The Man Who Came to Dinner

The Man Who Came to Dinner will visit all kinds of interesting people in the Bay Area -- as long as they cook him a meal.

Boo Boo is pissed. A momentary lapse in paw-eye coordination has sent a wave of water over the partition designed to separate beverage from dry goods in his dish. The Tender Vittles have tripled in size and, like a wet pretzel, really, what's the point?

Meanwhile, about two feet over and three feet up, I sit before a significantly more appetizing meal, graciously prepared by Boo Boo's "Mommy" -- San Francisco's current diva-in-waiting, Nefertiti Jones.

Nef has taken a break from her hectic I'm-about-to-be-a-rock-star schedule to whip up one pretty impressive meal. Rock 'n' roll may be in her blood but, believe me, it isn't all Doritos and Jolt cola in the cupboard.

With the release of her first CD, Stilltime, her opening of the Lilith Fair in Portland, and her recent appearance on VH1, Nefertiti Jones seems uniquely poised to burst past the city limits into the coveted realm of "Hey, I once saw her at the Elbo Room."

As Nef tries to convince us in one of her Stilltime songs (which blend folk, rock, and pop), "I'm just a little girl who likes to sing."

Well, OK. But she can cook too.
I arrive at Nef's cozy Inner Mission apartment to claims that she has "ruined the meal." So convincing is the look on her face, I believe for a moment that the only gentlemanly option is to pivot and pick a restaurant. But it turns out her apparent despair is merely an example of the acute sense of drama that forms the foundation of Nef's relationship with local audiences.

That's the end of tonight's drama, though, as Nef -- very relaxed in a simple red tank top and blue Champion sweats -- puts the finishing touches on our meal. The effect is very different from the flash of the faux furs and boas she often wears onstage. Her trademark curls, a delightful combination of most standard hair colors, drape down over a face that is forever sweet and sad. Many describe Nef as having the "It" look. Assuming that's true, I find it comforting to know that "real" is finally in.

Nef is "experimenting with risotto for the first time," she says, as she attempts to re-create one of her favorite Slow Club dishes. The false alarm concerns the roasted turkey breast in a tequila-mustard sauce that she is substituting for duck: Apparently a minor misconversion in cooking times has left the bird a little dry. Still, the excellent sauce more than compensates. And when she layers the turkey atop a near-perfect mound of risotto laced with mushrooms, snap peas, white wine, Parmesan, and "spices" (my guess: fresh thyme), the dish couldn't be better. Then she adds half a grilled peach and I stand corrected.

Dinner is served in the kitchen, at the same small table where Nef does her songwriting. Next to us is a huge glass jar filled with a glowing tangle of white Christmas lights, while past a broken set of blinds and a small garden below, we're treated to an impossibly perfect sunset.

I am introduced to Boo Boo: "Hi" -- and notice my dinner looks better than his. But between the feline photo collage and the constant attention, it's clear Boo Boo is the only thing as important to Nef as her music and career.

It's not a bad spot to hold beside a career with this much momentum: Nef has just returned from New York, where her band was chosen to play in the prestigious CMJ New Music Marathon. And she recently signed with a heavyweight management team, which is introducing her to the time-honored tradition of major label courting.

As we clear the dishes, Nef talks about her struggle to balance the rush of her recent successes with the challenge of future dreams: "I've always known exactly what I was supposed to be doing. It's just a matter of getting there."

Her mix of confidence and sincerity is startling. Still, she admits, "Sometimes the pressure is overwhelming. I feel like I just want to curl up in the corner with my cat, you know? But that's not really an option." It's this vulnerability, in contrast to the strength of her lyrics, that proves Nef all too human, her obvious humanity being, of course, the key to her success. And ready or not, it looks like "Mommy" is about to go for one exciting ride.

Hey, Boo Boo -- hang on.
By Barry Levine

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