Discover more from Richard Goodman's Newsletter
Engaging with a big personality
In the fall of 2008, I taught a writing class at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York. Notoriously low-paying, Gotham still offered what a freelance writer was always grateful to have: a gig. This particular course had about fifteen students, as I recall. There was a large oval conference table around which these aspiring writers sat. One of the few advantages of teaching in such a basement-priced program is that it draws all sorts of people who are looking for a quick and easy method to write. Gotham distributes its course offerings in little kiosks on what seems like every street corner in New York. Everybody knows about Gotham.
Among the students that fall was a merry, husky-voiced man with a singy French accent named Florent Morellet. I did not recognize the name. Some New Yorkers would have. Because Florent had been the owner of a celebrated restaurant named after himself, located in the meatpacking district of New York. I checked, and Restaurant Florent closed in June 2008, so he was coming to this class just a few months after a 23-year run of owning and running one of New York’s most legendary night spots. I did not put two and two together when Florent introduced himself, though. I’ve never been a nocturnal animal, and the night was Florent’s domain. I had, in fact, been to Restaurant Florent just once, I think, but that didn’t come to mind when he told the room his name.
I knew the neighborhood, though. The meatpacking district. In 1985, when Florent opened his restaurant, it was a deserted, dangerous corner of the city that was home to dead-end transvestites and desperate addicts, especially on late weekend nights. I lived nearby and used to ride my bike there early Sunday morning. A few artists had their studios there and there was a Portuguese restaurant somewhere and, of course, the meatpacking warehouses by the river. It was a chancy area, dirty and unkempt, but wonderful in its way, because it was cobblestoned and old New York, caught in amber as it were, untouched by developers.
That’s all changed now. The Whitney Museum is there. The High Line starts there. A slew of fancy stores line its streets. Restaurants, too. Tourists throng the area. It’s hard to imagine how daring it was for Florent to start a restaurant there in 1985. I assure you, it was. Despite the menacing area, Restaurant Florent quickly became the place to go. Name a name from that era, and you’d eventually see them there.
That day at Gotham’s classroom, everyone introduced themselves, Florent included. We had an array of professions and personalities, including a retired police captain from Rockaway Beach, a distant part of Queens. When he told the class who he was, and where he was from, Florent exclaimed,
“I know that place! I used to go cruising nearby.”
“Oh, really?” replied the retired police captain, slightly confused.
Florent smiled what I came to know as his wide-open, solar smile.
The class went well enough, I guess. Florent was there because someone told him he should write a memoir about his restaurant. Several students seemed to have an interest in continuing to study with me, including Florent. I told them I would be happy to do that but not at Gotham, because I had rent to pay. Without hesitation, Florent said,
“You can do it at my place.”
I looked at him. “Really?”
“Sure,” he said. “I have a loft in Soho. We can meet there.”
And that’s how the adventure began.