Monday, January 23, 2012

In memory of Peter Cipra.

I met Peter Cipra when I was five and he was my kindergarten classmate Peter’s father. I knew, vaguely, that he had a restaurant; I wouldn’t understand what that meant until later. Meanwhile I sat in the bright kitchen of his home and made “spaghetti” out of blue Play-Doh with a garlic press (presumably not a garlic press used in his restaurant). His wife, Susan, made spaghetti and meatballs (not out of Play-Doh) for our lunch and told wild stories about Peter (senior) and his career as a chef. How he used to terrorize his cooks, and how once, in a fit of anger, he threw a butcher knife at someone who’d made a mistake (fortunately he missed). As a child, you come to know the mothers of your friends because they pick you up from school and cook you meals; fathers are tall, shadowy figures glimpsed on their way to and from work, around whom legends are spun and myths are made.

Years went by, and our paths did not meet again until Peter (junior) and I were once again classmates in middle school. It’s possible that my parents had been dining at Labuznik all these years without my knowledge, but I only remember the day in 6th grade when my old kindergarten friend Peter came up to me and said, gleefully, “Your dad didn’t finish his carrots last night!” I immediately went home and confronted my father at the dinner table. As a child who had to finish everything on my plate, it gave me a deeply subversive thrill to catch my own father out, and for years I was convinced I had found a chink in his armor, that he didn’t like carrots. (He does). I wouldn’t dine there myself until high school, in that narrow, high-ceilinged restaurant down on 1st Avenue, a few steps away from the Pike Place Market. I remember succulent lamb chops, tender spinach, and yes, those carrots that were my father’s downfall years before.

Labuznik, as I remember it, was formal but not stuffy, warmed by the good humor of Susan Cipra who ran the dining room while her husband ruled the kitchen. You went there if you knew what you wanted, and if what you wanted was Peter Cipra’s uncompromising vision. He used to have this rule: no matter how many were dining at the table, you couldn’t choose more than four of the entrée options. That is to say, if there were six of you, and six entrée options, you couldn’t try all of them. It was maddening, but if you didn’t like his rules, you didn’t eat there. There isn’t anyone who runs a restaurant like that anymore, in these ME ME ME times. That era has passed. The closest successor might have been Lampreia, down the street, which in the nineties and noughties had that same uncompromising attitude, but without the warmth, which made for some interesting dining experiences. But all that is another story. We were talking about Labuznik, where Peter Cipra could do whatever the hell he wanted because he owned the damned building and didn’t have to answer to anyone.

The last time I had dinner at Labuznik was some six months before it closed, on the night of my 18th birthday. We had just returned from Prague, and my mind was full of the addictive pickled red cabbage that came with every meal. It came with our dinner at Labuznik, too, though only recently did a friend tell me that it was from a can. I had the Tournedos Rossini, and Peter explained to me that traditionally, Tournedos Rossini is topped with foie gras, but he made it with a slice of pâté atop each medallion of filet mignon, which would melt into a rich sauce as you ate it. This was followed by a berry Pavlova, which Susan brought to our table lit with a sparkling candle, reed-thin and twinkling with all the promise of the years ahead. I would be leaving for college soon; childhood was at an end. I’ll remember that dinner, though, and those stories, forever.

I was sorry to hear of Peter Cipra’s death last month, all too soon and terribly from cancer. He and his wife were a part of my culinary education, and therefore my life, from a very early age. Food was something beyond a bowl of cereal at breakfast, a PB&J sandwich in my lunchbox, the Chinese food I ate at home. It could be something creative, as creative as “blueberry spaghetti” made from Play-Doh or tender carrots spiced with something from a faraway land. It was part of a wider world that was and continues to be forever expanding, forever changing, and I hope it never ends. How lucky I was to have known him.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

youth on fire. theatre notes.

The other night I met up with some friends for Balagan Theatre's first performance in their new home, the Erickson Theatre off Broadway. It had been snowing all day, but the show must go on, and jet-lagged as I was it was all worth it. Having read the Wikipedia summary of both Spring Awakening the musical (which was what we had come to see) and the 19th century German play which inspired the musical, I was somewhat prepared for the twists and turns of the plot. This left me able to concentrate on the unstoppable energy of the cast. They were mostly young - as far as I could tell, several were still in high school - and damn, did they BRING. IT. The singing and dancing was done with a ferocity that nearly blew you out of your seats, although that could have been due to the microphones. The Erickson is a small space, and the amplification was a little overwhelming.

Spring Awakening is about young love, that first flush of awareness, that intensity of feeling that sweeps you away when you are barely old enough to even understand what any of it means. And most often you don't understand it at all. It turned to the darker side, too, of incest and abuse and suicide, addiction, death, loss, betrayal. All themes that occurred throughout Balagan Theatre's previous production, Dog Sees God, which I'd seen last fall. I wonder if there is a pattern there. Either way, Spring Awakening will be back in April, and so will I (not jet-lagged this time).

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

a few notes on photography.

One of the earliest photographs taken by me is from Christmas, 1985. My mom, dad, and uncle are sitting cross-legged in front of our Christmas tree, and my dad and uncle have been decapitated somewhere around the nose by my 5-year-old photographer's eye. (My mother, being somewhat shorter, is only missing part of her forehead). A decade would pass before I took up photography more seriously, by which time that uncle had died suddenly of a heart attack, at the age of 50. He had been an artist and photographer, with an extraordinary eye, and I wish I had known him longer.

I was in high school when I began studying photography. Mr. Bauer would give us assignments: photograph an egg, to understand shadow and light, photograph an object in motion, to understand shutter speed, try different speeds of film, to understand the texture of different sensitivities. You were given unlimited rolls of film, to help you learn how to shoot, but limited quantities of paper, which taught you how to print with minimal waste. It trained your eye, too, to judge from the contact sheet which frames were worth printing and which were not.

In college, the late Roger Mertin was my professor. For our first assignment, he taped over our viewfinders to help us trust our camera's eye and to gauge exposure without looking at the light meter, but I forget what else we did later on. I do remember that we had to buy our own film and paper; this made you think even more carefully about what you were shooting instead of recklessly burning through roll after roll of film.

I was slow to join the world of digital photography. My uncle gave me a Leica Digilux 3 about four years ago, and it's taken me almost that long to get used to it. My film camera, a Nikon FM2, had been with me since I was 16 years old; with its 50mm lens it was an extension of my left eye.

Photography is like cooking. There are fundamentals and rules, and then there are variables that can't be controlled. You don't really need to go in knowing all the basics, but knowing them is great. Having an understanding of aperture and shutter speed, focus, composition - they're like knife skills, or the ability to roast a chicken or cook an omelet. They give you a foundation that nothing, no one, can take away from you.

Find someone, or several someones, to inspire you. See what they look for through the eye of a camera. Eventually you develop your own eye, your own taste, your own ideas about what you want to portray. You can break all the fundamentals, all the rules you learned so carefully. At the end of the day, the only person whose opinion matters is your own. And who's to know if something didn't come out the way you intended, unless you tell them?