Speaker 1 But I used to be like at about 10 o'clock in the morning to

Speaker 2 to pay for food delivery and so on, one delivery and all and all that. So it was really a great job. But, you know, after a couple of years, working in a French restaurant was very difficult, very difficult. Even though the owner was not French, the owner was Italian.

Speaker 1 But we had a great French chef by then.

Speaker 2 By that time was really a very fine chef. And it was really a very, very beautiful restaurant. I think that that time we were serving a 13 course dinner for 50 dollars, talking about nineteen seventy five, nineteen seventy five. Fifty dollars was a lot of money and and then one and then, you know, I was always working in French and French restaurant and and French people all the time. They used to say negative things about the forces and restaurant, always negative things. And I really wonder why, you know, I guess and so on, since I never been to the Four Seasons restaurant before. So I decided one day, nineteen seventy six to come back to the Four Seasons restaurant for dinner. And I came over here and I looked at this building and look at this place and look at the restaurant. I said to myself, no wonder the French people are always so adamant and so jealous of the postseason roster because this is really a great restaurant. This is really in a restaurant built to be a restaurant. And it's like, incredible. So so I had dinner here and and it was a wonderful thing. And I was seated on table 74 and had some really incredible wine. I think the check came out to be like one hundred and seventy two dollars for two people. And so the following day I said, why don't you go back to the Four Seasons restaurant? So I went I came back here and I wanted to speak to one of the owners who happened to be Percovich at that time, Pokolbin from Margate. Our partners and I met Mr. Colby before because he was teaching at New York City Community College where I went to school. And so I so I came I came to the first season and went over to the front desk and I said I would like to have a meeting with Mr. Pokolbin. And he said, well, it's in a meeting right now, but if you wait, it'll come down and see you. So I waited for a couple of hours, of course, you know, famous restaurateur make people wait, you know. So in a couple of hours later, he showed up and said and I said, you know, last night I was here for dinner. And it was it was an incredible experience and so on. So I would like to know whether you maybe have a position for me. And he said, well, at this moment, we don't have anything available. It was during the summertime, as you know. And they said, well, maybe once month when my partner comes back from Venice Market Gitai, he said maybe we can contact him. And then maybe so I came back in September and and they said to me, he says, oh, well, opposition may be coming available. And I said, well, you know, I said, right now I'm really happy where I am. But, you know, if the position that it's good enough for me, then I'd be more than happy to come back. So a year later, the deposition was available in the grill room, you know, managing the grill room. And so and I took it, you know, and Margarita was a very direct human being who really knew what I was doing at that time was I believe it or not. I mean, I think that from the very beginning until you left, I think was part of one of the best restaurateur in the city marketing COVA. There was an incredible team. And so so he hired me. And I believe it started in like August 17, nineteen seventy seven, nineteen seventy seven. I was like twenty three years old. I mean, you know, and I was expected to be fired basically in a couple of months because you know this at that time the position of me was really an incredible restaurant. It still is probably it's probably better today than it was then. But but they were going through a lot of changes. You know, there was the new invention, the reinvention of the American cuisine. And so a lot of people were coming and going and everybody was very excited. So and I said, well, you know, can see that I'm Italian. It's a very like I probably last for a couple of months, a couple months. So a couple of months went by. And believe it or not, I'm still here.

Speaker 3 But when the Four Seasons. Yeah.

Unidentified Why do you think it was such a sensation? Why do you think? Thank you very much.

Speaker 3 Yeah, why was it a sensation? Why was it special?

Speaker 1 Well, I think the nineteen fifty nine I mean, I don't think that there were only two people in this country yet, but I think that the Branfman basically are the people that put up the Seagrams building. They hired the best architect. I mean they hired me slanderer in nineteen fifty six I think because the building opened up in nineteen fifty eight and the restaurant opened up in nineteen fifty nine because they really they, they hired the best architect in the first place. And, and I think that's really the first issue. I mean that people have to take into consideration. I mean when you open up a new restaurant or anything that is new. I mean you have to you have to get the best mind involved. You cannot just, you know, get anybody that you think is right. I mean, you you have to definitely do your homework and so on. But, you know, nineteen fifty nine I think was an incredible year and even one vintage wise, believe it or not. But I think that the Branfman people, Bronfman family and so on, I think that they really wanted to invest in something that was really worth while, you know, and they invested in people. They really care about the future of the city in New York, because, I mean, I think that even today, as it is today, which is we're talking about more than 50 years later, the Four Seasons are still here. The Four Seasons still is one of the most incredible design restaurants in the world. Forget about America. I mean, you have people come you have to come coming from all around the world to take a look at this this beautiful space. And and, you know, with the exception maybe of the right of the Rainbow Room and Windows on the world and unfortunately, no longer there. I mean, that's basically were the three most iconic restaurant of our time. And and, you know, and and I think that that the Bronfman and me were really incredible that they had this vision about, you know, putting up a restaurant of this quality in this glass. I don't think that today, like today, unless you are you have a tremendous amount of money. I don't think you'll be able to replicate a restaurant like this. There's no question in my mind at all. No. And the most important thing about this issue is the fact that a restaurant like this gives tremendous power to a building like the Seagram building itself. So the two of them really go hand-in-hand together. So it's a matter of announcing each other. And and, you know, if I know that a lot of time people talk about that this was supposed to be a car

Speaker 4 dealership, what they're dreaming

Speaker 1 I mean I mean, I've spoken to Miss Phyllis Lombard, the lady responsible for this building.

Speaker 4 She said she was never in the car, never. So and they come up with

Speaker 1 banks, GM locations,

Speaker 4 untruthful, totally and truthful at all. I think that,

Speaker 1 you know, they were in the liquor business. They wanted to have a place where they could entertain and, you know, they

Speaker 4 were the manager of that era.

Speaker 1 They're still the matter today. That's too bad. They do not own the building anymore.

Speaker 3 Do you recall your first meeting with James Beard?

Speaker 4 Well well,

Speaker 1 I mean, I believe I believe that the first meeting of first interaction over the head with James Beer was on a daily basis because I used to come to the four season at least once or twice a week. And he always used to eat in the grill room and his table was always the center booth at the Four Seasons restaurant. And the grill room is basically where the so-called power lunch, you know, where it came from, you know, and and I think that the so-called power lunch phrase was put together by Michael Korda, the famous ex editor of Simon and Schuster, maybe still an editor today. And so and eventually became a staple after James Baker passed away. But so every time James Baker came to the fore season, he always came early, came around, you know, before lunchtime. The first stop he made was into the kitchen. It was almost like he was very fond of the chef at that time. And also Christian, I'll be later on. And so he was always in the kitchen. We probably spent about half an hour in the kitchen looking at food and talking to the chef. It was very it was extremely friendly, I would say, and it was very enthusiastic about the first season, especially at that time. You know, we're talking about nineteen seventy seven, even though I'm sure that James knew the four season better than I did because he was involved since the very beginning of the season restaurant. So and believe it or not, we still have item on the menu today, like today like, like then you know so and so basically what he did to spend some time in the kitchen and then he would come to the table, we would drink his regular cocktail, you know, and then white wine, red wine poured.

Speaker 4 And then he would just get up and leave,

Speaker 1 you know, even never ask for the check, which was, you know, which was fine to me because I really didn't know the relationship, but. That time, I knew who it was, but for a couple of months later, after this was going on and on and on, I said to Tom, Margaret, I said, Well,

Speaker 4 I got to ask you question of whoever pays his bills. I mean, it gets

Speaker 1 up anyway all the time. And you ask me just to sign his name on the check and

Speaker 4 let's say NSA by James Beard, you know, he has

Speaker 1 never paterfamilias in the entire life. And I said, you must be joking as it is the truth that says he probably ever saw a check. And then he explained to me his involvement in the Four Seasons restaurant. So I said I said, well, I'm really sorry that you're not paying him enough. I think instead of just regular food, maybe I should give them caviar every day, huh? Did he ever. No, of course not.

Speaker 4 I don't think he kept any money in his pocket. I mean, you know, I you know, I think that,

Speaker 1 you know, there are a lot of people like that that don't have any money in their pocket. So I don't think I've ever seen taken a cab either.

Speaker 3 So you talked about some of the items that he would order and the menu items on the menu that he originally designed that are still on the menu today?

Speaker 1 Well, you know, once in a while we have the Chris shrimp with massive fruit sauce, which we you know, we have taken them off the menu. We put them back on the menu. So that's what some of the items that he he originated with. We have the most infamous duckling, which we still have it on the menu every day, which is it's a tremendous, great salad. It's really wonderful. But it's probably the best duck preparation that you can ever see. And and also, you know, it was very interested in us. And as everybody knows nowadays, you know, everybody it's always cooking the seasonal way, thank God. You know? And so he was really the originator of, you know,

Speaker 4 farm to

Speaker 1 table food, let's put it this way, you know,

Speaker 3 in his collaboration. Yeah. What do you feel that his main contribution was?

Speaker 1 But I think his main contribution is the fact that he was very enthusiastic about opening up a restaurant like this. There's no question in my mind. I mean, it's like it would be like asking I cannot even I don't even know how to phrase it at this level. It's like asking the best winemaker in the world to say, let's go to Burgundy, let's go to work and let's go to Bordeaux. And you pick your pick whatever you like to pick and you grow your own grapes. It would be exactly the same thing. Yeah, I mean, really, I mean, I you know, we understand this restaurant was very expensive when it was first open. I believe that the cost of opening the restaurant in 59 was more than five million dollars. I really do not know exactly how much money is today, today, you know, dollar because, you know, the valuation is so crazy and so on. But I think once you're associated with a restaurant like this, you know, you I think you can just write your own rules. And at the same time, I think

Speaker 4 we have a lot of

Speaker 1 problem today like today that a lot of people really do not understand. When you go out to a restaurant, you know, you should not only enjoy the food. And I think this is basically the relationship of James Beer. Consider he was an actor in his previous life. You have to understand that. You know, you have to that you have to you have to think about the service. You have to think about the decor. It's not the food alone. Food alone does not do it.

Speaker 4 He might work for a lot of people,

Speaker 1 but food alone, I don't think it does for anybody anymore at all. And so I think this is basically the relationship that James Beer has left and the relationship, meaning that food alone does not carry a restaurant. You have to have everything all together. If you don't have all these other items. I don't think a restaurant can last more than fifty years.

Speaker 4 And I don't think that that made

Speaker 1 a restaurant day like today that, you know, they've been open since nineteen fifty

Speaker 4 nine. They're still in the same location. I was going to say, you know, yeah,

Speaker 3 it's interesting because many of the restaurants he collaborated on, this is the one that endures. Yeah.

Speaker 1 The only other one that I really admire tremendously was the coach house. I mean, that was a great restaurant, too, unfortunately. You know, the owner died and the restaurant is sold. You know, that's unfortunately, that was another great restaurant that James Baker used to be there all the time. And then also he also loved the Italian restaurant downtown owned by the very famous Italian gentleman from Liguria who happened to be dead as well. I forgot his name at this moment, but I think his name was obviously he was one of his best friend. But we are not dressed. We had like five restaurants. He had five small restaurant and you brought your own wine into and and and it was very close to what, James? We are used to live. So used to be if he wasn't at the courthouse for season, he was always there.

Speaker 3 And how would you describe him as a personality personality to someone who's never met him before?

Speaker 1 Oh, my God. It was bigger than you can ever imagine. I mean. I mean, he was a huge figure. I mean, God, it was like over six feet tall, he had huge feet.

Speaker 4 I mean, he was wearing what what is the golden Birkenstock

Speaker 1 shoes before they became famous? I mean, and and then one day, you know, after I discovered that, you know, since he wasn't paying the check, I said, well, I hope that when you know, when you're going into another world, you leave the shoes for me. I wear your shoes. He didn't leave the shoes to

Speaker 3 very big,

Speaker 1 very big shoes to

Speaker 3 fill. James Beard like to talk about food, memory. What are what is probably your most significant

Speaker 1 memory of James Beard

Speaker 3 yourself, your own taste, your palate. Is it from Italy?

Speaker 1 From Italy? Oh, probably. I would say my my best to memories going out and looking for opportunity mushroom. Yeah. And bringing them home, you know, and you just grill them on top of a fire and you put an egg on top and just some olive oil. I mean that is like there is nothing better than that. And you don't even need white truffle. Just a great opportunity. Mushroom, just the head with one egg on top. That's it. And some olive oil.

Speaker 3 Do you have any other kind of team spirit that you'd like to share?

Speaker 1 Well, I remember one day James Beard was here and he and Michael Aron and Sam Aron, the owner of Chateau Lehman. I mean, he was a very friendly man. I mean, Jesus. I mean, he loved wine more than you can ever imagine. So one day they did a party for his birthday in this special room, and it was a long table and candelabra. Loved it. And and Sam Aaron Samana must have been at that time, probably about 80 years old. And James would have been probably in his 70s. And they had a collection of Chateau Talbot wine, 1970, and they took the label out and they put the James beer label. Nobody knew what they were drinking. I know everybody thought that this was Chateau, right? They were drinking themselves to to oblivion under the table. I mean I mean, you're talking about great fun. You're talking about a great comadre, if you want to call it that way. And some of those people, they were having fun. I mean, this is really what it takes to be in this kind of business. You have to be you know, it's too bad that we don't have anybody like James Beer today, like today to recreate some of those incredible feats. An incredible, incredible days like that. It's really true. I mean, I hope that we can find somebody like that. But so far, we have not been successful at all. Yeah.

Speaker 3 When he died, you remember where you were and how you

Speaker 4 heard about the news? No, I mean,

Speaker 1 I knew that he was in the hospital and I knew that we were sending food there all the time. And and but I was not. I know it was his. I'm sorry. He's not a Kennedy moment. I remember when John F. Kennedy died, but I'm sorry. I'm not really. Yeah.

Speaker 4 Yeah, of course. Of course. I mean, look, I mean, James Beard.

Speaker 1 I mean, every

Speaker 4 time

Speaker 1 James Beard was not feeling well, I mean, or whatever the case may be, of course, the chef would always send food to his house or to the hospital. It's we do this for any guests, not only for James Beer, but of course, James, you are very special. So the chef knew exactly is like this like and I

Speaker 4 know they love chicken pot pie. That was like one of his favorite dish.

Speaker 1 I remember one day he was having lunch in the grill room with another gentleman and and they were having the chicken pot pie and the puff pastry, you know, just blows up like, tremendous. So by the time we presented it to his guest, the puff pastry was going to go up, was still going up, but James Baker was going down. And I said, well, I guess that's the story of your life,

Speaker 3 that

Speaker 1 you feel like the industry

Speaker 4 needs somebody. Now, of course. Why why do we need why do we call? Well, it's like him

Speaker 1 because you see everybody they are constantly looking at the television, television, the chefs show those food show.

Speaker 4 And so that mean nothing at all. I mean, that's basically, you know, it's

Speaker 1 for the public. I mean, I'm not trying to criticize the public, of course. I mean, here at home, you have to look at a food show, go right ahead and so on. But this was not a man of about television. This was a man about, you know, helping people get better. You know, he was not coming to the first season and giving us bad advice, was coming to the Four Seasons to give us good advice. He was saying you should do this differently. You should do this winter.

Speaker 4 And nowadays they are not such

Speaker 1 people, like if you want to consult them. But there are a lot of food consultant today, like today. But they're not at that level at all. They're not because they're all you know, some people are more into the French cooking, some people into Italian cooking, some people are to American cooking.

Speaker 4 James Beard was basically he knew everything

Speaker 1 about all this food. You know, it was not only concern about French cooking. I mean, you wrote more, you know, basically wrote more about French cooking than American cooking, you know, if you look at it.

Speaker 4 So it was just James here with James James Beard, James. He was a very, very tall individual who had we had some real power and some real knowledge. And he knew how to use it, of course. Yeah. And I'm really happy that that he was

Speaker 1 involved with the Four Seasons restaurant. And it was a friend who was a mentor.

Speaker 4 And I think it I think we're all missing him, that's all.

Speaker 3 Yeah. What was your inspiration for cooking?

Speaker 1 For my inspiration.

Speaker 3 Your own

Speaker 4 inspiration? Well, I don't know, really.

Speaker 1 I mean, I have so many inspiration. I get up every morning. I'm inspired by whatever, you know, it's on my plate. Let's put it this way. I mean, you have to

Speaker 4 you know, when you come to

Speaker 1 work every day, you have to have to be inspired by something. And every day you cannot just come to work and. Just go to the office.

Speaker 4 This is an office, you have to wait, you have to be on the show.

Speaker 1 I mean, basically have to be have to be a showman. And every day, you know,

Speaker 4 you can and you always have to be happy because basically, you know, people come to the restaurant,

Speaker 1 they don't come to the restaurant to see this one or two.

Speaker 4 They come to Alaska to be to enjoy themselves, to be treated, to be treated wonderfully, to have wonderful food, to and relax,

Speaker 1 to enjoy and to have fun.

Speaker 4 You know, a lot of people, they

Speaker 1 have their own this and that. You know,

Speaker 4 that's why people go out. And it's a good thing. The restaurant, it's a very good thing. There's nothing better than going to restaurants.

Speaker 1 Don't go to a Starbucks,

Speaker 4 go to a restaurant, even if it's a dine and go to a restaurant.

Speaker 1 Don't go to this coffee shop.

Speaker 4 They're serving the ugliest coffee. Then I don't think Unthink was made out of coffee beans. Go to a restaurant and enjoy food, but go to a restaurant where you can sit in wonderful chair and

Speaker 1 wonderful surroundings

Speaker 4 in in places where you can you can look at anything, can inspire you, you know, can inspire, which is actually a fact, and drink some fine wine. They will inspire you as well.

Speaker 1 Don't drink any cheap. What. I'm sorry about that.

Speaker 4 I mean, I don't mean a cheap variety. There's so much bad wine out there and there is so much good wine. So the most important thing is that, you know. Yes. Make sure that

Speaker 1 it's a chef in the kitchen. Make sure there is that the restroom is very well. You know,

Speaker 4 the restaurant you want to go to, but have fun and enjoy yourself. You only live once.

Speaker 3 You and Alex certainly embraced the spirit of hospitality and carry it.

Speaker 1 Well, I hope so.

Speaker 3 The new generation.

Speaker 4 And it's aware that there is definitely

Speaker 1 room for improvement all the time. There's no question about it. But I would like to say that overall, I mean, a brand new book came out, but it's about the second building. And I saw a picture of the Four Seasons restaurant in that book. And it's exactly then as it is now. But I would like to add that if

Speaker 4 if we are able to

Speaker 1 to refurbish the restaurant, really totally clean it out the way it was like nineteen fifty nine, it would take a lot of money, but it's definitely worth every penny of it because if that's going to be done, if we can do it in the next few years and so on, I think the Four Seasons are going to be as beautiful and as successful for the next 50 years.

Speaker 3 Yeah, yeah. Just describe what it was like to buy.

Speaker 4 Well, in the nineteen

Speaker 1 in the first of all, I mean, you have to realize that the nineteen seventy, I mean they were really very hard time in New York City. The situation was very grim. I think that the you could barely walk the streets at night after ten o'clock without being robbed or stabbed. Even around here, by the way, it was really scary time and there were not many restaurants that were doing well at all. I mean, I was shocked that the Palace Restaurant, we were sold out every day, but we only had fifteen tables. And, you know, it was very special. We were all serving dinner and so on. And and so basically those were the days. Things start to change dramatically in nineteen seventy seven percent, in seventy eight and so on with the basically coming of the American cuisine, the American Revolution, American Food Revolution. And I think that they started here quite a bit. And I think that James even then had a lot to do that Craig Claiborne at a lot to do that. That was the critical from New York time. And so another great gentleman, by the way. And so we had a lot of chef come in from all over the world, whether we had a lot of dinners from or from chef all around the world, especially French chef and so on, from Paul Bolkus to I forgot the other people's name because you know of Tyvon, believe it or not. And so it was very exciting time. And also, you know, the Four Seasons restaurant was the first restaurant in America to start serving American wine on the wine list. I mean, there was no other restaurant in America that would even touch American wine, you know? And James, we had a lot to do with it again, you see, so

Speaker 4 so basically and James beer, you know,

Speaker 1 whether we like it or not. And I'm sure a lot of people want to take credit as well, but really reinvented American the American Food Revolution. I mean, that was really the beginning. I mean, I know that we have done so many dinner for we used to do the the barrel test in the California barrel tasting. I mean I mean, we still do crazy things like that even today, believe it or not. But they were talking about then and and

Speaker 4 and

Speaker 1 also I think that's very important to understand that, you know, a lot of people might criticize even even today. But, you know, simplicity is the best thing. There is no question about it, you know, and, you know, we try to stay away from sources as much as possible. We try to stay away from butter and cream like. They want to kill you, I mean I mean, I don't have anything against French people,

Speaker 4 but, you know, I think that

Speaker 1 I think we have to think about our, you know, life, you know? And and also, I I think that the Four Seasons restaurant overall, it's a restaurant that we want people to come in every day. It's not a restaurant where you only should come only for a special occasion. That's basically why we have been able to survive for such a long time, because we have been cuddling our customer forever, you know,

Speaker 4 and it's a good thing. It's, you know, don't get me

Speaker 1 wrong, you can come to the forces for a special occasion. You can come for the first season once a year.

Speaker 4 You can come, but you can come to the fore season every day. And your health

Speaker 1 is going to be fine, believe it or not, where you are not going to eat food that we don't want to eat, we are going to eat food that it's good for you, that is good for our farmers, that is good for everybody's concerned. We try to stay away again like that even today from, you know, from all this antibiotic stuff, we try to stay away from everything that we don't want to eat ourselves.

Speaker 4 And that's, you know, that's basically the fourth season away.

Speaker 1 And we are cotton candy is a different story.

Speaker 4 I really I can't figure that

Speaker 1 story out at all. I think that the cotton candy was very simply this the cotton candy. The way I see it, the way I remember from the very beginning was the fact that,

Speaker 4 you know, the first season was really about

Speaker 1 a restaurant for not for kids. Let's put it this way. You know, kids like, oh, my God, here comes a child's like, you know, you want to run away. And that's how most restaurant people do. You know, this is a fact. You try to go to any good, good restaurant with a couple of children with you. Oh, my God, they look at yourself. What am I doing? These people you know what? I'm doing this table. So the first thing that we try to embrace the fact that

Speaker 4 people have children.

Speaker 1 So so let's let them have let them bring the children.

Speaker 4 Why not

Speaker 1 their customer? They might not spend one hundred dollars per person. They must spend twenty five. But still they're children. So they found a way to please our children. So the cotton candy was only meant for little kids, but all of a sudden everybody wants to be a child. So cotton candy for everyone, that's it.

Speaker 4 It's like, God, we have people here. Look at this. When you have seven beautiful women who are celebrating

Speaker 1 the birthday, they're over there over seventy five years. I'm joking that twenty over twenty five I made a mistake. And they're all cotton candy. Yes. Yes.

Speaker 3 Do you think emulates the Four Seasons mentality?

Speaker 1 I think everybody everybody's trying to I mean, I think that everybody I mean, everybody who cares about being in the restroom is so scared to be around for a while. I think that you have to do what we are doing. There's no question about it. You have to really be in the hospitality business, not just on your you know, on your car. You know, you have to really be hospitable. Let's put it this way. I mean, I'm so happy to see now so many American kids getting involved in the restaurant business more than ever before. And, you know, and it's really good. But then again, this has to do with James Burkinabe. I'm not trying to massage his back too much. But but it's a fact because, you know, if you if you go let's say you're going to an Italian restaurant, you have a lot of Italian people now and then. But nowadays you go to an Italian restaurant, you have a lot of American people working there, which is a good thing.

Speaker 4 This is very important. It's a very good business. Don't get me wrong, I think that, you know,

Speaker 1 yes, of course, you have to spend a lot of hours here. You get to have too much fun. Of course, you know, don't forget the crazy group. Yes.

Speaker 3 Now, it's really the first.

Speaker 4 Yes, of course. Of course. They had they had special people. I mean, that's that farmer then in nineteen fifty nine growing vegetables for them. Can you imagine this. Nineteen fifty nine year people in Poughkeepsie,

Speaker 1 New York or in Westchester or in purchasing.

Speaker 4 So they had, they had farms that grow in specific, specific specific vegetable for the Four Seasons restaurant. Nineteen fifty nine and now everybody's farm to table. Thank God. Thank God. I think it's about time isn't it. Oh my God. Oh.

Julian Niccolini
Interview Date:
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
"Julian Niccolini, James Beard: America's First Foodie." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 13 Sep. 2013,
(2013, September 13). Julian Niccolini, James Beard: America's First Foodie. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET).
"Julian Niccolini, James Beard: America's First Foodie." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). September 13, 2013. Accessed May 29, 2022


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