Respect Is Burning
While waiting in the Austin terminal for my mono to Ottawa, I began to think. Ten years ago, this trip would’ve taken two hours. Now, it’s a brisk thirty-five minutes. Barely enough time for my coffee to cool down. I’m thankful for it, too. I hate the crowds. Constant shoving, the noise and chatter, the smells, the pick-pockets and wide-eyed gypsy kids.
On the train, I buy breakfast from a peddler. Pancake cubes are my favourite but the girl only has fry-up cubes left. Another problem with the crowds. If they don’t pick your pockets, they buy your breakfast before you can get to it. And the crowds just seem to get bigger and bigger. Travel gets faster and faster. Thieves get wiser and wiser. But my coffee, with its grinds that swirl around below a lake of frothy goodness, and the heat that diffuses through the cheap styro-cup and the almost-burn it leaves on my upper-lip — it’s perfect and hasn’t changed a scrap since I was born.
I am on my way to meet Frank Womack, proprietor and chef of Ottawa’s ‘Respect Is Burning’ — possibly the last remaining retro-raunt on the Eastern seaboard. I’ve never liked the idea of twenty-first century food. Let’s be clear on that. It’s always seemed too unintentional for me, like accidental art. Taking something off the ground, or from the sky, or out of the seas, or from where ever really, and applying heat, or acid, or salts, or smoke and hoping for the best. It just feels wrong. Too natural. Too organic. Like the diet of early-man.
I am supposed to rendezvous with Womack at his restaurant on Lower 5th St., but when I arrive, I notice a sticky note on the main door that reads: “Writer: At Pimm’s. 4 doors down.” The note’s brevity reminds me of telegrams from old cowboy movies. Out of habit, I push the door open, surprised to find it unlocked. The guts of the place are tragic. A sullen museum-like place where death, old and trivial, hangs in the air like fog. A place lit like a sewer, dim yet stark. A place forgotten, where men fear to tread and ghosts surely roam. And this is supposed to be a restaurant? I am starting to miss Austin.
The last time an Esquire correspondent visited a retro-raunt was over twenty years ago. In 2040, there were only nineteen retro-raunts left in the United States. By 2060, there were four. Now, there aren’t any left in Europe or Asia. Yet, Respect Is Burning sits resolutely amidst a cluster of artsy nano diners, hip bars with the latest synth spirits, hover bistros and 30-second fast food joints. It seems to exist in spite of itself.
I head four doors down to Pimm’s assuming it is an old school market or butchery. When I see the flickering plasma sign hanging lopsided out front, I realize it’s a whole other sad affair: a watering hole. The LCD window, filthy and half-shattered, reads REAL BARTENDER INSIDE. I walk in and the stench of career-drunks, street-rats, dried blood and painted whores almost knocks me over. Two men, a bartender and a patron, turn from the sports projection they are watching to look at me.
“You the writer?” asks the patron.
The bartender says something to the patron that I can’t quite hear.
“You’re young,” says the patron.
“Old enough to drink,” I say
“Not so bad after all, maybe,” I hear the patron say to the bartender.
The bartender takes a third lowball out from beneath the bar. The patron pours some amber-coloured booze in it from a nearly empty bottle. I saddle up, salut, and drink it down. It’s old bourbon. I fucking hate bourbon. I shudder as it burns its way down my insides, ruining my morning.
“I’m Frank. This is Pimm,” the patron says. I shake both their hands. They pour another. Down. Shudder. Eyes water.
“I read somewhere that retro-food takes a long time to prepare,” I say to Womack, while he pours yet another round, emptying the bottle. “When do you start for the day?”
“Ya only gotta prepare it, if people are going to eat it,” he says.
“I am going to eat it.”
He looks at me. The daylight beams in like a laser from the cracked window onto his face. I can see that he hasn’t yet slept. We drink. Shudder. The thought of retro-food on top of a layer of bourbon makes me almost vomit.
“This here’s a writer from…” Womack says to Pimm before turning to me and asking, “who do you write for again?”
“This here’s a writer from Esquire. They want to do a piece on old cookin’ before it dies and goes right on to hell,” says Womack.
Pour. Drink. Shudder. Keep down stomach bile. Four doubles in. It’s not even 10am.
“The mag folks pay your expenses?” he asks. I nod, far too drunk to muster up a simple affirmative. “You can settle the tab then,” he says.
I pay, thank Pimm who is utterly indifferent, and drunkenly scurry to catch up to Womack who is already out the door. He is lighting a cigarette outside and walking briskly. I see him pointing aimlessly in different directions up and down the busy, derelict street. By the time I catch up to him, he is already mid-sentence.
“…and over there, those bastards, coin-hungry bastards, I called them once. Right to their faces, too. And down there, over 9th street, place called Nano-Bite, overseas bastards, come over here with their micro-flavour cubes and tablets and bots. It’s what people want, I suppose. They sure as hell don’t want good ol’ food. They want a good time, I suppose.”
We reach Respect Is Burning and I follow him in. He moves about the place as though he has four arms and four legs. Flipping on light switches without so much as looking at them. Plugging in plasma art at the same time as he wipes his vintage chalkboard clean with a wet, mouldy rag. Still finding time to puff and ash his smoke. Then, he flattens out the table cloths. Straightens tables. Checks cutlery. Suddenly he has a bottle of rye in his hand that he drinks straight out of. Then he makes his way to the kitchen. All of this in what seems like one fluid motion: a grotesque ballet of one.
I follow him into the kitchen which is in shockingly pristine condition. Everything glimmers. All stainless steel. Wood chopping blocks, a couple hulking antique ovens, counter fridges and old pots sitting on shelves. It looks like a picture from my grandmother’s slideshow albums. Small shakers are everywhere filled with all sorts of spices, seasonings and powders. I have no idea what any of them are. Squeeze bottles with unidentifiable liquids and pastes in them. One label reads “Coulis.” Another reads “Aoli.” Nothing looks edible.
I’ve only been in one other commercial kitchen in my life: one of the first hover-bistros. It was called The Sidecar. I wrote a piece on it for The Cedar Creek Chronicle before moving to Austin. But The Sidecar had a normal kitchen. No fridges or ovens or knives or pots like Womack’s place. Just storage for all the product cubes and a line of steam baths for the hot dishes and dry ice baths for the cold ones. There were robotic arms to move things from one place to another and belts that shot off from the line to the thirty or so tables in the dining room.
Global food cube production is now a 700-billion-dollar-a-year industry. There are manufacturing plants in every major city, on every continent. Since 2021, the industry has grown 739 percent, virtually ending world hunger. In 2021, approximately 36 percent of the world’s 16 billion people were hungry. Now, almost forty years later, the percentage has dropped to a mere seven percent. It’s an industry so rampant and so profitable that it’s hard to believe there are any naysayers still on the planet who are bucking the trend.
But Respect Is Burning feels like one big collector’s item. A neglected family heirloom to sit on a shelf in an old curiosity shop, gather dust, fall to the ground one day, shatter into pieces and be swept into the bin without a second thought. It’s hard to imagine the place with a single customer in it, let alone a full house.
We are in an extremely cold room. Womack refers to it as the “walk-in.” The smell inside is putrid, pungent and sour. I almost gag. He cracks open two cold beers and hands me one. The beer actually feels good, even though it’s not even lunch time. He rummages though boxes of fruits and vegetables, most of which I only recognize from games and lessons from elementary school. On the bottom racks are small containers filled with cut up animal parts. Some have red meat with thick bones, others are pink in colour. Some with skin, some without. I’ve never seen anything like it. I feel like I’m in a horror movie.
“All this stuff is edible?”
“You bet your ass it is,” Womack snaps. “It’s not only edible, it’s magical.”
“Where do you get it all?”
“I’ve got suppliers from all over the continent,” he says. “Rail travel is so damn fast these days, and cheap enough, I can get pretty much anything from any farm or source delivered fresh, right my door.”
“Who are these people?”
“Ahh, strange buggers like me. Nostalgics,” he says. “Most of the agriculture is vertical, you know, up the sides of buildings. And the meat is mostly from virtual grazing suppliers. But all fed and rubbed well. Some micro-livestock. I try to get my hands on cheeses from Europe. They still eat cheese over there. Not like us Yanks. Here’s some nice ashed chevreux. Try it.” He breaks off a large crumb. I put it in my mouth and immediately spit it back out.
“What the hell was that!?”
“I told ya, kid. It’s goat’s milk cheese coated with a subtle grapevine ash which helps preserve it.” He eats a piece twice the size as mine with ease. I chug the rest of my beer in an effort to wash the sharp flavour out of my mouth. My stomach is starting to curdle. It’s going to be a long day.
After having a good look around the walk-in, I follow Womack back out to the front of the house. He writes the day’s specials on the chalkboard before getting back to his rye. I’ve never eaten a “daily special” in my life. The thought of food that is sometimes available and sometimes not disgusts me. What’s worse, any of the ingredients could go rotten at any point. How is one supposed to know? Things shouldn’t have a shelf-life.
The specials, as listed by Womack, are as follows: Truffled Shank of Veal, Ashed Chevreux, Slow-Roasted Yellow Beats, Yukon Blini - $129. Crisp Southern Cod, Garlic Sprouts, Sesame Tartar, Pear Slaw - $98. Whole Roasted Foie Gras, Spring Beans, Lemon Barley - $144. Sweet Rice Dumplings, Bavarian Chocolate Nougat - $67.
At any one time, Womack jockeys multiple frying pans on the stove: searing, reducing, sautéing, browning and toasting various unidentifiable ingredients. Small pots bubble with sauces and gravies and stocks. Large pots with rolling water in them await vegetables and grains. I begin to see a mad scientist, a steady surgeon, a wild painter and a crazed drunk all in the one man. By mid-afternoon I am totally blown away by Womack’s passion and mastery. What he is doing still sets my stomach off, but the flair with which he does it is certainly impressive.
He removes the cod fish from fungifoam coffins filled with crushed ice. Without flinching, he slices the bellies of the things open and spills their guts out onto the table. I run to a trash can and vomit. The fish that swim around in my plasma aquarium at home, when I have it switched on, never get gutted — and I like it that way. By the time I rejoin Womack, he has all the cod prepped and he is setting the innards aside for a bisque another day. Cooking old food like this is a wild thing to watch. A process so barbaric, yet so elegant.
While Womack continues to prep for tonight’s dinner I get the chance to ask him a few important questions.
“Why retro-food?” I ask. “Business doesn’t look good. Why not just reopen as a new restaurant?”
“Cause I’m not in the restaurant business,” he says. “I’m in the food business. Those damned synth products that all the other joints serve, that’s not food. Those products are just sustenance. Fuel for their crazy-ass, dogged lives. People can’t take pleasure in them the way they can in classical dishes like the dishes I do here. You can’t replicate the silkiness of an English custard and put it into a cube.” He swigs the rye. “The way a cherry tomato pops in your mouth is something only nature can create. We have put our feet on almost every damned planet in our solar system now, but we still have not figured out how to replicate the burst of a tomato or the creamy flesh of an avocado. Working with these items, with all their textures and aromas and flavour profiles is more like art than even art is these days. Why would I want to give all that up?”
“Because we must keep up with the world. We have to adapt.”
“The world changes, sure. And every day it changes faster than it did the day before,” he says. “It always has. But people like change too damn much for someone to stand up and say ‘slow down dammit!’ He’d be crucified. So I’ll shut up. But nobody ever said a man has to change with the world. In fact, choosing not to change with the world is the only freedom we have left. It’s the only real choice we get to make. To keep up or not. It’s what has always separated the trail blazers from the nostalgics. But listen, keeping up with technology and trends and all the other shit, that’s not adapting. Adapting is about survival, evolving over time. It’s not about knowing how to order food from a touch screen.”
“But nostalgia is about remembering something after it’s gone,” I ask. “Not rebelling against something else to keep it alive.”
“Call it preemptive nostalgia.”
“Okay. Let’s take it down a bit,” I say. “So, what is your favourite thing to cook?”
“Good question. I’d say fish. But that’s because my father was one of the last fishermen on the seas. And my grandfather was a tuna fisherman, and his father was a fly fisher before the rivers dried up. A family of fishermen. So you could say it’s in my blood. When I work with fish, I feel an overwhelming sense of importance. Then again, in this day and age, I feel important whenever I am working with real, natural, grown food.”
“Do you wish there were more retro-raunts like yours?” I ask.
“I’ve never really thought about it. We’re all just trying to hang on. It’s hard. My life savings, two divorces, rehab. All for this damned place. I don’t even see my kids anymore. My first wife, the bitch, has convinced them I’m crazy. I used to love to teach them how to cook. A useless skill now, I know, but that’s almost what made it so special. We didn’t have to do it, but we did it anyway. And it was fun.”
Dinner time is approaching. As the glowing sun sets on the scruffy street outside, I can’t imagine anyone coming in to eat this masterfully prepared feast of horrors, and by the look on Womack’s face, neither can he. Yet he marches on. A man in defiance of time. He switches from rye to an old bottle of tawny port. “Spirits are perfect for prep work,” he says, “but when service time comes around, they’re just too damn gruff. Something softer, more from the earth, is almost always better for when you are face to face with a diner.”
But the diners never come. The veal chops sit, anxiously awaiting the fondle of knife and fork. The gutted cod lay on their sides, aching for the embrace of a deep fry. The foie gras yearns for the warmth of a hungry belly. And the rice dumplings grow soggy and weep as they sit, coveting the silky blanket of chocolate nougat. The gathering of grub is all dressed up with nowhere to go. Womack’s proposed love affair between mouth and meal goes unrequited.
Outside, streams of people flow past the front door of Respect Is Burning. Womack’ location is not the problem. Plaid painted hipsters surge in and out of Fran’s across the road. Suited corporate junkies with low-hung heads hit the famous happy hour for martinis at The Stocks a few doors down. And families, some starved and some plump, pass in and out of junk stops up and down and bustling street. Not so much as a cursory glance is ever pointed in the sad direction of Frank Womack’ money pit.
“Go sit down, kid,” Womack says to me. “You’ll be the only customer tonight.” I loath the idea. It’s been a long day already and it’s been filled with booze and beer and illness. But my heart aches for the poor man and all his spurned enthusiasm. A book is not a book until it’s read by its first reader. I heard someone say that once. If it’s true, does it not mean that a feast is not a feast until it’s eaten? I couldn’t contribute to the ever-present sense of rejection in the air.
I pick a table at random and sit down. Immediately I am confused as to what to do next. There are no projections on the table top showing me what is on offer. There are no tablets upon which to place my order. In fact, there isn’t a computer interface anywhere in sight. Even in the dingiest old dives, a cheap, rusted-out bot will come and ask a diner what he wants to eat.
“An amuse-bouche,” Womack says as he approaches my table. Meaning amusement for the mouth in Old French, amuse-bouches are different from normal appetizers. They are smaller and meant to be eaten in just one or two bites. (I researched this after returning to Austin). Womack presents a small plate with a frosted shot glass in the centre. He pours me a glass of chilled white wine. The bottle is a 2053 Viognier from Old France.
“What’s inside?” I ask.
“A chorizo mousse with a chantilly of lentils de puy and toasted cumin,” he responds. “I know you’re new to all this. It’s an easy introduction. The texture is similar to some cubes only the flavour is more… pronounced,” he says, punctuating the description with an ominous grin before making his way back to the kitchen. I taste a small spoonful of the mousse. It’s smooth and airy. A very silky texture. The bright, almost effervescent wine cuts the richness well. I gag a little on the strength of the meat flavour but manage to put the entire dish down the hatch. Half way through, I glance over to the kitchen and notice Womack lurking behind his steel shelves, watching me eat. I pretend I don’t see him.
Next, Womack brings out a portion of the whole roasted foie gras with beans and lemon barley. He also pours a glass of 2058 Nebbiolo only slightly chilled. The idea of eating the fattened liver of a goose does not sit well with me, but knowing that Womack will be watching from the sidelines, I buck up and try it. I have heard about it. Most people have. But foie gras has been illegal in Austin since the early forties and so the rebellious nature of the dish contributes to my motivation to eat it. The light red wine helps cleanse the pallet and the lemon barley works to clear the taste buds.
Womack then brings out a veal shank and a glass of vintage, full-bodied Cabernet. I scrape the goats-milk cheese off the side of the meat and set it aside. The veal is not so bad and the truffles give it a fun flavour but I can’t get past the texture. Though it pulls apart nicely on the plate, chewing it in my mouth it feels violent. It calls to my mind images of cheetahs pouncing upon gazelles in far away grasslands. Bloody meat bursting between their teeth, streams of red dripping down their furry jaws. Or grisly scenes of jaundiced cannibals and their dissected victims squirming in musty basements. I barely eat half the dish.
Then comes the cod and a glass of cold pale ale to go with it. I drink the beer happily but I can’t deal with the fish. Memories from earlier haunt me: its guts spilling out onto the counter in the kitchen and then me retching into a rubber trash can. But I eat the sprouts and the slaw. They both taste a tad bitter, like grass, but the slaw has some kind of redeeming dressing that I like.
Lastly, Womack brings out the rice dumplings. The splendour of these tasty little spheres can’t possibly be exaggerated. After one bite, I am shocked that something like it hasn’t been part of my regular diet for years. The dumplings are so sweet, and so luxurious, I can imagine pregnant women screaming for them during cravings in the middle of the night or children planning elaborate heists in order to snatch a handful from the family snack jar or heartbroken teenage girls eating them by the dozen while weeping in their fuzzy slippers.
I am half drunk and full. After making a few notes I walk back into the kitchen and notice that Womack has made a triumphant return to the rye. He wipes things down with soap and water — a task usually reserved for bots. He seems to enjoy it.
“You did better than I thought ya would,” says Womack, as he wrings out the soapy cloth in the sink. “Figured you would’ve ran out of the place like a little milquetoast. Whimpering your way up the street to a junk shop.”
“Well, I was pleasantly surprised, actually.”
“Not so bad after all?” he asks.
“No.” Then I hear some honking out front of the restaurant.
“Get your jacket,” Womack says. “That’s our ride.”
“Where are we going?”
“You’ll see,” he says, as he gathers his things and finishes his closing duties.
“I was thinking I’d just head back to the hotel, actually. Get started on the piece.”
“Nonsense,” he says as walks past me, grabs a bottle of booze from a cupboard and heads for the door. I follow.
We’re in an old taxi. So old, it still has wheels and a real driver. We snake in and out of pedestrian crowds while the rest of the traffic whips by above us like smudges in the sky. He opens the bottle. It’s whisky. We both swig away at it.
“Where are we going?” I ask again.
“Just a little place I like to go after work. Clear my mind,” he replies.
“Will we ever get there in this old thing?”
“What do you mean?” he asks.
“I didn’t know they still had ground taxis.”
“They still have everything,” he says, “if you know where to look. Thankfully.”
“You really are a purist,” I say.
“I take it as a compliment,” he says.
“I meant it as one.”
Soon, we arrive at The Shanghai Shuffle. A structure, maybe ten stories high and totally cocooned by neon lights. Plasma screens flashing colours and logos and images of women, projections slither over the surface of the building promising those on the street that everything they have ever wanted, desired or burned for is available within… for a price. The projections buckle and warp as they slide over the windows and along the ledges of the building. Stretched pod cars and blacked-out limos pull up out front and drop off pervert-tycoons, adrenaline junkies, obscure old rich men, celebrities in second-rate disguises and sexed-up frat boys in a steady stream. I pay for the taxi.
The entrance is grand and covered in gold. White pixel-carpet glistens underfoot, refreshing its colour with a flash every five seconds or so. Perfume wafts through the air and everyone around seems to be using their nose to follow the scent to the promised land. We pass beneath flickering LCD archways, past depraved gift-shops selling things unmentionable, past oxy-bars and cube-bars and shot-machines and needle jockeys. The carpet colour changes to red.
We enter the main room. Naked waitresses roam, some human, some bots (though I’ve always found it hard to tell them apart). Womack orders two sodas from a beauty named Lu’an. I get distracted by an immense glass cylinder filled with bubbly blue liquid-air. Inside the cylinder, two naked women make-out, suspended in the liquid. I stare as if I’m analyzing a Van Gogh in The Louvre. This is not my scene. I turn around and see that the cylinder is one of twenty or twenty-five around the vast room, all different colours with different shows going on inside them.
Lu’an returns with the sodas. Once I pay her, she tuns and walks away and is quickly swallowed up by the crowd. Womack dashes out the sodas and fills the glasses up with his jacket-whisky. He seems to be coming alive. We cheers and drink. My head is way to overloaded to even consider the absurdity of my day. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the temptation, the parading whores — it’s all designed to nuke one’s brain so all life lessons, all base instincts, all moral wealth just melts into a stew of nothingness and oozes down the rusty drain at the end of the hallway.
I find myself in an obscure corner of the place. Womack has found two girls. Shishi and Bei-an are their names. He promises me they aren’t bots. I wouldn’t know. We sit on plush, yet very unsettling, arm-chairs. Shishi and Bei-an begin to dance. We’re still working on our bottle of jacket-whisky.
“All the other businesses, kid,” Womack says, as he oogles his Asian princess, “the restaurant business, the booze business, the music business, whatever business: it’s all new-age shit compared to the whore business. You and me, right here and now, we’re the ultimate traditionalists.”
I look at Bei-an swaying in front of me, her modest breasts, smooth skin, long legs, straight black hair. I can sort of see his point.
“Everything is new and everything is old at the same time,” he says. “It just depends on where you put yourself on the spectrum. The only damn difference between passé and the cutting edge is perspective.”
Shishi, clearly feeling neglected, slaps Womack across the face and tells him to shut-up. He loves it. He lets out a yelp of excitement and begins to spank her.
“But things always have to change, Frank,” I say to him. “I feel like they’ve changed for the worse for you.”
“Oh, I don’t know, kid,” he says. “It’s just my own personal apocalypse.” Shishi rips Womack’ shirt open prompting him to let out a sort of pathetic war cry. She drags her fingernails down his hairy chest, breaking the skin. “Life burns,” he says to me, “but sometimes, it’s a good burn, like whisky.”
Dawn. The cool night is starting to warm as the sun creeps up. Womack and I sit at the gummy bar-top at good ol’ Pimm’s. I am drunker than I have ever been and I couldn’t feel farther from home. At some point we moved on to rum but I don’t know when and I am so ruined it doesn’t really matter anyway. I head to the bathroom to take a piss. The sight of grimy toilets and stained bathroom tiles inspires me to vomit. I race to the stall. My terrible aim doesn’t surprise me but I am getting used to throwing up. I walk back to the bar and Womack motions for me to wipe the puke off the side of my face.
“Want some food?” he asks. I make no response.
We’re back at Respect Is Burning. Womack has the kitchen in full swing. Strips of cured meat sizzle in a pan. The air smells smoky. He mixes together something he calls “mayo.” Warm biscuits are pulled out of the oven. I feel like shit but I’m pretty enthralled. He cracks open two real eggs into the same pan with the strips of meat. He slices up some cheese. Everything comes together in a perfect little round sandwich.
“Free-range eggs, wild boar, double-smoked bacon, ancho-chile mayonnaise on herbed biscuits with aged-cheddar,” he says. I chomp down on the sandwich without even thinking. It’s incredible and somehow, indescribably important to me at that exact moment in time. I would have fought a man to the bitter death for that sandwich. Frank Womack tamed me. Converted me. Wore me down with whisky, wine and women and when I wasn’t paying attention, swept in and made me fall in love with his twenty-first century grub. Well played, Womack, well played.
I am back on a morning mono to Austin. My stomach does hula hoops around my ass. Hot coffee settles my nerves. I stare out the window of the mono and watch the world scream by as a series of indistinct shapes and blurs. The streaks of steel and concrete and glass meld with the streaks of trees and parks and grass and everything becomes one homogeneous landscape.
A peddler passes me with a tray of pancake cubes: my favourite. I’m not interested. I’m too full to eat one, too spoiled to want one.
All I can think about is Womack and Respect Is Burning and how they are both just hanging on by a thread. He’s a man marching to the beat of his own drunken, distorted drum. A man so committed to his own existence, any other way of life seems criminal. A man who makes his own choices and loves his freedom. Who decides what changes and what doesn’t? I do. You do. We all do. Time is long and life is short. In the words of Frank Womack, “Live the way you want to live and fuck all the other stuff.”
By Jeff Campagna. Get at him on Twitter.