Where Everybody Knew Your Name
Published June 25, 2010
PHOTO BY PAUL SZYNOL
Just as it was during the five-night, five-stages-of-grief goodbye kiss to Florent Morellet’s beloved restaurant, the air was thick with nostalgia last night at the world premiere of Florent: Queen of the Meat Market. Held as part of the the NYC Food Film Festival, where caterers served favorites from the Florent menu, the screening attracted employees, performers, friends, and fans too numerous to count. For Florent, making the film was “a meditation. For filmmaker David Sigal it was more of a long, Maysles-inspired love letter that covered everything from Florent’s childhood to his first tears over the restaurant’s closing on Gay Pride. Packed into the middle are every note he could fit about Florent’s activism, art, addictions, and his uncanny ability to keep the restaurant timeless in the self-cannabalizing Meatpacking District.
“I’ve had the best year of my life,” beamed Sigal, also a co-producer on the new Naomi Watts film Fair Game, before the show. “Florent reminded me of a new incarnation of Andy Warhol’s factory. I knew at Florent there were so many New York stories, and just stories in general.” The director started going to Florent as an NYU Film School student in the early nineties later growing into “an early, seven or 8 AM. breakfast kind of guy,” he says. “Florent captures the story of gay activism, HIV activism, the right-to-die movement, historic preservation, he was responsible for landmarking the Meatpacking District. He had a vision.”
After proposing the idea to Florent in January 2008, before the landlord’s death sentence was delivered, Sigal went on to shoot 100 hours of footage of interviews with the likes of Isaac Mizrahi, Diane Von Furstenberg, Robin Byrd, Julianne Moore, Cristo and Jean-Claude, and most importantly, the staff. “We had an initial meeting at 10 or 11 at his apartment and I brought my camera and we started filming, right then and there,” says Sigal. The scene, in which Florent shows Sigal the recipes from his grandmother’s cookbook, is touching, as are the tearful recollections of learning he was HIV positive, along with the anger, depression, and nostalgia of the final days of the restaurant. Explorations of projects like his graphic design collaboration with Tibor Kalman and his partial ownership of a fireboat (one that gave water support to 9/11 fire crews for four days) brought you back to the delightful whimsy that is Florent.“Not only did he have the restaurant, he was a real force for change,” said Dorothy Lichtenstein, who ate lunch at Florent in the same corner table every day for the last 10 years of her husband’s life. For others the coping hasn’t been so easy. “I thought that Florent would live on forever and have a restaurant forever and we’d still going down there now,” said Robin Byrd, wearing a pink Florent t-shirt. “I guess it’s a sign of the times.” Morellet, fresh off an art opening of DaVinci and Machiavelli-inspired maps in Tuscany, was happy to be pursuing life away from the restaurant game. “I’m okay now, but it’s been tiring because so many people want a bit of me, and my art really takes a lot of concentration,” he says. Will Florent go to HBO? “No, bigger,” he jokes, turning to his boyfriend, Peter Cameron, “What is bigger?” “The Ziegfeld,” Cameron laughed.