by Elise Seyfried
“The fantasy is that there exists a small restaurant in the sticks, run by funny, civilized, delightful people who become your good friends, and almost no one else knows about them. I used to fantasize such people. Now I know them.”—John McPhee
Question: Are you doing what you really love?
Is your job a joy or a burden to you? A calling or a fallback? What would you do if you dared to go where your heart calls you?
When my husband, Steve, and I were on our long tour of performing children’s theatre in the Northeast, we had to be pretty darned flexible in the eating department. Pulling into a tiny burg after 7 p.m., the only dinner to be had sometimes was a Slim Jim (or the like) at the local convenience store. So perhaps you can understand our excitement when we stumbled upon the real deal — a very special, largely undiscovered dining place.
One day on the road, I read a long piece in the New Yorker magazine, a profile of a mystery chef identified only as “Otto.” He emphatically did NOT want notoriety. (“Otto” was an alias.) His restaurant, according to writer John McPhee, was located more than five miles but fewer than 100 miles from midtown Manhattan. Other clues were few and far between.
In rhapsodic terms McPhee described the place, the site of the best meals he had ever consumed. Otto was a stickler for quality, traveling almost daily to the Fulton Fish Market in New York City. His wife was pastry chef, conjuring wonders from sugar, chocolate and cream. His small but adoring clientele traveled great distances to partake of this amazing culinary bounty. The article was, to say the least, tantalizing; who was Otto? Where was this heavenly restaurant?
As amateur “foodies,” we were keenly interested, and followed the story as it unfolded. Within the week, Mimi Sheraton, then influential food critic of the New York Times, had blown Otto’s cover. Thanks to her network of sources, she had determined that the exalted eating spot was the Bullhead restaurant in Shohola, Pa. (the corner of the Poconos where New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania meet). “Otto” was a man named Alan Lieb, and his patissière wife was Ronnie. Gleefully, Sheraton unmasked the mystery man and his entourage.
Well, there was only one thing left to do, of course — travel to Shohola and eat there! We feared that publicity-shy Lieb would soon pull up stakes, so we called immediately for a reservation. Spring break was coming up, and, as luck would have it, we were touring schools in western Pennsylvania. We invited our dear friend, John Carter, to join us. John was coming up from Georgia and would meet us at the Bullhead on the appointed night.
We pinched our pennies (this was sure to cost a fortune) and marked off the wait on the calendar. Finally, the day came. We finished our afternoon performance and drove. And drove. And drove. Darn. Pennsylvania is big. We pulled into the parking lot in the dark. But wait. There was only one car in the driveway. What was going on?
Tentatively, we knocked. A pause. Then the door swung open, and there was our buddy John, wineglass in hand. He greeted us with, “We’re the only customers tonight! It’s Passover, and most of his customers are Jewish! Come on in!”
There followed the most incredible meal of my life. Succulent appetizers were followed by main courses to die for. We ate and drank and celebrated, fully aware of how rare and special this opportunity was. By the time dessert (chocolate hazelnut dacquoise) arrived, we were sated. Time for the great reckoning — the cost? The menu had no prices. We mentally bid our entire vacation stash adieu. This meal was worth the grilled cheese we’d consume for the next month; right?
But then, something amazing happened. Alan, chef extraordinaire, appeared. He sat down at our table and poured a glass of wine. His wife, Ronnie, joined us as well. Over the next two hours, we visited with this remarkable couple, learning the path that had taken these two talented Europeans to a remote corner of the Northeast U.S. Their passion for preparing food was palpable; they truly loved their work and asked for no “thank you” beyond the appreciation of their diners. They asked about us and seemed genuinely interested in John’s budding journalism career and our adventures in theatre.
Midnight. No more delay — check, please! Alan produced the bill. $60. Total. For the three of us. Why? The food rivaled the best of New York, Paris, Rome. But, young as we were, we didn’t question. We just paid, with much gratitude.
Over the next few years we returned to the Bullhead several times. We never had a meal that wasn’t spectacular — and never got a bill that wasn’t amazingly reasonable. Once we came to town when the restaurant was closed, and the Liebs invited us to their house for dinner (spectacular, as expected.)
Eventually, alas, we lost touch. I have no idea where Alan and Ronnie are today. But I think of them often, this couple who followed their passion. Wanting no fame, just the chance to do what they loved. Feeding people was their joy, their calling. And if they had three diners or 100, it didn’t matter. They put out the same effort.
We all have our passion, our talent, our reason to be. Life is so short. There’s no time to waste.
Let’s get cooking.
Elise Seyfried is Director of Spiritual Formation at Christ’s Lutheran Church in Oreland. She is also an actress, wife, mother of five and co-author (with husband, Steve) of 15 plays for children. She can be contacted through www.eliseseyfried.com.