Like most of my best jobs, cooking for the Tenenbaums fell in my lap. To hear the missus, Lorlee, tell the story, her adult children found me on the street. In real life, she’d just taken ill with lung disease ushered in by 65 years of smoking. She weighed less than 90 pounds, so carrying around an oxygen unit 24/7 left her no desire for dining out — their nightly routine for years.
I’d later learn, through the kind of forensic research that only comes from working out of her pantry for years, that Lorlee stopped cooking the day her youngest went to college three decades ago.
My friend (also their property manager) and I were chatting over wine. Or rather: I drank, she texted their children a thousand miles away. The kids were concerned that daily takeout was unhealthy for their octogenarian parents.
My entire 20-something-year cooking career has been on yachts, meaning women and bikinis and every kind of body dysmorphia and fad diet, making any kind of fat (or carb) strictly verboten.
“You know,” I said flippantly, not at all with the weight of a statement that would change my life, “I could cook dinner for them a few nights a week. That’s kind of my thing.” The kids loved the idea, although they were afraid their mother wouldn’t like me. Nothing personal; she didn’t like most people.
My first meal for them was an Ensure milkshake. No amount of good ice cream and decadent fudge sauce can rescue a shake from the chalky horror of Ensure. I could only improve from there. My directive was to use full-fat cream and butter in everything. Lorlee needed calories.
My entire 20-something-year cooking career has been on yachts, meaning women and bikinis and every kind of body dysmorphia and fad diet, making any kind of fat (or carb) strictly verboten. Everything tastes good with butter and fat. This was going to be easy.
And it was. Arnold, the clan’s patriarch and a true bon vivant, asked me a serious question after I’d cooked just two meals for them: “How would you feel about doing a dinner party?” Dude, that’s my jam. Bring it.
More questions: Can I accompany them to their summer home in Santa Fe? What about to Palm Beach? Can I help with his annual holiday mailing of pecans? (A task I only ever refer to as “helping Arnold with his nuts,” for which I am the only one who laughs.)
In Santa Fe, I prefer living in the guest room instead of the spooky casita. I am the understudy playing the role of Lorlee when Arnold attends galas, openings, and private chamber music concerts. The day after these events, I regale Lorlee with anecdotes and pictures. I show her the world through my Instagram: her children and grandchildren on vacation, the outrageous outfits of the Met Gala.
I set out to make Lorlee the best cinnamon roll she’s ever tasted. Every Sunday for months, I attempted a different recipe, demanding her feedback, finally creating her dream combination of filling, frosting, taste, and texture. I feed Arnold’s love of butter by learning everything about it, then holding butter tastings at his nightly dinner parties. I aim to prepare recipes from The New York Times food section before he reads the print article.
We mutually adopt each other. I push the limits of my culinary skills to constantly please and delight them. Degrees in literature and fine art make me uniquely suited to fill in their conversational blanks about that author or that artist, you know the one; I forget the name. In exchange, they show me what a 60-year marriage of true love looks like. I see what it means to grow old with gratitude and joy for the wonders of life.
I brag that in the four years I’ve cooked for them, I’ve never once found myself annoyed or irritated by them. A sentiment they returned. One of the longest stretches I’ve spent apart from them was a fortnight this March they went to New York for a family event. Arnold studied Zagat for months, planning his daily restaurant excursions. The apartment they’d rented was small. We agreed they didn’t need a chef; Lorlee’s caregiver could cook for her. I went into withdrawal, missing our daily discussions about the world, art, literature, everything.
Prior to their return, I was given the order to stock the house with two months’ worth of food, in case things got weird with COVID-19. Stocking a house for a pandemic quarantine is a piece of cake for a yacht chef. I’ve been training my whole life for this, I thought, stashing hardy brussels sprouts under tender asparagus. They returned with their own hoard: chocolates, pickles, bagels, meat, caviar, smoked salmon. It took a world champion fridge packer to make everything fit.
I kicked off our quarantine with a simple lobster and crab risotto. Arnold was too tired to eat after his whirlwind tour of New York. He’d played hard with shopping, operas, meals out, shows, art, and openings. That takes a bit for an 83-year-old to recover from.
Except he wasn’t just tired.
Within five days, he was on a ventilator and life support. Lorlee stopped eating. He died first, she days later; the fridge and pantry still full of all the great food he loved. Caramel sauce sent from Paris. Butter imported from Brittany. Stone crab claws from The Bahamas. I’d only just inventoried his latest shipment of wine.
There was so much pleasure he’d secured for himself that he’d never taste, like the colorful nonpareils from New York. It felt like an act of solidarity to allow the chocolate to dissolve on my tongue as I thought of him, alone in the hospital. Or two dozen tubs of vanilla Häagen-Dazs: his favorite dessert. He asserted that no matter how full you were, there was always room for ice cream with chocolate sauce because it melts to find the spaces in your stomach.
Who would have that joy in his stead?
Cleaning out the fridges and cupboards, my grief took the shape of the comestibles he loved and bought for himself that he would never enjoy. They became Arnold’s crackers, or rib-eye, or brie, and must be eaten in the most sacred of manners. Each morsel must be enjoyed on an ethereal level so that pleasure may travel to his spirit. I’m a banshee of sentimentality, screaming at the unsuspecting casual snacker: “That was Arnold’s candy, love it for him! Taste the joy for him!”
This is the epicurean version of pouring some out for one’s homies.
Decadent Dark Chocolate Sauce
> 4 Tbsp unsalted butter
> 4 oz high-quality semisweet chocolate, roughly chopped
> 3 Tbsp high-quality cocoa powder
> 1/2 cup sugar
> 2 Tbsp honey
> 2/3 cup boiling water (can include a shot of espresso)
> 1/4 tsp salt
In a two-quart saucepan over medium heat, combine the butter, semisweet chocolate, and cocoa powder. Melt until smooth, then whisk in the sugar and honey. Carefully whisk in the boiling water — the mixture will bubble up and be raucous. Keep whisking to dissolve the sugar as the mixture comes to a boil. Stop stirring and boil for three to four minutes, or until the sauce has thickened and is glossy. Remove from the heat and whisk in the salt.
Serve warm. Keeps refrigerated for up to two weeks, frozen for up to three months. Reheat gently in a saucepan over low heat, or in short bursts on medium power in the microwave.
This column originally ran in the June 2020 issue of Dockwalk.