Some years ago, Kranston and I were invited to a neighbor´s house in Carmel for Thanksgiving. She wasn´t a next-door neighbor – she lived blocks away — down the hill, south of Ocean Ave. closer to the beach. At 92 years old, however, she knew everyone in town and had a reputation for frugality. She toured the sloping hills of the hamlet on foot, daily, as though a full spirited Gazelle. It kept her young. We each adopted one another´s friendship and became close over time.
We shared stories, and an occasional dinner at her home, a small, modest, Carmel Bungalow, or at one of the local restaurants that she thought were constantly over charging for the pasta that she was raised on.
A decade ago, we were invited to Thanksgiving at Stella´s. We told to be at her home promptly at noon. We would be eating at 1:00 and then we would be driving Stella across down, up the hill, with the leftovers packed so we could share another dinner with one of Stella´s other adopted friends. The other friend, Thanksgiving Dinner #2 lived over a mile from Stella´s house.
As a magnate for those who travel at a different pace — not faster or slower- just different, I didn´t ask why we all couldn´t share the holiday at one home, it wasn´t my place to question the matriarch of the Monterey peninsula. My responsibility was to be at her house, on Dolores St. at noon.
Promptly at two minutes after, the knock on Stella´s door went unanswered. The doorbell sounded numerous times and nothing inside the home moved.
Could she have forgotten? Could she have confused Dinner #1 with Dinner #2? Was I about to be stood-up, on Thanksgiving, all because I showed up seconds after the sweep hand bid adieu to noon? Eccentric? Slightly.
While driving up Dolores St. rain turned from mist to downpour. Weaving between the evergreens, madrona, and towering Eucalyptus, a small image, in a dark raincoat, carrying a folded paper grocery bag under her left arm appeared to be struggling with the bag in her other hand as she attempted to open her umbrella.
"Stella", I yelled out the window as I pulled over to the side of the curb less road, "what are you doing?"
"You-a late. You-a supposa be ata my house at noon."
Getting out of the car, I coaxed Stella into the passenger seat as Kranston moved to the back.
Wet, breathing heavily, with a bag full of cooked squash, mashed potatoes and bread, just out of the oven, she handed me her umbrella and the entrée accompaniments and got into the front seat.
As a tear rolled down her cheek, she explained, in broken English laced with a few words in Italian, that I hadn´t come at noon and she had to go pick up her turkey. Her friend was cooking it.
"Where is your friend´s house?"
"Housa. He-a no hava a house. Hezza mya friend at the restaurante. The hotel guy."
"Stella, what are you talking about?"
"The hotel-a guy. Hezza mya guy who cooksa mya Turkey. You go there."
Following- a pointed finger here, a "turna fasta there" I ended up at the back door of Carmel´s Pine Inn. Stella got out of the car, walked through the service entrance to the kitchen of Il Fornaio. She skated past the sous chef, hip blocked the a prep guy, wished the dishwasher "Happy Thanksgiving" and went nose to nose with the chef in the middle of Thanksgiving Brunch. She brought him to his knees. She directed him to get the turkey out of the oven that she had carried up the street, from her house, earlier that morning.
The chef snapped to attention as though cooking for the 101st Airborne division. His boss would have been proud. Roasted in an aluminum pan that she had supplied, the chef wrapped the bird in foil and had it ready to go to Dinner #2 in moments.
The matriarch wished him "Happy Thanksgiving", gave him a kiss on the cheek, and told me to "bringa Turkey´.
I thanked the chef slipped him a twenty and we shook our heads, shrugged our shoulders and smiled.
"Do you know Stella?" I asked.
"No, she showed up here this morning and told me to cook the turkey. I did. She reminds me of my grandmother."
I smiled the entire way to Dinner #2. That incident flashes through my memory often. It symbolizes what restaurants mean to a community and, what the true definition is of a great chef.
Later, I would learn Stella´s friend was terminally ill with cancer and that was the reason we were bringing her dinner. The chef touched more lives that day with a simple roasted turkey than he will ever imagine.