Gut Instinct: Market Report

art20494narGet drunk, Josh. Get drunk! Pound it!

Let me be blunt: I loathe interviewing celebrities as much as I detest raw tomatoes, a vegetable barely fit for chucking at American Idol afterthoughts.

My hatred traces to Hugh Hefner.As a cub journalist in 2002, I took every bottom-barrel assignment. I penned trivia about Mr. T and wrote round-ups about flaming drinks and my demeaning medical experiments, subjects that endeared me to an editor at a trendy NYC mag. She hired me to ink articles on characters like Mary Carey, the porn star turned California gubernatorial candidate, who ended our interview by grabbing my berries and twig.

One afternoon, said editor called urgently.

“Can you come to California tomorrow and interview Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion?” Did water roll off a duck’s neck? I departed for JFK, armed with my tape recorder and overheated silicone-enhanced fantasies. Twelve hours later, a battalion of lingerie-clad starlets ushered me into the mansion. “Welcome,” one artificially enhanced specimen purred, her skin the color of boat shoes and red lips like inflatable arm buoys.The bionic women deposited me in Hef’s regal inner sanctum. Sweat blasted from my pores like a busted fire hydrant.

I needn’t have worried. No matter what I asked (“What’s Playboy’s role in the 21st century?”), I received boilerplate answers (“Playboy is an icon.”) and anecdotes as stale as week-old bread. The experience was not unlike interviewing a parakeet with a limited verbal repertoire. From that day forward, I swore off celebrity interviews. I succeeded. Until last week’s phone call.

“Josh, can you cover some events for the New York City Wine & Food Festival?” asked a non-Press editor.

Sure thing. Since launching last year, the Food Network shindig has grown into one of America’s preeminent culinary festivals, thanks to popular programming like the juicy Burger Bash and the sugarrushed Sweet. In lieu of those lip-smacking events, I was tabbed to cover Chelsea Market After Dark: the opening-night kickoff party featuring star chefs Guy Fieri and Sandra Lee.

“To be perfectly honest, this is not my strong suit,” I told my editor, begging off to wash my hair. “I don’t even own a TV.”

“You’ll do great,” the editor said, pumping me up like I was an insecure lover. “Besides, we’ve already put in your press pass.”

Checkmate. I grabbed my digital recorder and hit Chelsea Market, the Oreo’s birthplace. That night, the former Nabisco factory’s fancy-food marketplace became a pleasure dome for middle-aged couples with hairsprayed coiffures and the power to purchase the tasting event’s $95 tickets. It was a very specific, entitled form of hell.

“I need a stiff drink,” I told my curlyhaired photographer, reaching for a cherryequipped Manhattan.

My 40-watt mood brightened to 75. I was ready to tackle my first mission: Sandra Lee. In my mind’s eye, Lee was a large, loquacious Southerner who specialized in culinary atrocities like burgers served between glazed donuts. “Isn’t that her?” my photographer asked, pointing at a threadthin lady with long hair the color of California sand. Oh, shit. My mistake: I thought I was interviewing Paula Deen, not Lee, who specializes in style and “semi-homemade” food. Hence, ditch the question about deep-fried butter. Instead, we discussed pretty fall leaves.

“Well, that went well,” the photographer said.

“You can’t classify a train wreck as ‘going well,’” I replied, descending into the crowd. I fought through the wine-lubricated throngs, pausing to marvel at Jacques Torres: “Come inside! We will roll you in chocolate! We will cover you in chocolate!” he called to passersby. I bit the bait. “Even me?” “Only the ladies,” he replied, instead offering me a chocolate-chip cookie. It was a chunky, chewy consolation prize.

But my main target was Fieri. I entered his red-neon lair, greeted by nubile gals distributing Jägermeister swag. I scanned the room, my ears deafened by a white dude crooning Michael Jackson covers, when I spotted the supernova of attention: Fieri, his gelled hair like a blond porcupine, was ringed by fawning fans. I fought to the front and asked Fieri a couple questions about the festival’s success, softball questions with softball answers. I was going through the motions.Then journalistic inspiration struck:“I need a drink.What should I get?” Fieri passed me a plastic cup. I sipped the black liquid: Jäger, cold as an Alaskan Christmas.

“Come on, you have to pound it,” Fieri said, as if I were a failed frat boy.

I followed orders. Fieri grinned. “Now that’s not so bad, is it?” Fieri asked.

“Not so bad at all,” I replied, reaching for another icy, anesthetizing glass of what I called journalism.