Many years ago, I was an art director at an ad agency here in NYC. I remember shooting a spot in an old building in Hell’s Kitchen that was turned into studio space. The staircases were narrow but the mood on set was mostly pretty lively.
I get to set early, though not as early as the client. He was happily eating eggs and fresh fruit and we had an awkward conversation (him with his mouth full). I used the smell of his food as an excuse to get out of the conversation and find out where craft services was.
So I squeezed myself up an even narrower staircase to a “half floor” (old buildings in NYC have these all the time, they’re cool and creepy at the same time) and entered a brightly lit room with a skinny man in the corner, cutting up fresh fruit and a behemoth covered in what looked like prison tattoos standing over him. The skinny, young guy looked terrified. I won’t lie, I came into that room and saw the giant chef and did a movie gulp, too.
I composed myself, and sauntered in (I sauntered in those days). The chef turned and grunted at me. He looked like he had just finished consuming a person the size of the young man cutting fruit. I movie gulped again.
I diverted my attention from his large, dark, nearly eclipsing eyes to the spread of food on the table. Lots of nicely cut fresh fruit were fanned out like a peacock’s tail. There were croissants and bagels (it IS NYC, after all), and Danishes, and two electric hot plates. Next to the hot plates was what can only be described as a well-used, blackened thing that looked like could possibly be a waffle iron. It is this waffle iron and what it produces that haunts my dreams to this day.
I mustered the courage (and, let’s be honest, curiosity) to say, “Um…what’s good?” The skinny “apprentice” looked up at me and managed a weak smile. He said, “W-well…” before being interrupted by the master. He spoke with a voice that sounded like the love child of Keith David and Clancy Brown. Clear. Straight forward. This man was sure of himself. “I make the best Belgian waffles in the world.”
Now, me being me (for those who know me)…you can’t make a statement like that without backing that up with some proof. I did the Erica thing, where I cock my head to the side, raise one eyebrow and smirk (I was much cuter in my younger years). “Really?” He leaned in and said, “They’ll haunt your dreams.” Then he smiled. It was an unsettling smile…Like that scene in Empire when Yoda tells Luke, “You will be…” He had all (or most) of his teeth, and he didn’t have halitosis. He smelled like coffee (like everyone else). But it was unsettling because I was challenging a guy who looked like an ex-con, who was bigger than my brother, and who looked like he ate his previous assistant.
I nodded and maybe uttered a sound in the affirmative, I don’t remember. Fear clouds my memory. He said, “Have a seat.” There was a small table and chair in the corner, so I sat and watched as he pulled out an old, tan, 70s Tupperware pitcher. We had the same one in my house. It kind of reminded me of the pitcher Aunt Beru used for the Bantha milk (PS: LOVE Luke’s hat in that other cut scene. Dad had one just like it.)
I noticed the pitcher and got up. (Why? Who knows. Curiosity, again…maybe.) He didn’t see me at first. I’m pretty non-threatening to a guy his size, so his spidey sense was turned off. It’s not like I’m gonna shank him for a waffle or anything (though, apparently, “this chicken has a shiv.”). So I see him opening up the creaky waffle iron. I try and make small talk, but I’m small, and this is a guy who thinks talk is cheap.
“So…How long’ve you had that thing? Looks pretty used up.”
“A long time.” Maybe he got it (stole it) from when he (possibly) worked in a (prison) kitchen.
“What’s one of those things run? Like if I were to buy one?”
This is where he got serious. He looked up from the slowly heating waffle iron. There was an intensity in his eyes. “You can’t buy ‘em. This is restaurant grade. They run about $800.”
It was the way he said “restaurant grade” that told me this man was SERIOUS about his waffles.
I kept my cool. “That’s cool, yeah.” Long pause. He finally stopped staring at me.
“So, uh…what’s in the batter?”
This is where the apprentice’s eyes turned to saucers and he gripped the knife tightly. He wasn’t threatening, I think he wanted to defend himself, like if his master suddenly went off book and started hurling croissants and sliced pineapple like Moon Knight shuriken.
The chef flared his nostrils, like a bull. My eyes went big. I took a small step back. My heart went into my throat, and I could feel the adrenaline in my body starting to pump. Fight or flight, baby! Then…He softened. He looked away, poured the batter from the pitcher into the waffle iron, and smiled. With the charm of Hannibal Lecter, he said, “It’s my secret recipe.” Immediately my brain shouted into my ears, “Do you think he PEED in it?!” My eyes grew wider and I took another step back. The apprentice slightly nodded as he saw my retreat, as if to say, “SAVE YOURSELF!” Then I made a full retreat to the table and averted my eyes.
Time passed. I don’t know how long. The stress of the situation coupled by my hunger and anticipation masked the actual passage of seconds and minutes. During this time, I stared at a spot on the table. It was one of those Formica tables with the speckled patterns. I stared and stared and tried to make shapes out of the patterns like children do with clouds. All the shapes led to my imminent death at the hands of a waffle wielding (possible) ex-con.
“It’s ready.” I looked up at the sound of his voice. I slowly walked over to the table as he presented me with a perfectly cooked, golden brown Belgian waffle topped with fanned out strawberries and his secret recipe raspberry puree. My mouth dropped from hunger and shock. If it weren’t on a Dixie plate, it would have looked like it came from some fancy restaurant in Chelsea, not a half floor in Hell’s Kitchen, served by a man covered in prison tats, keeping an apprentice hostage. He shook a can of whipped cream and offered it to me. My brain shouted into my ears, “You wanna do whipits?!” I shook my head at my brain and the man. I didn’t want anything to take away from the pureness of the waffle. I said, “Thank you,” and walked back to my small table and sat down. I hadn’t looked at him since he presented me with the waffle. My gaze was fixed on the waffle.
My plastic fork met the perfect combination of crisp, crunch, fluffiness and softness. I don’t know if he watched me, but I think he did. I made sure my bite had a feather of strawberry and a dab of raspberry as I shoveled it into my mouth.
He was right. It WAS the best Belgian waffle that I had ever had in my life, up until that point and since then. It was so good, I had 2 more before a PA came into the room looking for me because they were going to start shooting. I thanked this behemoth of a man, shook his hand, and he smiled. It was a genuine smile. How can you tell? You can tell when someone is really smiling because you can see it in their eyes. His eyes were no longer an eclipse, as if the moon had finally made its rounds past and we were left with the bright light of the sun. Giving people nourishment is what nourished him. I was glad to have that waffle, and I was glad he was glad to give it to me. Even the apprentice seemed to smile when I was being dragged away by the PA, mumbling, “THIS IS GREAT!” with a mouthful of strawberries and waffle.
The shoot went well. Lunch was delicious, but I was forbidden from going up to the half floor room for fear that I would never come back. A PA brought me something. In all honesty, I can’t remember lunch much, as my taste buds were hooked on those Belgian waffles.
Halfway through the shoot, post lunch, I tried to sneak away, back to the half floor to see if there was a chance to get one more golden, crispy, fluffy, treat from the man who would be king of all waffles…but he was gone. The small room was all cleaned up and cleared out. All that remained was the small table and chair I sat at, a throne, if you will, where I enjoyed the best Belgian waffles I have ever had and will ever have.
It’s been nearly a decade since those waffles, and I have yet to find a waffle that comes CLOSE to that man’s waffles. My odyssey for the waffles even took me as far as the dusty boxes on the top shelf of my closet where many of my old advertising production books were. They usually held the names of the production companies, casting companies, and craft services. But, alas…No dice. I couldn’t find that particular production book, and so the odyssey, and my quest for just one more perfect Belgian waffle, ended.
The moral of the story, kids, is don’t judge an ex-con by his prison tats or the fear in his assistant’s eyes, because he just may make the absolute best Belgian waffle in the history of the universe itself.