By Mark Antonation
By Nathalia Velez
By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
I saw successively imprinted on every face the glow of desire, the ecstasy of enjoyment, and the perfect calm of utter bliss. -- Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste
It was the strangest sort of party, uncomfortably intimate and cheerful for no reason at all. This was 1994, maybe 1995, the year fixed loosely in my mind (like all other years) by what I was doing at the time, where I was cooking and for whom. I still wasn't sure if this was the career for me (in fact, it was early enough that calling it a career at all was something of a joke), uncertain if food was where I ultimately wanted to fix my gaze. The party was with the family of my girlfriend at the time -- the one destined to someday become The Ex, like a proper name -- and it was being held because her grandmother had just died.
After she'd passed away at home, peacefully, her children had found a hundred- dollar bill in her pocketbook and decided to use it to throw a party. The day found me sitting at a long table at an Indian restaurant in Rochester, New York, called the Raj Mahal, drinking mango lassi and eating channa chat on the dime of a dead woman.
330 E. 6th Ave.
Denver, CO 80203
Region: Central Denver
425 S. Teller St.
Lakewood, CO 80226
Region: West Denver Suburbs
Channa chat: $3.99
Shrimp tandoori: $13.99
Chicken curry: $10.99
Lamb masala: $13.99
Saag paneer: $9.99
Navratan korma: $9.99
Alu mutter: $9.99
Alu paratha: $2.50
Back in 1994 or 1995, I didn't know much about Indian food. It was as foreign to me, as thrilling and mysterious, as Chinese food had been when I was twelve, as sushi when I was sixteen, as French when I was twenty. I remember stupidly affecting some kind of accent when I ordered (a stupid thing I still do today), not wanting to botch the words on the menu that I thought were so beautiful, hoping to sound like I ate mughlai soup and dal makhani all the time. Besides, since I didn't know what to say, how to react or who to talk to, I was desperately trying to seek refuge in food -- which, unlike death, I at least marginally understood.
There were lots of tears at the table, and a fair share of laughter, too. Half of The Ex's family were (and still are, I assume) psychologists of one breed or another, so all manner of coping mechanisms and grief strategies were on display. But as the food started arriving, that slowed, dried up, finally stopped altogether. And, as Brillat-Savarin wrote, "I saw successfully imprinted on every face the glow of desire, the ecstasy of enjoyment, and the perfect calm of utter bliss."
I was not exempt from this awesome, subtle power. Indian cooking, which I knew only barely and understood not at all, had moved a room full of mourners if not to bliss, then certainly to calm. The transformation was amazing and, frankly, a relief.
This unusual meal wasn't a turning point for me or my career in the kitchen. That kind of one-shot revelation only comes in the movies or under the influence of cheap hallucinogens. But it was a step. The incredible power of food had been laid out plain in that one moment when I was prepared to see it, and whatever magic it was that those cooks had, I wanted some for myself.
Flash forward ten years. Although I understand Indian food now, it's still only from the perspective of a diner. I don't know what an Indian kitchen is like because I've never worked in one, and while I'm not sure when something is done right, I do know when it is done well. I may not be clear on what spice goes where and how they all work together, but I know what I like and what moves other people. And I know a kitchen with the power when I see it in action.
At the table across from mine at Little India (the six-year-old original on Sixth Avenue, not the second outlet downtown), a couple is fighting. They're doing so quietly, faces pinched, voices hissing like cats. I, as eavesdropper, can't hear the specifics, but I can watch the body language -- the back-and-forth volley, each one pitching and catching in turn. Balled fists. Clenched jaws. It's like spying on a highly personal game of Battleship, as one player crumples, as if punched, when the other scores a direct hit. Honestly, I'm waiting to see which one will sink first.
On the other side of the plainly decorated dining room is a family -- mother, father, young kid, older kid -- that's less exciting to watch but still provides a study in well-rehearsed parental routine. The adults manage to conduct a conversation while simultaneously taking the fork away from the baby, picking up dropped napkins, keeping the older child from upsetting his water glass -- and all without really looking at the kids.
Most people come to restaurants for the food -- to be thrilled and moved and transported, however briefly, by the daring, complicated, beautiful work done by the cooks. They come to be coddled, taken care of. At the very least, to get out of their own kitchens. I love watching the magic happen for other people, seeing Savarin's bliss and desire in action. I know the effect good food can have on me, and I thrill to see the trick work on somebody else.