Authors: Barbara O'Neal
Patrick pulled open the door, gestured her to lead, and came behind her. Two fingers lightly fell on her spine—
I’ve got your back.
And there they were, her troops. All men, which she’d expected. Ivan, the sous chef, with his Rasputin face and burning blue eyes, leaned insolently against the wall, one foot braced behind him, his arms folded over his lean belly.
“Hey, Chef,” he said. Next to Elena, Patrick vibrated, tuning into the sound of that bearish voice, the voice of an orator, a serial killer. “Who’s your pretty sidekick?”
Elena took off her sunglasses, not speaking as she took the case out of her purse and put the glasses away.
Ivan was dressed in a more elegant way than she would have expected, in a long-sleeved silk T-shirt and low-slung jeans.
Next to him was a dashingly handsome Mexican in his late twenties, with soft dark eyes.
he said, dipping his head politely. North Mexico, his accent said.
Northern New Mexico, said Elena’s.
“Cómo se llama?”
He stepped forward politely, his dark hand splaying over his chest.
“Me llamo Juan Diego Vialpando Garcia.”
Elena smiled. A good omen that a man should have the name of the Indian peasant to whom the Virgin Mary had appeared in Mexico, where she was known as the Virgin of Guadalupe.
“Me gusto mucho.”
He gave a charming little half-bow. “It is an honor to meet you, Chef.”
A stocky, balding man with shrewd eyes and very expensively cut trousers stepped forward. “Chef, I’m Alan Cody, the house manager.”
“Good to meet you. I’ve already met Rasputin there,” she said, gesturing to Ivan. “Tell me about the rest of our staff.”
“I’m happy to do that.”
Patrick took a step closer, an elegant bodyguard.
“Everyone,” Alan said, “this is Elena Alvarez. She’s most recently been sous chef at the Blue Turtle in Vancouver, which is where we found her and seduced her away.” He gave Elena a grin.
“I heard she was fired,” Rasputin said in his dark voice.
“I was,” Elena said. “A reporter did a story on my food style and Chef didn’t like being upstaged. I suggest you remember that.”
He raised an eyebrow but said no more.
Alan wrung his hands, but when war didn’t break out, he said, “Well, of course, this is Ivan Santino. You may not know that he studied at Le Cuisine in New York, and won a James Beard award for best new chef six years ago.”
“I did not know. Well done.”
He inclined his head.
“Next to Ivan is Juan, whom you’ve just met. He’s been with us for three years, and he’s a master saucier.”
“Among other things,” Ivan said.
Alan introduced a trio of others, all young men with the look of restlessness that told her they’d not yet found their kitchens. Maybe they were ski bums, here for the access to the slopes. It was standard to offer season passes to employees, and Julian also preferred to help find housing.
These boys were exploring and gaining experience, and Aspen wasn’t a bad place to do it. The youngest of the group was a pale blond with dark brown eyes who said his name, Peter, in a cheery voice. He couldn’t yet be twenty-one.
“Thank you, Alan,” Elena said. “I’m looking forward to working with all of you.” The twinges in her lower spine started up again, and she wanted to lean or sit, but straightened the tiniest bit instead, remembering to pull her shoulder blades down her back.
Show no weakness.
Lifting her chin, she met the eyes of each man in turn. “As Alan just said, I am Elena Alvarez. I originally studied in Santa Fe, then moved to San Francisco, then spent three years in Paris, at Le Cordon Bleu. I did stints in London and New York before I returned to San Francisco, where I eventually worked my way up to a sous chef position at the Yellow Dolphin, which is one of Julian Liswood’s most successful restaurants. I believe it was his first?” Elena looked to Patrick for confirmation, and caught him glaring at Ivan. He felt her gaze, recovered, and nodded.
“His first,” she confirmed. “Three years ago, Chef Dmitri Nadirov and I were hired to develop the menu and open the kitchen of the Blue Turtle in Vancouver.”
“What’s ours going to be called?” the young Peter asked.
Elena grinned. “The Orange Bear.”
“Cool,” said one of the boys.
“I like it, too.” She let a puddle of silence build. Establishing command. “You must have questions.”
“Are we creating an entirely new menu?” Ivan asked.
“Are you going to fire all of us?” one of the young ones asked.
“No. I’m actually only bringing in two of my own people. One is Mia Grange, a pastry chef from London, and this is Patrick Nolan, sommelier and maître d’. We studied together in Paris and worked together at the Yellow Dolphin.”
Patrick,” Ivan said, and managed to make it into a slur. Something sharp arced between them. If Patrick was a prized cock, what animal was Ivan? Slouched there against the wall, too thin and hungry, he made her think of a blue-eyed coyote.
God, he was going to be so much trouble! She hoped he would be worth it. “We have a lot of work to do before we reopen. Let’s get started, shall we? You boys pull some tables together. Patrick, will you get the supplies out of the car?”
Juan stepped forward. “I will make coffee,
An ally. She nodded. “Thank you.”
They moved. “Ivan, will you go down the street and get some snack food? I’m sure you know the best place to get something.”
“Did you really call me Rasputin?”
It bugged him and pleased him. Elena smiled. “Have you ever seen a picture of him?”
“No. History wasn’t my thing in school.” He stood too close, deliberately crowding her, an intimidation move that often worried women in a busy kitchen. He smelled of soap, not tequila. An improvement.
Elena took several twenties from her wallet without moving away. She leveled a gaze at him. “Get a selection of sandwiches and sweets and chips, just whatever.”
“The grocery store will be cheaper and faster than any of the sandwich joints.”
She glanced around the room, noted the studiously not-listening minions. “Whatever you think is best.”
“Ah, hell, let’s just go with something decent.” He took the money. “Back in twenty.”
Out in the blue day, Ivan lit a cigarette as he headed for the sandwich shop. A woman with her hair swinging in a ponytail glared at him and he blew the smoke skyward. Ordinarily, he might have goaded her. He was the native here, after all, and he’d bet she wasn’t. Natives were as scarce as hen’s teeth, and there was a huge gulf between them and the obscenely wealthy Others, who thought it all belonged to them.
But today, his mind was on the new guy.
Chef had come in, bringing with her that air of a snow queen from some old fairy tale, with her pale hair and exotic face and the air of the tragic about her that took the heat from Ivan’s anger. Behind her, taking the position of a bodyguard, protective and fierce, was a young man. The sun from the door was on him at first, blotting out details, so Ivan couldn’t really see him until he moved out of the light into the room.
Something stirred, hot and orange, at the base of Ivan’s spine. The queen had brought a prince with her, a prince who carried with him a fragrance of wealth and privilege, an aura of the way things should be done. Ivan, cynic of the highest measure, knew a long moment of airless surprise, stunned by his reaction. Patrick was not his type.
he thought, exhaling. He bent and stubbed out the cigarette in a pot filled with sand.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Life was hard enough these days. He didn’t need another challenge. Another fall. It was a miracle he wasn’t dead already. One more would probably kill him.
He would have to be careful with that one. Careful, careful, careful. He went inside the shop.
When they were all assembled around two tables shoved together, with sandwiches and coffee and soft drinks in big glasses from the bar, Elena outlined her vision of the structure of the restaurant. Alan and Patrick in charge of the front of the house, Alan as general liaison between front and back, Patrick manager of the floor staff and service questions. “I would like consultation in final decisions,” Alan said.
“Consultation,” she agreed, “but Patrick has final decision.”
He shot a sullen look toward Ivan. “Fine.”
“Ivan,” she said, “tell me about the two kitchens. How does that work? What would you change?”
“I’d have to give it some thought,” he said, layering tomatoes and cucumbers, goat cheese and olives on a croissant. His fingers were deft, his arrangements unstudied and beautiful, a fact she tucked away. “We’ve used the lower level as a restaurant, the upper as a pub, so the food choices were a little different.”
Elena made notes. She wanted to have cohesiveness through both floors. The upstairs would be the pastry kitchen; downstairs, the main. Upstairs could be a warming and assembly kitchen. “How well does the dumbwaiter work?”
“We need a list of anything that’s not working or inefficient in the kitchen as it is.” She waved the pen at the trio of boys, too. “Everybody. Anything you can think of that’s a pain. Obviously, we’re not moving the major equipment, but what else could be better?”
They looked at each other for a while, then tentatively offered suggestions. She wrote them down. “By next week, I want everything you’ve thought of, all right?”
“What’s the menu?” Peter asked.
“That’s what we’re going to do here, brainstorm.” She patted a folder filled with copies of the list of possible ingredients that she’d assembled, and a paragraph about her philosophy. “First, I’d like to get a feeling for where you all are with your own flavors. Take a second and think about the best food you’ve ever eaten. Alan, you want to go first?”
He narrowed his small eyes even more. “That’s hard.”
Elena speared a forkful of fresh spinach and tomato. “Take your time.”
“Can we narrow it down? Best meat dish, maybe?”
“Sure.” She wanted a feeling for what each one felt toward food. Was it a job or a passion? “But not everybody has to pick the same category.”
He stared into middle space. “One thing was a trout cooked over a campfire.”
Rasputin groaned, and Alan looked abashed, like a dog reprimanded by a beloved master. His eyes even looked a little moist.
Elena held up a hand. “Best is best. Go ahead, Alan.”
“The other was a lobster bisque in a San Francisco diner. So creamy and rich you had to eat it in tiny, tiny bites.”
Around the table they went. Barbecued pork, a chicken masala eaten late on a foggy London night, a piece of pecan pie at a diner in Georgia.
When his turn came up, Rasputin put his sandwich down and delicately wiped his fingers. “There are three,” he said. Immediately the air in the room shifted subtly, his voice filling the space like a strummed cello, priming them all for his revelation. The young cooks leaned forward. Alan took a bite of his sandwich as if he were watching a movie. Next to Elena, Patrick sat utterly still, a ripe plum in his hand, washed but not eaten.
“The first,” said Rasputin, “was a duck breast roasted with wine and cherries. Those plump, hot cherries with shreds of slow-roasted, tender meat and just a hint of nutmeg…” He swallowed in memory, and everyone swallowed with him, mouths watering. “…spectacular.
“The second was a lemon cake from a bakery in Paris.”
Elena allowed herself a very small smile—she’d smelled the lemon on him at their first meeting. She would get Mia on it.
“It was a very fine crumb,” he continued in his rumbling voice, his hands feathery in the air. “Three weightless layers, bright pale yellow, like fresh egg yolks, and a very, very light zesty lemon icing between layers.” He closed his eyes in memory. “It was like sunlight.”
The table was rapt as he opened his eyes and looked at each person in turn, lingering on Patrick and Elena, telling them his story. Perhaps reeling them in. “The third was a mango, when I was twenty-two, fresh from a market on the street in Mexico. I’d never eaten one. It was big, red and yellow, and just that exact firmness, you know, like a young breast, like a boy’s lower lip.”
Juan ducked his head, embarrassed, muttered a curse in Spanish.
Rasputin only lifted his mouth in a bare half-smile. “I took it to the beach and sat there in the sand, peeling the skin away with my teeth, and ate it whole, the juice running down my face and hands, and I didn’t even care because it tasted like that first minute you meet somebody you’re going to fall in love with, that first minute when you
Even Elena was leaning forward, seduced by that sexual voice, the sensual pictures he drew, and his magnetic eyes, which were focused on her mouth, then on Patrick. Boldly.
Patrick sat without moving, his aristocratic nose cocked upward, as if trying not to smell something a little impure. His cheeks were quite red.
“Thanks, Ivan,” she said, raising an eyebrow.