Authors: Barbara O'Neal
He blinked, lazily. “Anytime.”
Flipping open the folder, she passed around her notes. “Let’s get a menu together, shall we?”
1 lb. thinly sliced bacon
1 lb. round steak or other lean cut of beef, cut into 1-2 inch strips
2 medium onions—1 chopped, 1 sliced and grilled
3–4 fresh jalapeños, washed and sliced into wheels (leave the seeds in)
4 cups fresh beef broth
2 cups pinto beans, cooked and drained
1 small head of cabbage, shredded
cup scallions, thinly sliced
Juice of 1 large lemon
In a heavy pot, brown the bacon and then drain it on paper towels. Put the steak and chopped onions into the pot, cooking them in the hot bacon fat and stirring for about 2–3 minutes. Put the chopped bacon back into the pot, add the jalapeños, beef broth, and beans, and let simmer for 1 hour. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed. Add the cabbage and let the soup simmer again just until the cabbage is tender. Add cilantro, scallions, and lemon juice. Serve with grilled onions and lemon wedges on the side.
lena dreamed of a stag, running in a field. The light was the silver gray that could signal dawn or dusk. It was a powerful creature with points she could not count and it was in danger. As it leapt over a ravine and hung—far too long—in midair, she held her breath, wanting to cry out, and she could not.
With a gasp, she startled awake into her brightly lit bedroom, her body nestled between piles of open cookbooks and scattered notes, both her own and those of her cooks. For a moment, she could not decide what had awakened her. The television played some shopping program narrated by a man with a nasally Texas twang. Rustling through the notes and cookbooks, she found the remote control and clicked the television off. The clock on the nightstand read 2:48 a.m.
Wiping the weariness from her face, she sat up and scraped the scattered notes into a pile, closed the cookbooks, and stripped her clothes off. Alvin snored in the corner, oblivious. Elena plumped up the pillows and turned off the light, taking a long breath to settle herself.
But sleep slithered away. She lay in the dark going over the lists and tasks still to be accomplished in the next four weeks. The soft opening was slated for November 2, with a grand opening to follow on the first day of ski season. They’d been working their asses off for five weeks and had four left.
She turned over, dislodging with a toe a cookbook she’d left on the bed. It fell on the floor with a bang. Alvin woke up and barked a warning. “It’s okay, honey. It was me.”
He woofed softly, but licked his lips and fell back asleep.
Elena stared up at the skylights. Stars twinkled, and a wash of pale light came through the rectangles. The middle-of-the-night quiet made her feel absolutely alone. Banished.
She hated to sleep alone. As a little girl, she slept with her grandmother Iris, and felt utterly bereft in the big bed alone after she died. That period happily only lasted a few weeks, and Elena was plopped down in New Mexico, sleeping with Isobel and Margaret in a double bed where they fought over the covers and tangled up together on cold nights. She had slept alone in the hospital, with the sound of machines and beeps and cold loudspeakers, and wept nearly every night with loneliness for almost a year.
Get over it.
Think of the restaurant. Focus on the positives.
It was coming along very well. Patrick and Alan and Julian tucked their heads together over selections of chairs and tables, tablecloths and settings. Elena insisted that the plates be plain white porcelain, the better to show off the food. Patrick pushed for glass chargers with a slight greenish cast that knocked Elena out. Alan liked bare tables for lunch, and at first wanted snowy white tablecloths for dinner, but was overruled by both Patrick and Julian, who ordered linens from Ecuador—gorgeous wovens in clear, unpolluted shades—turquoise and green and pink.
Elena, Ivan, and Juan, together with the three line cooks already in place, worked on the back of the house. A good menu had to meet several standards. The first was the demands of the customer: who would be eating this food? Sitting over endless cups of coffee, white and pink and blue sugar packets scattered over the table, they hammered out their ideal customer with Julian—an upscale skier or vacationer, mostly sophisticated and well educated about food, who spent a lot of time outdoors and a lot of time traveling.
In addition, Elena wanted the local market. She wanted the Orange Bear to be a place people came to relax after a long day, to have a date with a new lover, to create traditions for their families. If they had visitors, they would bring them to the local icon, but not just because it was famous.
Julian had grinned at her over that. “Big plans.”
She shrugged. “Why dream small?”
Another standard they had to decide was cost. There were plenty of restaurants in Aspen in the high-end range, but Julian was known for creating restaurants for the creative classes—pricey but not stratospheric, which suited Elena perfectly. It gave her a lot of room to work with a variety of fresh ingredients without having to satisfy the upper echelons of the gourmet crowd. Not that Elena couldn’t do it—she could. She didn’t
to. Food should never be that serious.
Of course, cost also referred to food costs, which needed to stay below 30 percent to hit the profit margins Julian expected. As executive chef, this would be entirely Elena’s realm. She had to create a menu that was flexible enough to embrace seasonal ingredients as much as possible, with dishes that would economize by drawing from the same pool of ingredients.
She was stuck with certain realities—just as it was impossible to run a bar without margaritas and martinis, she couldn’t have a Mexican menu without avocados and chiles, in season or not. But they were also lucky in that much of the stock they’d require was very inexpensive. With Ivan’s help, she tracked down the best suppliers in the area, and she started working with the regular drivers and staff to develop relationships. It turned out that Ivan was a native of the area and knew just about everyone. A help.
Next, the food had to be possible to prepare in a restaurant kitchen, and the menu itself cohesive. Nobody wanted just another upscale Mexican, and that was where the work came in—they had to create a menu that was Mexican in spirit, but also delivered something zesty and exciting. Elena gave copies of her ingredients list to the entire kitchen staff, stocked the kitchens, and encouraged everyone to experiment. She had one quirk: no whole corn kernels.
“No corn?” Ivan had asked. “What’s more traditional than corn?”
“I don’t care. I don’t like the way it takes over. The texture is too much.”
He raised a laconic brow. “But we can use corn
Some days, several dishes passed muster—taste and presentation and consistency of preparation; other days, none did. But slowly, slowly, a menu began to emerge.
The days began early, when she arrived at six, giant Starbucks latte in hand, to unlock the doors. Alvin came with her and settled on the porch outside the kitchen door, where he stayed more or less happily until lunchtime, when Elena took him for a walk, both for him and to stretch out her stiffness. The whole staff loved him. Peter rigged up a baby gate to keep him on the porch, not wandering around the kitchen itself, as he was inclined to do. Juan brought him bones. Ivan saved him slivered bits of fat.
Elena liked to arrive before anyone else, to go over her plans—recipes for soups and small plates one day, experiments with main dishes another. When she had organized the tasks for the day, she’d pour another cup of coffee and wander into the dining room to see what work had been finished the day before. Construction crews were covering the walls with texture, and refinishing the floors with Saltillo tiles, replacing the crumbling bar.
Next to arrive was Juan, with whom Elena got along very well. He liked the fact that she was fluent in Spanish, even if he teased her that the version she spoke was archaic and funny to listen to. Juan would begin the tasks of opening the kitchen, getting things ready for the boys who would come in an hour later, two of them bleary-eyed from partying late into the night, the third alert and cheery. When the restaurant opened, prep cooks would do much of this work, but for now, they were all cooking everything so they could learn what worked and what didn’t.
Juan was turning out to be a cornerstone of her kitchen. Elena suspected it was Juan’s steadiness that had kept the original restaurant in business. A young husband and father from Mexico, Juan had a soul that was much older than his thirty-year-old face, and he had a knack for corralling the kitchen like a wise old sheepdog, nudging the young cooks along, smoothing tensions, making puns in Spanish to Elena to make her laugh, making filthy jokes to appeal to Ivan’s sick humor.
Last to arrive each day was always Ivan, who swaggered in around ten, drinking hot water with lemon and bringing with him a collection of CDs for the day. His taste ran to baroque classical and old Led Zeppelin.
Thus began the music wars. Juan liked ranchero music. Elena’s tastes ran to girl singers—Norah Jones, k.d. lang, some Lucinda Williams. The ski boys groaned over all of it, but she simply couldn’t stand the hip hop and hard-line rock they liked. Ivan took over the music realm, and Elena allowed it, mainly because they agreed that Bruce Springsteen and Mellencamp were gods.
Each day, Elena or Juan gave a lesson in some finer point of the staples they’d utilize—how to make beautiful tortillas, corn and white, and tie corn husks for tamales, and skin chiles without being blistered, and make a mole.
Finally, then, they would start cooking. Trying dishes, scribbling recipes, tasting them, serving them, making notes, trying them again. Over and over.
At lunch she took Alvin out for a walk, reveling in the light, thin air, the color of the sky. Afternoons she spent on administrative tasks—creating schedules, creating ordering lists, setting up the computer models that would streamline her life later.
In the evenings, exhausted and stiff, she sometimes had supper with Patrick, but mostly they were both so tired they went home—he to pore over restaurant supply catalogues and Internet sources, she to comb through cookbooks and food theory.
Rasputin was not thrilled about being demoted to sous chef, and Elena suspected he’d never been a joy for a woman in his kitchen—he was old-school, battle-minded and arrogant. In the small kitchen, she found herself sometimes deliberately crowded and bumped, but after a few days, when she didn’t respond to any of his intimidations, even he mellowed out—by all accounts he was lucky to have a job at all.
By the end of five weeks, they had most of a menu and most of a dining room. Patrick had assembled a staff for the front of the house, and Elena had been doing interviews for three days to round out the back—prep cooks and dishwashers and runners.
In the darkness of her condo, with faraway stars winking overhead, Elena’s body began to relax.
They were ready, at least for a series of tastings. They would prepare and serve the menu for three different groups. The first would be for the restaurant staff, the second for some of Julian’s business associates, and the third and final would be for a local group they would hustle up by any means necessary—relatives of the staff, local businesspeople, neighbors—to come and eat for free and help them test not only the food itself, but the training of the staff, front and back.
And that was a lot, Elena thought, drifting off. A lot.
In a rattletrap trailer without any heat, Ivan Santino cranked open the panels of the window and lit a joint. His hands shook slightly, the legacy of a heavy night of drinking and a nightmare. The nightmare was old, as faded in places as a movie that had run too many times, but there was still enough red evil in it to blister him into wakefulness. Some people took tranks and antidepressants and god knew what else, all neatly prescribed by doctors so everybody could get rich. He figured a little weed was better all around. Fast and efficient—even as he held the smoke in his lungs, the edge of terror bled away. Another hit, deep and thick into his lungs, and the slight trembling of his hands eased. It was good shit, from his buddy Billy Kite, a native like himself, who supplied half of Pitkin County with whatever it wanted—meth, pot, crack, pills—a luxurious business in a town with too much money and plenty of time to play. Billy drove a Lexus SUV.
Ivan took one last toke, very short, and pinched the end of the joint between his calloused forefinger and thumb to save for another time. Thoughtfully, he blew it out and sat admiring the meadow beyond the trailer, an open stretch of long, pale green grasses and tiny mountain daisies. On the horizon was a line of dark clouds edged by dawn. A weathery day. Good. He liked weathery days. Liked being in the steamy kitchen with music playing and food shaping up in pans and pots and trays, the smell of frying meat and bleach from the dishboys mopping the floors and the waft of rain blowing in through a door. The best, man.
Every now and then, Ivan liked to have a joint before work, especially if it was the kind of day when he was going to be making things up, trying new flavors and colors. Weed exaggerated things, brought out new notes he might not think of otherwise. There was plenty of time to play with ideas for the new menu, and he’d discovered something energizing in Chef’s ingredients list. New brightness, new angles, possibilities that had his brain popping in ways it hadn’t for a long time.
From his shirt pocket, he took a pack of Newports and lit one. The sharp menthol cooled his throat and he exhaled with a sense of deep well-being. This whole business with the new chef was taking him by surprise. It was hard to needle her. Hard to want to get rid of her, though that had been his original plan when he heard he was being replaced.
That first image he had of her, of a snow queen from some old fairy tale, had not gone away. There was some air of the tragic around her, some long-ago secret she didn’t tell, like a queen who had lost her kingdom. He saw it in the way she moved so stiffly sometimes when she thought no one was looking, the way she almost dragged her left foot when she was tired, how she had to brace herself to lift a heavy bowl of masa.