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Sunday, June 23, 2002


Chew-well cuisine is the stuff of saucy dreams

Let's call him "Taro."

Taro is the best cook I've ever seen. Bar none.

Not only is he fast, not only is he efficient, but when he finishes, the food looks more than just good.

It looks sinful. It doesn't make you hunger; it makes you lust. One glance at a Taro creation and all you want to do is stuff yourself.

And the taste?

Who knows? People drool over Taro's meals, but they don't eat them. They can't.

Unless, that is, they have teeth like steel mesh.

Taro, you see, is a not a normal cook. Haven't you ever stared into the window display of a Japanese restaurant and wondered, "Who makes all this synthetic food?"

So now you know. It's Taro. He is a fake-food chef. Hold the salt, forget the butter and cap the vinegar. Taro's ingredients are all a bit less refined -- plastic, rubber and latex paint.

And remember how your Grandma's kitchen used to smell thick with bread and cookies? Remember how you used to stand in the cozy warmth of her oven and inhale flesh-holds of calories with each and every breath?

Well, in Taro's kitchen, the key is never to inhale. For if you do, you're likely to end up higher than a teenage debutante on her first champagne. You'll dance blithely out the window, plummet six stories and not even know you're dead until you've read about in the morning paper.

Hence, you wear a mask or cup your mouth. Or, if you simply insist on breathing, you dash to the hall.

Yet, always you gallop straight back. For it's a treat to watch Taro work.

First, he snips off a handful of gummy, plastic spaghetti, fluffs it onto a plate, then sticks it in a microwave to produce that "just boiled" look. While the microwave whirls, Taro withdraws a carrot and onion from a treasure trove of drawers containing every phony vegetable imaginable -- peppers, zucchini and so on.

The carrot and onion Taro dices on a cutting board with a butcher knife. He adds a fat scoop of rubbery ground beef and then begins to mix in latex paint -- a squirt of Red No. 3, a spatula of Red No. 6, etc. In a moment, he has the kind of spaghetti sauce my wife can only make in her dreams.

The sauce is carefully molded onto the now gleaming plastic noodles. Taro then plops on winter peas that appear crispy fresh but in reality would bounce off the floor like superballs. Last -- the final touch -- he shreds a sheet of bogus seaweed and sprinkles this over the top.

Voila! Spaghetti a la Taro! A plate guaranteed to make your mouth -- and eyes -- water! Cooking time? From start to finish -- 10 minutes.

Taro can do it all. A dish of filet mignon smothered in mushroom sauce? A cheese-dripping pizza topped with greasy cuts of bacon and pepperoni? A kid's platter mishmash of this, that and everything?

It's all a piece of cake. Naturally, Taro can do the cake, too.

"How did you ever get such a job?" I ask him.

He gazes at me. In fact, he gazes at everything. His eyes have been hypnotized by too much paint thinner, and his voice drifts out as if from an opium den.

"Answered an ad in the paper."

Previous training? Interest in art? Desire to create?

He shakes a storm cloud of hair that seems to have never been cut nor combed -- nor washed -- and says:

"Answered an ad in the paper."

Fortunately, good hygiene counts for nothing in a fake-food kitchen. And while Taro may be ruining his health by inhaling the tools of his trade, his is an effort far too unsung. For every new foreigner in this land owes woozy-headed Taro a hand clap of gratitude.

You know the routine. The menu looks like stick men engaged in civil war and the waitress has twice as many fingers as she has words of English. So you drag her outside to the display window and simply point at what you want.

That's all it takes. And, thanks to Taro and his fellow food artists, the real meal is soon steaming on your table.

Inevitably, of course, the food in the window looks better than that on your plate. And after one bite, you often wonder if it might taste better, too. But at least it cuts easier. That is, in most cases.

As for me, the only complaint I have with Taro and his workmanship is that at times he is too good.

Case in point is the day I stood at a counter about to order ice cream for my wife and I. On display stood two full cones so yummy-looking, I could hardly believe they weren't real.

I couldn't help it. I just had to reach out and poke the plastic.

Turns out the cones were real. I licked the vanilla from my finger and the owner of the ice cream went berserk. Nothing would mollify her, not even an offer to return the favor and walk one finger through my rocky road.

I also have a friend who likes to play practical jokes on dinner guests. One table setting -- usually the most beautiful -- is courtesy of Taro. As the guest tries and tries to fork his food, my friend turns epileptic with laughter.

"What joy you bring to the world," I tell Taro. "You must love your job."

To which Taro gradually nods and returns -- what else? -- a very plastic smile.

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