“I’m going to Alice B. Toklas’ for dinner,” I told my calendar. (I hardly ever write things down anymore; I speak them into my phone.) Not time-traveling to the famous Parisian salon of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, who presided over a coterie of artists at 27 rue de Fleurus, including Pablo Picasso, who claimed various annoying eating restrictions, and Francis Picabia, who liked eggs. But to the next best thing, in Brooklyn Heights.
For the evening, Alice B. Toklas was Daniel Isengart, 48, a former cabaret singer and a personal chef. He lives out his peculiar romantic culinary fantasy daily in the attic apartment he shares with his partner, Filip Noterdaeme, a conceptual artist.
Isengart also practices the quaint custom of writing things down, notably a new memoir, “The Art of Gay Cooking,” which was released by Outpost19 on June 7. He modeled it on “The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook,” published in 1954, copying every paragraph, then rewriting a modern interpretation — a bit like singing a standard in his sultry voice.
The elegant Isengart, who began performing in New York in the 1990s at Bar d’O and other places, cuts a striking contrast to Gertrude Stein’s “wife,” the notoriously frumpy hausfrau Alice Toklas. But they happen to share the same birthday (April 30) and also a flair for living artistically and eating well.
Isengart longs for a time when domesticity, or “dough-mysticity,” as Noterdaeme puts it, was valued, if not essential. For gay or straight, male or female, richer or poorer. Of course, when Isengart starts to work in a home, it is often a multimillion-dollar brownstone or lavish penthouse uptown.
But one feature is consistent. He usually finds the kitchens loaded with gadgets but lacking heart (or hearth). This is where he steps in.
His book provides a blueprint for kindling this love flame of dough-mysticity in your own home. It includes recipes adapted from Toklas, as well as dozens of his own honed while singing for supper-club audiences while working as a caterer for demanding socialites in Manhattan and the Hamptons.
“Catering is a seductive loop of working in temporary festive setups that give one the illusion of participating in a glamorous lifestyle,” Isengart writes.
Each pie, galette or cake recipe is accompanied by pithy stories, with insider dish as important as ingredients. Readers become flies on the wall at events like a dinner party at the Dakota to which Daniel Boulud, the exacting restaurateur, had been invited as a guest. When the wild mushroom risotto came out, Boulud sent it right back in, accompanying it into the kitchen.
While working the Met Costume Ball, Isengart observed Madonna like a cake under a glass dome. “I felt as if I had been locked into a beehive with everyone encircling around the queen in a mad dance,” he writes.
During a dinner at the Sony building, he was asked to step away from the views, reminded that such luxury was for guests, not servers.
But he is more magnanimous and humorous than bitter. Filed under “Recipes for Socialites,” is “A Dessert for the Allergic Socialite.” The prescription is a mouthwatering mild panna cotta flavored with kaffir lime, and next come the easy-to-follow steps for “Evian-steamed broccoli.”
A Disco of Desserts
“Convenience to him is an abomination, a kind of atrophy of the imagination,” said his husband, who five years ago published a memoir, “The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart” with Outpost19, modeled on Stein’s “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.”
So you see, these two have been playing their roles for a while.
“Total devotion,” Noterdaeme, 53, said of what makes Isengart the modern-day Alice. “He, like Alice, knows instinctively how to set things in motion — not just in the kitchen but in all domestic affairs, including affairs of the heart. The world delivered at your doorstep by a truck is not part of Daniel’s round universe. And just like with Alice, so it is with Daniel: Nothing is more eccentric in our egocentric world than generosity. Nothing is more gay. Nothing is more revolutionary. Nothing is more noble. Nothing is more beautiful.”
Isengart’s book reveals the many onion layers of giving, gratitude and identity. “In my early childhood, whenever I had been asked what I wanted to become later in life, I had always answered, a painter, a dancer and a cook,” he writes. “The puzzled reactions had always been the least enthusiastic in regards to the latter of the three. A young man wearing an apron was regarded as being a mere step away from cross-dressing.”
Charlotte diplomat was “the dessert de rigueur my mother served at large dinner parties,” from his boyhood in France, and later Germany, with a mother who had a large 1970s Parisian culinary repertoire and savored a cigarette after a meal. Her influence is felt in recipes like that for “Our Secret Schnitzel.”
There is candy-cane ice cream. Nutella tart. Chocolate truffles. Tea truffles. Sacher torte. The hard-to-come-by original recipe from Toklas taken from the famous Café Sacher in Vienna, is here.
Isengart developed his passion for cooking through sweets, so there is a virtual disco of orange sherbet, rote gruetze (German red berry compote) and éclairs. Also, for those with a taste for edibles, we find a reimagined recipe for Toklas’ famed “hashish fudge,” the first time “pot brownies” appeared in a popular cookbook.
“Alphabet City Brownies” are made with cannabis sativa finely chopped (or pulverized in a coffee grinder), dark rum, and the only prepackaged brownie mix in the book, a contribution from an East Village performing artist. This filed under “recipes from friends,” notably Wayne Koestenbaum, Tommy Tune, Edmund White and Meow Meow, a cabaret singer.
‘We Are Modernists’
A recent dinner started with a walk up steep steps to the artist’s garret with a newly engaged couple who flouted convention (they were mulling an affair with their therapist), a wallpaper designer educated at the Yale School of Art and a literary agent.
We toasted over Campari cocktails with a spritz and grapefruit, munched on wonton crisps dunked in edamame dip. Everything was homemade and gluten free, in a vague attempt to accommodate Noterdaeme’s warm-weather allergies.
There were quail eggs pickled in rice vinegar and fresh beet juice and topped with chives and freshly grated horseradish that looked like a palatable museum display. The couple used to run the Homeless Museum of Art out of their apartment, a conceptual project of Noterdaeme’s, with Isengart dressed up geisha style, serving food as Madama Butterfly.
For dinner, we moved to a stark, white flowerless table.
“We are modernists,” Isengart said.
Crossing his long dancer’s legs and taking a sip of pinot noir, he basked in his creation, while orchestrating the arrival of a carpaccio of sea scallops with blood orange, cucumber, raw rhubarb, red onion, olive oil, avocado and cilantro shoots (though there were health fanatics present, the chef is a fervent believer in butter and decadence in moderation). Next came baked striped bass, a heap of Persian golden rice, roasted baby beets and radishes, ginger-steamed spinach and puréed eggplant.
Champagne arrived in time for dessert. Dozens of glassy layers of mandoline-sliced apples made a confit baked to artistic perfection, served with dangerous mountains of white chocolate mousse and beach-sandy soft walnut cookies that made you never wish to go to the Hamptons again.
Dinner had been served, entertainment included, and no one even thought to ask about the hash brownies.