Inside my room, I had time only to drop my handbag on a chair. “I need to sleep a little,” he said afterward, in French. He had me set my alarm for 4 a.m. I was deep in sleep when he woke us. He pulled me close and kissed me, and just when it seemed like we might be leaping off a cliff again, he jumped out of bed. “I can’t be late for the market,” he said. In 1986, when they opened Le Bernardin in New York, I went that first week. Already, it was wonderful, very French, very proper, the waiters drilled daily, to the point where many were protesting the extra hour required for the daily training session. The lazier ones left. The survivors got their rough edges sanded. Halibut (at two dollars a pound), never before seen on an upscale menu, was suddenly an aristocrat—the Eliza Doolittle of the sea. And more sophisticated New Yorkers—already disciples of the sushi faith—were primed to ooh and aah over raw black sea-bass slivers with cracked coriander seed and thin ribbons of salmon “cooked” in an essence of tomato scented with olive oil, cracked coriander, and grains of cumin. So simple, so lush, so seductive. How wonderful to have a mouth. What a time to be a restaurant critic.
I wrote a rave. The Times followed with highly un-Timesian speed, dropping a four-star benediction. Gilbert was already on to a new life, rich with caboodles of blondes and restless wives slipping him phone numbers, drinking late and dancing at Au Bar. He didn’t speak much English, but he didn’t have to.
He was just 48 when he died, in 1994. It was impossible to believe that he could fall asleep in the gym and never wake. He was not just a lover and my friend; he was the great god of fish. Everywhere, American menus acknowledge the fish he discovered and his minimal hand with raw slivers and fillets. Chefs who had never met Gilbert came to say farewell. It seemed especially cruel that a man who had so fiercely embraced life could simply stop breathing. “I’m not a domesticated animal,” he used to say to his chef de cuisine, Eric Ripert. “I’m a wild animal. I want to be a panther.”
With the art and soul and passion of Ripert, Le Bernardin is astonishingly more wonderful than ever. Except that Gilbert is not in the kitchen or flirting at the bar in his whites. I am never there without feeling his presence. I remember always stopping to watch the amazing ballet of dinner service, throwing a kiss to Gilbert through the window that is no longer there. I wonder if he is furious for the cruelty of dying so young.