It was the lunchtime rush at one of those generic Asian fusion restaurants that have sprung up all over town. I sat alone at a table for two, the waiters hovering like nervous birds. I told them I thought I’d been stood up. The head waiter gave me a professionally sympathetic frown.
As it turns out, there are two eateries named Spring Rolls at Yonge and Charles. He was at Spring Rolls To Go. I was at Spring Rolls proper.
Thank god for cellphones.
We figured it out, and he came over to my Spring Rolls. A middle-aged fag, Tony, bald, swarthy, and with a wide, expressive face sat himself down at my table. The head waiter, perhaps expecting a heterosexual man in a tie, allowed himself a single raised eyebrow.
I’m doing research for a new novel, The Undead Chef. The main character is a gay chef, who also happens to be living with a potentially fatal medical condition.
Sometimes a research subject falls from the sky. I hadn’t even called Tony, he called me. He immediately addressed me as My Darling. He enthused about the food at Spring Rolls. He said he’d love to talk to me. We arranged to meet.
He’s been working in the food industry for twenty years. He told me about his work, how he came to it, how he learnt his trade. Between bites of House Green Curry with Tiger Shrimps and Chicken, I scribbled down all the important details, small jewels of authenticity that will help to solidify the character who’s steadily growing in my imagination.This is what I love about writing fiction. It’s not just the research, itself a portal into wild and beautiful lives ; but also the way that character and plot begin to animate themselves.
The thing about research is that it, too, takes on a life of its own. If you’re confident and loose enough about an interview, it goes down paths you hadn’t expected. It changes the shape of your story, but sometimes, also, the way you look at your own life.
My fictional character, George, is on disability. He spends much of his time choosing elaborate recipes and then letting the recipe guide his travels through the city as he searches for the right cut of meat or the one obscure spice he needs.
I asked Tony about that. Is That. Something. You. Would. Do.
Oh. My. said Tony and then took a long pensive slurp of his Tom Yum Kai soup.
His eyes clouded over with a kind of dreaminess. I. Have. My. Barbra. Day.
I watched him closely as he fiddled with his napkin in a sudden, shy gesture.
I. Love. Barbra. Streisand. he blurted, like he couldn’t hold it in anymore. I have all her music, all of it. He leaned forward, lowering his voice. Saturday is my Barbra day. I put her songs on shuffle. I go through my recipe books, choose a recipe. Then I’m off to Kensington Market, early. Come home, start cooking. I’ll cook a three or four course meal, and Barbra sings to me all day. It’s. Fantastic.
I asked him if he invites people over to eat what he’s cooked. He looked bewildered, like it was the wrong question to ask. I don’t know. he said. I guess I do sometimes. Not always.
The point of it was the pleasure he got in making it, the expressive gestures of prepping, marinating, sauteeing, braising, searing, tossing, plating. The point of it was the comfort of ritual. And the point of it, I thought, was the courage of building those rituals in a life lived alone, or on the margins, yet also in community.
We talked some more, finished our meals. He was right, the food was unexpectedly good for a chain. Tony gave me a warm embrace and thanked me for lunch and the copy of my book I’d given him. He had an afternoon date with his new boyfriend, giggling as he told me , and disappeared down Yonge Street, his bald head glimmering in the sun.
For the next few days, I couldn’t get Tony out of my mind.
I haven’t cooked much of anything for over two months. I’ve been a bit down. I’ve been managing on take out, toast, tuna melts, crackers and cheese. Oh, and The Librarian’s home cooking, and brunches with friends.
That Friday, in the middle of a day of marking, I found myself pulling out cutting boards, and some vegetables and condiments I’d bought in a hopeful moment the week before. I thought about finding some inspirational tunes but instead cranked up some old Jon Stewart episodes I’d missed, on the laptop.
I chopped leeks, red pepper, mushrooms, zucchinni. Made a kind of satay sauce with peanut butter, loads of garlic, chicken stock, lime, fish sauce, chili sauce. Boiled up egg noodles – I was out of rice noodles. Mixed the whole thing up with some chopped peanuts on top.
It felt good.