From Issue 2: Makers
Text by Daniel Isengart
Illustration by Ego Rodriguez
During my first visit to New York City, around Christmas in 1992, I was staying with a très gay former Pan Am flight attendant who kindly acted as my flamboyant, private tour guide. Les Musts de Gay of New York included strolls through the West Village, Saturday night at the Roxy, and, significantly, a pilgrimage to Barneys (then located on Seventh Avenue and 18th Street) to view the legendary window displays masterminded by the store’s British wunderkind and enfant terrible, Simon Doonan. I remember being thunderstruck by the phantasmagorical tableaux that insouciantly mixed glamour, fantasy, and whimsy, offering a mad hatter’s view of the city and its Zeitgeist as a playful whirlpool of creative spirits. I knew right then and there that I, as the song says, wanted to “be a part of it.” Four months later, I made the move.
Fast forward twenty-three years and I’ve sent an inquiry to the man himself, asking if he’ll agree to this interview. The response arrives pronto: “But I am the last person you should be interviewing about food!” This brings a smile to my face. Read any of Simon’s books or essays (or watch any of his hilarious talk show appearances or an episode of Beautiful People, the campy BBC series based on his autobiography of the same title) and there’s no doubt that he’s the kind of man you could interview about virtually anything. Still, I might not have thought of approaching him for a feature in a gay food magazine had I not read his delightful 2012 collection of essays, Gay Men Don’t Get Fat, in which he makes a hyperbolic case for the gay advantage and lessons to be learned from it, reaching far beyond our preciously guarded waistline. Not to mention that Simon is one of the few men around who still fluently speaks polari, the pre-modern British gay slang from which this magazine borrowed its name. In short, I am undeterred.
Eventually, Simon agrees to the interview. He politely dodges my proposal to do it during a shared cooking session: “Let’s rather have a light lunch and talk about my obsession with health food.” This last part all but stops me in my tracks. Health food? My personal opinion about health food is probably akin to Simon’s attitude about Hawaiian print shirts or man boobs. But then I remember that Simon Doonan is not a normal human being but a British dandy and provocateur in the tradition of Oscar Wilde, who spent his prison time in the jail of Reading, Doonan’s hometown in the South East of England, and Quentin Crisp, whom he knew personally when they were both still living in London. With that in mind, I put on my most stylish outfit (a black turtleneck and black slacks that I pray will read as French, steak-frites-eating existentialiste, or at least as an homage to the late gay fashion designer Halston) and slip a little jar of wild fennel pollen-infused fleur de sel, another of crushed dried habanero peppers, and a small flask of excellent extra virgin olive oil into my handbag, and head to Angelica Kitchen, the East Village landmark health food restaurant where we agreed to meet.
I arrive five minutes early, nervous. I met Simon only once before, briefly, at a dinner I’d been hired to cook for—the hostess had graciously introduced me to him, but his remote and polite demeanor made it impossible for me to figure out if he had cared at all for the seasonal Italian menu I served. To my distress, he’s already there, seated at a sunny spot by the window, cordially chatting with the restaurant’s owner, a disarmingly sweet lady of a certain age whom you’d never expect to pull off running a restaurant in competitive New York City for over thirty years.
But I am really a total philistine about food.
It all goes back to the way I was brought up in England. Basically, I grew up eating gruel, like Oliver Twist.
Daniel Isengart: So this is your go-to lunch place?
Simon Doonan: I come here all the time. Jonny [Jonathan Adler, potter and designer—and Simon’s husband] is a raging carnivore, so I usually come here alone.
DI: It must not be easy to have diverging tastes in food for a couple. How do you two negotiate shared meals?
SD: We meet in the middle. I used to be a vegetarian—there was a period when everyone was a vegetarian. But I am really a total philistine about food. It all goes back to the way I was brought up in England. Basically, I grew up eating gruel, like Oliver Twist. There were still rather extreme food shortages from the war, and my sister and I were literally a tad undernourished when we were young. Even later, when I moved to London, the food was just terrible. There was nothing really between greasy spoons, what we called transport cafeterias, and the Ritz. Whereas now it’s amazing!
[Our waiter arrives with plate of rice crackers and lentil-walnut paté. Simon already knows what he wants: the über-macrobiotic house classic, a combination platter with an array of brown rice, tofu, and steamed vegetables. I order the special Norimaki roll with pickled red beets and a side of house-made kimchee.]
SD: The owner of this place is a hero. It’s quite an achievement to keep a place open for so many years and run it with high ethical standards and a health food agenda.
DI: When did you get hooked onto the idea of health food?
SD: My mother got me into it. She was very glam, a Lana Turner kind of lady, with that severe, stylish Forties look. She became obsessed with Gayelord Hauser, the reigning health guru in Hollywood, and put us all on his diet.
DI: Gayelord is quite a name for a health guru!
SD: He was a really big deal, way ahead of his time. He practically invented the celebrity diet and was a close friend of Greta Garbo. He advocated eating what he called superfoods, things like brewer’s yeast, wheat germ, blackstrap molasses, and buttermilk.
DI: It sounds rather awful. When did you discover that food can actually be delicious?
SD: I never had any positive associations around food. I still tend to eat very ascetically, which is why I love coming here. I always look for simple foods to eat.
DI: You’re a purist.
I’m neurotic. My friend and I used to paraphrase Madonna’s “Erotic” and sing to each other, “Neurotic, neurotic, we’re completely macrobiotic.”
SD: [Smiling] No, I’m neurotic. My friend and I used to paraphrase Madonna’s “Erotic” and sing to each other, “Neurotic, neurotic, we’re completely macrobiotic.” The way my mother saw it, food was never about taste, it was always about health and beauty. That was the secret to Gayelord’s success: He knew how to play the vanity card with women like her. He was the first to connect food consciousness with physical beauty and glamour.
DI: [Reaching for my condiments to give the inevitably bland paté a little boost] For me, food has always been about pleasure.
SD: [Amused by my portable pantry but not in the least tempted by it] My goodness! You’re hardcore! Well, that was an entirely new concept to me when I met Jonny. His family is Jewish, so food culture is a very central issue in his life. No one had ever told me to eat more until I had dinner with his family. In my life, it had always been, “Don’t eat too much, you’ll only get fat.”
DI: But when I look at you, I get a sense that you’re just a naturally thin type. You could probably eat whatever you wanted and remain thin—like me.
SD: I really don’t respond to food that way. Food just never played a big role in my life. Now that suddenly everybody is so into it, it’s rather puzzling to me. At Barneys, we often organize cocktail parties, and I have seen people get physically excited about the mere idea of hors d’oeuvres! I can’t deal with hors d’oeuvres. I always get one stuck in my throat and someone has to perform the Heimlich maneuver on me.
DI: Oh yes, the popularity of those little things. There, I’m with you. I want real food!
[As if on cue, our lunch arrives.]
SD: When I did my last set of Christmas windows for Barney’s, back in 2010 [before he became the store’s eminent Creative Ambassador-at-Large], food culture had become such a big deal in America that I decided to make it the theme of the season. I called it Have a Foodie Holiday. I had to study this whole new world of celebrity chefs. I could not believe how many there were, and there was such a wide range from lowbrow to high-brow. Some of them were wonderfully interesting and eccentric, like Lidia Bastianich. To me, it was like learning a new language. We created a food fight scene [a very gothic tableau with, among other delicatessen, Mario Batali‘s severed head on a platter, his mouth stuffed with a beefsteak tomato and with a necklace made of his signature orange clogs], one window with “Revolutionary Stew” [simmering with the likes of Julia Child and Jamie Oliver peeking out a huge pot], and a “Wall of Innovators” with Alice Waters. She’s the one I still connect with, and I love to go to her restaurant. Her I get. Because it’s about seasonal and fresh food. The way I see it, and I am old enough to remember its beginnings, the whole food movement started with people like her who were part of the West Coast countercultural movement and started alternative food co-ops and communes.
DI: I think of my lunch at the upstairs café at Chez Panisse as one of the best meals I ever had. There was a sense of humane balance to every detail. But it’s a long way from Waters’ brand of Provençale cuisine to health food and macrobiotics.
My commitment to macro came about when I lived in LA, in the early eighties. It was the beginning of the AIDS crisis. A friend of mine had been diagnosed with the disease, and since science was at the time still at a complete loss as to how to fight it, I took him to a health food store.
SD: My commitment to macro came about when I lived in LA, in the early eighties. It was the beginning of the AIDS crisis. A friend of mine had been diagnosed with the disease, and since science was at the time still at a complete loss as to how to fight it, I took him to a health food store. There, we found out about macro. It soon became very fashionable. I still love to eat macro—I think macrobiotically. But I am not a proselytizer. I know people who eat nothing but junk food and seem quite healthy.
DI: Well, that’s America. Every extreme is always present, and everything is always happening at the same time.
SD: The other thing that was very popular in LA at the time was theme restaurants—Hawaiian, Malaysian, Mexican, Scandinavian. Those places were celebratory and fun, not so much about the food but about the whole scene, the décors, the people. Now it’s the food itself that has become trendy. The thing about the food world is that it’s almost too easy to make fun of it now because it’s already so insane and over the top with its improbable flavor combinations, kooky inventions, and molecular tricks. I was a guest judge on Iron Chef once. The main ingredient of the challenge was sparkling wine, and the dishes the chefs came up with were just bizarre. Who wants to eat that? For me, it’s all very Jaques Tati [legendary French filmmaker whose 1958 film, Mon Oncle, ridiculed popular obsession with modernity]. Now you go to a popular restaurant and they serve you rhubarb-and-anchovy-flavored rice krispies dangling from little wire hangers. Most people seem to rather enjoy this over-the-top creativity in food, but to me, it’s its worst enemy. I prefer something plain. [With a sly wink] In fashion, I am very creatively involved, but when it comes to food, I’m basically a lesbian.
DI: Oh, but lesbian chefs are producing a very different kind of food nowadays! Many of my favorite New York chefs are lesbians—Rebecca Charles, April Bloomfield, Jody Williams … Their food is quite bold, with lots of character and strong flavors yet very different form what I call “dude food.” It’s never cocky.
SD: That’s probably their reaction against this notion that gay women only eat politically correct food, like lentils.
DI: I come from a different place altogether: My relationship to food is closely linked to cooking. When a dish is great, I want to know what it would feel like to make it, and when it’s merely good, I wonder how I would improve it. In a way, I get more pleasure from cooking than from eating.
SD: That’s because you’re in that world, that’s your job. For me, it’s more like: this is edible, this does not taste terrible.
Back home, I ponder Simon’s words. It dawns on me how valuable and refreshing it is to hear someone politely dismiss the current, near-hysterical canon of food worship. I’m reminded of Quentin Crisp, who wrote a defining book on how to have style at the same time that he claimed he only bothers to wash his dinner plate after eating fish. And I think of Oscar Wilde, whose preoccupation with food, for all I can tell, may not have gone further than what he achieved by imbuing a character in The Importance of Being Earnest with an uncontrollable partiality for cucumber sandwiches. If he were alive today, who would expect him to wax poetic about locavorism or the newest hot sauce? Sometimes, we must remind ourselves that food is just food.
Still, I want to convince Simon that there is a new direction in the food movement that combines the eternal lightness of being with culinary sophistication—and that gay men may very well be ahead of the curve in developing it. Just a week later, I get my wish as I find myself seated next to him during a seasonal dinner benefit co-presented by Jarry and GMHC and hosted by Simon. The menu is by out chef Steven Satterfield of the award-winning restaurant Miller Union in Atlanta, and it strikes me as a perfect example for the kind of food I truly admire—full of character yet made with a light touch. And there, as we taste Satterfield’s gently roasted root vegetables, beets with fennel and citrus, and a juicy guinea hen confit, Simon ever so casually utters the magical words: “This is delicious!” ///