Authors: Barbara O'Neal
He skimmed the jacket from his shoulders. “I don’t think it’s me.”
A woman held up the newspaper and pointed to the picture. She waved, smiling. “Oh,” Elena said, pleased. She waved back.
“Your first taste of fame?”
She thought of long ago, the New Mexico newspapers. But that had been more notoriety than fame, so dark and heavy she’d had to flee to escape it. “In a way,” she said, then shifted her attention back to him. “But you’re no stranger to it, are you?”
“I am not usually recognized for myself,” he said, “but for the wives I have unwisely collected.”
His rueful straightforwardness disarmed her, and Elena laughed, the sound shaking loose from some rusty place in her chest. His wives were tabloid fodder, starlets who began their careers in the teen slasher flicks that had made him his fortune. Restaurants were a sideline. Celebrity owners were not always the most adept, but Julian Liswood had earned the respect of the press and—harder to capture—his workforce. The Blue Turtle was the third he’d opened to spectacular success.
Elena said, “They have been rather beautiful wives, as I recall.”
“Well, you know what they say: never marry a girl prettier than you.”
She thought, with a pang, of Dmitri. “Been there.”
“Hard to imagine.”
“Oh, believe me—” She almost said,
there have been so many men,
but that would have been too frank. Outside, rain began to splat against the window. She shivered slightly. Pulling her cup toward her, she said, “Now, tell me, Mr. Liswood, what do you have in mind?”
“Please call me Julian.”
“I’ll try. Julian.”
He took his time, stirring a lump of rough brown sugar into his coffee with a tiny spoon. His oval nails were manicured, and she wondered what kind of man had time for something like that. But of course, in his world, the veneer of such details would be required. She envisioned a cocktail party sparkling with beautiful people, manned by obsequious servers. It made her nervous.
Finally, he put down the spoon and tapped the newspaper on the table beside him. “You have strong views of the restaurant business.”
“Are you waiting for me to apologize for it?” she asked. “I’ve been in kitchens for nearly twenty years. I’m tired of holding my tongue.”
Amusement flickered over his mouth. “Not at all. I’m intrigued.”
She took a breath. “Sorry. I might be a little testy just this minute. It’s never fun to be fired.”
“No.” He leaned back as the server, a young woman in a tan oxford shirt and black pants, approached. She was dewy and lean, with a smile that could bring in a lot in tips. She was also slightly messy and Elena wanted to brush her off, tell her to tuck her shirt in and iron her blouse next time.
Instead, she listened as the girl explained the buffet, and exchanged a slight smile with Julian. No one in the restaurant business ate at a buffet if it could be avoided. “I’d like the asparagus omelet,” Elena said. “Fruit instead of potatoes, please, and a glass of grapefruit juice.”
“I’ll have the mushroom omelet,” he said, handing her the menu. “Potatoes with mine, and a glass of milk instead of grapefruit juice.”
As she departed, Julian said, “You may know that the Blue Turtle is not my only restaurant.”
“Of course.” There were three in a line down the west coast. Vancouver, San Francisco, and San Diego. “I worked as a line cook, then was promoted to sous chef at the Yellow Dolphin.”
“Yes. I know.”
There was a soft fall, a short pause. “Expensive hobby, restaurants,” Elena said into it.
“It’s more than a hobby, actually.” The words were mild, but Elena reminded herself that he was a man with considerable power and influence. Who was probably going to offer her a job if she could keep the chip off her shoulder. Or at least hidden.
“Sorry. That was rude.”
One side of his mouth lifted in a half-smile. “Don’t apologize. It’s true that I don’t have the background you do, but I didn’t choose restaurants by accident. I love the business—bringing together a chef and a location and a direction and a staff and seeing what happens.”
“You’ve been very successful.”
“By trial and error. The Purple Tuna—are you familiar with it? In San Diego?”
“It failed twice.” He grinned. “Luckily, enough cash will hide a multitude of sins.”
Elena was surprised into a laugh. “Is it successful now?”
“Yes. I kept changing the dynamic until it worked.”
“Staff. Menu.” He met her eyes. “Chef. The location is brilliant, and the building is beautiful. It took three years to get the rest of it right.”
Letting go of a long whistle, she said, “That’s a long time to keep a restaurant afloat. Why bother?”
“It’s a puzzle. I don’t like to give up until it fits together.”
She thought of the many, many elements that went into the success of a restaurant—menu, food, ordering, cash flow, décor and presentation, and most important, staff, front and back, all those personalities, often very high strung. “Very complicated puzzle.”
Leaning forward, he shook his hair off his brow and said, “Tell me, Elena, what are your five favorite foods?”
She tamped down a sense of anxiety. Was this a test? “Hmm. Favorite everyday dishes? Or favorite restaurant dishes? Or what?”
“Five best things you’ve ever eaten, anywhere.”
She considered. In the service area, someone loaded hot glasses into a rack. Outside, a breeze coaxed ripples into the satiny surface of the ripening bay. She narrowed her eyes and chose honesty. “My grandmother’s homemade tamales, fresh out of the steamer. A cup of hot chocolate I drank in a restaurant by the Louvre in Paris. A plate of blue-corn cheese enchiladas with green chile in Santa Fe.” That was three. She paused, letting others bubble up. “A bowl of buttered squashes at a museum restaurant. And—” she sucked in a breath and snatched one of the hundreds swirling up, “a roasted garlic soup, in New Orleans.” She brought her focus back to Julian’s face. “I’ve been trying for years to reproduce that soup and still don’t know why it was so spectacular.”
She sipped her tea. “Now you.”
“Of course.” His eyes, she noticed, were not just brown, they were blackest black. It made him seem wise. “A plate of roasted lamb in New Zealand, made by a housewife who put us up when our car broke down.”
“Oh, I forgot lamb! I love lamb.”
“That was one. Two was a strudel our next-door neighbor used to make, back when I was a kid.” He held up a third finger. “A bowl of green chile in a greasy spoon in New Mexico. Espanola, as it happens.”
She raised her eyebrows—she’d mentioned Espanola in the article. “My uncle probably made it.”
Julian chuckled. “A steak pie in Aspen, and”—he gestured toward her—“a zucchini blossom with blue corn-bread and piñon stuffing.”
She pressed her hands into
position. “Thank you, kind sir.”
“The last three are why we’re here.”
A ripple of nerves shot through her gut. “Okay.”
“The steak pie was in a failing restaurant. The chef is a drunk, the owner was a ski bum who had no business sense, and the building is challenged, though in a very good location.”
Elena hazarded a guess. “And you bought it.”
He smiled. “Yes.”
The food came, steaming hot, served on heavy white porcelain plates the server set down with no attention whatsoever to presentation. The parsley on Elena’s was at the top—as it should have been—Julian’s at the bottom. She couldn’t be silent. It would have been like letting someone leave the restroom with toilet paper stuck to her shoe. “Miss?”
The girl turned. “Did I forget something?”
“No, it looks beautiful—but can I ask you a question?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Are you new to this job?”
“Yeah. Only three weeks.” She winced. “Does it show? They’re pretty shorthanded and I didn’t get trained that good.”
Elena gently touched the girl’s wrist. In her smoothest, least threatening voice, she said, “The food here is beautiful. The setting is spectacular. You can make a lot of money if you pay attention to little details.”
She blinked, fearful as a rabbit. “Yeah? Like what?”
“Tuck your shirt in better. Stand up straight. Serve the food as if the diner is in for a giant treat.”
She bit her lip, confused. “Okay.”
“Parsley at the top, right?”
“Oh!” She smiled. “Right. I forgot. Anything else?”
“Grapefruit juice and milk.”
“Be right back.”
Julian picked up his fork. “You say exactly what’s on your mind, don’t you?”
“Did I embarrass you?”
“Not at all. It was compassionate.”
“Good.” She picked up her fork, admired the omelet, and took a bite. “Mmm. Very nice. You were saying?”
He took a moment to turn his plate slightly, chose a spot, cut a small triangle and sampled it, then a cube of potato, then another small bite of omelet. Paying attention. “I was about to say, those three things came together. The Aspen restaurant. The bowl of green chile in Espanola, and your zucchini blossom appetizer.”
He lifted a brow. “I would like you to come to Aspen and be my executive chef.”
P TO THE
Blue Turtle Chef Says Life as a Female in the Kitchen Is Not Easy, but Worth It
Wade into the kitchen at local favorite the Blue Turtle, overlooking English Bay, and the air is as laden with testosterone as it is spices.
Men—of all ages and races and nationalities—fill the narrow aisles between stoves and ovens. There are boys who’ve yet to grow a beard cutting chickens and peeling onions on the prep line; a sturdy man of sixty with a potbelly and the uneven gait of bad feet who shouts out orders in Spanish. The executive chef himself, Dmitri Nadirov, is a smolderingly handsome Russian of the Mick Jagger school of beauty. Men everywhere.
And then there is sous chef Elena Alvarez, a study in contrasts. A woman in a man’s world. A blue-eyed blonde who shouts orders to the saucier in an archaic Spanish, her slight frame and faint limp belying the power in her arms that can haul heavy iron skillets. She orders the line cooks to get more potatoes under way, answers a question from a waiter, fields a challenge from another line cook, all the while shaking a pan filled with aromatic meat and thoughtfully answering this reporter’s questions.
Alvarez is cagey about her background, though she admits to growing up in El Paso and Espanola, which is not far from Santa Fe, where she began to cook after a car accident that broke her back when she was seventeen. Also not a subject she wished to discuss.
Trained in the emerging Santa Fe style as a young woman, Alvarez was chosen from a field of thousands to study in Paris under star chef Alexander Moreau. She spent four years in Europe, three in Paris and one in London, before coming back to the U.S. to work in top-end kitchens in New York City and San Francisco….
espite her hope that Julian was going to offer her a job, Elena felt a splash of surprise. “Executive.”
“Yes.” He ate. Waited patiently. Took a sip of coffee.
“I’d kill to have my own kitchen. Of course.” It was Elena’s turn to measure him. “What are you looking for?”
“I want you to create a menu, get the restaurant moving, see if you can turn it around.”
“How long would I have?”
“Fair enough.” She cut a bite of egg. “What kind of menu?”
“Elena’s menu. It’s Aspen. It’s a moneyed crowd. They’re choosy but willing to be adventurous. Use all that moxie and give me a menu that’s western or southwestern, but also definitely upscale and gourmet.”
“What, like the Coyote Cafe?”
“Your call.” He lifted his coffee cup. “I am more fond of Cafe Pasqual’s, though it’s not as high end. Both are very good.”
“I haven’t been to Cafe Pasqual’s.” She rarely visited New Mexico. It seemed shameful suddenly. She tried to take a bite of omelet, but it sat on her fork, taunting her. “And if it doesn’t work in a year?”
He shrugged. “I’ll let you go, and try something else.”
Airlessness moved through her lungs. He said it so easily, the challenge, the promise and consequences. For him, it was a business gamble. For Elena, it was her career. Her life.
And yet, hadn’t she been working toward this for nearly two decades? “When would you need me?”
A slight lift of one shoulder. “As soon as possible. I’m moving my daughter to Aspen to get her out of LA for a while, and we’re planning to be there by August 1. I’d like to get started shortly after that, get the new menu in place and work out the bugs before the ski slopes open.”
“Is there a firm date for the slopes, or does it depend on snow?”
“It’s December 9 in Aspen. So”—he narrowed his eyes, gazed in the distance—“we’ll aim for a soft opening by late October, early November, aim for a grand opening mid-December.”
Dismayed, she said, “So, you’ll be on-site?”
“Yes. Does that bother you?”
she wanted to say. His presence would be distracting, in so many ways. That urbane intelligence. The still gaze. Those sensual curls. Aloud, she said, “Not if you don’t get in my way. If you tell me it’s my kitchen, I’ll take that pretty literally.”
“Understood.” He’d neatly finished his breakfast while they spoke, invisibly eating while Elena thought and talked. The server whisked away his empty plate. Elena noticed the girl had tucked in her blouse. She smiled. The girl smiled back.
Julian said, “There are a couple of conditions.”
“I get final approval of the menu, and I want to hire someone to professionally write the descriptions.”
“You’ll have control of the kitchen staff, naturally, but the current manager stays, and—uh—I’m pretty sure we need to keep the chef.”
“Interesting choice,” she said, inclining her head. “Why do you want to keep him?”
“The steak pie. The fact that the place has made some money in spite of the fact that there are so many problems. He’s a James Beard award winner. Obviously a lot of talent there.” He pursed his lips, peered at something in the distance, a vision of what might be, perhaps. “But, basically, it’s a gut feeling. Could be right, could be wrong.”
Elena speared a vivid red strawberry, a fruit at its prime, and fell into admiring it. The smooth red flesh, quilted with the tiniest seeds. It tasted slightly grainy, imbued with the sunlight of a summer morning. “Mmm.” She stabbed another and held it out to Julian. “Have a taste.”
He bent in without hesitation and took it from her fork. She glimpsed his tongue. “Excellent.”
She handed him another one, which he took with his fingers. “The chef in Aspen—he’s executive now, right?”
Julian nodded. He knew exactly what she was asking. The chef would be demoted—he’d hate her the minute she showed up.
“That might be a little volatile,” she said.
“A challenge, I’m sure,” he said, but there was no apology in it.
“What’s his name?”
She wrote it down and stuck it in her pocket. If she had to deal with him, she’d want to go in armed. Someone in the community would know something about him, surely.
Then for a moment, she said nothing, trying not to let anticipation or fear rush her into anything. Without hurry, she ate some more of her omelet, savoring the sharpness of Swiss cheese, the smoothness of asparagus. She broke a corner of her toast and ate it.
Across the table, Julian was a column of still energy. She liked his face, his black eyes, that tumble of curls, but more than anything, she liked that he could sit there with his hands clasped unmoving around a coffee cup and wait for her to think.
She also liked that he would make a big move for the sake of a child. “May I ask about your daughter?”
He lifted a shoulder. “She’s fourteen—running with a crowd I think is too fast.”
“And Aspen is slower than LA?”
“No. It’s a lot smaller, however, and I can keep an eye on her more easily.”
“Good for you,” Elena said, and meant it. Finished with her meal, she put her napkin aside and picked up her tea. “What will you pay me?”
He named a figure that was a third more than she currently earned. “And because accommodation is so difficult in Aspen, we’ll see to it that you have living space. A condo, probably.”
“I have a dog,” Elena said. “I have to have some space for him. Yard space.”
“Bring him. Everyone in Aspen has a dog.”
She thought of her two-year-old rescue mutt, a fluffy chow-Lab mix with a head like a Saint Bernard. “Probably not like Alvin.”
Julian grinned, showing teeth for the first time. The eye-teeth were a little crooked, and she liked him for not fixing them, even with all of his millions. “Alvin?”
“From Alvin and the Chipmunks, remember them?”
He laughed. “I’ll have to see this dog.”
The sound of his laughter was weirdly familiar, a song she remembered from long ago. Scowling, Elena took a breath. “I’m very excited and flattered by your offer, Mr. Liswood. But my policy is to never say yes to anything without thinking about it on my own. I need to take a walk.”
“Of course.” He stood with her. “I do need an answer fairly quickly. We need to get moving, and if you are not interested, I’ll need to move on to my next choice.”
Elena pushed away her nervousness. Told herself to take her time anyway. He wouldn’t run out and get another chef before the end of the day. “I understand,” she said with as much cool professionalism as she could muster.
“This is my cell phone number.” He gave her a business card and held out his hand. “Thank you for coming.”
“My pleasure.” As his long fingers clasped her hand, she caught the scent of his skin. Not the food preferences she sometimes picked up, but simply his skin, himself. It smelled of rain hitting the earth on a summer evening. “I’ll let you know by the end of the day.”
“I’ll look forward to that.”
Their hands were still linked. Palm to palm. Eye to eye. She liked him. She thought she could trust him.
And yet, there was some darkness about him, sad and lonely, lingering in the air around him. Now she caught another scent, still not food, but a waft of old-fashioned perfume. She didn’t move for a moment.
He didn’t move away. The air seemed to buzz.
Elena pulled away. “Thank you, Mr. Liswood. I’ll let you know as soon as I can.”
“A pleasure meeting you, Ms. Alvarez.” His eyes twinkled. “I look forward to hearing from you.”
The rain had slowed to a soft drizzle, and Elena fetched her dog Alvin from the neighbor who kept him while she worked. They headed for the seawall. If she didn’t walk, all the broken bits of her—the shattered hip, the pinned left leg, her spine—stopped working.
So, every day, rain or shine, blizzards or gales, Elena headed out. Here in Vancouver, it was mainly to the seawall that looped around Stanley Park, always next to the water, a six-mile trek that kept her joints lubricated and head clear.
What a morning! The article and the Blue Turtle and getting fired and Julian Liswood and the possibility of a kitchen of her own. It was so much to think about.
And there at the center of it all was the fact that her home was gone. Again. Dmitri and the Blue Turtle. Her heart burned with sorrow and anger, like those flaming hearts on saints.
Not that it was a surprise. It had taken three months, three months of breaking up and getting back together in wet and heated make-up sessions; and more recently, three weeks of late night phone calls—both his and hers.
The usual. Civilized breakups probably happened, but not between a Russian man and a Latin woman.
But she also felt the end was solid now. This time, they would not get back together.
A slap of wind gusted over the water, and Elena winced against it. This was not how she had imagined her life would turn out, that she would be nearly forty and still husbandless, childless, rootless. As a girl, curled up in the corner of the kitchen in the roadhouse where her grandmother had tended bar, Elena had read every fairy tale known to man. All the pretty American Disney ones, with princesses who had flowing blonde locks and long white gloves. Cinderella, notably, with her lost shoe and the determined prince who knew he would find her, who would not give up until he did. She had liked Snow White, with her black eyes and black hair, and it seemed her world of seven dwarves was a comforting depth of family. There was Sleeping Beauty, locked away in her briar, and enchanted cats who turned into princes, and cursed orphans, and fairies who brought blessings spiderwebbed with curses.
There was simply no doubt in her mind that she would one day find her own prince. He would kiss her, and Elena would Know, and they would Live Happily Ever After.
Depressing that none of that had materialized. She loved her work, but honestly—how much longer could she do it? It was a challenging occupation for those with good health. Her pinned, patched body was not in that category.
Alvin, sensing Elena’s mood, nudged her hand with a wet, cold nose. The king of empaths, Alvin was high-strung and utterly devoted to Elena. He couldn’t bear it if she was shouting or weeping or distressed in any way. “It’s all right, baby,” she told him, rubbing a hand on his silky red head.
Now fate had delivered a chance. It rose through her like a harp note.
It would be a make-or-break opportunity. Visible. Public. There would be reviewers from high places, and some of them would still judge her more harshly because she was a woman, and American, and trained in Santa Fe. Her long education had taken her many places after that, San Francisco and Paris and London and New York, but that was what the bios all said, “a woman chef trained in Santa Fe.”
Colorado was awfully close to New Mexico. Her family was there still, and she sometimes visited, but only for brief stints. Watching the seabirds whirl and spin in the air above the rocks, she saw a map in her head, with one star each on Aspen and Santa Fe, and a red dot showing Espanola in the northern New Mexico mountains.
Alvin licked her hand, bumped her knee. “I’m okay, honey. Promise.” Reassured, he pranced along, tail swinging, head upright and eagerly alert. Elena had found him in an alley when she first arrived in Vancouver, an abandoned puppy of five weeks, a fluffy ball of red fur. He loved snow—Aspen would be his idea of heaven.
But—a binge-drinking chef who’d be pissed that Elena was taking his kitchen? That should be lots of fun. It was also cold in Aspen. How would all the arthritic points in her body react to that?
“Get real, Elena,” she said aloud, fiercely enough that Alvin licked her hand. There were no real objections. The opportunity was heaven-sent.
Well, except for Julian himself. Cloaked in that vampire stillness, so clean and tall and searingly intelligent. There was something real and solid about him, and yet—talk about trouble! A famous director with piles of money and a long stream of beautiful girlfriends and wives, who were a Who’s Who of one-bean-for-lunch actresses who kept the tabloids in business. But it was that flavor of sadness surrounding him that tempted her. He was hungry. Starving.
Luckily, he was so rich and so accomplished and so out of her league they might as well have been different species. His appetites would run to an entirely different sort of flavor than a chef from New Mexico.
When she finished the six-mile circle, Elena sat on a park bench in the sunshine, Alvin at her ankle lifting his nose to the air. A breeze rippled over his red-gold mane. She waited to see if her ghosts would have anything to say, but the air stayed still.
From her pocket, she took her cell phone, checked the world clock function to make sure it wasn’t the middle of the night in London, and pressed 5 to autodial her friend Mia.
“Hello, baby,” Mia answered in a voice as smooth and melodic as the Lady of the Lake. “I’m on my way to meet a juicy man. Can it wait?”