Catching up at lunch:
the flavor of everyday romance

Wednesday, April 22, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Most people go to the bank for money matters. Erin Hellmich goes to have lunch with her husband and catch up on the things that really matter.

Erin's husband, Steve, is the executive chef of the employee cafeteria in the downtown Federal Reserve Bank. Steve's employed by Aramark, the food-service contractor that operates the large dining area on the bank's fifth floor.

This is no high school cafeteria. Comforted by soft carpeting and cushioned seats, bank employees can grab breakfast and lunch, eating top-notch food that tastes good amid a decor that's done in good taste.

Schedules permitting, Erin shares a table with her husband toward the end of each Friday lunch hour as the cafeteria gets ready to close and Steve's duties wind down. Last week, they shared their private time with me for a "Lunch with Cliff," where people pause during their midday meal to tell me what's on their minds.

Sitting with her back to a broad bank of windows overlooking Government Square and the art-deco exterior of the Potter Stewart U.S. Courthouse, Erin declared: "I don't come here for the view." She's there to sample Steve's culinary creations and savor his conversation.

Today, the air is seasoned with the scent of curry from his soup du jour, Chicken Calcutta, while the conversation is flavored by sweet talk about the Hellmichs' children. Over lunch, Steve and Erin chat about the small things in life that make a big difference, how much their daughter loves to read, how their son relishes having playmates.

"We use it to get reacquainted after the week," Erin says of their regular Friday lunch. "It's an uninterrupted time to talk. You don't get much of that with two little kids. At home, somebody's always calling out, "Mommy?' and "Daddy???' Maybe an hour later, you get back to your conversation. Then again, maybe you forget what you were talking about."

This happens at a house in Pleasant Ridge that's equipped with a 4-year-old named Will and his sister, Erica.

"She's 6," Steve says. But now that she can read books to her dad, she feels all grown up. So she wants to be older.

"She's telling everybody she's 6 1/4," Steve says.

"But," Erin adds, "she's dying to be 6 1/2."

Rarely, if ever, do Erin and Steve talk about work. She leaves thoughts about her job back in her office at a Covington public relations firm. Steve wears his chef's whites while dining, but the demands of his job stay in the kitchen.

"Our lunches are the only time during the day I get to sit down," he says with a resigned smile.

"He does a good job of relaxing at lunch," Erin adds. He'd better. Steve's under strict orders.

"I tell him I'm not coming over unless you can sit and have lunch with me," Erin says. "I come here to see him. Not just have lunch."

They never line up their Friday lunch dates in advance. She just calls ahead in the morning and asks: "Is this a good day?' "

On the rare times when Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, breezes into town, it's a bad day. Steve has to cook for the boss.

"Usually, it's filet mignon for lunch for him," Steve notes. "The last time he was here for breakfast, I did eggs Benedict. But he wanted Raisin Bran and skim milk."

The chairman of the board doesn't make a habit of dining in Cincinnati. So most Fridays, Steve and Erin's last-minute lunch dates are safe. This gives them an hour to be alone together in the middle of that glorious day at the end of the work week.

"To us, it feels like extra time," Erin says. "We never talk about anything earth-shattering."

To her, it's not the conversation that matters. It's the company. "Being together here is romantic," Erin says.

"But it's not romantic in the swept-away sense of the movies," she adds. That's easy to understand. This is the Federal Reserve Bank in Cincinnati, not a movie lot in Hollywood.

For a couple married 10 years, she says, "it's romantic in the day-to-day sense."

Glancing at Steve, Erin gives her definition of day-to-day romance.

"It's knowing you're going to have lunch with someone who really wants you to come and have lunch, someone who's glad you're here."

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.