French was to the culinary world what bad boys were to rock and roll, what prima donna were to opera. She was also worse. A frenetic drive and wild success early on had pumped up her innate self-confidence to titanic proportions, creating a monstrous ego and horrendous sense of self-importance. She was a force of nature, raw, untamed and people were drawn to her, like moths to a flame.
Gifted with a rare combination of talents, she took advantage of every opportunity she created. Shed burned like a comet through the culinary scene. And she knew they all hated her for it. Some had damn good reasons too.
She was tall with an athletic build, had long dark hair, and a profile resembling classical greek statuary. In distinct contrast to her intense, driven personality, her regard was usually placid. To the unassuming eye she appeared casual, laid back, to the point of being bored.
Shed been accused of sleeping her way to the top. This always galled her. Theyd all said it with such disdain, as if it werent an accomplishment in its own right. As if it was easy. She did what was necessary to the occasion. To her keenly focused mind there were only two goals, complete mastery of her craft and professional success. If there was a new style, she learned it, if there was a hot new recipe, she stole it, if there was a more popular chef... well, there were ways of staying on top in such a fast paced, competitive business, and they werent all nice.
But no one had ever accused French of being nice, or anything like it. Many other things, yes, but not that. French wasnt just a little proud of her well earned reputation as a calculating bitch, she revelled in it. Or at least she had, until quite recently.
She had an encyclopedic knowledge of all things culinary. Contemporary and historical. She could set a table for a sixteenth century Italian feast as easily as she could prepare a nouvelle cuisine dinner for two. But why starve your guests? She preferred to reel them in slowly and then overtake and possess their senses before they knew what had taken place. The look of total submission that shone in their eyes afterward, mixed with a fear that she may someday stop... She thrived on it. That was power.
She didnt have the name French because she dabbled in the occultish world of contemporary cuisine. She had been rigorously trained as a French chef and wore her toque with pride. The toque, the tall paper hats french-trained chefs wear, signified her hard fought battles in the trenches of culinary learning. Shed had to do everything short of killing a man to get it. And whoever he was, hed been a lucky man, because if shed been called on to kill him, she would have. French was a professional.
In her time as a chef, French had cut a swath through the best kitchens in the States and Europe, partnered several successful large scale ventures, and more recently concentrated her efforts here on Ningunquit Island. Shed discovered the tourist town while visiting Mitchell Redmond early in their acquaintance. It was an ideal location, providing a varied and exclusive clientele during the high season of the summer months. As well as a close proximity to the man shed begun to feel was a suitable partner in her ever more ambitious ventures. And when the weather turned ugly, she could close up shop and leave with the more exotic migratory element of the island.
During the rest of the year she worked for Mitchell and she travelled. Keeping her skills sharp, spreading her considerable reputation and enhancing her repertoire. She was always in motion, on the lookout for the latest innovation, a new angle, a new twist on an old taste. Those who hesitated or dawdled on the road of culinary enterprise and service had only footprints across their back to show for their troubles. The footprints of fickle patrons on their way to the next star chefs bistro. It was a dog eat dog kind of world, and French had been a top dog for a good long while.
Up to that momentous event three months ago, shed waged a one woman campaign on the contemporary culinary world and met with considerable success. It all came to a grinding halt however, upon her meeting one man, Hercule LeGrande.
LeGrande, known to friends as The Big Guy, was the force behind Elysium. The most illustrious restaurant in Manhattan, serving the most select clientele on the planet. He was considered part God, not only by his devoted following, but by most everyone in the business. This, of course, brought him into Frenchs ascendant path.
French had a way of insinuating herself into another chefs restaurant, under the guise of a like-minded colleague, burning to share culinary knowledge. That impression rarely lasted. And as with most of the establishments shed infiltrated, shed gotten right to work, destroying LeGrandes operation. First seducing his business partner and getting the lay of the land... so to speak. Thatd been easy. Next she went after the internal workings of the restaurant. But somehow itd all gone wrong, or right, depending on how you looked at it really.
Without her realizing it, Hercule had managed to contain her, and turn her daunting energy on none other than her own, unlikely self. He was good. He knew every trick in the book, and when those ran out, he was able to counter her more devious, home grown attempts.
Machinery shed sabotaged magically operated during shift. Rumors she started died on the vine. Food shed spiked, wasnt. And books shed cooked, werent. Countering her onslaught seemed effortless on his part. He didnt let on that he knew she was a saboteur for the longest time. She stewed there in a state of frustration entirely alien to her. Out of necessity, she observed the restaurant closer than she had anything ever before, looking for the flaw, the failing that would be this mans downfall.
What she saw was something shed never expected. Something completely foreign to the kitchens shed worked in in the past. At least, it was something she thought she hadnt seen in them. Love.
What an odd thing to glimpse in the loud, clatter-hiss of a professional kitchen. But she had, and it had done something to her. Brought her up short where she stood, for one thing. Stopped her cold. And opened a chasm.
As she watched in fascination, shed seen herself in sharp contrast. And like a rip in the fabric of what held her together and gave her steam, she was undone. She was changed.
Shed missed it at first, in all of her usual haste and narrowly focused determination. The difference of that place. So she stayed on for a short while after, observing anew. Eventually, she realized that she enjoyed being with Hercule and his oddball staff. And having seen the workings of his operation, up close and personal, she respected him. Shed never seen a place run in such a way before. The staff looked out for each other and worked in mutual respect, right down to the dishwashers. And shed betrayed them all.
Shed felt a growing emptiness, looming and scary. She realized that it was one thing to be changed, and another to stay that way. With trepidation shed approached Hercule, expecting to be exposed and rebuffed.
It become clear that hed known from the first, and never been fooled. But hed admitted that it hadnt been easy containing her damage, undoing her work. Shed given him a challenge hed been missing, and an opportunity as well. He explained, to her surprise, that in her hed seen a fire and rage and something unique besides. He knew that she could, given the chance, see the error of her ways, and change to the good. Only it hadnt sounded corny when hed said it. It sounded like a call. A lovely sound far away that lured her. All she needed to do was to start off toward it. Perhaps with a gentle push. French had not encountered such a fiercely gentle shove in her life.
Soon after that, shed walked out on her partnership with Mitchell Redmond and the element that had gathered around their enterprise. These were some of the most high-profile and lucrative ventures of her career, not to mention the most crooked. She didnt want it anymore. It had all turned sour in the time shed been at Elysium. It was her first step.
Of course, Mitchell didnt share her conviction. Actually, he was pissed. Too bad. Shed had enough of that crap. For now she wanted to be left alone, working Bachanal and trying to get her life in some kind of order. She knew, given Mitchells ire and the rest of her past, this was highly unlikely. Walking away from that kind of ugly was never easy, it tended to follow.
She suspected that Mitchell was behind the re-zoning effort on the Sutters Wharf. The place where her restaurant was and the reason shed been at Louisas party. Who knew, maybe it was Mitchells twisted sense of humor at work. It would be just like him to try to distract her with this kind of bull. Whoever was behind it, was trying to get the place re-zoned for residential occupancy. Hello condo neighbors, hello trouble. No way. Currently Sutters Wharf was zoned for business occupancy only, there were no residential provisions on that land. You could serve food, cut sails, clean boats, sell knick-knack crap, but you couldnt sleep there. And she wanted it to stay that way. There were plenty of places nearby to get a room on the waterfront, plenty of places to provide patrons. She didnt need them breathing down her neck, complaining about the noise, the dumpsters, the late night bustle, and whatever else civilians found unseemly living in close quarters to a prosperous culinary enterprise.
Of course Cezar, of Cezars Bistro, was a distinct possibility as well. Hed never gotten over the fact that, despite his best efforts, French had managed to thrive in the midst of what he considered his vast culinary empire. Yawn. Not that she didnt have a major bone stuck in her craw about him.
She hated Cezar with a passion she reserved for a select few. French had slept with Cezar years back in an effort to sweeten a merger deal. Her scheme went awry when Cezar shanghai-ed her most experienced staff out from under her nose, effectively crippling her restaurant the day before the big season began. Shed had to travel to Timbuktu and back gathering a new crew together, but had missed a good part of the season in the process. This had been one of the darkest moments of her career.
The accidental fire at Cezars restaurant the next season cheered her right up. And if there had been any witnesses they would have seen that it was an accident. French had recently taken up smoking, a nasty habit, which she dropped shortly after, right onto a kerosene soaked rag in the trash bin of Cezars office. It wasnt her fault hed forgotten to empty the thing and that his office was such a fire trap. Cezar suspected her at once, and never forgave her.
While these things played on her mind, they werent her main concern. Staying glued together was. Itd been a hard few months since leaving Hercule and the staff at Elysium. Shed been holding herself in check. Vigilant against and distrustful of her natural instincts. The thing with Louisa had been one example of her new efforts at making a go of change. Reigning in her considerable temper was another. That was a real challenge and most likely the main cause of her headaches. That, and Mitchell calling, faxing, and e-mailing her every ten minutes trying to get her to reconsider. What a sap.
And she wished someone would be kind enough to explain why trying to better yourself had the nasty side effect of killing your libido? What the hell was that about? Great motivational technique, not. What did she care anyway? She had enough trouble getting through the day without cracking. Changing was harder than shed ever thought and shed about had it.
The ritual of reopening the restaurant had been comforting to a degree. But as things were starting to roll, the internal pressure spiked. She wasnt sure how much longer shed be able to cope. Something had to break, she hoped it wouldnt be too messy, and please, not during a dinner rush.
She rounded the corner at the bottom of the hill and took a deep, calming breath. There, at the end of Sutters Wharf, at the waterfront, she could see Bachanal. It was a three story neo-colonial building. Having withstood many storms it had a weathered, yet distinguished appearance. The inside seemed larger, more open than youd expect. Its large porch windows, still shuttered against the chill spring air, opened onto a stunning harbor view.
She paused and listened to the stays quietly clanking against the masts of the boats moored nearby. A seagull cried out as it flew overhead. Another gorgeous, by the sea kind of day in Comstock. A fine breeze blew off the water, there was the fresh smell of salt air, and the sun was shining bright. Good for business.
Continued in Chapter 3.