Fake-Tan George, the Farrakhan Follies and a wiseguy called Lenny

Fake-Tan George, the Farrakhan Follies and a wiseguy called Lenny
Arabelle restaurant at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in New York City shows off the superb work by Chris and his team. (Photo: Supplied)

My times in the restaurant decorating business with Louis Farrakhan, George Hamilton, a faux Peter Sellers and three very short young dumplings in black hijabs.

Is it just me, I wonder. Now that I’ve got time on my hands, my brain has stopped functioning. Do people even read lockdown recipes? Why not just read normal recipes? After announcing on Facebook that I will not participate in challenges, I participated in a lockdown recipe challenge. One Bloody Mary too many, I think.

I am not good at recipes. I never cook from them. Basically I hate following instructions. I love reading cookbooks though. I have a huge bookshelf in my kitchen dedicated to cookbooks. Nothing puts you to sleep at night like a good cookbook. My wife, Jill, doesn’t believe a word of it. When we have people over for dinner (back in the day), and they ask for my recipe, I always squirm out of it and she tells them with relish that I hate revealing my secret ingredients. I can’t reveal them because I can’t remember them..

Chris Pretorius’ Chicago, Illinois kitchen is dominated by a seeming wall of cookbooks which he reads, if not quite following the recipes: (Photo: Willem Pretorius)

Cooking tips? Forget it. That will only reveal my dodgy cooking methods and I’ll probably lose all my serious cooking friends when I start mentioning things like powdered garlic and white pepper. One thing I thought of writing about is listing all the ways restaurants annoy me. But that seems a little churlish now that they are all going out of business and I actually miss going to a restaurant and being pleasantly annoyed. So I was sitting there staring at a blank screen when Jill walked by and asked if I’d thought about the fact that I’ve been working in the hospitality industry for nearly 30 years. That’s decorating, I said, it’s got nothing to do with food. So? It’s still about restaurants. Well, why not?

I got to Chicago in 1990 with less than a thousand dollars in my pocket and no credit record, absolutely essential in America, so I needed to find work a.s.a.p. For once my luck held and I found a job with a trompe l’oeil mural painter. Of course I had no clue what trompe l’oeil murals were or what faux finishing was but hey, being a fairly typical Afrikaans boy I could bullshit myself into any situation. It helped that during my Glass Theatre and Baxter Theatre years I earned a living working in the old Capab paint shop up in Kloof Street, Cape Town, painting opera and ballet backdrops and had no fear of large blank canvases. I react badly to people telling me what to do and after about a year or so I decided to start my own company with Jill, who I’d just met. We’re talking early Nineties here, the heyday of the restaurant explosion, so a lot of my early projects were restaurants and all kinds of faux finishes and stucco effects, which is what I did, were really hot. And to be honest, my Afrikaans South African accent helped. For some reason Americans just love it.

Those early days were pretty hectic and I had to learn on my feet. And one of the first lessons I learnt was that restaurant owners don’t like parting with money. Like, how about we pay you half in cash and the other half in dinner credits. I actually fell for that one. The first time we showed up for a free dinner, everything was just great. Hey, these are the people that did all these wonderful finishes! The second time we showed up about a week later, it was like, oh, you guys again. Weren’t you here just a week ago? I did the maths and pointed out that they owed us more than a hundred free dinners. The third time the owner, Bobby, wasn’t around and the hostess didn’t know about our arrangement and made us stand around for a very awkward 40 minutes. Like we were trying to pull a scam on them or something. That was it. We cut our losses. The food was mediocre anyway.

Another one is we should give them a 50% discount because so many famous people are going to dine there and we’ll get so much exposure! I never fell for that one but it became a running joke because at least half the time restaurant owners would suggest that when we presented our quote. And get everything in writing because projects tend to expand like, wow, that finish you’re doing looks so great! Maybe you should do it behind the bar too. And maybe down the passage to the toilets! Fantastic. And then the surprise when your final bill includes the additional areas. Oh man, I don’t have that in the budget. This is bad, man, I’m going to have to talk to my partners and get back to you. Yeah, his phantom partners.

I’m actually quoting a guy called Jerry here. He opened some of the hottest and hippest Chicago restaurants in the Nineties before finally absconding out West somewhere. Places liked Marche, Vivo, Red Light and Carnivale. We did a lot of work for him but Jerry really hated parting with money. He made all the other misers in the business look like philanthropists. Once Jill called him about an outstanding cheque. It’s in the mail, he told her. (Weird thing about Jerry is that he always answered his phone, compulsively. Even when he was hiding.) Strange, we thought, because he didn’t have our address so where did the cheque go to? Jill called him back and, surprise, the cheque was lying right there on the desk, so she offered to stop by and pick it up. No problem. Jerry’s office was above his restaurant, Vivo, and Jill was actually working across the street. The moment the call ended the back door flew open and Jerry came hurtling down the fire escape, slap bang into Jill. If we didn’t need the money to pay rent and salaries it would actually have been funny.

Back in our studio we had eight of Jerry’s dining chairs. They were gorgeous. Designed by an Italian designer and handmade by a small Chicago metal forgery and we were silver-leafing them. We took them down to Jerry’s upholsterer, a guy named Frankie. We told him it was a rush job for Jerry and Jill picked out a bolt of exquisite Donghia fabric for the seat cushions. When we picked them up a few days later we told a worried hand-wringing Frankie not to worry because Jerry would take care of him, like he always did. That was the end of Jerry and we were the owners of eight fabulous designer dining chairs.

And then there was the time we ended up doing the decorative finishes in all the new dining areas for the Westin Casuarina Resort in the Cayman Islands. Sounds fun but, to be honest, I’ve worked on a few of them and I actually hate islands. The locals are just downright weird and if sunning on the beach doesn’t rock your boat, you’re in for a tough few weeks because a lot of those islands are minute and you can take in every single sight before lunch. (A very expensive lunch because islands are not cheap.) And you have to really like steel drum music because it’s everywhere. And drunk Brits. I hate getting wet so imagine how I felt when I found out our hotel bar was situated in a blimmin’ pool and I had to swim for my booze. Not to mention the doorman dressed as a pirate who jumped out from behind a potted plant and yelled Har! Har! every time you tried to enter the hotel lobby. I know he was just doing his job but I got really close to punching the guy in the jaw.

The Cayman Islands are a British territory and because we were on US passports, we had to subcontract to a local company in order to work there. After two days of us setting up and getting the job going there was still no sign of Donny, our local contractor. I needed to find him because we had to get a bunch of paint supplies so I mentioned his absence to the construction supervisor. The guy just smiled and pointed to a Rasta dude lounging on an upside down paint bucket over in the far corner. I’d noticed him the day before but didn’t pay him any attention but he turned out to be Donny, proprietor of Donny’s Fine Painting Co and a really nice guy. He just didn’t like working too hard which was fine by me because I didn’t need some local guy interfering with our work. So Donny’s only job was to drive me to the paint store every few days in his brightly hand painted, beat up old VW Kombi rastamobile.

Another fine thing about Donny was that he owned a boat. The restaurant that we were working in had a deck overlooking the ocean so in the afternoons after work he would pull up in his boat and we would take off with a crate of beer and a few bottles of wine. I didn’t even need to get wet. I could step right onto the boat from the job site and crack open a beer and we would take off to Stingray City, a huge sandbank out in the ocean where you could lean over the side and pat these huge rays that were quite happy to drift right up to the boat. Wicky wacky island life, as Jill used to say.

Speaking of wacky, one of the most bizarre jobs we ever did started with a strange meeting we had in 1997 I think, with an African-American designer who wanted us to do the interior of a gigantic restaurant her father was building on the South Side. My interest was immediately piqued and I asked what kind of food they were planning to do. “Oh, they’re going to do cuisine food,” she replied. Her father turned out to be none other than Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, and he was building this three-storey restaurant the size of an aircraft hanger called Salaam, and they wanted us to faux marble every square inch of the interior. You will probably remember him as the guy who organised the Million Man March on Washington. I knew the guy was militant but at the time I had no idea just how off the rails he was. Comparing himself to Hitler, anti-Semitic, homophobic, peddling a fake Aids cure through his church to poor African-Americans. Like a black version of our dear leader, Donald Trump. As a matter of fact, he endorsed Trump. I Googled him and found that the Nation of Islam has been classified as a hate group. But back then, blissfully unaware of all the dark stuff swirling around, we took the job.

The guy running the job and our contact man was Leonard Mohammad, or Lenny, Farrakhan’s so-in-law who later went on to be Michael Jackson’s financial adviser and bilked him out of millions of dollars. (Why are all these guys called Bobby, or Jerry, or Frankie, or Donny, or Lenny?) The project was huge and we spent many weeks down there, often working into the early hours of the morning. Lenny wasn’t exactly on top of the game so everything was way behind schedule and we put in a lot of overtime. Not that we ever got compensated for it. But Farrakhan’s word was sacred and the opening date to start serving “cuisine food” to the South Side was set in stone.

One of the people on our crew was a guy named Casey whom Jill and I met on the train one afternoon after a day working in wealthy northern suburbs. We were all wearing paint-splattered jeans and started talking and realised we were in the same business. Casey was doing some faux finishing for a lady with advanced cancer but actually spent most of the time hanging out with her and sharing her medication. We were working in the mansion of a real estate mogul whose business partner, Lee Miglin, got murdered a few weeks earlier by Andrew Cunanan, the maniac who murdered Versace. Anyway, Casey ended up on our crew right in time for the Farrakhan Follies.

One of the reasons the project was running behind schedule was that Farrakhan kept using the building site as a parade ground for huge groups of young men dressed in black zoot suits with red bowties. All the builders and painters had to just clear out of the way. One morning we were working in a kind of passageway and the marching and foot stomping and chanting in the big dining hall next door got so enthusiastic the walls were shaking. Casey suddenly got fed up, threw his brush down, strutted around the corner. I peeked around the corner, and there was Casey, arms akimbo, glaring at about 40 young guys in suits, frozen in some marching formation, looking utterly astonished. (On that day, Casey, who was from Georgia, was wearing a fur coat with no shirt and mascara from the night before.) “I’m just so worried that y’all are going to bust through the wall and ruin our beautiful work,” Casey admonished them in his southern drawl, then turned on his heels and strutted from the room. There was dead silence for the rest of the morning.

A few days later we were working on the grand staircase in the early hours of the morning when the swing doors below suddenly burst open and a line of young men in black suits and bowties, each carrying a potted palm and chanting, came jogging up the stairs. It was totally bizarre. And they just kept coming. I could see Casey’s lips pursing so I nudged him and told him to keep a lid on it because I intended going home in one piece. Eventually we just called it a day. I heard that Salaam never actually functioned as a restaurant. They did have a grand opening and then it just fizzled and closed down a few months later. Casey ended up going to New York and formed a pop duo that became quite famous. He even worked with Madonna. He certainly had more than enough chutzpah.

We ended up in New York not long after Casey to do the finishes for Arabelle and Bar Seine (still there, all intact!), the restaurant and bar at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée on East 63rd Street. Labour is so expensive in New York that it was cheaper for them to fly our whole crew in from Chicago and put us up for a few weeks. And pay us under the table, of course. In the murky world of the hospitality industry, everything happens under the table.

A few days into the job I became aware of someone hovering very close behind me. I turned around and there was one of the weirdest individuals I had ever seen. White suit, yellow shirt, hair slicked back, kind of Third World sleazeball dictator style. But what struck me most were his blindingly bright white teeth and his fake tan. The fakest tan ever. Mind you, second only to Donald. “Looks fantastic”, he said to me. “Well, we’re still setting up, we haven’t done anything yet,” I replied. “Good man,” he said, and sauntered off, flashing his bright smile. “What the hell was that?” I asked, but Jill was so busy crawling about laughing that it took a while for her to calm down and get a word out.

“That” turned out to be George Hamilton, famous mostly for his tan but also for starring in movies like Love at First Bite, Zorro, The Gay Blade and The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington. How was I supposed to know. George (“Call me George”) was a friend of the owner and stayed at the Plaza when in New York. George also had a lot of time on his hands and loved to nose around the construction site in his (always) white suits and considered it his duty to offer his opinion on everything we did. Which everybody ignored, including his friend, the owner, to our relief. That bright smile of his always in place, of course. He never seemed to leave his room without it. He was actually quite harmless and perfectly pleasant and eventually just became part of the daily job routine. I really had to suppress the urge to splatter his white suit with a little paint but couldn’t bring myself to do it.

This deeper version of the photo of the Arabelle restaurant at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in NYC shows off the superb work by Chris and his team. (Photo: Supplied)

One day around lunch time hotel security burst into the site and ordered everybody to stop work immediately and keep absolutely quiet because Michael Jackson was about to enter the lobby and he couldn’t stand any noise. The bar was separated from the hotel lobby by huge glass doors, papered over to protect the hotel guests from the sight of people working for a living. So of course after security left everybody ran over and tore little holes in the paper to see the man himself. He had a blanket draped over him and was being carried from a very plain looking van with tinted windows and purple fur covered interior to a wheelchair. As a burly bodyguard wheeled him to the elevators more bodyguards followed carrying his kids, pillow cases pulled over their heads. What a life. I was surprised that he could afford to stay there because old Lennie Mohammad had absconded with most of his money. Just another day at a fancy New York hotel.

About a year later, back in Chicago, we got a call from the secretary of a Prince Abdul Aziz from Qatar. The Prince was staying at the Plaza Athénée and wanted to employ us to work on his palace in Qatar, so could we please hop on the first plane to New York to meet with him that very same day. And no, of course the Prince will not be paying for our tickets because that’s not the kind of thing princes do. Obviously the Prince had been talking to George. We called some friends that had done work in the Gulf and after a lot of backing and forthing we agreed to meet him the following afternoon.

Chris Pretorius and team’s work in Bar Seine at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in NYC. (Photo: Supplied)

We were shown into a huge sitting room in a duplex penthouse and the next thing a door opened and in walked Peter Sellers followed by three very short young ladies in black hijabs and a gorgeous fashion model dressed in Gucci bringing up the rear. I was used to weird shit happening at the Plaza but this took the cake. The moustache was uncanny and every time the guy opened his mouth I wanted to fall about the couch laughing. How was I going to make it through the meeting without one of his bodyguards slitting my throat? The prince introduced the tall beauty as his daughter. And then as an afterthought admitted that the three dumplings in hijabs were his daughters too. He wanted a price immediately and couldn’t understand why I wanted more information about the scope of the job. Mere details. “I brought out some Italians to do it but they were useless. I want you to go and fix it. Where are you from?” he asked, fixing me with his Peter Sellers glare. When he heard I was South African he insisted I had to organise a safari for him and wouldn’t hear otherwise. Okay, fine. The Prince snapped his fingers and another lesser-looking Peter Sellers entered and presented me with a very tacky looking calendar and a box of Turkish Delight. The Prince was an antique weapons collector and the calendar featured very fierce looking daggers from his collection. And off they went.

Princes don’t talk about money so it was up to us and Peter Sellers number two to hash out the details. The long and the short of it is that they were not prepared to pay in cash, only jewelry. We said we needed to think about it and would get back to them in an hour or so. How on earth were we going to explain a suitcase full of jewellery to US customs? They tend to get sensitive about that kind of thing.

We stood on the sidewalk outside the hotel for a while shaking our heads. So we finally did get a referral through one of restaurant jobs after all but who needs a suitcase full of jewellery. So we found ourselves in New York with no other plans and time on our hands so decided to make the most of it and go for dinner at El Cid, our favourite tapas joint down in Chelsea. Miles away from the Plaza and the swanky Upper East Side. DM/TGIFood


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