For one struggling artist, food was solace, and chefs the ultimate muse
David Ozersky, my father, thought about food a lot. He wasn’t frantic and feral about it like I was, but we shared a deep common feeling on the subject, one of our few such bonds. My father, a brilliant but melancholy man, loved to eat, but I believe he took more pleasure in talking about eating. He would talk about his last meal while eating the current one, and soon his talk would turn to the subject of where we ought to eat next.
In Atlantic City, our home during my teenage years, the options were gratifying but few: spareribs from a Chinese joint at the local strip mall, vast flaccid pies from a boardwalk pizzeria, some frozen rabbit meat from the ShopRite that he would roast up in the oven with honey and salt. My father never got tired of weighing each equally banal option, deliberating back and forth while never being completely sold on his decision.
I didn’t register any of this as odd. In fact, the contours of my unformed mind molded to his strange monomania, a shape it has kept to this day. I didn’t realize at the time that my father’s preoccupation with food was a form of denial, something he talked about so as to avoid talking about—or thinking about—other things. But even as a child I could tell that he always seemed sad. It made me love him more, and feel guilty, and want to try to make him happy. At times, as I grew older, I was able to do that. Often it involved bringing him little surprises: mail-order Katz’s salami, a half-eaten carton of Cantonese roast duck.
One of the reasons he was sad, I knew, was that he was a hugely talented painter, and nobody cared. My father was a failure; he knew it, and my mother and I knew it. We didn’t blame him; it was understood as the kind of cosmic misfortune that requires stoicism and big sandwiches to bear up to. But it was tragic nonetheless.
My father’s paintings of chefs, one of his favorite subjects, hung in our house when I was growing up. They were much happier than his other paintings, whose themes included dead gangsters, the Holocaust, and junkies.
His paintings are charged with feeling, as per the ideals of abstract expressionism. I think he put so much of himself into them that, beyond their formal qualities, they seem to almost seethe with his thwarted, rueful spirit. He was completely unsparing in his painting, and I feel like it was the only place he ever really opened up. He never said anything to indicate it, because he never talked about himself, but I believe he thought of his whole life as the waste product of his art. Which made it so much worse that nobody cared about it. My father’s active hopes for recognition as an artist died before I was born.
David Ozersky wasn’t a painter as far as anyone was concerned. He was a stagehand at Resorts International Hotel Casino in Atlantic City, a job he held for the last 20 years of his life. He had contempt for the job, which he considered mindless, but it was a cushy one, a union gig that allowed him to work three hours of an eight-hour shift and spend the other five across the street at a lounge inside the Burgundy Motor Inn. He was, I will say, inspired enough by his time at work to create a series of charcoal sketches of showgirls on acid-proof cardboard. “I’m going to go do my Edgar Degas routine,” he would say mordantly, trudging up the stairs to the spare bedroom he used as his studio.
The one subject he kept coming back to in his paintings was food. It was a constant in our pre-Atlantic City days, back in the 1970s, when we lived in the groovy sun-dappled decadence of South Miami. That was before things turned really bad. I was five or six years old, and my father spent much of his time volunteering in the kitchen of a popular Italian restaurant called Raimondo’s. His real job was working in his father’s hardware store, which he hated but was obliged to do, because he was otherwise unemployable, for reasons I never thought to wonder about. During his time with Raimondo, he created elaborate menus and worked the line. That’s when he first started painting chefs.
We went out to many restaurants back then, but my father cooked at home a lot as well. I remember him going through a soufflé phase, when he would make the fluffy desserts every night, beating the eggs with a whisk furiously, and then pulling them at full height from the oven with a triumphant expression my mother and I otherwise almost never got to see.
The chef paintings stopped in 1978 when we moved to New Jersey and he landed the job at Resorts. Those were dismal times, with my mother—isolated, depressed—in even worse shape than my father. His closed-off sadness became even more airtight in 1982, when he came home from work one night to find my mother overdosed on Dilaudid, a potent prescription narcotic. I woke up; he told me to go back to sleep. I did. But when I got up in the morning, she was dead. We didn’t talk about it.
We talked about food. For the next few days we talked animatedly about why some potato skins weren’t crispy enough (they had too much potato still on them) and why Katz’s pastrami was so great (it had to do with hand slicing). We began to eat more too. I remember cooking steaks on our porch, wood-fired New York strips on a little hibachi, served up with buttered onion rolls. Afterward, we sat quietly in that nowhere, and then he said, sheepishly, “Maybe we should get some ribs from the Chinese place.” Why not?
His mood eventually stabilized, but there remained a certain wry, morose quality to his eating. The summer I was 16, I manned the grill at Pizza Haven on the boardwalk. One day my father wandered up after a show at Resorts, dressed in black pants and a black long-sleeved shirt, his stage tech garb, killing time before heading to the Burgundy. I made him a double cheesesteak with pizza mozzarella melted into the vinegar peppers. He ate it absentmindedly, then stood around, trying to figure out what to do next. “Maybe I should have a sausage sandwich,” he said, in a glum, half-questioning way. I wanted to cry, but I did make him a sausage sandwich, and he did like it.
His story isn’t wholly a depressing one. In the early ’90s he quit drinking and took up with someone who truly understood and loved him—someone who had known him most of his life. They began to spend a lot of time in New York. He had discovered Jean-Georges Vongerichten when the French chef was still at the Lafayette Restaurant at the Drake Hotel. And when he opened JoJo on the Upper East Side in 1991, my father became such a loyalist that the chef would try things out on him. One Christmas, Vongerichten even presented him with a foie gras terrine, a mark of special favor. My father was astonished by the chef’s conviction as an artist, and I think it reawakened something in him. (“Who else would have come up with white pepper ice cream?” he’d ask me, rhetorically, over and over again.) He became aware of his torpor; he felt guilty about it, and was moved to start a second series of chefs, many of whom looked suspiciously like Jean-Georges.
When the chef’s big luxe restaurant in the Trump Tower received a four-star review in the New York Times from Ruth Reichl in 1997, my father had it silk-screened onto shower curtains, which he then painted over in a Warholian manner, the only time I ever saw him depart from his figurative, emotional style. I think he was grateful that the chef had made him so happy in the only way he allowed himself to be happy, and helped him, in some small way, to start painting again. Nobody saw or cared about the paintings, then as before; but he opened up a little in middle age and would occasionally say revealing things in his own sardonic way, like “I beat three major addictions in my life, but I can’t stop buying cheap shoes.” He would mock his own dark cast of mind, saying his motto was “Let them get you down.” But when he said it I knew it was no longer completely true, and that made me feel good. David Ozersky died in 1998 at 58 from a cancer that had been diagnosed four days earlier. He never saw it coming. He thought he had a backache. He was going to chiropractors. When I got back from the hospital—on Father’s Day, no less—there were still some leftover pork chops in the refrigerator from the Malaysian restaurant Penang on the Upper West Side, which, it turned out, had been his last meal. I finished them, of course; there was never any chance I wouldn’t.