Thursday, January 14, 2016

A story of solo dining, loss and lemon chicken ... Tenx9's food night.

Tenx9 has a simple format. Nine people with ten minutes each to tell a true story. Once a month, Tenx9’s co-creators Paul Doran and Pádraig Ó Tuama select a topic and two hundred people fill the Black Box to hear the tales, three at a time before a short break to recharge glasses at the bar.

Last night was like a free nine course pot luck supper. Succulent stories, savouring the flavours of other places and other times, insight into the ingredients of the characters behind the microphone. Above all, everyone enjoying the freedom to earwig on other people’s experiences (and often their unintentionally comical misfortune).

Taking the subject of ‘Food’ to coincide with the Out to Lunch Arts Festival, each of the storytellers took a different approach. Here’s my story which long time blog readers may recall from my posts in 2007. You can taste a few more crumbs from the evening over in my post on Sugarpiece.  Tenx9 is back on Sunday 21 February in the Black Box with a “Back to the Future” theme for NI Science Festival. Paul and Pádraig would love to hear your story.

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“You’re back. You’ll have your usual then? Lemon chicken, fried rice, a can of Diet Coke wasn’t it, and I’ll bring you some mixed hors d'oeuvres to start.”

No menu was offered. There was never any need. No questions about whether I was waiting for someone to join me, or whether I wanted to see the wine list. No fuss. Just a table for two, and a set of cutlery removed.

I travelled a lot to London over the years with work, staying two or three days at a time. I had some really good colleagues and bosses over the years, but I’m an introvert. Myers Briggs would give be a big capital I. So I need ‘me time’, time to myself away from constant conversation about work, fantastical dissection of the office politics and senior manager shenanigans, and all that frivolous stuff.

So I had a routine. Every town or city that I visited in over twenty years with BT, I’d no more than a handful of restaurants that I’d select from. Places of comfort. Places where a solo diner could slip in and out without being hassled.

The first time was always awkward, but if the waiting staff’s shifts matched up with my typical pattern of visits, they get to know you.

Fish and Chips in the Loch Fyne in St Albans, with Adi the waiter who could find me a seat if I caught his eye even when the manager had already said they were fully booked.

Ipswich was a tough city. A van reversed into the best restaurant and it had to close due to the structural damage. Nowhere else was ever as homely.

The third visit is the key one. If they don’t raise their eyebrows that you’ve just ordered the same thing for a third week in a row, I know I’m onto a winner. A new haunt has passed the test and been added to the list of safe places to eat.

So I walked the length of the main Chinatown thoroughfare in London. It had to be somewhere within a few minutes of the Curzon Soho – London’s version of the QFT, or should that be the other way round? – with proper films, independent and world cinema, only a few hundred yards from the big chains in Leicester Square and their weekly red carpet premieres.

The other requirement was the starter. I love sesame toast. It’s probably not very healthy. Definitely not healthy. But as your front incisors take a bite, your tongue feels the sesame seeds on top, and then you catch a taste of the prawns sandwiched between the slices of bread. Divine. They’ll serve sesame toast in heaven and it won’t put an inch on anyone’s waistline.

The sesame toast might even come with the bonus of a bit of crunchy green seaweed that you chase around the plate, unable to pick it all up, and a spring roll. Maybe even a bit of chicken on a skewer, or one of those yucky ribs that messes up your fingers. Urghh.

But on the menus in the windows or displayed on stands outside most of the restaurants, the words “mixed hors d'oeuvres” were immediately followed by “minimum 2 persons”, in brackets. One by one the potential eating places dismissed themselves from my evening dinner.

I was disheartened, and increasingly hungry. I reached the end of the main street and spotted a few more outlets facing me, running along Wardour Street. And there it was. Yungs. It was anything but glitzy with none of the gold mirrored fixtures and fittings that tarted up the other identikit restaurants. But it had ten or so tables downstairs and another 15 upstairs. And crucially it said “mixed hors d'oeuvres” with no brackets and no exclusions.

“You do the plate of starters for one?” I checked before sitting down. “Yes!” the waiter answered as if it was a stupid question.

And that’s how it started. Probably once a fortnight over four or five years I’d wander down the London street. More often than not, the tall young waiter would be standing in the doorway, trying to attract trade into the dowdy restaurant. He’d simply step back, push open the inner door and usher me to a table.

Sometimes I’d sit with a book or a magazine, or a thick bundle of treasury tagged papers for Audience Council that I needed to read for later in the week. Plates would be set down on the table wherever there was room. There was no rearranging: I owned the layout of the table, not them! There was no small talk. A few times I spotted a bit of chittering between staff: I was definitely on the eccentric watch list, but no matter. Asking for a VAT receipt to put into the expenses envelope was a complicated request: like many taxi receipts, sometimes I was left to fill in the slip of paper myself.

I walked past one night and the restaurant was dark. My heart sank. There was a note in the door. Family bereavement? Illness? Power cut? But the darkness was more sinister. The darkness that smoke and fire leaves on the inside of a window. The night before there had been a blaze in the kitchen and they couldn’t open. “Hopefully open in two weeks” said the notice.

Each time I’d walk past, but it was never open. I stopped passing as regularly, never replacing it with another Chinese – that would be disloyal, and besides no sesame toast and seaweed for one anywhere else. The Angus Steakhouse on the next street was soulless. The gourmet burger bar was noisy. I switched to eating in Covent Garden and then hightailing it back to Leicester Square (it’s faster above ground than taking the tube) and into the cinema.

While I’m that introvert who is happy to eat alone, I do enjoy the feeling of being on the outskirts of community in these remote locations. A home away from home to be accepted as you are into someone’s kitchen – okay, restaurant – to dine. There’s a sense of belonging when you get to feed football results to Adi in the Lock Fyne who had a book running with some of the other waiters and the chef.

But the loss of Yungs was a bereavement. Gone too soon. A relationship with a nameless waiter cut off. No more sickly lemon chicken.

Seven months later I walked past – out of habit rather than hope – and there was still no one standing in the doorway. But there was light inside. I went up the step, pushed open the door and the red padded chairs and furnishings were back. Musak was playing. Coming down round the narrow bend of the stairs was the young tall waiter. He smiled!

“You’re back. You’ll have your usual then? Lemon chicken, fried rice, a can of Diet Coke wasn’t it, and I’ll bring you some mixed hors d'oeuvres to start.”

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