Written / Cooking On High


Chapter 4

French had made it back to Bachanal, and let the staff know she wouldn’t be sitting out the season in the Big House. And after a shot of caffeine she’d be kicking into high gear to undo any of the damage they’d caused last night. She saw the disappointment that shone in some eyes, the thoughts of possible advancement and glory extinguished. Vultures.

She’d all but forgotten why Dil Mackenzie had been in her kitchen in the first place. Miguel had reminded her by subtly indicating that if she was in need of an alibi for that night, he was at her service. She could always trust Miguel for a good laugh. He had to be one of the most amoral, cynical people she’d ever met. He probably didn’t care if she’d done it.

Louisa Millet seemed to French an unlikely candidate for murder victim. Sure, she was annoying, unethical, greedy and stupid, but no more than average. She’d made this assessment based on a brief acquaintance. And you never knew what lurked beneath the surface of peoples lives. French had made a study of not caring. Unless that person was somehow relevant to her enterprise... Louisa had been, so French knew a few helpful details, but nothing too deep, and nothing that smacked of a malevolent air. That is if you discounted the macrobiotic thing. She couldn’t imagine anyone getting that riled up over Louisa. And she certainly hadn’t given her more than passing thought herself, even after being accused of the murder.

She was checking over the dining room, on her third cup of coffee, when she noticed someone enter. At first her senses were jarred by the unseemly contrast of that evil green uniform against the serene and elegantly appointed room. She suppressed a shudder, certain she was sober now. She noticed that the waitress was not a girl, but a woman. And while the garish outfit was tacky in the extreme, right down to the frilly ankletts and white Keds, she filled it out admirably. You didn’t get a body like that sitting on your ass chasing naval lint.

She had a girlish, fresh faced look to her, but on closer, more sober inspection, she must have been in her mid twenties. Looking lost, somewhat apprehensive, and could that other thing be hopeful? Not in this restaurant. French waited for her to speak.

“Hi! Remember me? From Phil’s?...” Violet had been pacing out front arguing with herself for ten minutes. She’d never met French, but knew the stories. Who didn’t? The thought of the fire and intensity bristling off that enraged figure back at the Shack, well, you might say, it’d inspired her.

French had dispatched those guys with an ease and surety that awed the waitress. That display of electric and focused energy had stunned that room and in retrospect dissolved Violet’s reservations. And then there was this place, it was unlike any restaurant she’d ever been in.

She looked at the chef hopefully, but she still had a blank look on her face, as though she hadn’t recognized her at all. True, French had seemed slightly tipsy back at the Shack, but it hadn’t been more than fifteen minutes ago. She was even more arresting now that she was cleaned up, wearing a sparkling clean chef’s jacket, her hair in a braid, and a toque atop her head. “Well, I was at Phil and Flo’s, until a few minutes ago anyway and I was wondering if you were hiring around here. I’ve waitressed quite a bit and...”

French had raised her hand, cutting Violet off. “No, not interested.” She turned away, resuming her inspection.

Violet was undeterred, “I’m a good worker, you wouldn’t regret it...”

French wasn’t paying attention anymore.

“I’m never sick. I’m short, but I lift my weight in flatware...”

French considered that it might be time to change the shades in this room. The light was good, but something that filtered more softly might warm it a touch.

“And since you got me fired, it might be nice if you gave me a shot here.” Violet was pretty sure that French had registered that remark. Otherwise, she probably wouldn’t be standing over her like that, giving her that look.

“What did you say?” French asked as she towered above the woman.

“You got me fired.”

“You’ve got to be kidding!” French laughed. She had a lot of teeth, Violet noted. Perfect teeth. “You were doing a bang-up job in that department way before I stepped in, Norma Rae! Or did you think Phil was going to appoint you as his labor liaison after your little speech? If you think I’d hire you here and have you trying to organize my staff under my nose, you’re cracked, Emma Goldman.”

Violet knew it was a long shot trying to get onto this crew, but she wouldn’t give up that easily. She was about to fire again, when she saw French’s attention had shifted to the door behind her.

“Barbra.” French straightened and gave a nod toward the new arrival. Violet turned to see Barbra Wilkowski, hands crossed over her chest, weight on one foot, regarding the chef. The two of them seemed to be taking stock, sizing each other up.

“French.” Barbra nodded back. “Heard you fired Virginia.”

The sparring had begun, and damn, she was right. How was French to know that in her current state, an overly amorous hostess was going to be as annoying as dealing with a cat in heat? While French had a high tolerance for heat, she had no patience whatsoever for needy animals. It had been her own fault, she’d hired Virginia out of a fondness for tall redheads with fine assets. And she’d fired Virginia after she’d been cornered by the voracious woman in her office, something else it turned out French had no patience for.

Spilt milk. Here was an opportunity to repair the damage and come out ahead. Barbra Wilkowski was the most sought after Hostess on the island and had been loyally devoted to her employer for five years. That is, until the Fisherman’s Prize had burned down the other night and freed her schedule some.

Barbra was a full-time teacher on the island during the off season, and kept working the restaurants long after it had ceased being a necessity. She loved the places, and the opportunity they presented to indulge one of her consuming passions, the study of the human race. Barbra had plenty of offers for work, and she’d actually sworn that she’d never work for that sadist-witch, but she’d witnessed the scene at Phil and Flo’s. It had given her pause.

She knew more about French than most, but not from direct personal experience. In the past several years she’d nursed several friends through some rough times no thanks to the callous and egotistical misadventures of Miss Personality in a chef’s jacket. She’d heard stories recently, and now this. She had to admit, she was curious. And hell, it was only a couple of months.

It took them all of five minutes to iron out the details and French thought she’d made a good deal, when Barbra, as if she’d forgotten something inconsequential added, “Oh, and French, if you want me to work here, she stays.” She gestured to Violet who French had all but forgotten.

“What?!” French balked. Barbra had seemed sane a moment ago.

“You know I’m worth it. Keep her for a week. If she doesn’t work out you can let her go, but if you don’t give her a shot, I’m gone.”

French pursed her lips in thought. She didn’t like this kind of bargain, mainly because she was on the receiving end of it. She weighed the options and given that she could send the fluorescent interloper back to the bush leagues after a week, she made up her mind. Turning to Violet, she said, “Okay Fry, here’s the deal...”


“Excuse me?” French was unaccustomed to being interrupted by staff, prospective staff, or anyone else much.

“My name, it’s Violet Spark.” She offered helpfully.

“Violet...” French cocked her head as if she was considering it, hearing it for the first time. “...Violet...Nope.” She fixed Violet with an appraising eye. “You’re small, like a Fry,” she made an exaggerated sniffing noise. “You sure smell like a Fry...Violet? Nope, it’s Fry. Besides, Fry, Vi, what’s the difference?”

“Violet is my name, that’s the difference.” She explained politely, and smiled as her mother had taught her. Did this woman think she enjoyed “Eau de Shack”? Like she wouldn’t prefer to smell of flowers and sunshine? As if that was remotely possible when you worked in any proximity to grease and fried anything.

“Well Violet,” French pronounced it crisply and pointedly as she leaned over the smaller woman. “Why don’t you go home and shower? Then when you get back, wearing a starched white dress shirt, black slacks, service shoes and deodorant, we’ll see how much like a Fry you are once that smell’s gone? Hmm?”

“Fine.” She agreed. Violet was stubborn, not stupid, she wasn’t pressing her luck. This woman was a class A loon, a real cranked case. She just had to work for her. She shot Barbra a grateful smile, and scooted out the door.

As French got the ball rolling on the evening’s doings, part of her mind drifted. This wasn’t a problem, French could follow three or four trains of thought simultaneously, she was funny that way. It was odd because in the hours leading up to a rush, those various trains of thought were usually focused on the upcoming event, or some machination she was involved in. Not a meal she’d had by chance several years before. French’s mind had a strong logical bent to it. She wasn’t given to moments of nostalgia or dreamy recollection. But here she was, tucked into a corner of her mind, reliving an afternoon a few years back in the French countryside.

She was in the South doing research. On her way into Cannes, she’d gotten a flat. The rental didn’t have a spare and she was off the main drag, so she’d hiked until she came across a small house. She called out to see if there was anyone around who could help. Finally, she found a little old lady and her husband sitting under an arbor in the back. There was the most extraordinary bright, fresh smell emanating from a platter on the table between them. Ah, fresh cheese. As if she were in a fantastical play or Fellini movie, the couple motioned for her to join them.

It was the height of the afternoon on a hot summer day. She’d sweat through her clothes and her feet were aching from the heat radiating off of the sun-baked asphalt. She’d walked for miles. Taking a load off didn’t seem like such a bad idea, and the thought of joining the couple at their snack sealed the deal.

She’d been sampling the region’s wines, stopping in on a few places she’d ferreted out of a trusted distributor. But cheese was never something to pass up, not a specimen of this caliber. You couldn’t buy this kind of thing on the market. This was the kind of prize you had to pry from the rigid and greedy little hands of ancient french women. They spent years hiding their cherished and strictly secret family recipes. French understood these women, they were kindred spirits. She would take her time, having a deep respect for their suspicious and guarded natures, and court them as the Medicis courted a Michelangelo. And before they knew it, those old French ladies were eating out of the palm of an American’s hand and liking it. They couldn’t turn over the stuff fast enough.

French understood that when you couldn’t appeal to a person’s sense of monetary greed, you had to resort to pandering to their pride of practice and inflated ego. This was an eventuality you were much more likely to come across in the countryside and most definitely with an artisan. Those who can’t be bought for money are usually cheaper than those what can, that is, if you had the time and patience. When it came to treasures such as this cheese, it was a worthwhile investment.

She sat with the couple, explaining her predicament, and subtly turning the conversation to the origin of the delicious morsel they offered her. They were a cagey pair. Smiling secretive smiles at each other, exchanging knowing looks and giving her a devilish time all around. When they explained that there wasn’t a garage for miles and the one a town over was closed for the weekend, French thought she might be able to wrangle an invitation for the evening. That’s when the man slipped his aged and gnarled hand into his vest pocket, riffled around and began pulling out odd scraps of paper, some pipe pieces, eventually producing a cell phone. He’d make a call to his nephew, the woman explained, who’d come help French with her car and she’d be on her way in no time.

Those people were good, they’d been playing with her the whole meal. And in time she’d discover it was common for them to lure hapless victims to their table and torture them with the divine cheese and fresh fruits they offered freely, but never shared in bulk. They especially enjoyed matching wits with overzealous restaurateurs, especially the manic Americans, who always seemed obsessed with the idea of obtaining that perfect cheese or wine. French had been an unexpected bonus, not the usual person who had heard of their legendary cheese through the usual culinary channels. What a twisted way of entertaining, French had thought.

So that there were no hard feelings, the old woman wrapped a piece of the cheese and a few figs as well for French to take with her. The nephew showed up, wearing a Nirvana t-shirt and looking like your average American attorney on the weekend. When French tried to ply him for information he laughed. “If you want that cheese, you have to put up with them to get it.”

That’s all he’d say on the matter. He was obviously built of the same stuff as his shrivelled elders, resisting her charms altogether, fixing her car and sending her on her way. French made an effort to see the Grinoise’s on her occasional trips to the region. If she liked anyone, and that was questionable, it was these two master dissemblers, Gilbert and Bibette.

It had been a while since she’d taken one of those trips. Bachanal had served as a defense against drowning in the corporate environment of executive chefdom she’d come to inhabit since her involvement with Mitchell. She managed his prize investment, a national chain of high end hotel restaurants. Not to mention a few clandestine enterprises as well. But that was history. Maybe she’d plan a trip through Southern Europe this fall. Get back to the basics.

How long had it been since she’d had a culinary epiphany? How long since she’d created something unique, her own? Been really excited by an ingredient? Wasn’t that why she’d started all of this in the first place? That thrill for the cuisine had fuelled her at one time. Bachanal had been her attempt to hold on to her roots. But the only thrill she still really had was for the process, the act of execution, cooking. That was something. But she knew there was so much more.

Even as she daydreamed, she worked her station with an unconscious ease and grace. She was “in the zone”. Like an athlete on an endorphin high, the world had clicked into place, all was clear and right. Everything she touched was golden. She coordinated the tools of her trade, working several burners and ovens at once, finishing plates, movin’ it out the door. The evening had begun slow and heated to a fever pitch. Flames danced off the ranges. Orders were flying out, French was barking at Andre to “move that shit off the grill”, used pots and pans flew through the air to land in the sinks with a tremendous splash and hiss as the heated metal groaned with the change of temperature. And this was a slow night, a dress rehearsal for the next two nights when the season officially began. She was in her element. Not even close to the euphoria she’d feel on a busy night, when the pace was staggering, the heat unbearable and the orders a relentless stream of papers flowing from the printer.

If French was enjoying herself “in the zone”, Violet was well out of it, completely lost.

When she’d arrived she was issued with the restaurant’s version of a uniform, a vest, tie, and three quarter length bistro style apron. She thought she looked like the Little Prince in the apron, but who was she to judge? Nobody, if her new coworkers were any indication.

Confusion had set in within the first half hour when she was told that she’d be assisting Miguel and Ken, helping plate their tables and getting used to the layout. Sounded easy enough. Miguel seemed to think she was an uncalled for burden, if not an outright insult to his station, and so he ignored her completely. Ken, who seemed nice enough for an airheaded surfer boy, wasn’t much help either. Every time Ken would look at her she thought she could hear him thinking, “Hey, who’s the new waitress? Oh yeah, the Fry chick, right.” Then he’d smile and wander off.

The upshot of their initial lack of enthusiasm and information was that she was completely overwhelmed and disoriented when business picked up later. All of a sudden she was hot property, being ordered here, there, and just about everywhere to carry this, grab that, stuff the other thing and move it, move it, move it. No one was particularly pleasant or helpful.

Barbra had her own problems as she adjusted to the layout, trying her best to make snap decisions based on limited experience of her new environment. She took the holistic approach to hostessing, considering the party to be seated, the present arrangement of the floor, and who was working which tables. Bachanal had two dining rooms and a bar. Barbra greeted patrons just inside the entrance in a foyer-like open space. She might direct them into the bar on the left if there was a wait, or to their table in either the dining room on the first floor, or the second smaller dining room upstairs.

She knew many of the people that came to the waterfront restaurants. She’d worked them her whole adult life. Those she didn’t recognize she could size up quickly enough. At thirty-eight, she’d seen most kinds, but was still fascinated by them nonetheless. Barbra had made a study of people in general, and restaurant goers in particular. She had a genuine interest in people’s habits and preferences. And from her point of view, she had the perfect job to observe them. For a while she’d toyed with the idea of becoming a therapist, but that would’ve taken the fun out of it.

She tried to throw Violet a supportive glance or smile when they crossed paths in the busy atmosphere. But it didn’t look like the waitress was able to focus beyond the plates being shoved at her, or the quiet commands flying at her from several directions at once. She knew that feeling. Low woman on the totem pole. She didn’t know Violet personally, but this was an island. A gossipy little backwater by any standard going, so she knew plenty about her. And she had the feeling that she’d catch on here in a couple of days and then the fun would begin. The Sparks were known on the island for their quirky approach to life in general, and things just seemed to happen when they were around. Barbra was looking forward to it.

Not that she couldn’t count on French to provide her with good material. So far, in her brief stops in the kitchen, she’d seen the chef running it in the usual loud and crass manner she’d come to expect in restaurant kitchens. She wasn’t the least bit surprised to hear a stream of profanity and obscenity flowing from the intense and beautiful woman’s mouth. There weren’t many women who survived the overtly sexist and raunchy sexual environment of most professional kitchens unless they were twice as foul mouthed, tough or plain mean.

What was surprising in French’s kitchen was the lack of banter returned the chef’s way. While there were plenty of the usual noises in there, snappy repartee was not among them. It was eerie to Barbra who was used to a rowdy kitchen crew with a lot of teasing that was rarely kind, but usually funny as hell. It provided a good release valve for the incredible tensions that built up during a busy shift.

The major fear that preyed upon the minds of most kitchen crew was losing the flow. A restaurant kitchen is a place of movement. Everything had to move, move, move. A lot of things conspired against it. It was a constant battle to keep everything in order, and moving out the door to satisfy the hungry public. If a combination of somethings went wrong at the same time, a kitchen could be brought to a grinding halt. There was no way to recover once that happened.

This possibility struck terror into the hearts of otherwise heartless professionals. A little cursing went a long way to diffuse the anxiety that lurked in the back of their minds. That pressure was a lot to deal with, many people cracked under it all of the time. Barbra tucked this observation away for further study and got onto the business at hand.

Violet couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so out of sorts. She was dizzy from the nonstop turning and darting about she’d been doing the entire evening. It wasn’t like she hadn’t worked a busy dining room before, but the two waiters she was helping seemed to be undermining her at every turn. One on purpose, the other by dint of personality. Maybe it was the same difference, she was too tired to tell.

She’d almost died when Miguel had approached her in the kitchen and without a word had snapped a napkin out of thin air, wetted it in some water and removed a spot of sauce from her tie. She saw him flash a smile at French who laughed and continued to juggle equipment at a breakneck pace. She’d wanted to dive down the laundry chute in her embarrassment.

Mercifully the pace slowed at 11:30. Violet, whom everyone in the restaurant had begun to call “Fry”, caught her breath. This did nothing to relieve the aching in her feet and back. She’d been up since six that morning. She’d worked the lunch shift at the Shack, before landing this new gig. She was done in and ready to crash, but the fun was just beginning. Clean up was next and she’d bet the crown jewels that the two characters she’d spent the night being jerked between would dematerialize into thin air. At the stoke of midnight, as if they’d read her thoughts, they were nowhere to be found. She heaved a sigh and got to it.

Continued in Chapter 5.

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