Thursday, April 3, 2014

Family portraits

I spent a lot of time last winter working in the chaotic kitchen of an ornery recluse who hides himself — and his business, if you can believe it — from public view. To get to this man required traveling four hours roundtrip from my home, often in the same day and frequently late at night and in severe weather. Our meetings, around a dozen over two months, lasted as little as one hour, or as many as eight. 

I was to write a magazine article about the mysterious man, a restaurant owner I am acquainted with in Rockland, Maine, named John Conte. I was also to help arrange a photo session, provided that my subject would cooperate, a detail that I knew to be anything but a certainty.
"Can't we just talk to each other?" he told me, more a statement than a question. "Why's it so important that people see me?

"Besides, what's wrong with you? I see you taking pictures around here all the time. Why can't you do it?"

I reminded the man that photography is my hobby, not profession. Besides, I assured him, the magazine that had wanted to purchase the article about him was unlikely to agree to such an arrangement.
Conte scurried off to attend to an order of pasta that had been boiling, in a deep fryer he fills with water instead of oil. I positioned myself near the dishwashing station, well out of the man's way, and snapped a few more photos. 
John Conte clearly conducts entire conversations with himself as he goes about his work. Which should not be at all surprising for a man who spends so much of his time in seclusion. I guessed, correctly as it happens, that the talk he was having at the pasta station had to do with me and my request to allow a photographer into his very private space.
"I think it's gotta be you who takes the pictures, nobody else," he said calmly. "Otherwise, let's just forget about it." 

For a man who so willfully hides himself and his restaurant from public view — Conte never shows his face in the dining room or elsewhere during business hours and the restaurant doesn't even have a sign out front announcing that it's there — the man's reticence to be photographed by a complete stranger, though problematic for my assignment, seemed perfectly reasonable.
After all, Conte may be the least social person that I have ever known. He spends nearly every waking hour inside the walls of his restaurant, an Italian seafood place known as Conte's 1894. And when I say every hour I mean every. Conte works alone in his kitchen, and he is open 365 days a year. He orders, preps and cooks all the food, cleans the dishes, even mops the floors. The man hasn't had a single day off in an awful lot of years — and hasn't dined in anybody else's restaurant in a quarter century. Actual sitings of Conte outside of his establishment are, I can assure you, quite rare.

I let a little time pass before revisiting the topic.

"So, John," I said, helping him to lift a gigantic loaf of homemade bread from the oven, "you think any more about that magazine thing? The photographer coming, I mean? I don't think they'll want to run the story without them, if that matters to you at all."

The two of us carried the bread to a cooling rack. He'd earlier poured us both a glass of wine and each of us took a sip.

"You're the only person I want in my kitchen, so that's that, I guess," he said, without a hint of remorse. "Besides, what do I need to be in a magazine for anyway?"

I should mention that I consider it a great honor that, to this day, John Conte welcomes me into his kitchen freely and at all times. We talk easily with one another, laugh a lot too. As the man lives his entire life in his restaurant, basically he has welcomed me into his home. 

As family. 

I'm proud to now call him friend.
By the way, Conte wound up getting his wish. The story, accompanied by photos that I had taken over time, was published last summer, and can be accessed by clicking on this link right here.
Only a couple of my portraits of John appeared, however. I was looking over the bunch of them the other night and thought you might like to have a look at some of the rest. Which I suppose you just did.

5 comments:

Arlene said...

It's wonderful how some people just follow their heart and their own mind. I loved the article - thank you.

Charlene Ann Baumbich said...

Brilliant. Utterly brilliant. Every ounce of everything about it.

Prudence said...

Wonderful, love the photos.

Anonymous said...

Loved every bit of it. I'm glad I'm on your email list so I can be notified when you post new material. Wonderful work, your John Conte contribution.

Dave in NH

Melissa Rochlitz said...

Thank you for introducing us to him! I had to look and see how far it is from my friend's house. Definately have to go!!!