Sunday, December 03, 2006

Saturday Nights and "The Love Boat"

I don't know what your excuse might be for watching "The Love Boat" on Saturday nights in the 70's and 80's, but I was earning $4 an hour babysitting for the Farstad family. At age fifteen, watching Julie McCoy guide passengers through the trials of love - while Isaac tended every bar on the ship simultaneously and Doc picked up the women who rejected Gopher - resulted in an acceptable night of babysitting.

Well, tonight I'm spending another Saturday night with Julie McCoy as my guide to the high life, except that now she is just "Cindy" and she is acting as sous chef for the former chef of Canlis, Greg Atkinson, at a private dinner party in a Woodinville home. I can't believe my luck. I have been invited as the friend of a friend; the party is a Christmas gift by my friend's friend's sister, who tracked down Greg and asked him to do this party a year ago. Greg had agreed, since he is now a restaurant consultant, living on Bainbridge Island without the pressures of running a three and a half star restaurant.

Already experiencing overload at the thought of the evening in front of me, Jaci calls again to tell me about Greg's sous chef. "Can you believe it? We will be spending another Saturday night with Julie McCoy after all these years!" Another friend tells me that she may look very different - not only because of age - but because she had been dismissed from "The Love Boat" because of a drug addiction.

Jaci meets me at the door and informs me that "no one is mentioning 'The Love Boat'." Evidently, someone said something at the beginning, and the comment had been met with silence. The kitchen is busy but low key, and the ten or so who are standing around the large granite counter are engaged in lively conversation. Greg is soft spoken, instructing those who want to listen, while Cindy is silent, anticipating his every move. She is making dirty dishes disappear, handing him knives, scraping up loose flour and filling spinach flan cups.

I am studying her to glimpse a remnant of the perky, sex-kitten cruise director but without the clipboard, the smile and the curly blonde hair- and with the addition of two decades, black-rimmed glasses and 40 pounds- I just can't see it. So when I walk over to flip through Greg's new cookbook, West Coast Cooking, near her station, she surprises me by flashing that familiar smile. "That is a fun book" she says, and there she is: Julie McCoy. I ask her how long she has been helping Greg and she says she only does it a few times per year. She works as a cheese steward at the Broadway QFC; she got the job after finishing culinary arts school.

Culinary school student, cheese counter steward, and former sex symbol who defined pop culture for the good part of a decade. Where do you go with your questioning?

"Where did you go to culinary school?" I ask her.

I have studied the programs of every culinary arts school in the city, so am intrigued when she answers with the name of the school I someday hope to attend, South Seattle Community College. "My husband died a few years ago from a very expensive disease and I realized I had to earn some money," she tells me as she's washing out a mixing bowl containing butter cream for the yule log. "I wanted to do something new, so it turned out that going to culinary school was part of my grieving process. Because I had been so successful as an actress - I've worked with the biggest stars in Hollywood- I didn't feel I had anything to prove, so I did what I wanted and needed to do."

It is a loaded answer. Where would you go with it? She is offering me entrance into her Julie McCoy world and her personal world in just one paragraph.

But at that very moment, Greg needs her. It's time to plate the food: winter greens with a sweet orange vinagrette, roast tenderloin of beef, "Gary's mom's rolls," and spinach flan. But guess what. There is an open seat next to mine, so after the salad course, she takes it. When she sits down, she is all smiles and laughter, facilitating the table conversation like any good cruise directors would. Because of this, the wine, and the softest of tenderloins, I don't feel pressured to ask the right questions anymore; I feel happy and comfortable and just ask what I really want to know.

"When you decided to go to culinary school, did you have some kind of vision in mind for what you wanted to do with your skills?"

She pauses, relaxes and answers a definite "Yes." "What I want to do, well, I want to work in a retirement home. I want to get to know residents and their families. I will find out what they used to cook, what their families loved to eat, and then - knowing that I could never do it as well as they could- I want to recreate that meal for them. Because, you know, food is everything to those people. It's what they look forward to all day."

I tell her that my 92 year-old grandma just moved into an assisted living facility a few weeks ago, and that the food definitely sealed the hard deal for her; it was the first thing she mentioned. She, my aunt and my uncle had been unsure of where to have their Thanksgiving meal, and had decided to try the buffet, even though it was her first day in her new home. My grandma told me it had been "as good as any homemade Thanksgiving meal I've ever had, and we could go back as many times as we wanted."

Cindy is thrilled with my story. "Where does she live?" she asks, and I think that if I say "Seattle," she will meet with my grandma tomorrow, interviewing her about homemade noodles, pot roast and pickled beets. We talk about cooking with our grandmas, then the table moves on through a myraid of topics, none of them to do with cruise ships.

After dessert and clean up, Cindy packs up her things to go. She hands me a card that says "Cindy Tewes, cheese steward & personal chef" and I tell her I will drop in and say hello when I am on Capital Hill. I ask her if she is doing any acting locally and she says she is auditioning for a play at ACT. "I'll keep my eye out for your name," I tell her.

And with that, she slips into the darkness, out of another Saturday night. It's been 20 some years since the last time I saw her at the Farstad house; since then who knows what hardships she has been through, but she seems to have found a bit of peace behind the cheese counter at QFC. Not so unlike the rest of us.