SANF September 2008 : 130

Chapter 2: Goose chase Weary food writer David Tuckwall gets drawn into the hunt for a missing celebrity chef. BY ROBERT BERINGELA ILLUSTRATIONS BY NATHAN FOX T hey sent sweet PR shots for this,” said Rupert Hunt, pulling up a photo- graph on his desktop. David Tuckwall gave the picture a cursory glance. “A rutabaga?” he said. The jowly editor shook his head, like a hound dog with fleas. “Look closer.” He whistled the singsongy Jeopardy theme. Tuckwall stared at him blankly. “Alex Trebek!” Hunt said. “Oh, yeah. Right.” It was 10 a.m. in the newsroom of the San Francisco Courier. Too early for Tuckwall’s third double espresso, but too late to wriggle out of the task at hand. He mulled it over. Given the tragicomic state of daily journalism, there were probably worse assign- ments than a celebrity-produce look-alike contest, but Tuckwall had already covered them all. “We’ve got another shot of a parsnip,” Hunt said. “Thing’s the spitting image of Jennifer Garner.” “I’m all over it,” said Tuckwall, with feigned enthusiasm. He was used to them by now, the small indignities he suffered for a paycheck. But at moments like these, a nagging inner voice still posed the question: “How long can you go on with this dispiriting gig?” Ten years and counting. That was the answer. First he’d covered the cops, then moved on to the courts and schools. Now, having dodged the latest round of layoffs, he was a fluff feature writer for the wine and dining section, spinning cotton candy from the sweeteners that passed for sustenance. Restaurant openings, recipe tests, thumb-sucker profiles of Silicon Valley moguls turned gentleman farmers, retired with their riches and presiding over boutique vanity projects like giddy children nurturing their Chia Pets. LAST MONTH IN DEAD MEAT: Carnivorous celebrity chef Jock Rapini faced the wrath of a fanatical vegan. Catch up at sanfranmag.com. 130 SAN FRANCISCO SEPTEMBER 2008 FOODNOIR

Food Noir

Robert Beringela

Chapter 2: Goose chase<br /> Weary food writer David Tuckwall gets drawn into the hunt for a missing celebrity chef.<br /> <br /> They sent sweet PR shots for this,” said Rupert Hunt, pulling up a photograph on his desktop.<br /> <br /> David Tuckwall gave the picture a cursory glance.<br /> “A rutabaga?” he said.<br /> <br /> The jowly editor shook his head, like a hound dog with fl eas.<br /> “Look closer.” He whistled the singsongy Jeopardy theme.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall stared at him blankly.<br /> “Alex Trebek!” Hunt said.<br /> <br /> “Oh, yeah. Right.” It was 10 a.m. in the newsroom of the San Francisco Courier. Too early for Tuckwall’s third double espresso, but too late to wriggle out of the task at hand. He mulled it over. Given the tragicomic state of daily journalism, there were probably worse assignments than a celebrity-produce look-alike contest, but Tuckwall had already covered them all.<br /> <br /> “We’ve got another shot of a parsnip,” Hunt said. “Thing’s the spitting image of Jennifer Garner.” “I’m all over it,” said Tuckwall, with feigned enthusiasm.<br /> <br /> He was used to them by now, the small indignities he suffered for a paycheck. But at moments like these, a nagging inner voice still posed the question: “How long can you go on with this dispiriting gig?” Ten years and counting. That was the answer. First he’d covered the cops, then moved on to the courts and schools. Now, having dodged the latest round of layoffs, he was a fl uff feature writer for the wine and dining section, spinning cotton candy from the sweeteners that passed for sustenance. Restaurant openings, recipe tests, thumb-sucker profi les of Silicon Valley moguls turned gentleman farmers, retired with their riches and presiding over boutique vanity projects like giddy children nurturing their Chia Pets.<br /> <br /> It was true what they said: There were thousands of stories in the naked city. Tuckwall simply never wrote about them. Just last week, a celebrity chef had gone conspicuously missing: Jock Rapini, vanished in the wake of his latest triumph. Tuckwall attended the grand opening of Trough, a grumpy misfi t at a bash better suited to an eager greenhorn than to a seasoned reporter with graying sideburns and a depressing tendency to see things as they were. Standing at the bar, feeling decades older than his 41 years, Tuckwall had watched Rapini work the crowd, hobnobbing with tastemakers, parading around with a rock star’s rooster strut. A blowhard, sure, but also a savvy businessman who may have plated his last pork tenderloin. Four days after the city toasted Trough, Rapini’s name remained on everyone’s lips—only now it was fodder for tabloid headlines and rumor-mongering on restaurant blogs.<br /> <br /> As the chef ’s hometown paper, the Courier was deep into its own coverage, whipping the news into a perfect storm. All the elements were there: food, fame, crime, sex. Well, maybe not sex, but that could be injected through innuendo. Was Rapini in rehab? Wearing concrete boots in the bay? Or, better yet, shacked up in the tropics on a scandalous tryst with a Pac Heights trophy wife?<br /> <br /> As the story whirled through sensationalized cycles—baffl ing disappearance, shocked local reaction, absurdist speculation on Rapini’s whereabouts—Tuckwall collected a few joint bylines. But his major contribution to that week’s printed wisdom was a 25-inch tribute to wild fennel, an herb that was basking in its 15 minutes as the darling du jour of trendsetting chefs. Per Rupert Hunt’s order, Tuckwall penned the piece in the gushing tones of fresh discovery, as if wild fennel hadn’t always sprouted from sidewalk cracks. As if the Almighty himself had that very morning willed the damn weed into creation.<br /> <br /> Standard stuff for today’s Courier, where priorities played out in a bizarro world. Foreign bureaus had been axed, news divisions gutted. But that hadn’t stopped the paper from fi nishing the construction of an $8 million split-level test kitchen, equipped with webcams that captured, with C-SPAN-like detail, images of mushrooms in midnight marinade. The food department’s staff included six full-time reporters, more than the entire local bureau. As a result, the earnest Courier reader, fl ipping through his morning paper, might not learn a whit about sub-Saharan famine or South of Market homelessness—but he’d likely come away with trenchant insights on how to make the most of fresh garbanzo beans.<br /> <br /> “Give it a nice light touch,” Hunt was saying. “This isn’t your classic food story. Think of it as agriculture meets pop culture.” Tuckwall ground his teeth and gazed out the window, fi ve stories above San Francisco. He considered leaping through it, but instead grabbed his notebook and walked downstairs.<br /> <br /> THE SUN WAS BEAMING BRIGHTLY, and Market Street teemed with the usual suspects: skate punks and panhandlers, fashion-plate artistes in Clark Kent glasses, harried Vcs barking into Bluetooth headsets as they beat a hurried path to the Hotel Vitale, where their next billion awaited in the form of a fresh-faced Stanford geek.<br /> <br /> Where Market Street dead-ended at the water, the gray frame of the Bay Bridge spliced the horizon, fronted by the clock tower of the Ferry Building, the city’s sprawling culinary showpiece—a bayside gourmet mall. From his vantage point several blocks uptown, Tuckwall could make out swarms of shoppers, streaming toward the entrance like ants toward wedding cake.<br /> <br /> Who didn’t love the Ferry Building? Farm stands sprouted on its plaza, brimming with seasonal bounty and staffed by goodly caretakers of the earth. Inside, storefronts catered to the Bay Area’s bottomless demand for quince jam, truffl ed sea salt, and lemon quark. Every artisanal item was house-ground or hand-sorted, shade-grown or love-showered, produced without pesticides or peasant labor, then brought to market in a manner that assuaged the liberal gourmand’s conscience. The upshot was that a wellintentioned grazer at the Ferry Building could stuff himself to the point of duodenal hemorrhage, while still getting the sense that he was doing his part to save the world. It drove Tuckwall batty almost as much as it delighted him.<br /> <br /> Childhood friends in Baltimore made rousing sport of his adoptive home, ribbing Tuckwall for the fey sensibilities of San Francisco, the epicurean prissiness that he’d taken on steadily over the years. “Make the world a better place,” they liked to say. “Punch a foodie in the face.” This from a benighted crew of Cro-Magnons who thought a Yukon gold was an SUV, and whose idea of fresh garnish was opening a relish pack at Camden Yards. On his rare trips back east, what Tuckwall dreaded most wasn’t the searing sarcasm or the frigid winters. It was the hopeless search for greens that didn’t need defrosting.<br /> <br /> In San Francisco, Tuckwall spent half his monthly income on borage, heirloom berries, and Belgian endive. The other half went to a one-bedroom apartment that, experts warned, would liquefy in the Big One. It was a fl agrantly irrational, exorbitant lifestyle destined to end badly: in bankruptcy or buried in the rubble of a ruined bridge.<br /> <br /> It was worth the risk. Having come west for a job, Tuckwall had tasted enlightenment. At this point, there was no going back.<br /> <br /> He had some time to spare, so he turned off Market Street down a cobblestone alley closed to traffi c. He stopped beneath a small sign that marked the entrance to the Teeny Panini, a takeout nook that Tuckwall adored not for the cherry tones of its Kenyan coffee or the feel-good origins of its cured meat, but for the radiant presence of its owner, the loveliest sandwich maker in the world.<br /> <br /> Edie Brandt was in her usual spot behind the counter, shaping a rosette on a macchiato’s cloudy surface. She wore her brown hair braided to her shoulders, a scrunch-faced look of concentration, and loose-fi tting overalls that hid her ’50s-pinup curves.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall watched her through the window, his chest expanding. Air billowed straight into his heart.<br /> <br /> It was always like this, seeing Edie. More so now that she was slipping from him.<br /> <br /> “The cynicism,” she’d said on the last night they spent together. “It was funny for the fi rst fi ve years.” “Realism, Edie. Realism.” “Really, David. You need to build a bridge and get over yourself.” OK. Done. The hard part would be getting over her.<br /> <br /> From the sidewalk, Tuckwall sent a text. Can I see you tonight?<br /> <br /> He squinted through the window.<br /> <br /> Edie looked up from the milk steamer and down at her iPhone. She stashed it away.<br /> <br /> Chest defl ated, Tuckwall moved back into the urban hustle, braced for the absurdities of the day.<br /> <br /> OVERLOOKING THE BAY, on a makeshift stage behind the Ferry Building, a bluegrass band was playing under a banner that read “Let Us Now Raise Famous Produce”—the name of a goofball contest that the Courier deemed worthy of front-page play. It had been born as a joke a few years back, when a stoned college dropout, working the spring harvest on an organic farm, snapped a cell-phone photo of a green zebra tomato in which he saw the face of Winston Churchill.<br /> <br /> Submitted as a lark, yet published in the next morning’s paper, the picture struck a chord with both Courier readers and Central Valley farmers, who began scouring their crops with fresh priorities in mind, marveling at the quirky shapes they took. Celebrity produce became a monthly feature in the Courier’s food section, which soon gave rise to a contest replete with corporate sponsors, cash prizes, and a threejudge panel of local culinary personalities. When Tuckwall arrived, they were sitting on the stage behind a wooden table piled with perishables, tapping their feet to the bluegrass twang.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall found a spot at the back of the crowd: detached, impartial, a hard-bitten scribe on a pressing assignment.<br /> <br /> “There he is, the Bob Woodward of his generation,” croaked a smoke-wrecked voice behind him.<br /> <br /> There stood Marty Copeland, an ex-cop saddled with security detail for the mayor. Dressed in a wrinkled oxford and a shabby gray sport jacket, he was double-fi sting: a Marlboro pinched between a yellowed thumb and forefi nger, a gloopy brown drink in his other hand.<br /> <br /> “Frappuccino?” asked Tuckwall.<br /> <br /> Copeland shook his head. “Iced vanilla soy latte,” he rasped. “I’m lactose-intolerant.” “Funny,” said Tuckwall. “I’m lactose intolerant–intolerant.” Copeland grinned. “I hear there’s a homeopathic remedy for that.” Tuckwall liked him. One of those rare Bay Area lefties who hadn’t had his sense of humor surgically removed.<br /> <br /> They’d met during Mayor Oldman’s fi rst administration, when the offi cial had acquired a reputation for appetites that no amount of food could sate. In those days, Copeland doubled as the mayor’s media point man. The press loved him, good as he was for an on-the-record quote or an off-the-record wisecrack.<br /> <br /> His parrying in response to salacious inquiries about his boss’s inclinations (“The mayor did not have sexual relations, or a brothel-style gang bang, with those women”) remained, years later, one of Tuckwall’s favorite moments in San Francisco public life.<br /> <br /> “Boss here?” asked Tuckwall.<br /> Whenever he saw Copeland at powder-puff events, he kept to superfi cial shoptalk, the better for both their self-esteems.<br /> <br /> “Wouldn’t miss it,” Copeland said. “He heard there were some centerfold-worthy melons.” Indeed there were. An orange honeydew with Scarlett Johansson’s curves, grown by a farmer in Salinas. By contest’s end, it had edged out a split decision for the runner-up, between a cherimoya (Abe Vigoda), a Rosa Bianca eggplant (Salma Hayek), and a celery root that resembled Boris Yeltsin or Verne Lundquist, depending on how you held it up to the light.<br /> Oldman himself announced the winner.<br /> <br /> “I could use a new intern,” the mayor joked, caressing the melon. Through a charismatic form of political jujitsu, Oldman had turned his reputation into a mildly outrageous charm.<br /> <br /> There was a mix of chuckles and hisses from the crowd. The bluegrass band struck up a tune, and TV cameras swarmed the triumphant farmer. Tuckwall took that as his cue to bid farewell to Copeland and dash back to his desk.<br /> <br /> IT WAS JUST PAST NOON. Hunt was in his offi ce, chuckling over YouTube clips of a Japanese speed eater.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall slouched at his computer and pecked out a lead.<br /> <br /> “Certain cinephiles suggest that Scarlett Johansson has nice melons. But on Tuesday afternoon at the Ferry Building, judges saw it the other way around.” He looked it over. Far from his fi nest work, although it merited points for cryptic titillation. As if anyone would read past the second paragraph.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall knew the drill. He’d send the story to Hunt, who would blather something about revisions.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall would change a comma to a semicolon, and the editor would give him the green light. If all went as expected, he’d be home by fi ve o’clock, dreaming up ways to rebrand himself to Edie as a cuddly optimist.<br /> <br /> EMAIL HAD BACKED UP in Tuckwall’s inbox. Press releases, story pitches. Here was a novel idea: How about a round-up of restaurants that relied on grass-fed beef? Delete. Delete. Delete.<br /> <br /> On his desk, a pile of product samples made for good procrastination. A large cardboard box contained a miniature bottle of bacon-infused vodka. He’d pass it on to his favorite wino. That goldplated chocolate bar? An unnecessary bribe for the stroke job he’d be forced to write about Ghirardelli Square.<br /> <br /> Next in the stack, a fat, padded envelope made of recycled paper. ATTN: DAVID TUCKWALL, it shrieked, with a bold-lettered message scrawled across its seal: “A MATTER OF NATIONAL IMPORTANCE!” Tuckwall doubted that.<br /> <br /> Inside the envelope was a letter. No, a proclamation. A dozen pages of hand-printed prose and, stapled to the last page, a grainy photograph.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall squinted at the image.<br /> <br /> It was a picture of a man perched on a stool inside a cage, feet bound, body plastered with white feathers, a tube protruding from his mouth.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall swiveled in his chair. One cubicle over, a junior copyeditor was engrossed in Facebook.<br /> <br /> Across the way, an unpaid intern was shattering the offi ce Tetris record.<br /> “Rupert!” Tuckwall called out.<br /> <br /> His editor ambled over.<br /> “Check this out,” said Tuckwall.<br /> <br /> The big man snatched the photo. His mouth dropped open.<br /> “Holy shit,” he gasped. “That bird…it looks just like Jock Rapini!”<br /> <br />

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