Memories of Fidel
Henry F. Mazel
Now that Fidel is nearing death’s door, I feel liberated in discussing the long friendship we shared. It was in the early '50's that I first met Fidel, and looking back on it now, I must admit, honestly, that I did play a role, quite innocuously really, in the revolutionary events that swept Cuba just a few, short years later. In those days I was working for the old New York Herald Tribune as the weekend restaurant critic. Fidel had come to my attention, not as a revolutionary or intellectual, but as budding chef, who had come to New York to realize his life-long dream .
One night at Norman Mailer's, I was introduced to this intense young man. We spent the better part of the evening getting to know one another and debating our favorite subjects: food, baseball, and especially, politics. I recall at one point Fidel asked if I knew the difference between capitalism and communism. The old joke came to mind: “Under capitalism,” I told him, “Man oppresses Man; and under Communism, it's the other way around.” Fidel stared at me for a moment, and then laughed and laughed before he tapped me in the skull with the baseball bat he was carrying. After that, we became fast friends. His appreciation of cuisine—French, German, Spanish of course, even Japanese—was phenomenal, and it came as no surprise that he wished to pursue a career as a chef.
My inclination was to discourage him and I cautioned that it would take years to become a master, even with his enthusiasm and expertise. Besides, at that time I felt the trend in food was moving toward the concept of one giant tuna fish on rye that everyone would share [later of course, I was proven correct].
To my surprise a few months later, Fidel telephoned and asked if I might dine at his new restaurant in the theatre district. Never for an instant did I dream that the bwhich came out of that evening's repast and is reprinted here would have the most profound geopolitical consequences:
Full Course Dither
Two blocks west of Broadway and just down the street from Wizzo's Puppet Theatre, El Restaurante Fidel is humming softly. Its magenta neon sign and mock Carrara marble facade achieve a peculiar synthesis that beckons diners. And at the door, beaming, with cigar in hand and crouton crumbs sprinkled through a wiry beard, stands a relaxed and gregarious Chef Fidel. It is an attitude though he has failed to impart to his staff. With its stark and minimalist style, the decor of El Restaurante Fidel is the antithesis of its rich and complex cuisine. Scattered among pieces of patio furniture and the occasional Che's lounge are glass-topped tables awash in the glare of massive flood lights (which appear to have been purloined from the set of ‘Stalag 17’). Ignoring this minor inconvenience, and the regular party of bandoleer-clad men in green fatigues who increase the decibel level a notch higher than a mahjong party at the Haddasah, the setting provides a unique background for a palatable dinner.
Chef Fidel, who worked briefly with Marcel at Restaurant Leslie before striking out on his own, often comes to the table to engage patrons in lively conversation. With his billowy white chef's hat worn slightly askew and a finger waving in the air for emphasis, Fidel will good-naturedly respond to diners' questions for hours on end, generally from a prepared text. Just as we think this delightfully large gnome of a man will never stop his incessant bantering and we are ready to faint straight away, out from the kitchen pour cadres of waiters with delicious cream puffs filled with buttery liver mousse. Only the most self-disciplined of us could avoid asking for seconds of this appetizer, or for that matter the chewy policastro rolls that accompanied them.
Most of the entrees were as reliable as the appetizers. With few exceptions the restaurant uses the finest ingredients, and when a dish does not quite measure up, it is because Chef Fidel is preoccupied with his other duties: teaching the intricacies of Samba to troops of Girl Scouts from Bayonne, New Jersey, or committing to memory the complete works of Mickey Spillane.
One night for instance, while the strains of Cugat wafted rhythmically from the kitchen, Bertrand Russell stopped by and ordered lobster. When the entree should have been served, Raoul, the head waiter, appeared and announced somberly that Chef Fidel had burned all the crustaceans. Russell was disconsolate but eventually settled on the schnitzel. Raoul, puffing on a giant Havana, shook his head disapprovingly and whispered, “Try the halibut.” After some thought, Lord Russell shouted, “Yes, but I am already wearing a bib!” Raoul was shaken by this elegant bit of logic and soon found another lobster—although it was short and squat and appeared to have feathers.
Desserts, with the exception of a flaccid Banana meringue cake, were luscious and extravagant, particularly the creme brulee prepared by Chef Fidel himself. Not until we asked for Kaiserschmarren and Salzburger nockerl were we told they had to be ordered in advance, and then only if we brought Humphrey Bogart’s hat.
In the end, sadly, a brilliant chef is defeated by the shortcomings of a surly dining room staff. The service is unprofessional and rude, even when the restaurant is not full. One waiter insisted that it was our responsibility to tell him what was wrong with the food we left on our plate, “down to the very last fig.” And had Chef not intervened, we were prepared to leave the premises after two waiters appeared in zookeepers' uniforms and threw us mackerel from a bucket. While admiration abounds for our charming host, an evening at El Restaurante Fidel is and ‘iffy’ affair at best.
—New York Herald Tribune (1954)
Naturally, Fidel understood there was nothing personal in my review. Actually, he was quite gracious about it and laughed and laughed before he tapped me in the skull with the baseball bat he was carrying. Almost immediately he set about to improve the restaurant. Fidel announced he would go to the Sierra Maestra mountains of Cuba—there he could find first-rate macaroons with which to prepare a russe that, in his words, "would change the way we view dessert." Fidel wrote me many times from those mountains. In the months that followed he was to grow increasingly morose, gradually abandoning his idea of ‘El Russe Grande.’
In the autumn of 1955 I received a last letter. Fidel had come full circle. He now rejected the notion of haute cuisine entirely, dismissing it as a bourgeois fantasy. In a final, bitter irony, he wrote: "How can I think of sumptuous desserts when the peasants are forced to eat ginger snaps from a can. Yes my friend, it is only now that I come to recognize the dialectic nature of your review. I shall always be grateful to you for pointing the way."
The months have now turned to years. That little bistro two blocks west of Broadway has become Flo's Body Rub and Internet Cafe. And the truth of it is, in all that time I never heard from Fidel again.