the baloney chef

by dm gillis

Vancouver, 1952

He was a tenor, and though no one could say if he was classically trained, when he wept, he did so with perfect pitch. And so, when his neighbours in the Hotel Empress heard his mournful sobs, they would say nothing and listen. His weeping was like a tragic climax to a third act, and those who listened couldn’t help but consider deeply the pitiable pathos that sometimes bleeds into the world. He never shared the secret of why he was so prone to lament. After all, what would be the purpose of one more sad man, on a planet of sad men, revealing his story for humankind to ponder?

This being said, it is also worth noting that there were days when he was filled with overwhelming joy. On those days, he walked against the Hastings Street crowd, tipping his hat to the ladies and singing enthusiastically an aria from Vincenzo Bellini or Giuseppe Verdi. He’d stand for hours at the corner of Main and Hastings singing in his perfect operatic Italian. Not for the nickels and dimes passers-by threw his way, but for the profound delight that came from the expressions of love and calamity that lived in the libretti. Even the beat cops of the day, instructed to move the indigent on, never forced the tenor to move. All in all, he was viewed by most as a sympathetic and heroic character.

Whatever it might have been once, and though it shares its name with many grander establishments in the world, by the time the tenor came to live there, the Hotel Empress in Vancouver had seen better days, as had the patrons passing through its Ladies and Men’s entrances. The tenor’s room was a longer than wide affair, which he kept neat as a pin. There was room for a single metal frame bed, a sink, a small table and chair, a radio and a hotplate. His window provided a view of the Main Street bustle and the majestic Carnegie Library. And at night, the light of the red and turquoise neon sign flooded in, producing an atmosphere that was at once both bizarre and merry.

Now, it’s clear from the words above that the tenor was not a wealthy man. Some said that this was why he wept alone in his room, but most said no. He had fished and logged and been a miner as a young man, all occupations requiring a strong and healthy body. But in its way, time had caught up with him. He could no longer swing an axe or heft a net the way he once had, and now braved the poverty that comes to some in their later years. His rent was reasonable but difficult to secure, and his daily victuals scant. But as a child, he’d been raised in a home of meagre resources, and he’d learned much from his frugal and creative mother. She’d been forced by circumstance to learn to do things with mere beans and bacon that rivalled many examples of haute cuisine. And she was a master at exploring the possibilities of baloney, the universal loaf of budget processed meat.

The tenor’s mother didn’t restrict herself to fried baloney. She stewed it, grilled it, baked it, simmered it, roasted it and barbecued it. She basted it and delivered it to the table fricasséed and in sauces. As a child, he’d watched her at work as she created baloney tours de force to place before her hungry family. And he knew from his own happy palate and his father’s satisfied smiles that his mother was a culinary genius. As an adult, he remembered and put his mother’s low budget culinary ideas to work for himself in his small room over the main entrance of the Hotel Empress in Vancouver.

What is little known, because of its ultimately disastrous outcome, is that Jehane Benoît visited Vancouver in 1952. Madam Benoît was born in Montreal and was trained as a chef at Paris’ famed Cordon Bleu cooking school. She was thought to be Canada’s premier chef, and had come to Vancouver to appear at Woodward’s Department Store on its famed Food Floor to promote her recently debuted television cooking show. This was made known to the tenor by Malcolm Riddle, the Food Floor’s manager, when the tenor came in to purchase a large baloney sausage for his newest creation, Baloney Chateaubriand.

Now, the quintessential Chateaubriand is a recipe prepared of thickly cut beef tenderloin. It was said to have been originally created for François-René de Chateaubriand, a diplomat who served Napoleon. When classically prepared, it is believed to be among the most appetizing and tender cuts of beef. The recipe consists of seared beef tenderloin roasted to perfection in a reduced shallot and wine sauce, then sliced on the diagonal. The tenor, however, had adjusted the recipe by substituting the beef tenderloin with a thick slice of baloney, shallots with cheaper garlic and onions and by using an inexpensive British Columbian wine in the reduction. The spices remained his secret and the roasting method was replaced with a hotplate process especially developed by him. When his recipe was followed to the letter, and accompanied throughout its preparation by the appropriate Verdi aria, the result was succulent and mouth-watering.

Rumours of this had reached the jealous Madam Jehane Benoît as her televised appearance at Woodward’s Department Store approached. And at first, she dismissed the rumours. Why should she have done otherwise? But as the day of her appearance grew nearer, she began to worry. How could such a low budget version of the classical French dish exist? And how could it be the creation of such a down-and-outer as the tenor, who not so secretly wept alone in his hotel room and made his living by singing on street corners? She decided, as her self-promoting Vancouver date approached, that she was offended by the idea, and sent her spies ahead of her.

The word she received back was that yes, there was a tenor who wept in perfect pitch alone in his cheap hotel room. And yes, he sang on street corners for nickels and dimes. And yes, he even had a talent for cooking tasty dishes using baloney as the key ingredient. But could he cook a dish equal to her Chateaubriand using baloney? Her spies could not establish the truth. Malcolm Riddle of Woodward’s said yes. He’d tasted it, having been invited to the tenor’s room. Riddle claimed it was a masterpiece. But Riddle was only a glorified grocery clerk. Still, Madam Benoît obsessed and fretted over the possibilities.

“We must confront this impostor,” she shouted at a production meeting, slamming her tiny fist on the table. “This will not stand. Bring him on to the program with me and we’ll see once and for all if his tasteless concoction rivals the real thing. We must challenge him, on the television, for all to see. He must be humiliated and put in his place.”

“Do you really think that’s necessary?” said a senior producer sitting nearby.

“I demand it,” said Jehane Benoît. “We cannot encourage this behaviour. The dignity of haute cuisine is at stake. We who hold elite positions in this backward little country must stand up to the riffraff or it will be September 1792 all over again!”

“September 1792?” said the senior producer.

“Oui monsieur, la Révolution ! Cela ne peut être toléré!”

“Oh,” said the senior producer. He worried for a moment about his standing in the CBC hierarchy and his paycheque. Then he said, “I’ll make some phone calls.”

So it was that on a sunny autumn day, as he sang Puccini’s Che gelida manina at the corner of Hastings and Main over the traffic and sirens, he was approached by a CBC associate producer. He was a skinny kid, really, with a bad complexion. He waited for the song to end and then, with suspicious eyes and shifting feet, because he wasn’t used to talking to the unwashed, he told the tenor what CBC had planned for him. A contest between the acclaimed Madam Jehane Benoît and him on nationwide television to determine whose Chateaubriand was the best. The judges would be the Mayor, the Police Chief and three CP Hotel chefs, two of whom were being flown in from Montreal and Toronto. To the winner went bragging rights but also, for the tenor should he win, a year’s supply of baloney compliments of the Woodward’s Food Floor.

Malcolm Riddle knew the year’s supply of baloney was a sham. No one believed the tenor would win. It was all a show to benefit Madam Benoît and her new television program. The tenor would be lucky to escape without being laughed off the stage. But it was an offer the tenor couldn’t turn down. A year’s worth of baloney was mighty inviting. So, he said yes.

The show was scheduled for a time near Christmas when Madam Jehane Benoît would have rather been demonstrating baking Christmas cakes and cookies to the housewives of Canada. But the tenor, the vicious little pretender, had painted her into a corner. The papers had picked up the story and the untidy city beat reporter Roscoe Phelps nicknamed the tenor the Baloney Chef. The tenor hated it, but it stuck. He was now known as the Baloney Chef everywhere he went. He was interrupted on the corner where he sang by women asking him for recipes. And little boys stopped to tell him how much they hated baloney and that he was to blame for their mothers serving it up with new fervour and increased regularity.

But when the day of the program came, the tenor, now Baloney Chef, was ready. He’d selected the baloney he wanted from the Woodward’s Food Floor butcher’s shop and all of the necessary ingredients from the Woodward’s shelves. The cameras and sound stage were ready when he arrived, and he stood watching while busy people in smart clothes chain smoked and immersed themselves in the production of Jehane Benoît’s cooking show.

The tenor was positioned on the set by a heavyset man smoking a cigar, who introduced himself as Antonio Biocchetti, the director. But not before he questioned a producer as to the tenor’s identity. Was this unkempt little man really the Baloney Chef, and did they really want him appearing on the same screen as Jehane Benoît?

A petite woman stood in for Madam Benoît as the sound and lighting were made perfect. There were seats for a small audience and the Mayor and Police Chief were seated at a table off screen with the three chefs. All five had pencils in hand. At 10:55 a.m., Madam Jehane Benoît came onto the stage to an approving round of applause. She bowed to the spectators and looked at the tenor with disdain. The tenor had been given no instructions and there had been no rehearsal. He was flying by the seat of his baggy pants. At 11:00 a.m., a red light came on one of the cameras and the program went live.

“Today we have a guest,” Benoît said. She looked over at the tenor and said, “The Baloney Chef.” There was reluctant applause. “And we will each be making our own version of Chateaubriand. I will make it correctly and this man will make his,” and here she sneered, “with baloney.”

After saying this, Benoît began cooking. She knew where everything was. The tenor did not. The director signalled him to get busy but he didn’t know where to turn. The one time before the first break that he was on camera, he looked crazed and wide-eyed. Madam Benoît smiled. At the break, the director spoke in the tenor’s ear and pointed to the ingredients. Then the director said an unusual thing for a television director to say. He said, “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici.” And when he did, the tenor brightened. He looked over at Madam Benoît, and this time he smiled.

When the red light on one of the three cameras came on after the commercial break, Madam Benoît began, “Welcome back and today we are….” But that was as far as she got. On seeing the red light, and now aware of its significance, the tenor began to sing.

Libiamo, libiamo ne’lieti calici
che la bellezza infiora.
E la fuggevol, fuggevol ora
s’inebrii a voluttà
Libiam ne’dolci fremiti
che suscita l’amore,
poiché quell’occhio al core onnipotente va.
Libiamo, amore, amor fra i calici
più caldi baci avrà

It was the voice of the common man, and the cameras were now focused on the tenor as he sang and prepared his baloney Chateaubriand. Madam Benoît struggled to keep pace, trying to get a word in. But the tenor wouldn’t stop singing. He sang Puccini, Bellini, Verdi, Boccherini, Scarlatti and Gariboldi.  At the commercial breaks, the audience stood to applaud. But the tenor worked through the applause. And near the end of the program, the two Chateaubriands sat side by side. One made of the highest quality beef tenderloin, the other made of common baloney.

There was three minutes left for the judges to judge. They were served portions of the two finished recipes. The Mayor and Police Chief of Vancouver decided first. It was the tenor’s recipe all the way. The three CP Hotel chefs took longer and as the seconds ticked away, both contestants were aware that one vote could make all the difference.

The first chef to decide was the chef from the Château Frontenac in Quebec City. He was a stern looking man who grimaced perpetually and pulled at his earlobes. He wore a three piece suit and suede shoes. He came down squarely on the side of Madam Benoît’s Chateaubriand. The next chef to decide was the chef from the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. He wore a tweed sports coat, and blinked as he chewed. He too voted for Madam Benoît’s Chateaubriand. It was now tied, with just the chef of the Hotel Vancouver left to judge. He was dressed in a vest and luxurious teal and burgundy cravat. He chewed as the seconds counted down. Then he took a drink of water and chewed some more. Then he summoned the contest referee and they chatted quietly together. The director gestured for them to hurry, but they ignored him as they consulted.

Finally word came down from the network that they were to go to a commercial break, but that the program would go overtime and cut into the soap opera that followed.

Meanwhile the Hotel Vancouver chef gesticulated fiercely as he whispered to the referee. The referee whispered back and forcefully applied the tip of her index finger to the table top several times to emphasise her points. There was clearly some bone of contention. As the program returned from its commercial break, the referee threw her hands up in the air and walked away. The chef from the Hotel Vancouver sat alone, looking perplexed. Then he took another mouthful of Madam Benoît’s Chateaubriand and chewed some more.

Madam Benoît took this as a good sign and she smiled triumphantly. Then the chef from the Hotel Vancouver asked if he could ask a question of both the cooks.

“My two friends,” he said graciously, “your dishes are both very well done. But I wonder, what would be your suggested wine pairings with each?”

Madam Benoît raised her hand, squirming like a rabid schoolgirl, and said, hoping to keep things as local as possible, “I know of a lovely vintage 1941 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon.” It wasn’t local at all, of course. But what was she to do. In 1952, BC wines had yet to come into their own.

The Hotel Vancouver chef congratulated Madam Benoît on her choice, and she was very pleased. She looked over at the tenor and openly smirked.

“And you, sir?” the chef said addressing the tenor. “What is your recommendation?”

The tenor looked at the chef dumbfounded. He tried to think of a wine suggestion as exacting as Madam Benoît’s. But he could think of none. He’d never eaten his baloney Chateaubriand with wine. He was a poor man. He usually had tea to accompany his meals, made with water boiled on his hotplate. At Christmas, he might have a beer — maybe that was just the thing. Finally he said, “Labatt Blue.”

“Oh,” said the Hotel Vancouver chef rubbing his chin as though he’d never heard of such a thing. “Oh my.”

“HA!” Madam Benoît happily squawked, and she clapped her hands.

The chef continued to think, then consulted once more with the referee. After that he said, “I believe I know of the vintage 1941 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon you speak of, Madam Benoît. It’s appropriately brawny and nuanced, but it wouldn’t be my first choice. I would have preferred something French, like a Bordeaux or even a Madiran. Beer, however, would be the perfect pairing for the baloney Chateaubriand. And I have a guilty fondness for Labatt Blue. It’s the favourite of onion peelers and dish washers. I therefore cast my vote for the baloney Chateaubriand.”

The small studio audience went mad. They stood and applauded for five minutes.  Madam Benoît was gobsmacked. She faltered and an assistant director rushed to her aid. And before the program was ended and the network joined the soap opera in progress, the tenor was gone from Woodward’s Food Floor.

He returned several times throughout the following year to collect portions of his year’s supply of baloney, which he generously shared with friends and those in need. And he continued to sing Italian opera on the corner of Hastings and Main in Vancouver. His neighbours at the Hotel Empress still occasionally hear him weep alone in his room, but they would never learn why. All in all, he continued to be viewed by most as a sympathetic and heroic character.

Madam Benoît continued her Canadian television career, wrote books and promoted products for decades to come. But she would never relate the story of the battle of the Chateaubriands. It was later discovered that all copies of the program had been destroyed. But no one knew by whom.

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