The phoenix hope, can wing her way through the desert skies, and still defying fortune's spite, revive from ashes and rise. - Miguel de Cervantes
"The Art of Seeing" by Michael Milton
There is no love sincerer than the love of food. - George Bernard Shaw
I see reports of disaster on the news: a bombing in London, a tsunami in Thailand, an earthquake in Chile, a flood in Panama. My heart quivers, to be sure. Still, there is something distant, opaque, cinematic about these horrors occurring as far as six thousand miles away. I can turn off the television or exit a movie house. When you are a victim of disaster, there is no "off" button.
Still, when a friend reports a life struggle caused by a more local disaster, the immediacy of their story of pain and their grappling to recover becomes far less abstract, and my theatre door exit suddenly disappears.
When Chef Daniel Vater first agreed to speak with me about his brand, Daniel Vater Fine Catering, I expected a light, frothy conversation peppered with adventures in truffle oils, rare, edible mollusks and deep fried zucchini flowers. Daniel is funny to be sure and extraordinarily knowledgeable about food. Bright and highly energized, he outlined his life for me, the ups and the downs, exhibiting hard-earned resilience and wry humor. But what ultimately captured my imagination was a non-food related explosion that detonated in the midst of his quickly proliferating career.
Daniel freely shared about his childhood in Flint, Michigan, where his mother was the first to teach him how to cook. He went off to college in Ann Arbor and later played with the idea of law school, preceded by a stint as an aide in Washington, DC. He described his time studying catering, bread and pastry at the Ritz Escoffier Culinary School in Paris - that's France, ya'all, not Texas - and his subsequent return to New York City, which left him more fired up by food, less by legal precedence.
Back in New York, Daniel got an apartment in Park Slope and became an acolyte to his mentor Chef Charles Kiely of The Grocery in Carroll Gardens.
"Charles, along with his wife Sharon Pachter, helped shape me as a chef. They were so generous with their knowledge and their talent," he shared. "I owe them an enormous debt of gratitude."
Though The Grocery has closed its doors as of this year, Kiely and his wife have another project in mind. And thank goodness: The absence of a restaurant like 'The Grocery',' which was rated by Zagat alongside the likes of 'Le Bernadin, Nobu' and 'Jean Georges' is a big blow to the Brooklyn dining scene.
Daniel waxed on about becoming head chef for the kitchen of the Good Housekeeping division at Hearst Publications. "I met Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Bette Midler, Meryl Streep, John Travolta and dozens of other celebrities who were feted over by the magazine the years I was there," he reminisced. "Even Oprah. She came back to the kitchen and introduced herself to ME! Saying we were going to be seeing a lot of each other!"
Daniel went on to become a private chef to the likes of Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner, Lord Norman Foster and Lady Elena Foster and more recently, chef to a Goldman Sachs mogul. Simultaneously, he founded his own catering company which was in its nascent stages when October 29th, 2012 arrived.
"In the ten years before Hurricane Sandy, I had not only made a name for myself in the culinary world of New York City and Long Island with dozens of great connections, I had also made good money. I felt secure in my abilities and the world and saw only more and more good coming my way," Daniel said. "I had dreams I wanted to fulfill and I was working hard to make them all happen."
What happened instead, however, was Mother Nature in a particularly foul mood.
"I was in downtown Manhattan, indoors, and I heard a boom. My first thought was to run outside and get my catering van onto higher ground. By the time I got to it, water was already lapping at the bottom of the door," said Daniel. "I got in, started the engine. But suddenly I could feel as the van lifted off the pavement. Currents of water sent me floating down the street, slamming into trees and other cars. It was hopeless. I had to abandon the vehicle."
Water also destroyed Daniel's catering kitchens and his apartment. Out on Fire Island, it wiped out his house and Long Island catering center. "I went from being worth close to a million dollars to being worth zero in the course of two days."
Daniel continued, "I didn't worry. I had insurance on everything, and thought I would be compensated. Silly me. Apparently, 'Acts of God' were not covered in any of my insurance policies. Still hopeful, I began a process with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to recover my losses."
And thus, Daniel began a more than two-year journey of filling out hundreds of pages of forms and documents, only to be turned down by FEMA time after time. In in despair, he reached out to a family contact who worked with the then senator from Michigan, Debbie Stabenaw. "Please," Daniel asked, "Can you get a letter to President Obama for me?"
Daniel outlined in his letter about his loss and, more importantly, about his terrible interaction with FEMA. He spoke of how he had, after many months of unemployment, gone deeply into debt and was being harassed by both his credit card company and the IRS.
"As you might guess, I had entered a very dark place in my life," shared Daniel. "Look, I'm a hard worker. I wanted to work. I just couldn't catch a break."
Whether President Obama had anything to do with Daniel's settlement is unclear. Ultimately Daniel did get a check from FEMA for $45,000.00, a tenth of the value of what he had lost, not counting the tens of thousands of dollars of lost income.
The entirety of Daniel's eloquent story gave me pause. Imagine this struggle with FEMA had all happened during a time in Washington D.C. when the bureaucracy of our government was working, desks were manned, phones answered, paperwork attended to. What would happen now in the midst of a major disaster with an almost completely dysfunctional Washington, where halls at the State Department echo chillingly empty, appointments in the Department of Homeland security have yet to be made, and all over town confusion and animus reigns. What happens with the next hurricane, a flood in Virginia or an earthquake in Southern California?
Daniel's dealings with an ineffectual FEMA happened during a period of supposed national "normality." Who the hell is steering the ship?
Whatever state our national ship is in, I am happy to say that these days Daniel is clearly at his own helm again. He went on to relaunch his catering brand, Daniel Vater Fine Catering. His near naked waiter PR event at the ferry dock at 'The Pines' rocked Fire Island. The day after, he had booked 61 events for the summer.
"Funny how far a little innocent PR will go," Daniel says, smiling coyly. "Being a chef, being creative with food, helped me recover my life. I love my craft. I love making people 'Ooh!' and 'Ah!' when they put something made by me into their mouth and savor some new taste combination they never imagined before. I'm lucky, really."
In this dangerous world that we live in where hatred and violence and natural disasters sometimes collide to almost overwhelm us, we each can help in some small way. - Marsha Blackburn
Daniel's "small way" after surviving a terrible time was to return to providing sustenance, albeit, extraordinarily elegant sustenance.
Is there anything better?