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The most memorable meal of my life had nothing to do with food

The most memorable meal of my life had nothing to do with food
“If we’re going to do this, we’ve really got to commit.” (Shenho Hshieh / For The Times)

Stacey was 45 minutes late to lunch at Starry Kitchen, and I was starting to get concerned. Little did I know that she worked only two blocks away.

I had been writing about L.A.’s dining scene for her employer for a few years, but under the previous regime. Stacey, who’d recently become director, had been meeting with existing contributors, and even though I had a good track record, I half-expected to get fired.

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She finally arrived, citing a meeting that ran long, and we sat on the sunken patio in California Plaza. I didn’t know this at the time, but apparently I was coming across as stiff and overly formal, which makes sense, since I thought I was re-interviewing for my writing job.

The conversation was stilted, eased only by the arrival of Starry Kitchen co-owner Nguyen Tran, a man who’s most comfortable when wearing a banana suit.

Stacey and I continued to run into each other at food events. I may have even gotten a smile out of her at Wally’s West Coast Wine and Food Celebration, though that may have been the Pinot. By the time we saw each other at a muddy Alex’s Lemonade Stand fundraiser at Culver Studios, I may have even coaxed a laugh.

Over the next couple of months, we both started to warm up a bit more and would occasionally talk by phone, and not just about potential writing assignments.

At this point, I’d been single for about a year after a difficult breakup with my fiancée. I was hurting and retreated into my writing. Sure, I would date occasionally, but mainly because I thought it was important to move forward after the painful end to a five-year relationship, not because I was all that inspired by the women I was meeting.

No surprise, I wasn’t having much luck finding any long-term prospects and wasn’t even sure that I would be ready if the right person crossed my path.

Eventually, after spending several months becoming friends with Stacey, we went to dinner in Malibu. I picked her up at her house, and the night turned out to be a lot of fun, with the drive along the coast and conversation far more memorable than the food.

Still, I wasn’t sure if we were on a date, so by the time I dropped Stacey at the curb — sadly just past sunset — I didn’t even walk her to her door. She closed the passenger door with a hollow thud, and I drove into the dusk.

It will probably sound like a pathetic middle school gesture, but I actually made Stacey a mixtape, back when prehistoric CDs still roamed the Earth. Somewhere, buried in the playlist, Lupe Fiasco (or possibly Trey Songz) sang, “Girl, I want you to know, I can't get you out of my head.”

She responded by making me a mixtape of her own, and I immediately attempted to decode the tracks. I’m no sleuth, but the songs Stacey chose weren’t nearly as encouraging. What was I supposed to make of Robyn singing, “Dancing on My Own”?

Stacey agreed to cook an after-hours pop-up dinner for mutual friends at Scoops Westside — with the owner’s permission and involvement — and called me out of the blue to be her sous chef. My knife skills fall somewhere between inconsistent and hazardous, but I immediately said, “Yes!”

She made chicken enchiladas, rice and salad. I made the guac and did my best pack mule impression by loading and unloading her car.

We turned the ice cream shop counter into a buffet, one of our friends may have poured something alcoholic, and Spotify unearthed some catchy ’90s R&B songs that everybody knew.

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It wasn’t long before we were singing along to SWV. Stacey seemed impressed that I knew the acronym stands for Sisters With Voices. Yes, pop culture trivia is part of my charm.

After we devoured every dish and the last note of “Weak” faded into the night, I helped Stacey gather the remains. We went back to her house, and after everything was cleaned and stored, we found ourselves on the couch.

I may not be able to unscramble Robyn lyrics, but the signs seemed pretty clear and I went in for a kiss. She hit the pause button on my kiss and said, “Are you busting a move?”

Me: “Yes, yes, I am.”

Stacey: “If we’re going to do this, we’ve really got to commit.”

The food world is small, and although I was not working directly for her, I was writing for her employer. She was understandably worried about appearances. We agreed to be upfront about the relationship at work and confront any consequences. The kiss moved from pause to play.

Not long after, I flew to Miami to visit family. While sitting on my friend’s Miami Beach patio, I texted Stacey a photo of the downtown skyline. She texted back a photo from her hike in Temescal Canyon. By the time I got back from Miami, Stacey picked me up from the airport, and we’ve spent hardly any nights apart ever since.

Six years later, Stacey and I are married and have a 1-year-old daughter, Imogen. We frequently reflect on all the great ways our lives have changed for the better since that awkward downtown lunch. We just have one rule: Don’t hit fast-forward.

The author is a food writer and consultant and founded the California-focused food website FoodGPS.com. He is on Instagram at @foodgps.

L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for love in and around Los Angeles. If you have comments or a true story to tell, email us at LAAffairs@latimes.com.

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