Written / Cooking On High


Chapter 9

French and Barbra were standing at the podium inside the entrance of Bachanal. They were discussing the seating arrangement for the evening. Despite the late night of breaking and entering, French’s mood passed for tolerable. A young woman walked through the door and looked around. She smiled at them and asked if Violet was there.

Barbra was about to respond when French asked, “Who?”

Barbra rolled her eyes. “She means Fry. Sure, I’ll get her.”

French shrugged and went back to looking over the seating. She took a glance at Fry’s sporty, co-ed friend. She wasn’t bad looking. If she’d shave her legs and loose the Israeli army-issue, desert sandles, she might even pass for attractive. The loose print dress was nice though. From a strictly aesthetic point of view. That was the only view available to French these days. She hadn’t felt anything remotely resembling a sexual urge in months.

Fry walked up and Barbra returned to the podium. She was going to ask French another question, but the chef was facing the other direction, arms folded, watching Fry and her friend.

Fry hadn’t expected Alyssa to drop by at work. It was uncomfortable standing there trying to act casual with your boss breathing down your back. She was sure visiting wasn’t considered time well spent by staff. But she wasn’t chattel and she’d done a double that week, worked late twice and skipped her break last night during a tremendous rush. She was going to finish this conversation. Unmolested. She turned to face her boss. “Do you mind? I’ll only be a second or two.”

“Hey, I’m paying for this conversation.” French hadn’t realized she was hovering, but damned if she’d let on.

“Fine.” Fry fished in her pocket and pulled out a crumpled dollar. She handed it to the chef. “The phone company charges 35 cents, I figure that ought to cover it.”

French shrugged and pocketed the bill. She gave Alyssa a wink, mostly because she figured it’d piss Fry off more, and turned back to her work.

Barbra would have laughed if French wasn’t standing next to her drumming her fingers on the podium. She also wondered why Fry was still standing there and not getting bum-rushed into the dining room to finish set up. Were things getting interesting?

The rest of the morning went well, considering one of the delivery trucks had had a flat. French nearly gave the driver a coronary for not calling in to let her know. Other than that, the crowd was cheerful and Fry had gotten an excellent tip from a patron who’d liked her ‘accent’. As far as she knew, she didn’t have one, but he kept saying, ‘Y’all’r so kyute. I just luv the way ya say ‘feesh’. It took her a second to realize he meant ‘fish’. And at the end of the meal when he’d requested to see the chef, you could have knocked her over with a feather when French came into the dining room to talk to him. He was a chef that French knew from New Orleans.

People came from all over to eat at Bachanal. Fry had known that from her first few days working there. Hearing accents in a New England tourist town wasn’t unusual. But when you heard them in Bachanal, chances were they’d come to Comstock for the food. French’s food. It had seemed weird at first. Why would anyone come from New York, Chicago, San Francisco and even, Europe, just to eat at a restaurant? After all, she’d heard they had a chef or two in those places. The more time you spent around the food, the atmosphere, the woman, you caught on.

Each night at five the wait staff would line up in the kitchen and French would drill the night’s specials into their heads. She covered every angle. What complimented them, what certainly didn’t and then the tasting plate. As much as Fry was over French, she’d never get over the food. That tasting plate was an inspired minute of gastronomy. Time slowed for Fry as she reveled in the myriad flavors and sensations. Then French would inevitably freak out at Ken or Eddy, the other waiter who was slow on the uptake, and Fry would be snapped back to reality.

French was a complicated woman. This much was clear. She was as crass as any short order cook Fry’d ever had the honor to shuffle grits for, but sophisticated and charming when the occasion called for it. As far as Fry could tell, she reserved these genteel facets of her personality for the dining room. Like a mask she put on and peeled off as she moved through the doors of her establishment. Fry mused that perhaps it wasn’t so much which door that mattered, as who was on the other side of it.

But why spend all of this time thinking about a woman she wasn’t the least bit interested in? Especially when Alyssa Henderson had stopped by? When she’d run into her on the street a couple of days ago she hadn’t expected she’d seriously look her up. Alyssa’s family had rented a place on Appian Street for part of the summer. It was supposed to be a ‘last summer together’, before she moved to D.C. to start law school.

They’d been in a couple of government classes together and been involved in the campus group that protested at the Republican convention in Philidelphia. At school, Fry was always busy and didn’t have much time to hang out with other students.

Not that she had loads of free time now, but she’d try to make some. Bobby and Jen were going to the party Alyssa had invited her to, maybe she’d go after all. She’d liked Alyssa. She cared about things that really mattered. She was a real person with whom she shared ideals and goals. Not a crazed restaurant lifer, who spent the balance of her time obsessing over edible garnishes and table lint.

Fry had to admit that she didn’t mind that French wasn’t ignoring her anymore. It was clear that the chef was undergoing some momentous transformation. With such a volatile personality, who could say how such a transformation would turn out? Whatever the outcome, Fry hoped she gained some insight and peace. Because lord knew, that woman needed to relax. There was such a turbulent undercurrent around French. Fry could see that it caused her great unease. Not to mention what it did to her staff.

She was still going strong at 9:00 PM when she got a table of five. They were a slick looking group and seemed in a good mood. She went through the specials and asked if they’d like anything to start. She was disconcerted when one of them smiled and said, “Well, you’ll do just fine.” He was in his early forties, wearing a crisp Armani jacket and turtle neck. He was thin, but looked like a cut out from a men’s clothing magazine. She didn’t care for his smile. It had a reptilian quality to it. While that look was super on lizards and snakes, it didn’t do much for him.

“Nigel, behave. If you can’t play well with others, ‘you know who’ will probably string you off her deck.” A couple of the others chuckled. The woman gave her a warm smile and a conspiratorial wink. It was faint, but Fry detected a British accent. She had a light tone to her voice and a friendly face. A lovely face. She had well defined features and notable red eyebrows that matched the color of her flowing hair. Fry wasn’t sure, but she could be in her mid-forties. French made sure the lighting in this room made age less of an issue for her diners. Her clothes were simple, with a few colorful accents. As long as she could keep her rowdier friends in line, and it looked like she could, they’d probably be fun.

After seeing to her other tables, Fry had returned to the table of five and taken all of the orders, but one. The striking woman had commented on everyone’s choice, even insisting they change it if she thought it wasn’t ‘just the thing’. It seemed to be a game they were all familiar with and enjoyed. Fry asked what she’d like.

“Let me see...” She looked at Fry, not the menu. “I think I’ll have a chicken fried steak, pork rinds, don’t hold the katsup and a chocolate syrup shooter.”

Fry blinked. “I’m sorry ma’am, but that’s not on the menu this evening.” She didn’t look it, but this woman must be pregnant.

“I know. It never will be.” She reached out and patted Fry’s hand. The smile that lit up her face made it clear that this was all a game and it’d be even more fun if she joined in. “Ask her. Surely a special request is allowed from time to time.”

Fry returned to the kitchen. She’d placed the rest of the orders through the machine, and approached French to deliver the peculiar request.

“Well, what’s your problem? All your tables free? Dropping in for a chat?” All the time French talked, she was in motion. Not that she socialized in the kitchen, but whatever else she did always seemed secondary to the culinary task at hand. “Sure must be nice to have long breaks like you. Maybe I ought to use you in here half the time too.”

“Um, someone has a special request.”

“One of your vegan friends drop by? Don’t tell me your parents are here?” French gave her a wink.

Was that humor? Fry tried to repress a smile at the light barb. She was only half successful and ended up giving French a half smile, smirky look.

“No, someone asked for...” And she told her.

When French stopped moving, you noticed. She raised an eyebrow. Then shouted, “Chili, throw me the Chamboard squeeze bottle.” Chili obliged. Though he wasn’t happy with anyone touching his stuff. They were all like that.

French placed an empty plate on her station and began to cover it in elaborate scroll work and flowing script using the sauce from the squeeze bottle. She handed the plate to Fry. “Give that to Madame.”

Fry looked down at the elaborate, but blunt missive. In all it’s finery, it said no more than, ‘Bite Me.’

“To that nice lady?” she asked.

“Ha! That’s the last character judgement I ever take from you! Now move it.”

Fry returned to the table. She placed the plate before the woman, who let out a rich peel of laughter. And stood up. Fry wondered when she’d stop. With the woman seated she hadn’t noticed her height. She had to be over six feet, taller than French even. The woman took her by the shoulder and led her away from the table. “You’re a great sport. Now where’s that viper’s nest?”

French was ready when Julia walked through the kitchen door. Seeing her with Fry was kind of weird, but she didn’t have time to examine her feelings. Julia was a good reminder why having feelings could be a very dangerous enterprise in the first place.

Julia released the waitress and thanked her graciously. She looked at French who hadn’t stopped working and was studiously ignoring her.

“Darling, I couldn’t stay away! Forgive me for interrupting the Maestro, but I was out front and had to come in and say hello. I knew you wouldn’t come see me.” French gave her a wry glance, but kept moving.

Julia approached her. If she hadn’t been threatened with the knife up to this point, it was probably safe.

“I see you’re still using Davvio’s design. So efficient.” Julia glanced around the bustling space. “It’s a delightful place. Such an intimate setting. We’re having a wonderful time.” She wasn’t getting much in the way of a response, but she could see she had the chef’s attention. The small part of it she spared for anything outside of her favorite obsession.

“What’s the matter? Aren’t you glad to see me?” She placed both hands on the counter and leaned in.

“I recall the last time I saw you, you weren’t especially pleased with me.” French wasn’t going to stop work. Whatever Julia was playing at, it wasn’t worth her time. “As a matter of fact, the last thing you said to me was, ‘If you dropped dead this minute I wouldn’t miss one thing about you, not even the food.’”

“That’s an impressive memory you’ve got there. But I shouldn’t be surprised. You were remarkable in so many ways. And she was my secretary, that kind of thing is bound to wrankle. Anyway, it’s been years. I forgive you. And I lied, I would have missed the food. Now let’s be friends again. I’m here for the summer and I thought it would be a good idea to let you know. And to see if you were with me or against me. Because if you were harboring hard feelings, I know it could get ugly.”

French just smiled, it was safer. Julia could stroke your ego, threaten and entrap you in the same breath.

“Good! We’re all friends again. The Senator will be pleased. He sends his regards. I’ll be having a party in a couple of weeks, and I’ll have Nigel send an invite. Oh that’s right, you never cared for him. Have a great night and make me whatever you think is best. I’m sure you remember my favorites.”

For the first time, French wished she’d had shark on the menu. It was the only dish she thought appropriate. She had to remind herself that it wasn’t Julia who’d screwed up all those years ago. Julia walked into a storeroom French was enjoying a quick break in, with the aforementioned secretary. In a rare fit of morals, Julia claimed to have become disgusted with French’s “depraved nature” and threw her out of her life.

Of course, this had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact Julia had also discovered that French had helped to undermine The Grande, her favorite hotel/restaurant. It had been in her family’s business for over 50 years. The fact that Julia’s father had asked French to do it had no mitigating effect on the irate and inconsolable woman. Bad timing all around. She hadn’t made that mistake again. Getting caught, that is.

Julia and her family had been her entree into the world of exclusive hotel kitchens. Fourteen years her senior and born into the business, Julia knew it inside out and helped French fill in some of the blanks. Julia knew talent, and admired French’s single minded determination.

Julia spent her time divided between her interests in England and the States. Her U.S. interests were consolidated in the person of Jay Harding. Senator Jay Harding, her husband of twenty-three years. He was the squeaky-clean representative of the people of Connecticut. French had often wondered at the irony in their relationship.

Jay, who’d been handed his position in life, was a decent guy. If he’d had to fight harder for it, he might not be so squeaky. Yet he and Julia had a mutual understanding and respect for each other, and their backgrounds. They were the luxuried rich, and the working rich.

Leaving Julia hadn’t been in the plan back then. The best moves rarely are. She stepped away and up the next rung on the culinary ladder and hadn’t looked back.

Looking back was a tricky business. For French the experience was akin to vertigo. These days. Her past resembled a dark pit she’d managed to surface from. She wished she could fill it in, but knew the futility of it. If you could throw a penny down there, you weren’t likely to be awake when it hit bottom.

Continued in Chapter 10.

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