Jennifer Dawton and Winston Fields used to run a quaint diner off Old Highway 86. It was a long, winding road slicing through dense forests and meadows grazed by cows and other four-legged creatures. The barns used to hold horses and pigs and chickens, but by the time The Beast was born, there were only machines. Still, when the Dawton-Fieldses relocated back in the eighties, there were no sub-divisions or shopping centers or cookie-cutter homes. Just tick-infested forests filled with agile and frightened deer, verdant meadows, and golden pastures covered in rolls of hay, and everywhere the cicadas chirping and the bees buzzing amid the quiet rustle of trees and pollen irritating the eyes and thunderstorms flooding shallow waters. The region used to be filled with people who knew the lay of the land: they didn't wear earplugs to use a lawn mower or goggles to use a tractor or gloves to tend to livestock or bug spray in the yard. The Dawton-Fieldses bought local, but not 'cause they were acting: “going green” was as obvious as dishwashing by hand.
Their beloved restaurant was called Chez Moi. It stood alone in a clearing, down a dusty road lined with grass. It was a small two-story home with a screened in porch. The first floor had been renovated to have the feel of a classic diner; the tables were small and round like in French cafés, and the waiters didn't bring the check unless asked twice. “The goal was a memorable experience,” The Beast recalled. “And part of that experience is losing track of time.” Chez Moi was a favorite among local artists, who often sat on the porch in white rocking chairs and drank sweet tea. It was a popular place on account of the family feel and the honest prices, but those who knew about cuisine also knew about this French secret down south. According to Southern Living, Chez Moi was among the best in fusion on account of its “haute-cuisine creations with a down-home feel.” The Dawton-Fieldses won multiple awards for the place, including Southern Living's Meal of the Year Award for their honey-glazed duck breast in a red wine reduction alongside a goat cheese soufflé and the chef's choice of wine.
Jennifer Dawton had started out as a bio major before falling in love with cooking. Once she graduated from Duke University in the midsixties, she moved with her fiancée Winston to Paris. And there, under the trees of Canal Saint Martin and in the Luxembourg Gardens, they drank Côtes du Rhône and frequented the famous Marché de Rungis. They learned how to properly sear a duck, grill shrimp, and roast a chicken, how to pick the right sauces for a steak tartare and how to judge a baguette by bringing it right up to the ear and giving it a slight squeeze in the middle to verify the crunch. They became master chefs in Paris before moving back to North Carolina to start a family. When Hugh Dawton-Fields was born, he didn't scream. The nurse said he had some kind of mischief in his eyes, and as a boy he snuck away to be alone after dinner.
“They moved to downtown Carrboro in the beginning,” The Beast recalled. “Lived with a couple of hippies. But they didn't like eating vegan, not for long, so they bought a place in the countryside and started Chez Moi.”
Jennifer and Winston renovated the whole place. Winston literally broke his back once when he fell from a ladder. Chez Moi was finished by the time Hugh turned three, and within six months they were able to buy a second place down the street. Slim listened intently. He hadn’t heard this before.
“They built a small bedroom right above the kitchen.” The Beast paused for a moment. He swallowed hard. “We slept there when the restaurant was especially busy. I slept on two sleeping bags, bordered by pillows on the floor.” After a year of smooth sailing, Hugh had a bad eczema outbreak that demanded his parents' full attention.“Once I got better they reopened the restaurant and started to work weekends again. But they never went back to full-time . . . they knew how important it was for me to have them around. I was shy when I started school and got made fun of for being so tall. The only thing I had back then was the basketball court.”
“How tall were you?” Slim asked.
“Five feet five by the time I was ten. I didn't really hang around other kids until I was fifteen. I didn't mind it, though . . . mostly remember helping out in the kitchen and playing basketball out back. I liked being alone.”
“You spent all day playing?”
“All day, basketball. All night, cooking.”
“And your parents didn't worry about you being lonely?” Slim asked.
“No, I was happy. I preferred spending time on my own. They figured I'd grow into myself.”
“And what about the kids at school?”
“Well, yeah, my parents worried. No one wants to see their kid getting called names. But what were they gonna do? They couldn't sit there with me in class. They just made sure to ask me how my day was when I got home. Not just what I did, but how I actually felt. They were more like friends, really. They instilled the lessons early on.”
If they'd had a bad day, they'd honor it instead of suppress it—instead of taking out their frustration on him when he spilled the milk, they'd sit the four-year-old down and explain how if-we-seem-upset-honey- well-it's-not-your-fault-it's-just-been-a-tough-day-at-the-restaurant-' cause-the-steamer's-broken. And even though the four-year-old could barely understand what they were saying, he could feel that their frustration wasn't about him; and if there were a problem between Jennifer and Winston—say, a screaming match over when it was best to clean the kitchen—they'd apologize for the cursing and the yelling and conclude that in the end the best strategy is to clean as you cook. Since The Beast's parents treated their child with respect and responsibility, they never made him pick sides and it was never about who could win. Cooking was the primary teaching tool for their child, but not the last. The rule in the kitchen was simple enough: if someone was cooking, everyone was cooking. So from six-years-old onward, Hugh made the salad dressing while Jennifer cut the vegetables and his father layered the lasagna.
“They always told me to stay focused on the task. To take care with everything, from preparation to presentation to cleaning up before the meal. Multitasking was fine as long as I made sure never to leave the handle of the frying pan sticking out, 'cause one of their friends did that once and burned the kitchen down.”
The Dawton-Fieldses brought out the best in each other. Winston helped Jennifer keep the kitchen clean, while Jennifer made sure the table was set. Jennifer poured wine into small decanters and often garnished the dishes with bay or mint leaves; each time they sat down for dinner, they held each other's hands in a circle, sharing a moment of silence before digging in. The Dawton-Fieldses made a choice to live actively instead of passively, a belief that wasn't hard to engender in a child who liked to learn. They taught their child to go through life with purpose, setting a limit to playing video games and explaining the importance of making the bed. The best way to make a change is to shift the perspective, they showed him; and so The Beast learned about tolerance and tolerating intolerance at school, and though he didn't agree, he understood it just the same.
“What'd you just say?” Slim interrupted. “Tolerating intolerance? What does that mean? You aren't exactly an angel on the basketball court . . .”
“Yeah, I don't deny it. But a kid isn't just the product of his parents, right? You forget: I went to public schools. And I wasn't a popular kid. So even if I liked being quiet and alone, I had a side that flared out, too.”
Perhaps the primary danger of pursuing their passion was sacrificing certain luxuries for their child. The Beast attended an overcrowded and underfunded public school where disillusioned and underpaid teachers knew him by his last name . . . “So big surprise,” he said, “that I was lost when I got to high school. I was just going through puberty. I was unsure of who I was becoming. My whole body was changing. How do you tell a kid to be comfortable when he's seven feet tall? I grew nine inches in less than two years, so that's when I started getting a lot of attention for basketball. I was six feet eight by then. The varsity coach wanted me on the team. He'd never seen me play but figured he could use me . . . and there was a girl I liked. As the cliché goes, she was a cheerleader, so I said I'd give it a shot, and overnight the whole school respected me. Not for the right reasons, but it still felt good . . . but I never really adjusted, I don't think.”
Despite the jovial music in the background—I'd switched to Django Reinhardt—the energy had shifted. I made a point to turn the music down so it wouldn't overpower speech. The rain's patter on the roof and the thunder outside were more appropriate for The Beast's tone.
“The night they died we got in a fight. I was there, working late. They were teaching me a new recipe.”
Slim held his breath.
“I don't know what started the fire.” The Beast kept his eyes on the bar. “Maybe a gas leak. It was an accident, that's all. I just wish we hadn't gotten in a fight that night. I was so stupid . . . frustrated because I couldn't get the recipe right. They told me I wasn't ready to cook for the restaurant, but I wanted to prove them wrong. And that's when my dad quoted Dr. J again—he said I couldn't just walk in here and expect it to work out. He said cooking takes patience and experience and time. And my poor mom was just trying to help out . . . she said not to think of it as a competition . . . that I had to cook with love. And I knew it was true, but it sounded so patronizing. She was always so optimistic. So I yelled at her, obviously. That's when my dad told me to get out of the kitchen, and I shoved him. He fell back into a shelf and knocked over a couple of pots. I said I was sick of cooking for them. That I was done with the restaurant. I can still see my mom's eyes—that's what kills me. Even then, at that moment, she managed to smile. She was calm. ‘Get some sleep, Hugh,’ she said. She put her hand on my shoulder, and was gone. And then I got even angrier because I knew I'd fucked up.”
The Beast's voice was shaky. It held back tears. “And then my dad just sat there and listened to me yell. He never said anything. Not once. After I finished ranting about who knows what, he went upstairs without saying anything, and then he was also gone.”
A few minutes passed before The Beast continued. The Beast's eyes remained glued to the bar. “The worst thing is, I didn't even know why I did it. Sometimes I get frustrated and can't control it, that's all. There was a time when I couldn't do much of anything but sit and stare. I ate meatloaf with mashed potatoes and green peas for weeks. I made huge batches of it, so I wouldn't have to cook. Coach Brees came a few times to leave groceries, but he kept insisting we talk about it, trying to force me to move on. After a few weeks, though, I figured I had to get out of the house. So I went to the grocery store and decided to go through all of the family recipes.”
He seared duck and grilled summer vegetables; he sautéed prawns and stuffed tomatoes; he fried gnocchi with onions and zucchinis marinated in Moroccan spices and crème fraîche; he made tortellini stuffed with lobster and sun-dried tomatoes; he drizzled the finest olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and mustard concoction on top of summer salads made with apples seared with honey and onions; he took care not only to make the food, but also to present it as his own, often applying his father's technique of flipping a small white bowl filled with rice upside down, placing golden-brown onions ever-so-gently on top of a homemade burger topped with a dash of sea salt and perhaps a blade of grass for decoration, or hanging a single bay leaf on an oven-baked chicken breast, not 'cause he ate it, but 'cause the aesthetic was also important, and “only then, once it's decorated, can you slice through the meat with the edge of your fork.”
For weeks, The Beast mourned in solitude. He became an amateur chef in the Latin sense of the word, loving every minute, shedding more than a few tears along the way. He sat alone in his living room, where they once celebrated Christmas. He listened to Chet Baker and Miles Davis and took his time eating, as if every bite or sip kept the memory of his parents alive. For six months, The Beast sat there in his father's chair, and rested his feet on his mother's yellow balance ball, reminiscing about how he used to jump in his parents' bed and play gymnastics in the morning, how his father used to lift him towards the basketball hoop or lie flat on his back and hold him above his head, and how Jennifer used to gently press on his eyelids just before he fell asleep. The Beast cleaned the kitchen with as much care as he took to prepare: he never used the dishwasher and dried each pot and pan by hand; then he'd brew himself a cup of Earl Grey tea, just like his father used to make, taking care to put the sugar and the tea bag in first, then pour in the water and five minutes later add the milk.
The Beast performed these rituals each and every day, never talking or needing to explain. “After a few months I returned to the Dean Dome. I wanted to finish out my senior year before the draft.” Secretly, I hoped The Beast would mention the Jim Brees Incident. It wasn't so much curiosity as a need for resolution. But neither Slim nor I asked what happened that day. Like Sgt. Dykes, we were left guessing why The Beast put his coach in a coma for three weeks.