Thursday, March 7, 2013

Cuisine Soignee a la Brigitte

-- By Tom Phillips

My wife is a Presbyterian minister, the solo pastor in a thriving, active suburban church. Many days she comes home from work in late afternoon, then heads out again across the George Washington Bridge for an evening meeting.  My job is to keep her nourished, healthy and happy, and let her know how much she is loved and appreciated at home.  All this can be accomplished with a delicious home-cooked dinner, dished up on time.  I take this as a duty and a delight, in the spirit of the woman who taught me most of what I know about cooking, and who blessed our marriage from the beginning, in more ways than she knew.  

If you think I’m talking about my mother, you couldn’t be more wrong. She hated to cook, and never learned how.  “Food is fuel,” she fumed, refusing to put any more than minimal thought and care into her meals.   No, the woman who taught me was Brigitte Catapano, proprietress of Chez Brigitte at 77½ Greenwich Avenue, the smallest restaurant in New York, where I dined alone most evenings in the 1970s.   

Separated from my family and in the throes of divorcing, I lived alone in Chelsea, and worked long hours at demanding, often crushing jobs in TV news.   Escaping after the evening news at 7, I would hurry downtown, breeze or stagger into Brigitte’s and crumple gratefully onto one of the six stools at her counter.  “Bon soir,” she would say, looking genuinely happy to see me again.  
The sign on the wall said “Chez Brigitte will seat 250 people, 11 at a time.” Besides the counter there was a back row of five stools, facing away, but this was strictly for the overflow.  The place to be was up front, where you could watch Brigitte prepare your dinner, and learn the secrets of her cuisine soignée.  

For Brigitte, soignée meant carefully prepared, hovered over, infallibly perfect.  My favorite was filet de sole meuniere, dusted with flour and sautéed in butter.  Brigitte never missed – the fresh fish was always crisp on the outside, soft and flaky within.  She never missed because during the five minutes it took to cook, she watched it with the intensity of a cat stalking its prey. She poked, listened to it sizzle, sniffed as it began to steam, flipped it at exactly the right instant, and then a minute later scooped it onto a waiting plate, still cooking, steaming and wafting its fishy, buttery fragrance across the counter. A dollop of vegetables, potatoes or rice, a splash of fresh lemon and a sprinkle of parsley and Voila! with an air of mastery and triumph, she laid it on the counter before you.  Another perfect filet de sole, one in an endless series. Bon appetit!

I didn’t try to make friends with Brigitte – she was usually busy enough, and I was in awe of her. But to my surprise she seemed to take an interest in me. One night when the place had momentarily cleared out, she asked me to tell her my life story.  My life was such a ruin at the time that I didn’t know what to say; I mumbled something to the effect that I was just an average Joe.  But she didn’t give up.  After that, instead of asking questions, she studied my face like a fortune teller, looking for clues.  “You’re English, right?” she opined one night.  Surprised, I admitted that I had lived in England as a child.  “I know,” she said triumphantly, “I am witch!” 
Brigitte told me her life story. She was from Marseilles, a young wife and mother when her husband was killed in World War Two. After the war she and her daughter made their way to New York, where she worked and eventually scraped together enough money to open a little French restaurant.   Brigitte never remarried. She said she was “purified” by her widowhood and hard work.  Her daughter married, moved to Florida and had children of her own. 
She gave me tips on how to eat, and live. Sleep without a pillow, she said.   

If I asked a woman out, I took her to Brigitte’s for dinner.  If Brigitte didn’t like her, she said nothing.  If she did, she would gush with compliments the next time I came in. Eventually I found the woman I loved and was willing to marry, though she held me off for years.  The first time I invited her to my house I cooked filet de sole a la Brigitte.  Later I brought her to Brigitte’s and boasted about it.  She seemed surprised that I would imitate her cooking.  But she liked my date.   “She speaks very good English!” she said. 
 When we married in 1979, Brigitte bought us a wedding present, a set of small dishes from Germany, with a still-life pattern of apples, nuts, and cherries. When I looked at the back side, I was surprised to see the brand name “Debra.”  That was the name of my bride-to-be. “I know,” she said.  I am witch!”   

After the wedding, my relations with Brigitte became strained.   Debra was in her last year at Yale Divinity School, and living in New Haven half the week.  When she was gone I would often go to Brigitte’s for dinner, but Brigitte was not happy to see me; she took it as a sign of trouble in the marriage.  Finally I told her “Debra says hello,” and she gasped with relief.   “Then you’re still together?” she said.  Of course, I said, and explained the whole situation, including that Debra often cooked for me at home.  But it was never the same between us; for her it was always strange for a married man to be dining alone in a restaurant.
Brigitte had fulfilled her role.  She fed me and cared for me when no one else seemed to, and nurtured me through the hardest period of my life. She had kept me going, and now it was time for me to move on.  It was time for her, as well.  Brigitte retired to Florida sometime in the 80’s to be with her daughter and grandchildren. I wrote her a letter, but never heard back. She died in 1994. Chez Brigitte kept going but it was never the same, and it closed a few years ago.  The last time I looked, 77½ Greenwich Avenue was a Tasti-Delight.   

Plates don’t last forever in our house, especially when our three daughters were growing up. But I deliberately put one of Brigitte’s wedding gifts aside, and it holds a place of honor in our kitchen cabinet. To me, this modest piece of provincial flatware stands for cuisine soignée, for motherhood and purity, for la belle France, the tragedy of war and the courage of an intrepid immigrant. And she lives, in every dinner I dish up for the ones I love. Bon appetit!

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips

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  1. Love this! So glad I got to go once before it became a Tasti-Delight...

  2. This is a beautiful tribute, Tom. Thanks for this lyrical picture of your life.