Labor's End: A Chef Departs

Tobias Walch was such a splendid friend, much older than I, and we studied and practiced together on many Buddhist retreats and seminars for many years. He’d long ago retired from working in restaurants and big hotels. Now he confined himself to supervising the kitchen at various Buddhist gatherings. Tobias and I usually met in kitchens when he was at the helm. A small, soft-featured, dapper man, bald with a fringe of gray hair, and a soft German accent, he worked intently, darting irritated glances that sometimes turned to rage at his more careless amateur assistants. Once, when I was helping him, I told him that he cut things beautifully, that I just couldn’t, to which he replied, “That’s because you have no training.” In these terse asides, usually in the early mornings, I came to know something of his past.

He was born in Berlin in the 1920s, and his father was a famous stage actor who, from what I gathered, was witty but not exactly nice. “Tobias,” he said when his son was in his early teens, “In this life, to survive, you need talent. Unfortunately, you have none. It’s best you become a cook.” And indeed after eight years of apprenticeship, that’s what Tobias became. He finally retired after a stint as executive chef at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, a job he hated.

Father and son had fled the Nazis; his father ended up in the German Language Theater in Basel, and Tobias remembered people rushing up to his father on the street, addressing him as “Nathan the Wise” after the lead in Lessing’s play of the same name in which his father had often triumphed. The father explained, “You know, there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who can express things very clearly, very precisely and very beautifully, and…those who never understand anything.” Something of his father’s mordant humor rubbed off.

Me: You were married once, weren’t you?

Tobias: It lasted two weeks. It was terrible.

Me: What happened?

Tobias: I was working in Las Vegas, The Sands. At night I was bored, so I’d gamble. But a pit boss I knew pulled me aside and said, “Why are you doing this? This is for stupid people." I answered that I didn’t have anything else to do. “So, go to college. Take a class,“ he said. “You can do that here?“ I asked. He told me yes. So I did. I took a philosophy class. I met a young woman there, and we began having coffee together. She agreed with everything I said… (Here Tobias shrugged and produced a naughty smile.) So, of course, I thought she understood me.

Put that back where you found it. Please look at what you’re doing. Pay attention. Pay Attention. Clean your station before you leave. Leave things cleaner than when you began. Tobias would speak softly, but when his amateur assistants spaced out, he would scream.

One day, I saw him moving quickly out of the kitchen doors pursued by a pretty young woman who was crying and shouting, “You arrogant son of a bitch, you make me feel like I don’t know nothing.” Tobias stopped, looked at her, shrugged, and replied mildly, “Good.”

Tobias also had a wonderfully scary way of letting all the muscles in his face go slack and his eyes go blank; it made him look like a hatchet murderer about to pop. There was no way to know if he meant to do it. One evening he was bent over his plate, eating supper amid the hubbub of the dining room at a Buddhist residence house. Suddenly, he looked up, made his hatchet murderer face, paused and said in a loud voice, "LIFE…COULD BE SO WONDERFUL." The room fell silent as Tobias resumed eating.

I wish I could remember the hundreds of interchanges where his focused whimsy somehow made things slide into an unexpected gap. Alas, I can’t. But even on the edge of dying, his sparkle didn’t dim.

Tobias’s heart trouble got worse, and he spent more time in bed. After a life that was, as far as I knew, quite celibate, beautiful women, many beautiful women came to attend him. This soothed him no end. But one morning a particularly vibrant young woman came by to visit. “How are you?” asked Tobias. The woman glowed, “Why…I don’t know but I’m just feeling really wonderful today.” Tobias said, “Don’t rub it in.”

And then the night before he died, another woman was feeding him, holding a spoon up in front of his face, urging him to eat.

Tobias: Actually, you know, I’m not in any hurry.

Douglas Penick was a research associate at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, studied and practiced under Tibetan Buddhist teachers for 30 years, and wrote and taught on Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese and Indian religion, history and culture. He wrote the National Film Board of Canada’s prize winning series on the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the libretti for two operas: King Gesar, and Ashoka’s Dream. His new novel, Dreamers and Their Shadows, is available from Mountain Treasury Press. He has been published in numerous literary magazines and his short performance pieces have been produced in Canada, Israel, Germany, and South Africa. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.