I did a three-year stint as a chef’s assistant/prep cook at the River Cafe in Brooklyn back in the early nineteen eighties, when New American Cuisine was new. This was only a few years after bombing out at running a 2,672-seat movie palace, the St. George Theatre, in Staten Island, to which this blog is dedicated. The concession stand at our movie palace had been my particular pride and joy: all-beef (Sabrett’s) hot dogs with dijon mustard on homemade miniature Italian breads; Haagen Dazs ice cream back when it was Haagen Dazs — tiny cups delivered by some guy in a station wagon, Klondike bars to satisfy the kiddie ice cream crowd, fresh popped corn with real butter, and every candy bar available, including frozen Snickers. People didn’t just grab food on the way to the movie; they ate dinner, sometimes standing near the mahogany pillars that framed the glassed-in auditorium, as if eating were somehow more important than what was on screen.
I’ve always felt there was a connection between our stand and the high-end River Cafe where, a few years later, as a walk-in hire, I learned to make Boudin aux Fruits de la Mer, and a certain vegetable terrine (the delicate chicken breast mousse held vegetables in a heavenly suspension). There was a chocolate terrine that required ten pounds of chocolate and ninety egg-yolks, and other wonders, created or approved by our chef, Larry Forgione.
What was served at our concession stand had been as important to me, in its time, as the opulent items we offered well-heeled diners on the Cafe’s barge, facing sunset Manhattan. So the other day, avoiding all the bad news that’s fit (or unfit) to print in the NY Times, I turned my eye to the obituaries (often the only non-threatening text, and generally better written than other stories).
LOUIS OSTEEN, 77, SOUTHERN CHEF WHO ELEVATED CUISINE, IS DEAD.
Good, I thought, something from the food world. I was only half right. Quality obits always start, like good resumes, in the present; and so followed a description of an Inn on Pawley’s Island, SC Osteen made his name at, the grill in Charlston he opened and a name restaurant just down the street, a mention of his elevation of local Southern cuisine, and a seminal cookbook he published. The James Beard Award crowned his career. Then, as is true for all classic obituaries, approximately four paragraphs after the resume, the writer turns his attention to Osteen’s roots: born in 1941, in Anderson, SC, not to a family of cooks as you might suppose, but to a family of small town movie theater owners and operators!
Chef though Osteen was to become, his first job was, actually, in the family drive-in theater. “I was 10 years old,” he told The Daily Meal, so “...took pride in cooking and serving popcorn, hotdogs and hamburgers...I wanted to make the best concession food I could.”
Wow, could I get my head around that; it’s what I always wanted for us at the St. George. Our concession stand had the highest per capita sales of any movie theater stand in the five boroughs of New York City, in our theater year, 1976.
Good food is good food, whether it’s served at a concession stand or in a white tablecloth restaurant. If you look at the list of eateries Osteen worked at or ran, a number of them turn out to be snack stands, places where he perfected recipes like his chili-pickled shrimp.
I’ve always thought of restaurants as intrinsically theatrical: the props (perishable) are the food, the cooks and the waiters are actors and/or stagehands, and the diner is the audience. The drama is: will the diner (patron) get the desired food in a timely manner, served in an appealing (or romantic or even orgasmic) way? It doesn’t always work out the way you intend; don’t ask me about the intrinsic flaw in the chocolate-covered raisins we sold at the theater... I’m sure Osteen had some tragic restaurant food stories of his own to relate to friends in the late hours. At the River Cafe, a kitchen run in the French manner, the “cold pantry” was the cooking station where desserts and salads came from. All the sauces for cold things were kept there, and one sad afternoon, the pantryman had the misfortune to serve the garlic/basil cream sauce on the chocolate terrine — mistaking it for the sweet creamy (green) pistachio sauce.
That’s what I mean about drama, and it can happen behind the “line,” in the kitchen or out on the floor in the dining room, or in a theater in the dark, while munching. Masks of Comedy and Tragedy appear largely over the prosceniums of theaters, but could bless the kitchen or concession-stand door as well.
1. The Osteen Twin, a two-screen theater in Anderson, is what most local folk remember of this family’s small chain. P.C. Osteen, the chef’s grandfather, started the whole she-bang in 1918, with Vaudeville and movies. His four sons took over and expanded the theater business. Harry, the dominant son (chef’s uncle) and the official family historian, carried it into the next generation, with the cooperation of his three brothers.
For a sense of the life of a small-town theater impresario, here’s a chunk of Uncle Harry’s obit from a 2008 edition of the Anderson Independent Mail:
Harry Osteen Sr. died on July 10, 2008, at the age of 93. He is being remembered as an important part of the Anderson community.
The Osteen family name was synonymous with the movie theater business in Anderson for the better part of the 20th century, and Harry Osteen was part of that tradition.
He and his wife of 69 years, Verna, also were involved in the Meals on Wheels program in Anderson for decades and were active in Anderson Senior Follies, Outreach Entertainers and ballroom dancing instruction.
The family business into which Osteen entered started when his father P.C. Osteen in 1918 bought one of the downtown theaters that cropped up in the late 1800s. P.C. Osteen bought, sold, and built a series of theaters around Anderson showing movies, putting on vaudeville shows, and helping to introduce a new form of entertainment to a small town.
Harry Osteen along with his brothers Percy, Bill, and Albert carried on the family tradition in the Electric City by opening a series of movie houses between 1946 and 1974.
In 1995, he was awarded the state’s Order of the Palmetto.
In 1996, he received the Service to Mankind Award presented by the Anderson Sertoma Club.
In 2004, he was honored by the Orphan Film Symposium conducted at the University of South Carolina.
2. Louis Osteen didn’t embark on his restaurant career without, briefly, trying to open some theaters in Atlanta with a couple of friends. It didn’t pan out exactly; boy do I get that!