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After nine months of intensive schooling, he was awarded Le Cordon Bleu's Le Grand Diplôme, the school's highest honor, certifying that the recipient has had the most comprehensive training in classic French cuisine and pastry techniques available. Yamamoto wanted to remain in his adopted city, and had several leads on positions in Parisian restaurants. But his father had been diagnosed with cancer, and he felt obligated to return to Osaka.
The year 1999 turned out to be the worst of Yamamoto's life. His father passed away, leaving him and his mother behind. While living with his widowed mom, Yamamoto took a job at an Osaka sushi restaurant that specialized in serving fugu, or blowfish, a deadly delicacy in Japan. The fish's internal organs contain lethal doses of tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin that can cause general paralysis and death from asphyxiation. Scores of people die each year in Japan from eating fugu that has not been prepared properly, yet the thrill of ingesting the poisonous puffer fish draws diners like moths to a flame. The tingle they first feel on their tongue may just be harmless, trace amounts of tetrodotoxin, or it may be the onset of an unusually gruesome demise. If the latter, the victim will die in less than 24 hours, remaining conscious the entire time as the poison slowly incapacitates him.
"This idiot salaryman, Nobu Sato, he come in all the time, always pinch waitress butt," Yamamoto stated during one late-night drinking session. "Real asshole. So I give him extra taste of fugu liver. Just to scare. But I make mistake and give him too much."
Long story short, the salaryman died, and Yamamoto's name was not only Mudd in the restaurant biz, but he was wanted by the police. He had no choice but to give himself up, and there was a trial in which famed Tokyo lawyer Bennie Matsukawa argued that the death had been accidental, merely a hazard of eating the dangerous delicacy. It worked; Yamamoto was acquitted, but Japan's tabloid press took up the tale. The Mainichi Shinbun, one of the largest dailies in Japan, printed Yamamoto's photo and called for him to commit seppuku, or ritual disembowelment, in disgrace. People would throw garbage at him when he would show his face in public. Yamamoto fled to Los Angeles, leaving his mother behind, and was soon knocking around the glitzy L.A. restaurant scene. He'd stay at one gig for a few months, then quit and drink up his savings until he had to go back to work. Being disgraced in Japan had taken a heavy toll on his psyche, and he self-medicated himself for depression with the aforementioned cheap Scotch.
This is about the time I ran into Yamamoto. But after six months he fell off my radar screen. He stopped calling me, and the one time I tried his cell, it had been disconnected. I continued with New Times Los Angeles as "The Fat Man" until 9/11 happened, and the paper's advertising dried up. The paper folded in 2002, and after being courted by my old boss, now the editor of Phoenix New Times, I accepted the position of staff writer and restaurant critic with the Phoenix tabloid, not thinking that I'd ever see Yamamoto again.
I'd heard whispers of Le Menu in Phoenix restaurant circles, but nobody knew for sure if the super-secret supper club really existed. I was initially convinced the whole thing was an urban legend until Yamamoto called me out of the blue one day.
"I thought Phoenix too hot for Fat Man," chuckled Yamamoto over the phone. "You wanna meet me at Chez Nous?"
Chez Nous and the Pink Pony, these are the sort of watering holes Yamamoto loves to frequent. In the eye-numbing darkness of Chez Nous, Yamamoto spun me a fantastic tale, one that would be difficult to believe if the proof were not soon to follow. Le Menu did, in fact, exist. It was Yamamoto's brainchild, first conceived in Hollyweird, where all things are possible, then later moved to Phoenix, where the contraband catering service could continue to operate below the radar.
"I serve Mr. Jack Nicholson in his home in Hollywood Hills," Yamamoto said, grinning. "He have dinner party, and they eat whole dolphin! Nicolas Cage and his wife there. She really hot Korean chick. Larry David [of Seinfeld and now Curb Your Enthusiasm] there, too, but it Passover and he say he not eat dolphin because it not kosher."
As seems appropriate in a town built on celluloid dreams, the concept for Le Menu came from a film, 1990's The Freshman starring Matthew Broderick and Marlon Brando (a neighbor of Nicholson's whom Yamamoto later served a forbidden delicacy that will be explored later in this piece). Yamamoto had rented the video from Blockbuster, and watched it in his Studio City apartment while doing bong hits on a ratty sofa. Maybe the cheba was especially potent, but Yamamoto was inspired. The comedy involved a Mafia-run restaurant that served everything from Komodo dragons to Bengal tiger meat for an exclusive clientele.
It was as if Yamamoto had glimpsed his future.