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My Silver Palate

Sheila Lukins, Café des Artistes, and the colorful dawn of this gourmet age we live in.

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Fall is the traditional season for glamorous, hyperkinetic openings in New York’s culinary world, just the way it is in fashion, say, or college football. But times being what they are, it’s the endings, lately, that have been making all the news. Sheila Lukins, co-author of the great eighties-era cooking bible The Silver Palate Cookbook, died of brain cancer last week, at the premature age of 66. And on that same weekend (and, in more or less the same Upper West Side neighborhood), one of the city’s most venerable restaurants, Café des Artistes, expired peacefully, after years of slow decline, at the ripe old age of 92.

I can’t remember precisely when I first tasted the famous Silver Palate recipe for Chicken Marbella, with its green Spanish olives, bay leaves, and profusion of sweet, weirdly tasty prunes. But I’m guessing it was around 1984, during the prosperity-fueled early years of the great epicurean revolution that ultimately culminated with steaming cups of mocha latte being served at McDonald’s. I dropped in to Café des Artistes for the first time in ’84, also, to sit at the bar and furtively examine the walls, which are famously painted with exactly 36 pale, Baroquely rendered nudes. Danny DeVito was sitting at the bar, too, I vividly recall, dressed in a black velvet jacket, smoking a long cigar, and eating boiled eggs (they served them gratis with your drinks).

If you’re looking for an image of the slightly unhinged eighties, that’s not such a bad one to keep in your head. Neither, come to think of it, are some of the more colorful recipes from Lukins’s (and co-author Julee Rosso’s) books. Dishes like the “Brie Pinwheel” (“at least 20 portions”), glazed blueberry chicken (a good blueberry chutney is the key), or a strange summery concoction called “cream of mango soup” (on page 58, right under blueberry soup) are the brassy culinary equivalents of Joan Collins’s big hair on Dynasty. They may sound campy (not to mention weird to eat), but like the decade they represent, they exude a sense of energy and fun.

These traits are something Lukins shared with her role model: Julia Child, of course. Like Child, Lukins discovered the romance of cooking more less on her own, in a foreign city. She moved with her husband to London in the early seventies, got divorced, and, like Child, started taking classes at Le Cordon Bleu. But instead of codifying everything she learned abroad, she and Rosso discarded the pompous old recipes, renovated the ones they liked, and made them easy to use. Their first book came out in 1982. To date, more than 2.5 million copies have been sold, including the tattered copy the Platt family uses, as wintertime comes, to cook our ritual Chicken Marbella and pots of upscale black-bean soup.

Café des Artistes, which opened in what was originally a building of artist studios, in 1917, saw several heydays, none recently. In the thirties, Howard Chandler Christy painted the murals, many of them based on real live figures of the day. In the last few decades, it went through the cycle old restaurants inevitably go through after a long, successful run. The regulars grew old, the competition increased, and the menu slowly fell out of fashion. But after dinner at one of the café’s more illustrious, arid competitors, I dropped in once or twice for a drink at the old burled-wood bar. Through the mists of a second martini, the murals looked as exotic and playful as ever, although I never saw Danny DeVito in the joint again.

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