I pressed my shoulders against the wall of the hallway outside the kitchen, taking a moment to stand still and relish the feeling of cold, sweet tea in my throat. I’d just finished sending many trays of hors d’ouvres to the ballroom for the party that evening. I stared absently at the frosted Art Deco sconce on the opposite wall. It buzzed at me demurely. My thoughts crawled wearily but doggedly toward the rest of the night’s tasks. I had to do inventory; figure out the specials for the day after next; make a shopping list for Annelise, the food buyer; set up the prep sheet for the day cooks; pack some leftovers for the soup kitchen; and marinate another joint of pork if I had time.
The kitchen door opened. Marcus, a scarecrow with shocks of red hair sticking out under a bandana, stepped past me quickly with a small foil tray. Looking over his shoulder and catching my skeptical eye, he said, “Taking five, Shiff,” then disappeared around a corner. I mumbled “alright” to myself. I wish I could be less suspicious of the boy, but his continuous trail of mischief and mishaps keeps me cautious.
A minute later, the presence of the grill cook, Randy, filled the hall. He swiped his forehead with the back of his wrist and settled himself against the opposite wall, trying to read my mood. I smirked, tilted my glass toward the ballroom, and said, “I hate these things.”
Randy fanned himself with his Baron Frobisher baseball cap. “Ahh, at least it ain’t a dinner reception.” He reminds me of a warlord. I keep expecting to see smoke coming out of his nostrils.
“True.” I took a gulp of iced tea. Getting dozens of hot plates out all at the same time is tough. We usually manage to get it done without much trouble, though.
Two cooks were out of the kitchen, so I went back in. My sous chef, Paulette, was continuing a story she’d been telling earlier. “So I said, ‘If a girl wants to go see some art, you take her to a gallery!’ Am I right? He just doesn’t understand these basic things. He better figure it out, or he’s gonna die alone.” She was cooking at one of the large twin C-shaped stations in the center of the kitchen. Stephanie, our pasta prima donna, was at the other one.
I pulled on my floppy toque and stopped at the broad counter where we stage orders that are ready for the dining room. Kiki stood there, decorating a cone of glazed sponge cake with bits of citron and thin curlicues of orange peel. I could only see the top of her head and the bill of her green plastic bookie’s visor. An old house phone that I’ve been trying to get replaced for years hung on the wall behind her.
“How we doing?” I asked, tapping the counter twice.
Kiki flicked her blue eyes toward a monitor on her side counter that displayed all of the open tickets. “Winding down.” I scanned the orders to see if I had to cover anything for Marcus or Randy.
Stephanie beckoned to me with a spoon. She ladled some creamy sauce into a bowl and sprinkled it with chervil.
“Is this your Richelieu?” Stephanie hasn’t had as many years to get serious about cooking as Paulette has, but I think she’ll do well if she sticks with it.
“Yes, Chef.” Her tone told me that she knew she’d made a good one. I tasted it with a smacking of lips. The sauce was deep and well-balanced. It was going to be the centerpiece of one of the next day’s specials.
“Mm … due. Perfecto.” I kissed my fingertips. “Just like that tomorrow.”
Paulette reached around Stephanie and stole a taste for herself. “You got it,” she agreed. A server swept in from the dining room to pick up the cake on Kiki’s counter, then disappeared again.
I circled around to Paulette’s side. The Brooklyn queen wore a brown velvet ribbon tied around her tall toque. She was giving the business to a pan of diced celery and onions, and they cried for more. Preparing for the party earlier, she’d pulled pans of scrumptious goat cheese and apricot jam tarts out of the oven with one hand while setting up dinner orders with the other. The secret ingredient in her cooking is serenity.
“They’re gonna tell their grandchildren about those tarts,” I said.
“Then they’ll smack their bottoms and tell them to go play.” With a short laugh, she splashed some wine over the sizzling vegetables.
I tapped her counter. “We’ll work on specials soon.”
“Whenever you’re ready, Chef.”
“What do you need now?”
She surveyed her station. “Probably some peppers.”
“Due?” I called to Stephanie.
Stephanie’s ponytail swished over her pink headband as she shook her head. “Nothing, Chef.”
The phone by Kiki rang the light, pleasant ring that signaled a room service call. I scurried over to answer it. I lifted the receiver, punched the blinking button on top of the phone, and purred, “Rum sarvis.”
An eager voice responded, “Hey hey, Gino! What’s cookin’?” It was Stubby, a young facilities worker who likes my food.
“Boy, get off the room service line!”
“I’m in a room! It’s the only number on here.”
“What’d you want?”
“Let me get a Cuban, man.”
I saw that Randy was back at the grill. “Five minutes.”
I hung up and called to Randy, “Press a Cuban for me!” I turned aside to Kiki. “That’s for Stubby.”
I walked toward the grill and asked Randy, “What do you need?”
“Uh … peppers too. Green and red ones.”
“Peppers. Hot-cha.” Our signature garnish is a trio of bell pepper slices in alternating colors with a sprig of rosemary across them, and some of the hot sandwiches have grilled peppers. Since Marcus was still gone, I checked the stock at his station myself. I crouched to inspect the refrigerated case where he kept cold ingredients. Dinner was mostly over, so he wouldn’t need much.
When I stood up again, Randy suddenly grabbed me from behind with his burly forearms. He pulled me into a tight bear hug, briefly lifting me off the floor.
“Quitate!” I twisted away from him and swatted at his chest. “Puto,” I spat. “What’s wrong with you?”
“You said press a Cuban,” he said, grinning.
Shaken by Randy’s manhandling, I stalked over to the door to the walk-in refrigerator to get a head start on the shopping list and compose myself. We keep a notepad on a hook there so the cooks can make a note of supplies they need. “I need a Norma and a jambalaya,” Kiki said. Stephanie and Paulette got busy with plates and pans. Kiki scattered some arugula on a bed of green leaf lettuce.
The phone rang again a minute later, with a grating metallic squawk that meant it was an internal call. It sounded like a mechanical parrot choking. Kiki immediately grabbed the receiver and said “Hello” in a flat tone. She turned toward the dining room door and continued the conversation softly. When she’d hung up, she went back to her salad like it was the only thing that mattered.
I went to her counter and said, “Everything okay?”
She looked up. “Yes, fine.”
I looked away so she wouldn’t see that I didn’t believe her. I know when a woman’s telling me to butt out. “What kind of granita do you want to make tomorrow?”
She thought a moment. “Mojito?”
“Sure. I’ll have Annelise get some mint.”
Stubby came in the door from the hall and smiled when he saw me. “Evening, Chef. Hey, Kiki.”
“’Lo, Stubby,” Kiki answered. She was emphatically chopping some small yellow tomatoes.
“You off work?” I asked. I was relieved that he hadn’t called me “brown man.”
“In half an hour.”
“You want that wrapped up?” I jerked my head toward the grill.
I went to the grill and opened a white paper bag. A hot iron skillet sat on top of the sandwich. Randy lifted off the skillet, then deftly wrapped the sandwich in wax paper and handed it to me.
I gave Stubby the warm bag and said with a wry smile, “I tell this asshole to press a Cuban, and he grabs me and squeezes me half to death.”
Stubby shook his head. “’Ey,” he called to Randy. “Respect the chef!”
“Always do,” Randy assured him.
I told Stubby, “Check that light out in the back hall tomorrow. It’s buzzy.”
“Okay, sure. See y’all,” Stubby called as he left.
“G’night,” Randy said.
After a quick glance around the kitchen, I got an armful of peppers from the refrigerator and took them to the prep room. I cored them, knocked out the seeds, then took a large knife off the rack and started chopping. It’s important to keep up my skills, so I like to help with small jobs like that when I have a chance. I worked quickly, remembering the things I still had to do. I got lost in the knife’s rhythmic thunkthunkthunk.
After I’d filled a few bins, I rinsed the knife and stretched. I thought about going over to Smalls to hear some jazz after work. I flipped through the listings in the Village Voice on the side table in case there was a better option. Drink some gin, people-watch, maybe run into someone I know … maybe even meet someone new. I was still run down from doing the party food, but I expected a second wind by the end of the night. If not, there was always tomorrow.
A high scream scattered my musings. I dashed back to the kitchen, where Marcus was staggering out of the refrigerator, holding a whole lobster up to his throat. A cloth napkin smeared with ketchup hung from his collar, and his eyes bulged in panic. He jabbed the lobster’s claws at his throat and screamed again. “Save me, Steffie!” He slumped onto the floor, wrestling with the crustacean. His eyes rolled up, his legs shook spastically, and he lay still, with his tongue poked out to one side.
I strode across the kitchen and stood over the fallen cook. “Get up! I’ll give you somethin’ to scream about. If you need something to do, go crush some garlic.” I snatched the lobster and examined it. “You got ketchup on it,” I grumbled.
“Soarry, Shiff,” said Marcus. There was apology in his tone and triumph in his eyes.
I shook my head, glaring, and ducked into the refrigerator to stick the lobster back in its tray. These lunatics got to get away from each other, I thought. The night wouldn’t be over soon enough.
“Nice one, Marcus,” Stephanie said admiringly when I was back in the kitchen. “Not as good as that time with the wine, but still, a fine effort.”
“Oh no,” said Paulette.
“Were you here then, Randy?” asked Stephanie.
Randy shook his head. “Uh-uh.”
“Oh my god. Marcus got Lyle to let him pretend to be the sommelier one night. He was being all charming, like ‘Let me be yoah smelly-ay! It’ll be a lark!’ So Lyle said yes. Then the next night, Marcus brings in this long tuxedo jacket, and he puts it on when someone orders some wine, and he looks perfect. So he goes to the table with Lyle and opens the bottle, and he pours a glass, and gives it a swish. But instead of giving it to the guy, he drinks it himself … and he spits it out on the floor … and he says it tastes like hog piss!” She squeaked the last words out, constrained by laughter. “Jean was in Gino’s office for ten minutes, shouting at him to fire Marcus. I think he even called Mr. Harrison about it.”
“Why didn’t you fire him, Chef?” Randy asked.
“God knows.” I winced at the memory of the maître-d’s wrath. It had taken several weeks, a few special meals, and all of the contrition I had to recapture Jean’s favor. I’m still not sure that I should have stood up for Marcus then. I knew he was taking care of his kid sister, though, and I didn’t want to make things any harder on her.
Paulette shook her head gravely. “They didn’t know he had the devil in him, but they found out.” Behind her, Stephanie melted some butter in a pan and collected ingredients from her station’s lower shelf.
“Lyle didn’t talk to him for a week after that,” said Kiki. A carefree server named Anton slipped past her and went into the refrigerator.
“He made me let him throw me in the pool,” Marcus recalled. “In my clothes.”
“Didn’t I tell you to crush garlic?” I said. “It ain’t crushing itself. Go.” As he passed me on the way to the prep room, I threatened, “You’re gettin’ day shifts next week.”
Marcus stopped to wash his hands and said something in his deep New Zealand accent that sounded like gibberish.
“Kiwi,” I said, “if you’re trying to communicate, you’ve gotta give the Yanks a chance, huh?”
“I only said it’s a beautiful evening outside.” That sounded nothing like what he’d said before. A heavenly aroma of cherries simmering in sugar reached me, and tears of happiness sprung to my eyes.
Anton reappeared with some vanilla ice cream and put a few generous scoops on a gilt-edged dinner plate on Kiki’s counter. “Got a topper for me?” Kiki ducked down and retrieved a decorative chocolate F from the salad case. Anton pushed it into one of the scoops of ice cream. “What are you doing later?” he asked lazily.
Kiki poked at the orders on her screen. “Getting under my giant down comforter and dreaming of a castle in the mountains. Jubilee, Chef,” she announced.
“Hot-cha!” A peaceful radiance filled me as I gathered my supplies. Stephanie placed the steaming pan of cherries on a large tray with a serving spoon. I lifted the tray and joined Anton by the door to the dining room. He held the plate with the ice cream in one hand and a bottle of strong rum in the other.
I counted us off. “Ice cream, rum, cherries, spoon, matches. Vamos.”
We marched through the dining room, a two-man parade. Behind me, Anton said, “The young lady is celebrating her sixteenth birthday.” I kept my chin high and my eyes forward. The hot cherries I bore smelled like love.
The birthday girl spotted us approaching and tapped her mother on the arm to point us out. A few diners, sensing an occasion, made soft exclamations. I stopped a few steps shy of the table. Anton came around me and set the ice cream in front of the girl. She wore a spring green dress, and her hair was set in graceful curls. I stood at attention, quickly noting the expectation in her eyes. Anton opened the bottle and dribbled some rum into the pan. He put the bottle aside, we bowed our heads to each other, and Anton took the tray. I drew a steel tube from my pocket and pulled a long match out of it. This was all designed to draw attention. I could feel other customers watching me, but I performed only for the girl and her mother.
The rum had taken on some of the heat from the cherries by now. I scraped the match along a textured groove running down the tube; fire bloomed at its tip. As soon as I touched it to the pan, blue and orange flames danced among the cherries like hot waves, to general applause from the servers. When they subsided, I lifted the pan off the tray and spooned the cherries on the plate, favoring the delighted girl with a deadpan wink. “Happy birthday,” I said.
I meant the wish sincerely. It’s funny how much satisfaction you can get out of a brief moment. On the way back to the kitchen, I decided that some jazz and gin would be a fine way to end the night. Though it was still early, maybe this was the second wind I’d hoped for.