and at the end of the evening I’d perform another round of packing everything up, driving back, and carrying items up those stairs. After washing what needed to be washed, I’d return the rental van to the west side of Manhattan, with my bicycle in the back, and ride home.

Randall Gottier Catering Limited

Right before Christmas Day, when our parties were complete (until New Year’s Eve), Randall handed me an envelope with my Christmas bonus inside. I thanked him, tucked the envelope into my pocket, and headed down the staircase. When I reached the bottom, I took a peak into the envelope and found two hundred dollar bills. I instantly looked down at the floor, thinking I’d surely dropped a few. First stunned, then pissed, I marched back upstairs. When Randall opened the door, I handed him the envelope. “If after everything I’ve done this month all you can afford to give me is $200, then you must need this more than me.” (Not a very original line, but it’s all I could come up with.)

He was taken aback. “You mean this isn’t enough?”

I told him it wasn’t and explained why. He invited me in, went to the next room, and reemerged with $200 more. I didn’t appear overly impressed

“You’re kidding me!” he said. “That’s still not enough?”

“It’ll do,” I replied sullenly, then thanked him and left.

When I showed up at Randall’s to do some work a few days later, he called me into his office. “I tested HIV positive,” he said matter-of-factly. He went into the details and assured me that he felt fine and would continue to run his catering business as always. Before getting this news, however, I’d already decided to leave. I worked for him another month or so, then took the head chef job at Mangia, an upscale take-out store on 54th Street.

I didn’t hear from Randall for another year. Then one day, while stepping out from Mangia’s kitchen to check on the foods in the shop, I saw and immediately recognized a gaunt man peering through the storefront window. I went outside and we gave each other a hug. I was shocked at how thin and awful he looked – his gorgeous brown leather coat, which once fit him perfectly, looked like it was draped over the hook of a coat rack.

“Do I look that bad?” he asked, evidently noticing my reaction.

“You’ve looked better,” I replied, and we shared a laugh at my feeble attempt to be tactful. We chatted a few minutes, each talking about our endeavors in the food world. We acknowledged our happiness at seeing each other and promised to keep in touch.

Months later, Trudy called me to say that Randall was at home and not expected to make it much longer. I paid a visit and sat bedside. Sheets mercifully covered him from the neck down, but his head was shrunken and his face the color of urine. The aromas emanating from beneath those sheets were unspeakably vile, a malodorous mix of bodily wastes, gases and impending death. I had never endured anything so horrible in my life, and couldn’t come close to imagining what he was going through.

“Why did you come visit me?” was the first thing he said.  “It’s not like we’re friends.”

I didn’t really know the answer. “Well,” I started. “We were together a lot last year. I mean I spent more time at your place than at my girlfriend’s.” I didn’t have a girlfriend, but he smiled weakly and got my point. We had spent a lot of hours together, and in fact I had grown to like Randall, flaws and all. Saying goodbye just felt like the right thing to do.

Something less altruistic also crossed my mind: Maybe he would see me, be impressed with my loyalty, remember how disappointed I was with my Christmas bonus, and make a last minute decision to leave me five thousand dollars. (Why five thousand? Less wouldn’t be a grand enough gesture, and more might cause the lawyers of his relatives to intervene.)

Let’s face it: He was no doubt exiting this world with plenty of dough and few to leave it to. Plus I didn’t feel selfish, as my fantasy included him bequeathing some booty for Trudy, too. In hindsight, I needn’t have been so generous with Trudy, as my fantasy didn’t come true. He didn’t even leave me the Kitchen Aid mixer that I’d on more than one occasion clearly expressed admiration for.

Randall and I didn’t talk about anything profound on that final visit. We chatted about my job at Mangia, he told me what he’d been doing before he became bedridden, and we fondly recalled a few really cool parties we’d pulled off together. He also told me how terrible it was to be so sick and to have so little life left. I believe this part of the conversation occurred while he was apologizing for one of a continuing series of gaseous emissions that blared through the sheets in both audial and olfactory form. The apology was unnecessary, as these intestinal gas explosions didn’t noticeably increase my already intense nausea; it was pretty much like throwing stink bombs onto the world’s largest pile of baby poop.

I don’t recall exactly how I said goodbye, but I do recollect my conscious decision not to get any closer to him than I already was; a farewell hug was therefore out of the question. On my way out of the apartment, I passed by his office and peered one last time at that sign over his desk:

“Life is a game. Whoever finishes with the most toys wins.”