Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Iron Chef, Los Angeles

Any fans of the original Iron Chef? I loved that Japanese cooking show because the chefs really took the competition to heart, as if their honor was at stake. The American version is lazy because you know Bobby Flay doesn’t give a flying crap whether he wins or not. The original show had drama, because I was always half-expecting Chef Masahara Morimoto to stab himself with a carving knife in Kitchen Stadium after losing the artichoke battle of skills.

A few years ago, they opened a sushi bar down the block from my house in Los Angeles. It was fairly expensive for dinner, but they offered a bento box luncheon for seven dollars. It included some spicy tuna rolls, salad, soup, salmon, and rice. It was a good deal. Sophia and I used to go two or three times a week. The chef, Paul, could be perfectly cast in a Hollywood movie as a old school sushi chef. He stood tall in his white unform, and rarely spoke, concentrating on his work behind the counter. He would call out a greeting and farewell in Japanese whenever a customer entered or left. His wife was one of the servers. If he was in a good mood, he would serve little treats in decorated seashells to select customers, or give away some sake. It was our favorite restaurant.

The Japanese are big on honor. On the wall behind Paul was a multi-colored chest with compartments for sturdy, bright chopsticks. Each pair of chopsticks was in its own elaborate box, each with a traditional design. Each box had the name of a customer assigned to it. These chopsticks were for the “high-rollers,” those who came for dinner and said, “Serve me WHATEVER,” and had no problem spending $200 for dinner. The ordinary diner just got the regular chopsticks wrapped in paper.

After about a year of eating lunches at the restaurant, Paul came over to our table. This was very unusual, because we never saw him leave his position behind the bar. In fact, he could have been without pants for all this time, and we would have never known.

“This is for you,” he said.

He handed us each our own chopstick box. The special boxes! Our first names were written on the side. He presented it along with some unique appetizers. All of the other customers looked our way in envy, especially the Japanese diners. This was SHOCKING to them! No one gets the special chopsticks for just ordering the lunch special!

This was a highlight of our dining lives.

As we ate our feast, Sophia noticed that Paul had different “good luck” symbols on his back wall, not only Japanese oriented, like the waving cat, but examples from other cultures. Were they gifts? We decided to give Paul a gift for his honor, as is expected. Sophia went online and ordered a Hamsa (hamesh) hand amulet that is still used for “magical protection” by both Jews and Arabs. Paul proudly put it on the wall, next to the other gifts.

hamsa

This was about a year and a half ago. As readers of this blog know, I have been bouncing back and forth from New York for the last year. My life with Sophia has been unstable. We have not had the time or inclination to go out to sushi for lunch. Today, I suggested that we go to our favorite spot. Sophia said she hasn’t been there since I left for New York, since she doesn’t like eating out by herself.

We walked into the sushi bar and immediately saw Paul behind the counter, busy at work making his famous volcano rolls. He did not yell his traditional greeting. Sophia called out to him.

“Hello, Paul!” she said.

Nothing. That was strange.

Sophia turned around and noticed that our hamsa was off the wall. His wife came over and gave us a sympathetic smile, and then placed two cheapo paper-wrapped chopsticks in front of us.

After not showing up for lunch for a year, we had been demoted from being special customers. There were no free appetizers. Even our lunch portions were smaller. And he charged us extra for the rice. We were dead to him. Paul is a true Iron Chef.

28 Comments

  1. I say you’re lucky you got any food at all after just abandoning him like that!

  2. Mighty Hunter

    June 30, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    Wow. Paul is HARD CORE.

  3. As I was reading this, I thought, “Damn I gotta ask Neil where this place is so I can go check it out!” Now I’m thinking…”Eh maybe I’ll just stick to Ami’s or Yamato’s in Westwood.”

    So wait did he give your and Sohpia’s box to other customers with the same name?

  4. I used to watch the original Iron Chef on the regular.

    Squison!

    Go!

    Sounds like Paul really means business. A true Iron Chef indeed.

  5. sounds like you hurt his feelings!

  6. Very sad,sad story…it’s always the chefs who suffer when a marriage is in flux.

  7. hope you like your sushi with a side of your own ass…

  8. Never get on the bad side of a man with a knife. Especially if he knows filleting techniques.

  9. I thought this post was one of the saddest you’ve ever written. The ending brought tears to my eyes. What a poignant metaphor. I’m glad I got to go to that place with you and Sophia when you were still “special” there.

  10. I’m glad yu did at least get to enjoy your fleeting moments as a sushi high roller.

    THere’s a bar in my town where Napoleon used to go, and they have little lock boxes that lock built into the wall, for the ‘high rollers’ to keep their flask in. A friend of mine once made it his goal to have one. It took him five years, and then two years later they moved, but by then he had officially become an alcoholic!

    I like Paul too.

  11. This is a GREAT story! Love it.

  12. Man, that is like the Japanese version of denying you soup!

  13. Wow. That kinda broke my heart.

  14. While the demotion did jerk a little tear, it made me feel like the special status that you once held was all the more special. To know that that type of honor was not distributed carelessly. I don’t really think that being dropped took anything away from the honor you were once granted, but I think the fact that it was taken away added even more to the honor that Paul already had. Great story.

  15. I am laughing at the ending and wishing that I could do the same as Paul to certain people in my life and downgrade them. Since I can’t I vicariously draw enjoyment at your downfall. I’m so sorry.

  16. This hurts me. In a way I find delightful. I don’t care to analyze the combination.

  17. This is sad on so many levels.

  18. come visit me in Philly and we’ll go to Morimoto’s restaurant.

  19. That is so sad…for you and Sophia, but even more for Paul, who didn’t know why you abandoned him.

  20. I miss being a regular somewhere. Before I had kids, I had a few places that knew me by name. (Nothing that serious.)

    I loved this post, because I thought it would have a super sappy happy ending (that I would have adored) and instead you surprised me.

    Also, I love sushi.

  21. That is so NOT where I expected that story to go. Paul doesn’t screw around!

  22. Neil – And I say this with the utmost love and respect: Stop being a Twitter whore and start posting more often.

    Kisses,

    Lauren

  23. Hey, come back to New York and we’ll go to that place we went for lunch. They know me. No special chopsticks, but I always get a table, even when it’s crowded :o)

  24. Wow. It’s almost like a Seinfeld episode…

  25. I love Iron Chef / Iron Chef American……….. but does anyone else think this is really “sad”. I love Iron Chef Morimoto but I can’t seem to find out whether or not Morimoto is an American citizen or not. Does anyone have the answer?

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