Talking war, eggs, and dog spittle with Ned Desmond at Gynnett St in Williamsburg

When I first met Ned Desmond back in 1984, he had just come back from vacation covering a war of independence in Africa, in which Eritreans were trying to separate from Ethiopians. For Ned, work and play often bled into each other, and usually revolved around guns, ammo, politics and other things that go bang.

He has covered the India-Pakistan face-off in Kashmir; he knew Afghanistan before the mujahedin were the mujahedin; he’s chased corrupt provincial officials all over India, even if the magazine’s home office in New York wasn’t asking for a story. But it has been a decade since he had really been to Brooklyn so, the last time he was in town, I had asked him to join me at my favorite restaurant in Williamsburg.

it only seemed right to add some grit to the conversation.

Gwynett St is decidedly elegant; I was in the middle of a new cocktail called The Darling Buds—gin, Riesling and the herbal liqueur Strega, which is Italian for witch—when Ned arrived. So it only seemed right to add some grit to the conversation: I started by asking him what was the worst meal he’d ever had.

He thought a bit and decided to tell me about the worst meal he’d ever seen someone else eat. He and Robert Nickelsberg, the war photographer, were pursuing a high-ranking official in the Indian state of Bihar—the poorest in the republic—because the official was both on the lam from corruption charges and engaged in a violent feud with a rival. But while Ned would rather starve than drink or eat anything suspect, Bob could not go without, even in the middle of a difficult assignment in a faraway place.

It was late in the evening and Bob was starving when they came upon a boy at a roadside stand. Bob asked him if he had anything to sell him to eat. The boy produced two eggs. “Do you have any chilies?” The boy nodded yes. “What will you cook them in?” Bob inquired. The boy produced a skillet and pointed to an open fire. Even in that light, Bob and Ned could tell that the pan was encrusted with unspeakable gunk. Bob said, “Can you clean it?” At which point, the boy lowered the pan to the ground and a dog approached to lick it. With the skillet ready, the kid cooked the eggs and chilies. Bob had his meal. Ned did not partake. But he got his satisfaction the day after when the duo would be caught in the middle of a firefight between the fugitive official and the forces of his enemy. So Nickelsberg got his meal, and Ned got his bang bang. Everyone was happy.

Everything around us was also in transition.

Since then, Ned has been hired, fired, re-hired by Time Inc., where we both worked; he was transferred to San Francisco, then New York, then Washington. He has run magazines, worked at dotcoms, and now he’s back in San Francisco as the COO of TechCrunch. Early on, I told myself to stick by Ned because I was certain he was going to be boss one day. But as it happened, I retired at the end of April from three decades at Time Inc. (including a dozen years or so in charge of running our bang bang gang) and am now reinventing myself as a freelance writer, finally devoting myself to what I’ve always wanted to do. I am not where I thought I would be at this time of my life. Perhaps Ned envisioned something else for himself too. Are we lost in transition?

Ambition is crucial to the way we strategize our lives and push forward but it alters as we age, a metamorphosis of accommodation to mitigate disappointment. Certainly not as fleeting as our obsessions with fashion or politics, the process is more like the experience of love or desire, refusing to let go even though it is weakened with each heartbreak.

Everything around us was also in transition—even Gwynnett St. I have always had consistently excellent meals there. Ned had the salmon, which was relatively new to the menu. I had the restaurant’s signature dish, the ash roasted chicken, skin blackened but with crackle and moisture and flavor to make you forget that you were eating chicken. It was like some creature cooked in the middle of reincarnation—halfway between poultry and pig. I washed it down with the perfect Decenio 2006 Crianza, paired for me by my friend Claire Paparazzo, who always recommends the best wines. She poured Ned a Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley 2010 Cuvee.

Yet things were not as they once were. Justin Hilbert, the chef who had won Gwynnett St two stars from the New York Times—a rare accolade at the time for an establishment in Williamsburg—had left rather abruptly about a month before. His best friend Owen Clark remained to manage the kitchen and there appeared to be no disruption in the way the front and the back of the house were run. The food also seemed unaffected even though the new chef was certain to insert more of his ideas into the cuisine, eventually.

As for Claire, I was delighted to see her as always but she was in transition, too. She was the former wine director for Blue Hill in Manhattan and had left Dan Barber’s famous restaurant to kickstart her own wine show for cable television. But after months of fundraising and working on a pilot, the project had stalled. She wasn’t giving up on it but she had to do other things in order to keep her ambitions going. And so there she was in Williamsburg that Friday night as a guest sommelier for Gwynnett’s owner Carl McCoy, who always admired her tastes.

I was giving myself over to melancholy when Ned started telling me about his latest bit of travel, Beijing.

I was giving myself over to melancholy when Ned started telling me about his latest bit of travel, Beijing, where he was pursuing the rising titans of the digital world with as much energy as he pursued corruption stories in India in the 80s.

The smog must have been terrible, I said automatically. It was what anyone says about Beijing, even those who have never been. Not at all, Ned responded. He was surprised to find the sun in a smokeless sky. And, one evening, there was another wonder: a 300-year old temple that had been turned into a factory that was now a restaurant, an object of bewitching and transformation. It took forever to get to it, the streets leading to the place so small that taxis have to back up when confronted with traffic going the other way. But it was worth the trouble. The temple had been restored, with touches of contemporary Chinese art on display and tongue-in-cheek references to the country’s ancient roots. The interior, however, had been remodeled to spectacular effect—as modern as the new China that was continuing to challenge and mystify the world. The food isn’t Chinese there; the owners are Belgian. But the meal, Ned said, was one of the best he’d ever had.

I took it all as a metaphor and a lesson about pushing on and yet, somehow, staying true. And Tennyson strayed into my thoughts. He was old fashioned even when he was in fashion but he knew how to make epic the quotidian moments when you redouble in the face of self-doubt: “Though much is taken, much abides and though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are… made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.”