Written / Cooking On High


Chapter 5

The weekend arrived and raced on. Boatloads of tourists landed by the minute. From their agitated and desperate behavior at the docks you’d think the ferry ride from the mainland was an Atlantic crossing, without sea rations. They were impatient to start relaxing and having a good time. They fairly bristled with the anticipation of it.

Fry had finally gotten into the swing of things at Bachanal. She’d given up on her birth name at work, even Barbra had slipped up a couple of times before Violet gave in and accepted the nickname.

Miguel’s not so silent campaign to undermine her best efforts continued. Why did it seem that he was there every time she had so much as a hair out of place? Didn’t the man have tables of his own, darn it! He didn’t always say something sharp or judgmental, sometimes he just laughed, sniffed or raised an eyebrow - he was loads of help. He noticed the smallest slip, the slightest misstep and god forbid she misplace an order on a table! With a wicked turn of phrase he would mention her latest faux pas, usually in front of French.

Luckily, no one could deny the good cheer and increased ordering at the tables that Fry waited. A couple of regulars had asked to be seated at her tables if she was on that shift. That kind of thing got noticed.

Barbra told her to ignore Miguel. He was doing what he did best. Being French’s lap dog. She said that no one would accept her until she’d earned it under fire, or until there was new meat to tenderize. What was wrong with these people she wondered? Weren’t their priorities skewed just a little? They were working a restaurant after all, not doing famine relief or peace keeping duty in some war-torn region.

Few of the staff were natives. For the most part it was a crew of people French had recruited from off of the island or culled from other restaurants who’d done the same thing. Most of the kitchen staff were a mix of European and Central American descent, most of the floor staff were North Easterners. All had had experience in high end restaurants of one flavor or another. Barbra assured her that this would be a tough bunch to crack.

Juan, one of the dishwashers, was the only person other than Barbra who’d talk to her. He responded to her hellos and they’d talked about family and the weather. It wasn’t much comradery to go on in the rushing and hectic environment. Still, there was an energy in the place that Fry picked up on and began to feed off of. A lively, pulsing energy. It flowed throughout the atmosphere, and was concentrated in the kitchen, where it’s source worked relentlessly.

Even though Fry tried to fly under the radar whenever she was in the kitchen, she couldn’t help watching French on the sly. She’d already determined that getting caught in the whirlwind of energy that surrounded the chef and her crew was a bad idea. Yet they all had to go in to pick up orders, and you had to dash through to get to the breakroom down the back hall. She’d heard French ruin more than one waitperson’s shift who’d gotten in the way or who she perceived was guilty of some minor infraction. Terrorizing waitstaff appeared to be a favorite past-time for the caustic chef.

All the same, you couldn’t help being awed. The same instinct that told you that a novel was great, a painting timeless, an event historical, screamed that you were in the presence of something special when you watched French work. Her talent shined. And the busier it got, the more focused she became. Every now and again, when all of the stations were going at full tilt and an especially demanding order would come in on top of the mayhem, French would let out a peal of spine chilling laughter, start issuing commands and somehow begin to move more fluidly and efficiently. Unconsciously aware of her space, her tools, and the all important timing required for each piece of the ever changing puzzle. The quality of the food never suffered. If the raves of the sated and ecstatic patrons was anything to go by, it was somehow better.

It was never as exciting when Brian, the sous-chef was running the kitchen. An essential spark was missing. All six feet of it.

On the couple of occasions French had made command performances in one of the dining rooms, she’d drawn all attention. She was tall enough without the toque on her head, but wearing it, she was giant. Like a social chameleon, her energy softened as she left the kitchen and entered the public arena. While she could be charming, she never fawned or seemed anything less than a visiting dignitary inquiring into the well being of her dearest, foreign friends. She maintained distance, yet gave the impression of intimacy. And the moment she was behind those heavy, leather swinging doors to the kitchen, she was shouting commands and bristling at the demanding and presumptuous public.

Her senses were truly uncanny. Like many a great artist she was given to a dramatic flair and apparent flights of fancy. One afternoon, while waiting for a salad, Fry’d seen French come to a complete standstill at her station. She’d tilted her head as if listening closely to something, though what she could hear over the machinery and bustle was anyone’s guess. She’d briskly rounded the island, donned a toque, and swept out the kitchen door. Many of them exchanged confused glances. The experienced crew stepped in to keep the flow going, more accustomed to the quixotic moods of their boss. Fry picked up her salad and made for the dining room. She saw French in the hall talking quietly to Miguel. As she passed she heard French murmur the mysterious phrase ‘Code Blue, I love you.’ Curiouser and curiouser.

It wasn’t until Barbra approached her and explained that Miguel would be taking one of her tables, that she got the story. According to French, who seemed to have a screw loose this afternoon as far as Barbra could tell, the frumpy middle-aged woman Miguel was at that very moment giving the royal treatment to, was none other than Rachel Booth, food critic for the Times of New York. Fry had begun to think that Barbra might be right. French had this exaggerated paranoiac streak that just wasn’t healthy and couldn’t be grounded in reality. If someone wasn’t out to get her, then they were plotting it and she just hadn’t heard about it yet. Fry doubted that anyone could have that many industrious enemies, even the much storied chef.

Weren’t they all surprised two days later when an article was found pinned to the kitchen’s bulletin board. A stellar review for Bachanal in the Times of New York. Curiouser indeed.

Fry recognized many of the patrons who came through that week. She didn’t know them personally, she’d seen them around town, or in the newspaper. It didn’t seem that French’s stint in jail had done her restaurant any harm. If anything, it was good for business. Wasn’t anyone concerned that there may have been a murder, and that French, while a highly unlikely suspect in this case, may have killed someone? Didn’t that usually effect your social standing in some way? Not if the number of requests for the chef in the dinning rooms was any indication.

While Fry wasn’t complaining, she did think it odd. As it turned out, Louisa Millet had died of an allergic reaction to something she’d eaten. It was tragic. It was also a natural cause of death. The problem arose with the half-eaten pastry that they’d found. A small chocolate confection like one they served at Bachanal. But why were there cashews in it Fry had wondered? It wasn’t an outlandish idea to put them in, but it wasn’t the first ingredient you’d reach for to include in something like that. At least she wouldn’t. You probably wouldn’t suspect they’d be in there if you were allergic. Or if you’d eaten the same thing before. And the fact that they’d only found traces of an extract, not the whole nuts, when they’d analyzed the pastry made the whole thing seem doubly peculiar to Fry. Not to mention the fact that anyone who’d ever been within earshot of Louisa knew that she was allergic to cashews, if they’d lasted through the macrobiotic lecture. The police dismissed the whole affair as a freak accident.

It wouldn’t be the first time nasty doings had been brushed under the rug in the interest of tourist dollars. Who wanted to vacation on an island with a murderer on the loose? Best to just forget it, right? Nothing like messing with the almighty dollar. And while she was aware that she may have been prone to jump to conclusions in the past, especially where the police were concerned, she had a feeling in her gut that something wasn’t right.

The entirety of French’s discourse on the matter had been, “Macrobiotic my ass!”

The chef was preoccupied by something to do with the zoning board. Fry had heard her shout into the phone in her office, “And this leaves me where exactly with the freakin’ zoning zombies?” But she needn’t have worried, out of respect for Louisa the board would postpone the vote for at least a couple of months. That gave her plenty of time.

Fry was too busy to give anything much more than a passing thought. She was running ragged trying to live up to the impossibly high standards French exacted from all in her company. She’d been hustling to plate an especially large table when French called her over to her station in the kitchen. Fry looked up into those intense and commanding eyes, noticing the clean chiseled features of her face were glistening with a fine layer of sweat. It was about 110 degrees in front of the range where the chef stood. French leaned over and smiled one of her less pleasant smiles. Okay, it was a sneer, and said, “Fry, we don’t do the slacker thing here. Go to the break room and look in the mirror. And when you’ve fixed that little problem, I want you to reflect on something for me. How is it that you walked through that door two hours ago in a pressed shirt and now it looks like you’ve been wrestling Andre in the walk-in fridge?”

Fry turned and made for the break room. She wanted to run, but a vaguely remembered warning about running from wild animals flitted through her mind. She also wanted to cry, but she wasn’t giving anyone the satisfaction. She was tired, this work was hell.

Looking in the mirror, she combed the unruly strands of her blond hair back, fixing her pony tail. She wondered how they did it. How could they keep their clothes so darned neat throughout the shift? And Miguel, he almost looked more pressed at the end of a shift than at the beginning. Where was the sweat, the wrinkles, the dirt? And did French have to yell at her in front of everyone like that? What was her problem anyway? And while Andre was nice enough, he wasn’t her type.

She was accustomed to the bawdy remarks that were commonplace in kitchens. Usually, people left her out of it, or teased her less harshly. Most places all it took was a word or a comment and it stopped. Otherwise, she left. She needed money for school, but she’d only put up with so much. She’d have to have a chat with French. She wasn’t looking forward to it. She wanted this job bad. If things went well, she could work less during the semester and really focus on her thesis.

The week came to an end. Fry had done a fair job getting through without too many mishaps. French had scheduled her during the day mostly, but had given her a couple of busy night shifts as well. This looked to be her last. The chef had eyed her a few times that night and Fry had gotten a sinking feeling. Still, she busted butt the whole shift, and was still at it through cleanup, when it happened. Carrying a fully loaded tray of crystal, she passed French in the kitchen. The chef was finished for the night and on her way to her office. As French rounded the corner, she was brought up short by a tremendous crashing noise as 38 crystal wine glasses met their maker. The noise was followed by complete silence. She rounded the corner in reverse and saw Fry sprawled on the floor, broken crystal everywhere, employees frozen in place staring at either the waitress, or her. She noticed a slick patch on the floor that ran from near Fry’s feet to the space under the dishwasher rack shelving. She looked at the dishwashers Juan and Max, who were turning blue from holding their breath, and motioned for them to help Fry up.

Fry had frozen more from fear of the anticipated outburst, than worry about cuts, or the expensive mistake she’d just made. She was sure French was behind her, the tension in the room was palpable. She heard the quiet words that boded worse than any yell, “Fry, my office, now.” She wondered if she should explain that she hadn’t seen the empty dish rack in her path until too late. But the fact that it was gone when she’d stood up, and the wide eyed look of terror on Juan’s face as she’d turned to go, dismissed the idea.

She entered the small office behind French. Strangely, she missed the imposing woman already. She knew she’d given this place her best shot, and just now, there wasn’t any fight left in her. Resigned to her fate, she slumped onto the couch facing French’s desk.

French sat opposite Fry and considered the small woman. “You alright?”

“Yeah, look I’m sorry about the crystal, you can take it out of my pay. And I’ll come by Thursday to pick it up.”

French gave a slight smile and nod. Fry thought, “Figures. I’m toast here so I may as well get in my two cents.”

To French she said, “You know, I worked my butt off this week and I thought I did a darn good job. You and this tightly knit group of pirates just can’t accept that a townie can hack it in your little fiefdom. I did a straight up job, but you were going to fire me no matter what, weren’t you?”

French looked at her a moment. “What if I told you, before the crash, I had considered keeping you on? What if I said, ‘Fry, you kicked ass this week. You’re the kind of mettle we need in this operation. If it hadn’t been for that monumental screw up at the eleventh hour, you had a chance.’ What if I said that to you?”

This was just too much. Not only did Fry have to suffer the humiliation of the last week’s trial, not to mention falling flat on her face in front of the entire kitchen, there had never been a real chance of getting the job. She could see that. Now she was being taunted, or possibly baited, by the big, albeit fascinating and gorgeous, jerk. “Look, I don’t know what you’re up to here. If you don’t want me on the team, fine, I’m not on. I don’t want to play some nasty mind game at midnight, when I’m banged up, exhausted and had it up to here with the twisted behavior that passes for normal in this place. I’m fired, I get the picture!” She stood and turned to leave.

She paused with her hand on the doorknob when French began to speak, “On your way out, would you tell Juan to make sure he pulls that dishrack back out from under the shelves where Max kicked it after you fell? And be in by four thirty tomorrow, Barbra’s going to need help getting the upstairs ready for the Bridgman party. It’s going to take a while.”

Fry had the door open and was halfway through it when the words registered. She turned to look at the chef who was sorting papers on her desk, absorbed in the next order of business. Fry watched her for a second, then slammed the door behind her as she stormed out.

She was exasperated to the core. She wasn’t going to put up with this treatment for one more minute, much less the rest of the summer. French could take her impossible standards, her job, and her unreasonable, demanding self and forget it. Just because she had some talent and ran the place didn’t mean she could be so insensitive. Fry was out of here, as of now, as of this very minute. And she may have even meant it if she didn’t already have a hopeless crush on the inscrutable woman.

She cringed as she acknowledged the truth. She’d fought it tooth and nail, feeling shallow and hypocritical as she began to lust after the taciturn chef. How could she be attracted to such a remorseless capitalist? Was it just her looks? French was as bad, if not infinitely worse, than others she’d worked for. Fry had harbored some illusion that a woman, no matter how hardened by circumstance, would be more fair running a kitchen. Not so. French expected everyone to work up to exceptionally high standards, in return they got a decent paycheck, true, but no health care, no say in their schedule, and they were expected to work at a breakneck pace with no encouragement and less support. And they did it anyway. There was something in the woman that made you strive for her approval even though it was certain you’d get nothing more than your paycheck in return.

There was something else she’d glimpsed in the chef’s curt and exacting manner. Something fleeting, yet magnetic nonetheless. It wasn’t just her looks.

Maybe she was so infuriated because, despite everything, she knew she’d be back tomorrow. And French knew it too. Darn her.

French sat staring at the papers on her desk. She hadn’t wanted Fry to stay. She’d thought that the trial by fire method would have burned the cheerful, ‘we the people’, proletariat loving pipsqueak up and out in a couple of days. The staff had followed French’s cue and given her the cold shoulder, even though it was clear that most of them liked Fry. She’d hung in, carried her weight and more. In this business, that was what got you “in”, earned you stripes. Even once she realized Fry could cut the mustard, she’d tried to dissuade her from staying.

She’d gotten a good look at herself recently. She’d never considered that by changing she’d become a nice person. Not being an evil bitch was more the standard she’d come to embrace. When she thought about some of her more colorful exploits, her less savory moments, she wasn’t sure how she was supposed to accomplish this without being a complete hypocrite.

At Phil and Flo’s she’d gotten an inkling of how it could be done. How she could prevent herself from imploding and possibly use some of her more aggressive tendencies to do something positive. And most important, move forward. Don’t ask her to repeat the performance though, because she wasn’t sound on the mechanics of how it had worked, exactly.

She’d gotten an initial thrill off the encounter and settled pretty quickly back into her usual modus opperandi, feeling that she’d earned at least a week off for good behavior. But as the week progressed, something had changed. Something small. Something blonde.

This evening was a case in point. She had tested Fry. She hadn’t meant it as a mind game, but she did want to see how she’d react. Knowing how badly Fry desired the job, French wanted to see how she’d explain the accident. She’d been on those two to keep that walkway clear, and had no doubt Fry had run into something that tripped her up. The telltale trail of water had clued her into the dishrack. She’d set up the conversation, given the waitress the perfect opportunity to blame it on someone else. After all someone else did share the blame, right? Sure, it’d been less than nice, but she needed to know if Fry was for real.

She hadn’t expected Fry’s response would make her feel like a jerk. What’s more, Fry had surprised her. Again. This was an uncommon experience for French, who hated surprises on principal and did everything she could to avoid them. She’d observed Fry on several occasions, when she’d pitched in to help surly waitstaff and bus kids, and seen her disarm them with a simple gesture. She might even combine a gentle smile with a light touch or a word or two. It took the turncoat waitron a minute to remember that they were fraternizing with the enemy, the shunned, before they’d retreat to a more comfortable distance and resume a studied aloofness.

Fry was good. Not in the adversarial sense, she was a good person. As in a person who put the well being of others before themselves kind of good. But strangely, she didn’t take any shit either. French wasn’t completely sure this warmhearted spunk wasn’t the result of a deficit in brain power. Fry seemed bright enough though. She remembered her orders, could repeat the specials on first hearing and actually knew what béchamel was.

Mostly, people sensed that French wasn’t the kind of tough boss who respected someone standing up to her. Actually, after they heard her reaction the first time, she figured they were suicidal if they tried it again. But there was Fry, sitting in her office, frazzled, exhausted, telling her where to stick it. Not her words exactly, but the sentiment was clear enough.

From French’s vaulted perspective, waitstaff were a mere convenience. Either to carry food, gather intel, or to entertain her baser needs in the stock room. Possibly even to warm her bed. Not to waste actual time paying anything but the scarcest attention to. And certainly not to gain anything so important as an insight from. Oh, how the mighty had fallen. The insult, the chagrin. She had something to learn from a townie waitress. She could hear Hercule snickering all the way from New York. Damn Frenchman.

The idea of keeping Fry on at Bachanal left her with an uneasy feeling. One of those new experiences she’d come to dislike so thoroughly, yet endured like a foul tasting medication. It wasn’t exposing Fry to the kitchen environment that disturbed her. Fry wasn’t some delicate flower, no shrinking Violet she. It was something about exposing someone who exuded her brand of simple goodness to what French, herself, was capable of, to what she had been, that made her uncomfortable. Was this shame? Was this why she’d tried to shake Fry loose, why she’d given her the cold shoulder? She was only a waitress for christ sakes, why was she so wound up about her? French snorted with disgust. The other problem with changing was the amount of mental chit-chat she had to put up with.

Continued in Chapter 6.

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