Written by Allan Hall
There was little downside to being the US correspondent of The Sun in the 90’s, save getting up half an hour before you went to bed, and dealing with the aggressive lunacy of editor Kelvin Mackenzie. Newspapers were still in their pre-Internet glory, purses were full as entertaining remained a condoned practice.
But the American beat for a celebrity-obsessed organ like The Sun did necessarily entail foraying into a cosmos I neither cared for and knew even less about.
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I quickly learned that phoning to ask the Press representatives of the stars if they were even still breathing, let alone up for a chat, was beyond futile. Yet like buses, they all seemed to come along at once…
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In that year the film starring Tom Cruise entitled ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ was released. Cruise portrayed Ron Kovic, a Vietnam veteran who was paralysed in the futile conflict a few months short of his 22nd birthday. His searing memoir of the war, and the two decades after it he spent in an abyss of drinks and drugs, was tipped as one of the year’s hottest movies.
“Go to Los Angeles and find Ron and get his story,” was the tall-ish order from London. A friend from the rival newspaper Today, Tim Miles, was in New York, so we hatched a plot to go together: the Sun and it were not really in competition. Besides, it would be more fun carousing in La-La-Land with him and his wife than alone.
We had no address for Ron save a vague location in or around Redondo Beach, south of the great LA sprawl.
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I mentioned before in these culinary chronicles that the greater part of journalism, certainly tabloid journalism, came down to luck. We pondered on how a 40-something, wheelchair-bound man might spend his day, and headed straight for a beachside bar. It was 11.00am.
“Do you know a guy called Ron Kovic who lives around here?
The barkeep glanced at his watch: “ Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four . . .” and in rolled Ron, his timing perfect as if he should have been the star instead of a bit-part player in America’s greatest tragedy.
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The next several hours passed in a miasma of beer, wine and the odd bar snack. Ron was – and is – a great character and a warm human being – evidenced by his tragic story which later played out across two pages in the UK’s biggest paper.
Solids, however, did not seem to figure high on his dietary requirements. At some point around the ninth beverage I asked the Mexican-American owner if I might have something more substantial. The Grilled Lime Chicken was so damned good, I asked him later if I might have the recipe.
“Sure,” he said. “I got it from the LA Times anyway.”
A good side dish to serve with this tongue-tingling delight would be what the bar owner’s wife Juanita came up with for me – Corn and Tomato Casserole: it is fabulous. She said it originated with her family in the Mexican city of Oaxaca, not the LA Times.
We left Ron and his sad memories at 4.00pm, promising that a photographer would come to call on him the next morning, same time, same place. To capture, in a single frame, the whole horror, loss, pathos, tears and tragedy of the debacle that was the Vietnam War.
On our way back into downtown LA, Tim remembered he knew a photographer called Kypros Kyprianou, a north London Greek-Cypriot lad reinventing himself in Airhead Land with the catchy moniker Kip Rano. Tim contacted Kip, asked if he was up for photographing Ron the next day, which he was, and made a date for dinner with him and his girlfriend that night in a swanky Beverly Hills hotspot.
Chaya Brasserie closed after 30 something years in 2014. But while its doors were open it hosted the cream of Tinseltown royalty eager to feast on its innovative Asian-French fusion cuisine while telling themselves it wasn’t REALLY fattening.
I started with the Tuna Tartare followed by Veal Chop with Port Wine Sauce (cost to £45! Nearly 40 years ago! You don’t have to pay that to live large.)
Desserts were no less spectacular there and I was contemplating what to order when Tim nudged my elbow and pointed to a nearby table. I saw a very small man and a very tall woman. Eating. Each other. Had the tongue of the late crooner Prince been any deeper down the oesophagus of the actress Kim Basinger she may well have required surgery to remove it. Tabloid journalism = luck.
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Rumours had been circulating for weeks of a relationship between this seemingly odd couple but no amount of bin foraging, maid bribing or long-lens surveillance had managed to place them close to each other. We were not only witnessing a very overt example of PDA – we were seeing a front page story in the making.
Once we had managed to persuade Kip that it was very much in the interest of his bank account that he retrieve a camera from his car outside, we sat back and waited. A rough plan was hatched: pay the bill, Kip points camera, Boff! goes the flash and we exit.
The best laid plans… The flash certainly did go off, and all hell with it. As the Purple Rainmaker was torn from his oral examination of Kim’s cavities, a shout cut through the rarified atmosphere of the Chaya Brasserie. “Get Prince outta here!” was the cry. I looked to see two huge black men lift Prince bodily from his banquette, his short legs turning like bicycle wheels on crack high above the ground.
At the same moment, from five separate tables, five more bodyguards, each roughly the size of a sub-zero fridge, rose up and descended upon us, corralling us within sight of the exit door we could no longer reach. They knew what we had and wanted it. But this being the Land of the Lawsuit as well as the Home of the Brave, Prince’s presidential-style security goons dare not lay a finger on any of us.
In the end Kip slipped them a blank roll of film and we slipped out the door just as the Beverly Hills cops rolled up. The upshot: exclusive photos in The Sun – and $25,000 in the bank account of Kip Rano from magazines and newspapers in the states and around the world.
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The next day Kip kept his rendezvous with Ron Kovic, briefed on how he must capture, in a single image, the tragedy of the Vietnam War. He got him doing a wheelie in his chair with both his thumbs up and a grin across his face as wide as the Mekong Delta.
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This is, roughly, the dessert I never got to eat at the Chaya Brasserie.
Two days later, back in New York, I was invited to dine at what was then one of the city’s trendiest eateries – Coco Pazzo on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
The chef was Mark Strausman, a portly, jolly kitchen genius whose creations were lauded by the city’s tough restaurant critics and clientele alike. One foodie wrote of him and his business partner: “Pino Luongo and Strausman opened Coco Pazzo and half this town’s food industry surged and scurried to open a trattoria, an oysteria—anything, in fact, that ended in a vowel, served spaghetti, and stewed meat till it nearly fell off the bone.“
There was, of course, more to it than that. But the idea of dinner a la Godfather in the city that never sleeps lured them in in droves. It was beyond my personal budget, but because the friend of a friend’s girlfriend was the arm candy mistress of a recording studio mogul 45 years her senior – and half-a-billion dollars richer – and she wanted said tycoon “ to meet some of my friends for a change,” I found myself enjoying the swag, the wine and, of course, the food.
The rich guy looked as happy as Piers Morgan answering questions about phone hacking. There was lots of pasta with shaved truffles, wood fired this, lacquered that. The tycoon enduring his young lover’s acquaintances played around with some rocket salad while I went for a timeless Italian classic, easily, deliciously and affordably recreated in a family kitchen.
The wine being served was a terrific red I had never heard of. “That’s because it is not sold but comes from the private vineyard of Francis Ford Coppola,” a friend of the record titan informed me curtly. “Go easy on it, we’re having a pause until Michael shows up.”
Michael? I looked at my friend, at the mistress and at other diners, but no one elaborated on who the mystery guest might be. The clock ticked by. The wine waterfall petered out to a trickle. Guests began gnawing on breadsticks.
Then – “Sorry guys, I hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long.” Michael Douglas, of Streets of San Francisco and Wall Street fame, was suddenly sitting opposite me with his (then) wife Diandra on his right side. What can I say? Except that he was charming, funny, hungry and VERY thirsty, and totally unfazed by a hack who worked for Britain’s biggest scandal sheet. He told me some things I might have made a story of. But I didn’t. A good guy is a good guy. And I kept – keep – his confidences to this day.
But not what he ate: If you want to dine like the stars, here it is in all its glorious simplicity. I had it too. The recipe is not Coco Pazzo’s, but pretty damn close. Serve this with baked potatoes with crispy skins, slathered with butter and cheese of your choice.