Friday, June 22, 2012

No One's in the Kitchen with Johnny

The old man and the sea: Johnny Conte in his kitchen in Rockland, Maine. Summer, 2010.
The junk pile outside of Conte's. Not everyone finds it charming . . .
If you are in Maine this summer, you should go to Rockland and pay a visit to my old boyfriend John Conte’s seafood restaurant. It’s called Conte’s Fish Market, or at least it was the last time I looked. It may have changed by now. But not to worry. Whatever the name, you can’t miss the place. It’s right on Main Street. It's an institution. Although nothing stays the same at Conte’s, because Johnny Conte’s point of view and philosophy of living are pretty constantly in flux, I can promise you the dining experience at Conte's like no other. Eating there is kind of like going to the principal’s office for dinner. You’re in trouble, suspect, merely for showing up. Go there knowing that you will be subjected to a bizarre presentation. You could compare John Conte to Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. Ask for ziti instead of spaghetti, or shrimp instead of scallops, and you risk the wrath of Johnny’s generally gnarly mood. Your waitress will advise you on Johnny's shade of gloom that evening. Generally, the report is not sunny. The menu is handwritten on a chalkboard, at the door, and patrons must decide, before being seated, what it is they want for dinner. No lingering over the menu. No cocktail hour. Don't ask questions! You make a commitment at the start, which is so strange because making a commitment is something Johnny Conte could never do. He is a lifelong bachelor. That John has never married gives me some satisfaction. Back in the day I loved Johnny desperately, and surely would have married him. But he would not marry, then or ever. Me or anyone. His restaurant is his fish wife, his own Molly Malone.
We were young and we were merry. N.Y. 1971
Kathy & June at the chalkboard menu. Rockland, 2007.
     My brother Rocky, who was once Johnny’s best friend, has for many years been in love with Kathy, a woman who followed me on Johnny’s long list of romantic conquests, way back when. Rocky and Kathy have been lovers for many years, sometimes taking long breaks from each other, then reuniting for fresh attempts at harmonic bliss. But Kathy (who works at L.L. Bean, another Maine institution) is just an aside here. The point of this story is Johnny Conte, who might be a genius, and is definitely quite mad. And not in a particularly charming way.
The menu.
Aw shucks. Johnny being interviewed by Tony Bourdain. Rockland. 2010.
     When food writer Anthony Bourdain’s television crew showed up at Conte’s, they were advised that Johnny did not come out of the kitchen for anybody. Ever. And in my experience this is true. Once John sent out to the table of my husband Michael and me a lobster clutching in its claw a postcard from Key West I’d sent him years earlier. Michael got a kick out of that. But Johnny has never appeared to meet my husband. Nonetheless, Michael is one of the reclusive Conte's most ardent fans.  Bourdain was granted an interview with the infamously kooky Chef Conte. Later, in his blog, Bourdain spoke disparagingly of Johnny’s haughty attitude. It is difficult to imagine two bigger egos.
     One time when we dined at Conte’s Johnny told me he’d been taking painting classes in New York City. He showed me a framed painting of a simple bedroom.  Raw. Achingly lonely.  I was awestruck. I knew Johnny loved to paint, but I’d had no idea he was so good. Had I made a big mistake? Maybe I should have hung on a bit longer. Had I missed out on being the great artist’s muse?
     The next day Michael and I wandered through a bookstore. I came upon a picture book of Van Gogh’s greatest hits. I leafed through it. And there, on page 27, was Johnny’s painting. Precisely the same image Johnny had shown me in his restaurant a day earlier. Years later I took a painting class with Rick Worth here in Key West. Rick’s teaching technique is brilliant. He instructs his students, step by step, on how to mix colors and use technique to create a duplicate of a genuine work of art mounted before them at the front of the room. The results are quite extraordinary. Everybody walks away with a great little painting, and you can see how the amateur might think the work is actually their work. And that’s how, I assume, Johnny Conte came to pass off Van Gogh’s, "Bedroom at Arles" as his own.
Van Gogh's famous, "Bedroom at Arles." 1888.
     But that was such a long time ago. When all is said and done I must confess I owe a great debt of gratitude to that man. I learned from him how to make a divine marinara sauce. He is why I came to Key West. I came here after Johnny broke my heart. And, as I said before, the trail of broken hearts is bloody and long.
Miguel wearing his Conte's T-shirt, circa 1975.
     When he was around ten years old I took my son with me when I visited with Johnny Conte.  As Johnny and I talked over old times, Miguel played in the crazy/chic junktique collection in the yard of his (at that time) New York restaurant. Johnny drank many glasses of wine. Miguel dubbed my first great love “Johnny Chianti.”
     Now my son is a grown man, with a girlfriend from Maine. This summer he’s going there, and we’ve told Miguel that anyone who goes to Maine must visit Conte’s Fish Market restaurant in Rockland. Go for the incredible food. Go for the outrageousness. I’ve told him to be sure to announce his presence to John Conte, because I like to think my son is someone Johnny would come out of the kitchen to see. It's a common mistake, over-estimating John Conte's interest in you and yours. President Harry Truman famously said: "if you can't stand the heat stay out of the kitchen." But in John Conte's world, I think it's the other way around, as things often are for the eccentric chef. I think John stays in the kitchen precisely because he can't stand the heat.

1 comment:

  1. June this Postcard has brilliance.

    And you look great!