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COOKING WITH KAYE : He Came Through When It Counted

March 08, 1987|RUTH REICHL

"Sit down and eat!" It was an order; when Danny Kaye cooked, he didn't want any nonsense about waiting for the other guests to be served. He sat you in the kitchen while he stood at the stove, steam billowing about him, rushing each plate to the table the instant it was cooked. Then he stood over you, watching your expression as you ate. What, I always wondered, was he hoping to see?

All stars probably become impossible people, but Danny Kaye, who died Tuesday, is the only one I've ever known. And he was something. He arrived at my wedding in a baseball cap. When my mother, who didn't recognize him, tried to throw him out, he insisted that he was her long-lost cousin. (He came very close to convincing her.) He then proceeded to outrage my relatives by shouting during the service. "Hurry it up," he yelled. "It's taking too long." "But he was right!" I told my mother later. "Oh really," she sniffed, "who behaves that way at a wedding?" "Stars do," I said.

Danny was shouting again after I had an operation last year. The first call I got when I returned home was from him. "What do you mean by leaving the hospital early?" he yelled at me. He sounded really annoyed. It turned out that he was actually at the hospital, ranting around the bedside of whoever was now occupying my room. "I've probably set this poor woman's recovery back a week," he said accusingly, as if it were my fault. "I think I scared her silly." Stars might send flowers, but Danny Kaye turned into a person who came through when it counted.

But when he arrived--anywhere--he wanted to be the center of attention. Fifty years of stardom, I suppose, will do that to you. After years of watching his antics in various public places, I was reluctant to accept his first summons to dinner. I had watched the man who made my childhood merry (raise your two thumbs and I instantly break into "Thumbelina") scathingly label dinner after dinner "a disaster." I had watched him get up and leave because somebody was a few minutes late (he was absolutely intolerant of tardiness). And although I knew he had a reputation as a wonderful cook, I didn't really believe it. Just another blustering celebrity chef, I thought, who will want to be told how great his food is.

It didn't help that he liked to brag about the French chefs who said that the best restaurant in California was Danny Kaye's house. Or that he loved to show off his hand-made cleavers. And I was really put off when that first dinner began with a tour of his quite-incredible kitchen. There were then discussions about the best butcher--and tales of his endless quest for quality. The nearer I got to the table, the more I dreaded the meal.

I should have known better. This, after all, was the man who did everything. He conducted entire orchestras without being able to read a note. He flew airplanes. The first time he played golf, he shot an 86. He even learned to do heart surgery. Of course the man could cook.

It may be the sense of timing he developed as a comedian, or the balance he learned in music. It may be the generosity of somebody who gave so much of his time to charity. Or the sheer gusto of the baseball lover (you should have heard his discourse on hot dogs). Or maybe it was the much-vaunted hand-eye coordination that made his cooking so incredible. But there was something more.

Danny Kaye didn't cook like a star. He didn't coddle you with caviar or smother you in truffles. He had no interest in complicated concoctions or exotic ingredients. His taste was absolutely true, and he was the least-pretentious cook I've ever encountered. The meals he made were little symphonies--balanced, perfectly timed, totally rounded.

That first meal began with an extraordinarily simple soup, a broth really, intensely flavored with lemon grass. It was followed by hand-made noodles so light that if you blew across your plate they would have danced in the air. These were lightly flavored with lemon. Then there was liver ("You slice it diagonally," said Danny), wok-fried with onions and dashed to the table. "Eat it now ," said Danny, "it won't be any good in a few minutes." Finally there was a lemon souffle, snatched from the oven at exactly the right moment. It was, to my mind, a perfect meal. And a daring one. There was not a single step in the choreography of this particular repast that would have tolerated a small slip; the tiniest mistake would have turned into a major tumble. But Danny Kaye, of course, never stumbled.

"I think it's the best meal I've ever eaten," I said. And I meant it. Danny just smiled. And asked me back.

A few months ago, Danny called on the spur of the moment. He was cooking and he wanted me to come for dinner. "I'd love to," I said, "but I've got other plans." "Cancel them," he insisted. I told him not to behave like a star. "OK, babe," he said finally. "There will be other dinners."

I wish I'd gone.

Another memory of Danny Kaye, the performer, Page 30.

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