Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Larry's Feast (In memory of Lorenzo J. Cruz)

The last time Larry and I spoke was before the New Year, during the wake for our dear departed friend and brother Adrian Cristobal. A full week before that, Larry had hosted some of Adrian’s friends to lunch at his Abe restaurant in Trinoma, where we toasted our ailing friend at Makati Medical. Three days later, Adrian passed on. His remains were cremated but his family decided to hold the wake and funeral after Christmas. So we exchanged text messages and agreed to see each other then.

Larry sent a lot of food to the wake, but failed to come himself. On the second day, I called him to tell him he was being missed. He said sorry, but he just couldn’t get over the thought that he had been in the same hospital where our dear friend had died. I said I understood, and told him to take good care of his health.

A few weeks later, I heard from our mutual friend Rene Bas, who edits The Manila Times, that another mutual friend, Yen Makabenta, the new billiard czar, had told him that Larry had gone to the United States for urgent medical reasons. There were no details, but the report hinted the gravity of his condition. I shared the information discreetly with some close friends, and asked for prayers.

I began to hear more details in the next few days, but at the same time I kept on hearing assurances that he had gone to Washington, D.C. just to visit with his sister Therese. Finally on Feb. 4, I got the news from Celin (Cristobal), Adrian’s daughter, and then Norma, Larry’s wife, called before I could call her to confirm everything. “He’s gone,” Norma said, her voice breaking on the phone. I asked her to stay strong and promised her my prayers.

Larry finally came home on Sunday, and he is home with us here now. And we who all loved him are here to show our love and devotion to him and our appreciation of the many good things he has done. We shall miss him dearly, but his friendship, his zest for life, his passion for quality and excellence in everything he ever fixed his mind on ---food, fashion, furniture, and the plain human art of living will keep him with us for a very very long time.

Larry and I first met in August of 1969. I was 29, and had just been offered by President Marcos the job of Press Secretary, but I knew no one I could bring in as my assistant. Some names were suggested but none stood out until Larry’s name was mentioned. I had not had any previous associations with him, but I had heard of his work at DZMT and DZHP and had seen some of his stuff in the Graphic and Asia Magazine. I also learned he contributed to Blas Ople’s Medis presidential writing group, which included Adrian, Ronnie Diaz, Bernie Ople, Fred de la Rosa, Malang Santos, Yen Makabenta, Florentino Dauz, and others and which had special arrangements with Johnny Gatbonton, Arnold Moss and Rene Bas in Hong Kong. I was delighted to hear his name and welcomed the prospect of working with him. Marcos liked it too and agreed to name him.

So we met to get to know each other better and prepare for our August 16, 1969 oath-taking. I wore the longest and thickest shock of hair at the time, more luxuriant that that of the Beatles, and had been at war with the barbers for quite a while. So our first order of business was to get a decent haircut for the great event. We picked a Malate barbershop at random, and as soon as I sat down, the barber took one deep cut at the back of my head, giving me the most disgusting haircut I ever had in my whole life. Larry had lesser hair even then; he came out looking very much better, while I silently raged to kill my barber.

For the next ten years we ran the Press Office together without any major booboos or blunders. We became fast friends and started wearing the same brand of watches and ties, and going to the same bespoke tailor for our suits and our barongs, which meant Il Signore, which was also his own. We also moved into the same tiny subdivision called Arfel which put us next door to the two most popular teenage craze of that time, Vilma Santos and Edgar Mortiz who shared a common backyard, and the future Mayor of Olongapo and later Senator Richard Gordon. Although we were both very young, and the reporters were the most senior in their respective organizations, we won their deep professional respect simply by having Larry beat the daylights out of them at the poker table.

When martial law came, I became Secretary of the newly created Department of Public Information in addition to being Press Secretary, and Larry became in addition to his old job the Director of the Bureau of National and Foreign Information (BNFI). It was here where he first unleashed his creativity as an information manager. He brought a distinct cosmopolitan sophistication and elegance into BNFI by inviting Johnny Gatbonton’s editorial group in Hong Kong to help produce world class publications like Archipelago,Philippine Reports, and others. With Johnny Gat, Gerry Delilkhan, Arnold Moss, and Rene Bas helping out at BNFI, Greg Brillantes helping Tino Dauz at the Bureau of Broadcast, Rolando Tinio, Bien Lumbera and others helping Yen Makabenta put out the Pilipino literary magazine Sagisag, and Andy Cristobal Cruz getting the best technical help at the Bureau of Mass Media Standards, the DPI came to have the biggest pool of the brightest men and women in journalism, culture and the arts helping put out the best information products and services for government.

Our paths---Larry’s and mine----diverged when I resigned from the Cabinet in 1980. I remained in the Batasang Pambansa until 1984, then returned to journalism for a while, before going to the Senate, while Larry stayed on for a while before his real future finally opened up. Then one day, the tsokolate e that you remembered reading in Rizal’s novel made its appearance at Café Adriatico. That was a historic event. Then one bistro followed another---Bistro Lorenzo, Bistro Burgos, Bistro Remedios, then Larry’s Bar, Anghang, 1900, Café Havana, and others until LJC became the most celebrated trade name in fine dining. He then introduced al fresco dining at Remedios Circle until it spread all over Malate and beyond. With the latest additions of Abe at Serendra and at Trinoma and Fely J at Greenbelt 5, which Larry never saw, there are now, I understand, 14 restaurants under LJC’s trade name. Each restaurant is a work of art, a child of love where the quality of the food, the ambience, and the service bear Larry’s personal touch, taste, and stamp.

Last week, I dropped by Abe at Trinoma for a casual meal and to have another look at the room where Larry and I and our other friends---Johnny Gat, Ronnie Diaz, Fred de la Rosa, Rene Bas, Yen Makabenta, and Agustin Goy---last dined on Dec. 19, 2007. I asked the young manager Mike what was the one thing he had learned from Larry which he could never forget. And his answer was quick. “He taught us to give our best always, hindi puwede yong puwede na.” This wasn’t just taste, it was character. St. Josemaria, the Saint of Ordinary Life, calls it “doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.”

Larry never fancied himself a religious person in the way we understand it, but where it mattered to him he dared to imitate the perfection that alone belongs to the Only Perfect One. My own impression is that Larry put his whole being into every restaurant he put up, and into every little thing that went into it. Examine the menu, what’s written on it, and the way it is artfully designed. You sit there convinced that you have just entered a restaurant that has not only the gastronomic flavors you have been looking for, but also a literary and cultural opinion.

One favorite anecdote I have is about Manila in Georgetown. From 1984 to 1988, Larry ran this only respectable Filipino restaurant in Washington, D.C., if not on the whole Eastern seaboard. It had become so popular that it probably got Zagat-rated. One evening, Larry entered the restaurant to see a valued American customer being served “steamed mahi-mahi in banana leaf.” The guy started working on his plate the moment he got it, so Larry tried to get to him before he could get any further. But by the time he got to the customer’s table, the happy guest had already done justice to the banana leaf. Larry could no longer tell him that the leaf was just a wrapping, not a salad to be consumed with the fish. All he could do then was ask about the food, to which the satisfied customer guest said, “it’s great, as usual, I never order anything else, I can never have enough of it.”

Several years ago, after the Thais decided to open at least 1,000 Thai restaurants across the United States as part of their export promotion drive, I asked Larry to organize a group that would do exactly what the Thais have done with their food services. If the Thais can do it, why can’t we? Why can’t we make Philippine cuisine as presentable so that one day we’ll finally have as many Filipino restaurants everywhere as the Thais, the Japanese, the Chinese? Larry will no longer see that day, even if it comes, when it comes, but he would have laid the first brick, upon which others must now lay the next brick and the next.

When I think of Larry now, I cannot help but think somehow of that great and wonderful film, Babette’s Feast, which I am sure he must have immensely enjoyed. In that film, adapted from a story by Isak Dinesen, a mysterious woman refugee from the civil war in France arrives in a small coastal village of Denmark, which has tried all its life to practice asceticism and self-denial. They eat without giving much thought to their food or saying a word about it. In their prayer before meals, they say, “May the bread nourish my body, may my body do my soul’s bidding, may my soul rise up to serve God eternally.”

Babette, the refugee, decides to lodge with a clergyman’s two beautiful daughters who have chosen to become old maids doing good works for the poor. The clergyman is long dead, and on his one hundredth birth anniversary, Babette offers to host a French dinner for twelve, paid for from her unexpected winning in a lottery in Paris, which has given her 10,000 francs. This is unthinkable for the two sisters, but after some haggling, they yield. Babette goes to Paris to buy her ingredients, and her purchases arrive on time. A live turtle, the head of a calf, live quails, vintage wines, tropical fruits, and cheeses.

As the day nears, the sisters and their friends begin to worry, “We’ve exposed ourselves to dangerous, even evil powers,” says one of them, “ We do not know what will be served for us to eat or drink.” But it is too late to back out, so they decide to go through the meal on one condition: that, no one is to say one word about the food, as though they had all lost their sense of taste. But the two sisters make the mistake of inviting an old general---General Lorens Lowenheilm--- who once courted one of them. And the general freely expresses his amazement at what is being served.

“An amontillado, the finest I’ve ever tasted!” he exclaims after the aperitif. “Real turtle soup, and what turtle soup!” “Blinis Demidoff!” “Veuve Cliquot 1860!” To which the fellow next to him replies, “I’m sure it will snow tomorrow!” When the piece de resistance is served –an exquisite quail dish with its head rising at the edge of the plate---and the general bites into the head, his eyes roll heavenward, and he says, this is “Cailles en Sarcophage.” He then recalls a dinner many years ago in Café Anglais in Paris where, according to him, the chef, a woman, turned the dinner into “a love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite.” At the end of the meal, the general rises to say: “There comes a time when our eyes are opened and we realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions and lo, everything we have chosen has been granted to us and everything we have rejected has been granted to us.” And everyone begins to enjoy the evening without any fear of losing their soul.

For all the paradoxes and ambiguities in Larry’s life, as his friend, the Columban priest Fr. Martin, put it in his homily last night, I don’t believe he risked his soul or anybody else’s by making sure that everything that went out of his kitchen was prepared to perfection, and making sure that everyone ate to their heart’s delight. For there is certainly an important place for the well-prepared meal in the economy of salvation, according to the texts of our Faith. The first man fell because the first woman ate the wrong thing, but in almost every important point of our salvation history, the meal has become a great occasion for cementing man’s union with God.

At the marriage at Cana, the need for good wine to perfect the marriage feast provides the occasion for the Lord’s first miracle even before he begins his public life. The multiplication of the loaves provides the occasion to show that the littlest things we have grow and expand in quantity and scope when we share them with others with love. And the breaking of the bread in the Upper Room provides the eternal meal which has since become the source and summit of our Faith.

Larry was never known to be a religious man, but he tried to prepare the perfect meal for everyone for all occasions, even though he could not cook himself. This was not a man who buried his talents.

The story is told that one day Alexander of Macedon met a beggar on the road. The beggar asked him for a few coins. But Alexander gave him not a few small coins, but command of several cities instead. In utter disbelief the beggar said all he wanted was a few small coins. To which Alexander answered, “You ask as a beggar, I give as a king.” God is infinitely greater in his love and mercy than any earthly king. It is our hope and our prayer that He will lavish upon our dear friend and brother Larry all the love and mercy that can only come from an all-loving and all-merciful God. All praise be to God!

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