|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 . . .|
|We were young and we were merry. N.Y. 1971|
|Kathy & June at the chalkboard menu. Rockland, 2007.|
|Aw shucks. Johnny being interviewed by Tony Bourdain. Rockland. 2010.|
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.|
|Miguel wearing his Conte's T-shirt, circa 1975.|
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.