Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Meal of the Gods

Michael Carlson's restaurant, Schwa, is regarded as one of the greatest restaurants in the world by those who have eaten there. The food is wildly inventive, and the chef is utterly dedicated to his craft.

In 2007, Carlson hosted a dinner for a group of the best chefs in the world. Then, everything went pear shaped.

The reservation was made by Charlie Trotter, and Carlson would have been tense enough had it just been the city’s most famous chef stopping by. Instead, Trotter asked to book the entire twenty-six-seat dining room for the evening and bring along Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller, and the like, a collection of the greatest chefs on earth. “This was the Justice League, the Super Friends—Batman, Superman, and those guys,” Carlson says. “How can you say no?”

And so they came, the legends, to Carlson’s storefront restaurant, located in a nowhere, no-account Chicago neighborhood, directly across the street from an ornate tire dealership festooned with fake palm trees, the coconuts neon bright. “It looks like a gay Colombian nightclub,” Carlson says.

Pierre Hermé, pastry chef without peer, got o a plane from Russia, took a car directly to the restaurant, tried to remain awake. Keller, with multiple obligations, showed up only for dessert, but he was there. Wylie Dufresne, New York chef and sympathetic friend, briefly calmed Carlson by unexpectedly walking through the door. “One heavy hitter after another. I was hearing angels singing in the background,” Carlson says. He and his assistants decided they needed a drink, a glass of Trotter’s champagne. After that, they got to work.


Characteristically, Carlson refused to allow Trotter to pay for the meal—dinner for twenty-two on the house. Then, with the pressure of the evening o but the strain of his life increasing, he went on a three-day binge. Alcohol, cocaine, Ecstasy. He makes it sound like all three were in equal proportion, but his girlfriend, Rachel Brown, says, “Michael doesn’t drink much.” He canceled all pending reservations for the restaurant, announced he was closing, and disappeared from public sight. “I did not know true mental stress until that day,” he says. He lacked the strength—and the money—to go on.

It was heartbreaking, perhaps not up there with chef Bernard Loiseau’s killing himself when he doubted his guidebook ratings would endure, or the seventeenth-century suicide of François Vatel when his fish failed to arrive, but it was career suicide if nothing else. Carlson was 33, with a new baby. He was drugged out, exhausted, overwhelmed, broke, beaten down. He was done.

And that’s where the story begins.

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