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The Right Equation

May 07, 1997|RUSS PARSONS

One of my best friends, Richard Rouilard, died a year ago this week. In the 10 years I knew him, I don't recall Richard ever cooking anything. In fact, I believe him to have been constitutionally unable to do anything more than smear jam on toast. He would howl at even being mentioned in a food section.

In Rouilard-land, one dined out or ordered in. Cooking was something other people did--most frequently his longtime partner, Bob Cohen--and Richard seemed to regard it as an amusing, if sometimes handy, hobby.

But no one could throw a dinner party like Rouilard.

Until our paths crossed--he was the society writer at the old Herald-Examiner when I was the food editor--my dinners were pretty much the usual foodie-type events. Nice, but conversation usually centered on either the food and the wine or the wine and the food.

I still remember my first Rouilardian dinner party. The courtyard of his Whitley Heights home was lit like an opera stage, with dramatic interplay of light and shadow and candles flickering on every table. There were flower arrangements that looked as if an entire botanical garden had been stripped bare. There were 30 or 40 people that night, and my wife and I found ourselves at a table with Timothy Leary and his wife and David Hockney and Ian Falconer, and I haven't the slightest idea what we ate.

That was quintessential Rouilard. When he threw a dinner party, the accent was on the second word, not on the first. Although the food was almost always good, he never gave it much thought. "Oh, just throw something together and we'll put it on the nice plates," he'd say. Of course, the reality was much different, but he knew the right caterers and had friends who could cook--why waste time on the menu?

Rouilard did not throw dinner parties so much as produce them, and opening night at the Met never got as much attention as one of his soirees. He would pore over the guest list, getting just the right cast of just the right people. Artists, writers, decorators, editors, actors, designers, chefs, musicians, historians, general contractors and even food writers were equally welcome; the only requirement was that he found you interesting.

Once the cast was settled, he would agonize over the flowers and the music. Then he'd make sure he made all the right introductions and fade into the background to watch the production unfold, circulating here and there to give conversation a prod if he felt it was lagging.

Food was basically stage business to keep the actors occupied during lulls in the script.

For the cook in me, that took some getting used to. Actually, I'm not sure I ever really did. He'd still say I think too much about food. ("You cooked it, I ate it, do we have to talk about it too?" is another quote that comes to mind.) But I did learn from him a lot about what I'm grudgingly willing to admit is the other 50% of the dinner party equation.

We can share only the talents we have; we give each other what we are able. Rouilard may not have known which end of a whisk to hold, but he was a master at mixing people. His contribution was his uncanny ability to pull together disparate individuals into a more interesting whole. I've never met anyone who was his equal in that.

I'm still a hopeless foodie, though, and the dinner I remember most was Easter last year. Richard was seriously failing by then. In fact, the meal had to be moved from our house to his at the last minute because he wasn't up to the car ride. But that afternoon he ate two helpings of my roast leg of lamb, and I couldn't have been more proud.

In his last weeks, his house was always full of people. Dropping by at any time of day or night, you could count on finding a couple of friends, at least, sitting with him back in the bedroom, watching American Movie Classics and cattily discussing the collected works of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. (Rouilard could recite almost the entire screenplay for "The Women" from memory, with footnotes on set design and wardrobe.)

Some friends started gathering at his house one night a week for dinner. I cooked at one of them--a shiitake mushroom and asparagus risotto inspired, quite frankly, by what looked good at the grocery store I stopped at on my way from work. To give the meal a little more weight, I broiled lamb rib chops and perched them atop the risotto--a very un-Italian thing to do, I know, but there were hungry people to feed.

While I cooked in the kitchen, I could hear the hum of conversation in the dining room, occasionally a little too bright as people tried to talk about anything but what we all knew would come too soon.

When dinner was ready, Rouilard hobbled out, propped himself at the table, steered conversations, made wisecracks and pushed the risotto around on his plate. The most important thing was that he was at the center of a party. Food never interested him that much, anyway, though dinner certainly did.


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