When I heard the news that iconic fashion figure Karl Lagerfeld had died, I bolted up in bed. I am hardly the fashion plate; I don’t run in those circles. But my friend Chef John DeLucie does and he had a story.
Many years ago John and I wrote a book called THE HUNGER, about the celebrity-jammed restaurant that he and Graydon Carter founded in New York’s Greenwich Village. I spent a year at the bar and in the back of the house documenting life in the food trade. The place was always six-deep in rock star-level names, all come to rub elbows with one another and get a decent meal. To this day, John and I chuckle about the encounter below, excerpted from the chapter entitled “Benediction.”
One insanely busy evening I was surveying the action in our comfortably cramped dining room from my perch, jammed between the kitchen pass and a wall rack of very pedigreed wines that were probably worth more than the purchase price of my apartment. I saw Emil, looking dapper as always, leading a large party into the main room. The ceilings of The Waverly are fairly low, and as always the level of chatter was high. But as this party walked in, a hush fell over the room. That caught my attention.
I instantly recognized the signature silver ponytail and aviator sunglasses of the artistic director of Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld. He was outfitted in a tight black suit and what appeared to be a puffy, white ruffled pirate’s shirt with an enormous collar and a bolo tie. Despite the fact that it was a perfectly warm evening outside, he wore his trademark finger-less biker gloves covered with, from my view, silver studs and a large zipper on the palm side of each one. The Godfather of haute couture glided his one-hundred-ten-pound frame across the floor, elegantly followed by his apostles, and come to think of it, there might have actually been 12 of them coming for supper. This was some deep fashion shit. Half of me was blown away by the effect he had on the room of mega-celebrities unto their own right – I had never seen so many halted conversations – and the other half was thinking I better get back to the kitchen and make some food. Still, I could not avert my gaze.
Mr. Lagerfeld and his alternate-universe entourage took their seats at the largest table we could crib together in the small space. Their very competent waiter was an actor-in-training named Michael, and I could tell from across the room that he was fighting the flop sweats, even as he prepared for the biggest audition of his serving career.
“The chef has prepared some additions to the menu this evening. Would you like to hear them?”I could read his lips going over the requisite presentation. The King nodded attentively. “For an appetizer we have a wild mushroom Arborio rice cake with a sunnyside quail egg and shaved parmigiano Reggiano. Next, for an entree, we have a fillet of day-boat cod with a ragout of local fingering potatoes, chanterelle mushrooms, and leeks braised in a little butter and white wine. Finally, for dessert, the chef has prepared poached apricots in mulled Pinot Noir with vanilla gelato.” Michael paused to catch his breath. So far, so good. “There are several other options available on the menu this evening,” he continued. Karl Lagerfeld listened raptly, his studded, gloved hands crossed in gentle repose. The rest of his table sat in silence as if waiting for his eminence to speak. When Michael finally finished his recitation, I could almost feel his sigh of relief. He closed by asking what every waiter is trained to ask before taking the order.
“Are there any questions?”
Michael looked around this enormous table of hungry faces, who in turn were looking to their fabled host. When Lagerfeld spoke, it was silent enough in the clubby dining room for every last soul to hear his words. “We have no questions at this table,” he announced. “Only answers.”
The Waverly buzz returned to its normal decibel. Michael survived his brush with high design and went on to the computer to start typing in the very lengthy order, of which he had taken copious notes to get it right. I raced back to the kitchen and got Angel and the bandana-clad sweating crew working to get KL’s order done, fast. It might have been a little awe-inspiring to be serving one of the more influential Tables of Twelve dining in the city that night, but we still had a restaurant full of customers who also demanded and deserved exactly the same treatment. This is when you find out what your staff is all about. To an outsider, our cramped kitchen might have looked like pandemonium. But while next year’s fashions were being decided in our dining room, in the back we cooked, plated, and served what would be an excellent meal.
Following the Last Supper, the next day we received a call from Karl Lagerfeld’s office – a special order for takeout carrots, nothing more – just our roasted carrots to go, every day for a week. The black town car arrived promptly at noon.
John DeLucie is executive chef of the Empire Diner and Bedford & Co. in New York City. He and Ken Carlton co-authored THE HUNGER, from which this chapter is excerpted. THE HUNGER was nominated for a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers award.