A night off!
Usually when I don't have any work-related events, I go to the gym and then head straight home, lock the door and enjoy some alone time. But tonight I wandered my neighborhood and then had dinner at Night and Day, a restaurant I'm writing about. I had a Dark and Stormy, because not many restaurants have the requisite Gosling's Black Seal rum and ginger beer, and the $21 prix-fixe menu: an English pea soup with saffron scallops and monkfish cooked in the style of coq au vin, with a glass of house red wine.
I'd met one of the owners briefly on Sunday, but I was wearing jeans at the time, and taking pictures. Today I was wearing my cashmere-wool overcoat and four-button suit, and she didn't recognize me, which was great because I wanted that alone time.
I was thinking about a difficult assignment I'd gotten today. It was my fault: I helped formulate the idea for the story and then volunteered for it. I have nearly a month to write it, which is virtually unheard of at our news-oriented weekly magazine, but I have to figure out how best to inform myself about the relatively obscure cuisine I'm tackling (you'll be able to read about it in our special food issue, which comes out March 27). It got me thinking about a friend I had in Bangkok.
Fatou Daffé came into a bar I was hanging out in with friends on Patpong, at the heart of Bangkok's largest red light district. Trust me, that's not as seedy as it sounds. Patpong was simply where ex-pats hung out. She was tall, African, and dressed in the elegant style in which many Parisian Africans dress.
"Hello," she said in her low, rich, Ivorian-French accent. "I am Fatou." The stress is on the first syllable.
Fatou was opening a bar and club named Black Stars and was trying to get people's attention for it, basically by going from bar to bar and introducing herself.
She already was an experienced restaurateur, having opened an African restaurant and club called Taxi Brousse in Paris. She'd come to Bangkok on vacation and fell in love with the place. Not many Africans do that. Thai's aren't too keen on people whose skin is darker than theirs. Their opinion of people with skin lighter than theirs, or of a different hue, isn't great either, actually, but Africans hold an especially low place in their opinion. But to Fatou the food, with its vibrant flavors, and the familiar chiles and ginger, reminded her of her home in Ivory Coast, and so did the relationship-oriented culture. As far as the racism went, well, she said it was natural for people not to like those who were different. She shrugged it off and worked with the cultural similarities she found she had with Thais.
She would address Thais with the familial familiarity with which she'd address other Africans. So she called women older than she khun mae, a respectful term meaning "mother."
I ended up being her very first customer at Black Stars because I wanted to write about it for Manager, the magazine I was working for at the time. She adopted me as a symbol of good luck and called me "brother." This was oddly appropriate: My own sister is tall and beautiful and looks nothing like me, although she has blond hair and blue eyes.
Black Stars' signature drink was ngamakou, a blend of ginger and rum and pineapple juice. As a girl Fatou would sell a non-alcoholic version on the beaches of Ivory Coast: She was a member of the Malenke tribe, who are Muslim merchants, so she felt that selling things came naturally to her.
Incidentally, chef Morou in Washington, D.C., the only African fine-dining chef I can think of in the United States, also is Malenke.
Fatou would cook delicious meat stews, loaded with chiles and peanuts and ginger. When I was eating in her Paris apartment she warned me away from the first Scotch bonnet peppers I'd ever seen, floating in her stew. "Even we don't eat those," she said.
Fatou served her stews over rice. She gave me a fork and spoon, which is what Thais use when they eat, but she ate them with her right hand. "I can't use utensils to eat African food," she said with a laugh.
I was not a very good good-luck symbol, and some lousy things happened to Fatou.
Not long after Black Stars opened her husband divorced her and locked her out of the club. That depressed her. But she started to sell imported art and fragrances from West Africa, or trying to. She also organized a concert and fashion show featuring a group that sang and danced Soukous, a vibrant, joyous genre of dance music from Congo, which was at the last stages of being Zaire at the time.
Fatou spent a fortune renting a concert hall and flying the band in. I spent time with them at Fatou's Bangkok house, and at the Dusit Thani Hotel where they performed one night before their big concert. I think they, and Fatou, are still the most elegant, graceful people I've ever met. They seemed to glide rather than walk, and I trudged along behind them, pudgy and sweaty — Bangkok's always hot, always — carrying my soft leather briefcase and feeling like the Little Drummer Boy, but without even a drum to play.
The concert was a disaster. Maybe a couple dozen people showed up. The performance was exuberant and sensual and just fantastic overall — a celebration of joy using the media of music and clothing. For a couple dozen people.
Needless to say, sometimes Fatou would get sad, and she'd call me.
"Brrret, come on a canal boat with me," she would say. And we would hire a long-tail boat to take us through Bangkok's back canals, which were sultry and quiet, except for the roar of our boat's motor, of course. They reminded Fatou of home.