To re-inspire myself to keep working on the book, to keep myself honest, to tell the world I really am writing a book, and I guess just because I feel like it, I'm pasting in the chapter I just finished.
I've been hung up on this chapter for months. I avoided writing it, finally got started, and then put it off continually. It was a painful memory, but I didn't want to just skip this part and move on. It had become a blockade, and finally this morning I just made myself finish it. It's closing in on a year since I started this book and I'm not even close to half done, so I've got to keep going. I think now that I have gotten past this hurdle, I can do that.
So, here it is for the world to see. I don't care if anyone reads it. At least it's done. (Un-edited, yes, but the first draft's done.) Some names have been changed to protect the assholes.
Chapter 8: Rusty Chef
The business was getting off the ground slowly, but it wasn't enough. We were still scrambling for money at every turn. We offered as many classes as Gabe could sustain—ok, more—in a shotgun approach to bringing in as much revenue as possible. By late spring we were doing six or seven classes a week, and we were drowning.
The problem was marketing, and that was my department. Students walked away from classes raving; we had an enormous return rate, something like 80% within three months. People loved the product; I just had to make sure more people knew about it.
Gabriel hates the library; I'm not sure why. He says it smells moldy. I offered to take him to one of Seattle's many newly remodeled branches. He said they all smelled moldy, new or old; it's the books. So for research, we went to Barnes & Noble and curled up in their big cushy armchairs. He would flip through a stack of cookbooks, and I'd crunch food magazines or marketing books.
I was reading Guerrilla Marketing in just such a situation when I was struck by the idea for Rusty Chef. The book suggested throwing a charity event as one way to get the word out about your business. I squinted at it and thought, hmm, what kind of charity event would we be able to do? and suddenly it hit me, fully-fledged like Athena: "Seattle's Rusty Chef Amateur Cooking Competition."
The event would be a cook-off between two amateur cooks, regular people like our students. We'd highlight our services by giving each contestant a full day of training with Gabe. Then, at the event, they'd go head to head using a mystery basket of ingredients to create a 3-course meal in 90 minutes. We'd have local celebrity chefs do the judging, and Gabe would MC. Guests could mill about and watch the contestants cook, eat a buffet dinner, and bid at a silent auction. All proceeds would go to benefit FareStart, a Seattle charity offering restaurant job training to the homeless; the exposure with them would bring us lots of press.
Even though I am obviously a genius for coming up with such a brilliant idea in one split second, bringing such an event to fruition is another story indeed. Just as with all of Culinary Communion, if someone had told me in advance how much work I was getting myself in for, I probably would've chickened out. But I had never planned a major event. "I've planned two weddings," I told Gabe. "How hard can it be?"
It was significantly more difficult, and more work, than I could possibly have imagined, but I didn't realize that until it was far too late to pull the plug: we were committed.
The Savage appliance distributor, Sellway, had agreed to host the event. They had two working kitchens in their showroom and would get the opportunity for guests—we settled on 60—to meander among their products all evening. We publicized the search for contestants and did a random drawing of the entrants, resulting in the two contenders: Shellie Slettebak, who had been taking classes with us for months, and Shane Johnson, who'd taken one class.
Each contestant received a full day of training with Gabe—this was supposed to be eight hours but wound up being at least twelve. We had a student, Jeri Vaughn, who was in the documentary film business, and I talked to her about taping the event in the hopes of shopping it to networks as a possible show for the next year. "It will have to be gratis, this time, but hopefully next year…"
Jeri jumped on this idea and sent a cameraman to both of the training days. We staged the contestants' walking up to the door, the knock, and Gabriel answering in his chef coat.
For each training day we prepared two mystery baskets, each with twenty ingredients, just as the contestants would have for the real event. In the mornings the contestants talked through the contents of the basket with Gabriel, came up with a 3-course menu with his help, and then executed it with his assistance, guiding and teaching. We dissected the success of the meal over lunch, then cleaned up. In the afternoons the contestants launched into the second mystery basket. They designed the menu without input and then cooked it with Gabriel acting as sous chef, taking direction but not volunteering information or help. Each contestant was allowed an assistant during the actual event, and this was how the assistants would participate.
Meanwhile, I was at work on the rest of the event. I had never been to an auction of any kind, so putting together the silent auction was a stab in the dark. Fortunately, I had a lot of help from the events coordinator at FareStart, an incredibly sweet girl named Jayne who happened to know our friend Todd. Jayne looked just like Mary Jane, Spiderman's girlfriend; she was a knockout. She didn't seem to realize this, though, or that her natural klutziness just added to her charm. I was terribly intimidated when we first met, both by her looks and by her obvious competence in her job, but she immediately spilled her latte, breaking the ice. Before I got back to being afraid of her, I liked her immensely.
Jayne suggested I just ask vendors we worked with to make donations and that the auction would do itself from there. I started with Savage, moved on to the wine shop Portalis, and in total was able to procure about two dozen items of varying value. It wasn't a lot, but it was a start for the first year of the event.
I was also lucky enough to get all of the catering donated by Baci Catering, a company we'd sought a relationship with several months before. People were always asking us whether we'd cater their weddings or parties, and although Gabe desperately wanted to do this because it was so lucrative, he agreed that we didn't have time. (Licensing, schmeicensing. That wasn't a real consideration back then. Ah, what fools…)
Baci's head chef was a woman named Kären Jurgensen, whom we immediately loved upon meeting; we later hired her as our first employee. Once Gabriel was at a loss for a recipe to highlight duck confit and called Kären. She suggested a braised red cabbage salad with duck confit, goat cheese, and pine nuts. Gabe complained that red cabbage wasn't sexy. Kären fired back immediately: "What kind of Dane are you?" and hung up. He called back, apologized contritely, saying that his Gypsy blood must be polluting the sensible Danish side, and tried the salad; it was phenomenal and is still one of Culinary Communion's most popular recipes ever.
Kären's boss, Nola, the owner of Baci, agreed to donate all of the labor to cater the Rusty Chef event; we just had to pay hard costs for the food. I had no idea what a coup this was or how rare in the catering industry until much later. We really lucked out by hooking up with Baci.
Because the event was for a great charity, it seemed everyone wanted to pitch in to help. I got the sound system donated, with a cordless mike for Gabe and speakers to set up around the showroom. We printed posters at a discount, but did have to pay to have them distributed.
I wanted a panel of five judges, and the first five people I asked agreed to judge. The local celebrity chef was Jonathan Sundstrom, then the executive chef at Earth & Ocean restaurant in the W Hotel; this was before he opened his own place (Lark) and was named one of Food & Wine Magazine's top 10 chefs in the nation. Two members of the food press, Roger Downey of the Seattle Weekly and Cynthia Nims of Seattle Magazine, were judges. I'd hoped one of them would write about the experience; this didn't happen, but Roger did interview us for a story about Culinary Communion a few weeks before the event. That was better, anyway.
As soon as I opened my eyes on the day of the event I realized how very much stuff I still had left undone, and Gabriel and I were at a dead run the entire day. We arrived at Sellway fresh from Kinko's, with judging forms and menus hot off the press. Frank, the manager of the Sellway showroom, was peeved that we were late; I answered his ninety new questions as best I could while dashing back and forth from the car to the kitchens, unloading at a sprint. He followed as I went back and forth with a disapproving glare, and did not offer to lift a finger.
"OK, that's it," I sighed breathlessly, heaving the last bus tub of equipment up onto the counter where Gabe was setting up. We had been very careful to make sure that each contestant got exactly the same equipment; this had meant buying new stuff in some situations—we only had one Microplane grater, only one peeler—but we had really needed duplicates, anyway. It just made the event that much more expensive for us: the cash outlay for those items compounded upon the days we'd gone without classes for the training and preparation. We'd started wondering whether this event was worthwhile, but once again, it was far too late in the game to do anything about it.
"Except the cutting boards," Gabe replied, hurriedly sorting wooden spoons out from the entanglement of whisks.
I checked my mental picture of the back of the Explorer: empty. "You must have brought them in."
He looked up at me and we stared at each other for a moment. We already knew there was no such thing as a decent cutting board around; we'd been doing classes here since January. Without a word we split off in different directions, he to the other live kitchen and I back out to the car to look again. We rendezvoused only a few seconds later, both shaking our heads.
"I'll go," I said. "You have to set up the kitchens and the pantries." In addition to their mystery baskets, the contestants had identical pantries including staples such as flour, sugar, chicken stock, and onions—some 40 items in all. Gabe had packed these up this morning, but still had to label them and sort one per kitchen.
He nodded and we kissed quickly. "Thanks. Drive safe. And fast."
I brushed past Frank on the way out the door. "I'll be right back. Could you show the cameramen where to stow their stuff, and get the PA system set up? Thanks Frank." There was no point waiting for an answer.
I gunned the Explorer and made record time back to Queen Anne. The cutting boards were stacked neatly by the door; nothing about the rest of the house was neat in the slightest bit. Rather, it looked like a hurricane had blown through. I just shook my head at it and jumped back in the car. I waved at the lady next door as I roared off; she was the only neighbor who even remotely liked us.
The showroom was a totally different place by the time I returned; my "right back" had been an just under 90 minutes. I hustled the cutting boards straight to the closest kitchen.
"That was fast," Gabe said appreciatively. He had already put on his sparkling white, carefully iRoned chef coat and was rolling up the sleeves.
Kären's contingent had arrived and were bustling around setting up the buffet down the long line of washers and dryers along the west windows. I waved at Kären and she winked at me over Frank's head as she assured him that the appliances wouldn't be damaged if someone spilled. Jayne was in the fRont, setting up the silent auction down a long table. I picked up one of the auction forms she'd brought, just to see what they looked like. We hugged quickly. At least food service experience had given me enough event know-how to move like lightning and still be pleasant; knowing the people I was working with were like-minded was so reassuring.
"Jayne, you look gorgeous," I told her.
"Oh," she said dismissively, smiling. "Thanks for bringing everything! This is awesome. I didn't know about some of these items. The Mariners package is going to go big. You did a great job!"
I blushed. "Thanks!"
I'd hung my dress in the employee restroom, and now made a beeline for that before anyone else arrived. I'd shopped very carefully for this dress; it was unlike anything I'd ever owned. Gabe had been very firm about my needing to look fabulous tonight. He was the MC; I'd be the hostess. I'd derisively described my duties as "being Vanna." He'd laughed but nodded, with a little shrug. "Yeah, pretty much. No one watches Wheel of Fortune to look at Pat Sajak."
The dress was black and sleeveless, with a deep V at neck and back; it was clingy, but had little darts to shirr the fabric along the abdomen, so it wasn't too clingy for a girl who had no time to exercise beyond running from one day to the next. I slapped on lipstick, mascara, and some eye shadow in the space of under two minutes. A little "Short, Sexy Hair" gel did the trick on my head, and I was done. I slid into high but comfortable heels, kicked my backpack into a corner, and let myself back into the fray.
In the five minutes I'd spent in the bathroom, it seemed a bus had unloaded into the Sellway showroom. I saw Jon Sundstrom and headed over to say hi, placing a hand on Frank's shoulder with a quick "excuse me" as I pushed past.
He turned at the sound of my voice, still looking annoyed, mouth already talking. "I thought we talked about the buffet being set up on tables, not… You look nice." His expression was confused.
"Jeff agreed the tables would get in the way," I reminded him without stopping. "Hi, Jon, nice to see you again! Thank you so much for doing this."
It's the same in theatre as in the food business and probably every other kind of entertainment on earth: once the show has begun and your body is pumped with adrenaline, time seems to hit a Class 5 rapids and you're just along for the ride, loving every second. Before I could turn around, guests were pouring in the door. Suddenly I needed to get on the mike and start the show. I hadn't had time to stress about this beforehand and just picked up the mike, not really caring that I had not given a moment's thought to what I was going to say. This was my show and I knew it inside and out.
"Good evening," I said, allowing my lips to almost brush the surface of the microphone. Keeping the mike too far from your mouth is the biggest mistake of every amateur public speaker I've ever seen. My voice came back from the corners of the room, sounding professional even to me. The babble of the crowd died down. "Good evening, everyone, and thank you for coming to the first annual Seattle's Rusty Chef Amateur Cooking Competition!"
It was a blur. I whirled around the room, greeting people and finding napkins and pouring wine and trying to keep tabs on how the contestants were doing. We presented the mystery baskets, which Kären had selected so as to avoid any bias toward the contestants' skills or weak spots. The contestants then had fifteen minutes to write up their 3-course menus, which must utilize all the ingredients but one—they were allowed one discard. Then we began the 90-minute cooking period, and Gabe kept up an almost-constant running commentary on who was doing what, just like on the show IRon Chef (which we'd watched at a friend's house to make sure we were on the right track).
"Folks, don't be concerned, but it does look like Shane is trying to burn down the building," he announced jovially at one point. "I don't want to cheat, here, but I'd like to protect all our lives, and I do think that oil should be removed from the heat."
Guests ate and browsed around and watched the show and drank wine for awhile, but as the 90-minute clock ran out, the tension did escalate, and I was thrilled that people were getting into the contest. By the end, everyone was camped out in fRont of one kitchen or the other, watching as Shane and Shellie—with waves of stress rising from their kitchens like heat—put the finishing touches on their plates.
Shane finished just as the clock ran out, and with a flourish Gabe and I delivered his plates to the judges' table. Shellie was still running around her kitchen in a tense, silent frenzy, muttering under her breath to her assistant, frowning deeply. She finished a full ten minutes late, where each minute was one point off her total score.
The audience milled impatiently while the judges ate, but I had considered this lull beforehand; to divert them, we announced the "winners" of the silent auction. My mom had bought a set of Savage knives and the baseball package; she single-handedly upped the event's income by about $500.
By the time we were finished with the auction, the judges were ready. I noticed immediately that Shellie's plates had been scraped clean and that most of Shane's food was still on the plates. The judges called the contestants before them and asked a few questions about their decisions, making notations on their score cards as they went.
"And, just one more question… Shellie, which dish did you use the pepitas in?" asked Jon Sundstrom, casually leaning his blond head on one hand.
Shellie froze and seemed to stiffen. Red crept up from below her apRon and spread into her chest, neck, and then her face before she answered. "I—I forgot them. They're still on the counter." She looked down at her feet and I could tell she was trying not to cry.
Shane smirked. Failure to use all of the ingredients cost 25 points out of a possible 100, and Shellie had already lost 10 by finishing late.
Jon was just as surprised by this answer as the rest of us, and compressed his lips together. He leaned in toward Cynthia, and the other judges turned shoulders toward them to confer. Cynthia had started scribbling on the cumulative score sheet as soon as Shellie answered, and now she straightened up with a slight smile and pushed the results toward the other judges. There were nods all around.
Cynthia took the score sheet and rose. Gabe took his cue and turned on the mike. "OK, everyone, it looks like the judges are ready to make an announcement of the winner! Could I have everybody's attention please?"
He slid behind the judges' table. "Allow me to introduce again Rusty Chef Judge Cynthia Nims, food editor of Seattle Magazine." He handed Cynthia the mike.
"Thank you, Gabriel. And thanks to all of you for coming out to support FareStart. Both of these contestants have done an amazing job, putting themselves out there and doing some wonderful cooking for this event. The fact that they were willing to do this in fRont of an audience is just amazing—I know lots of chefs who wouldn't!" Both Chris Plemmons and Jon grinned ruefully and nodded. "This was a tough competition to judge, but we are thrilled to announce tonight's Rusty Chef winner…" She trailed off and looked around the room, smiling. "Congratulations to Shellie Slettebak!"
The room erupted in applause as Shane's face caved in. Embarrassment and bitterness flashed across his features. To have lost by at least 35 points was a crushing blow. Composing himself, he turned to Shellie and stuck out his hand. "Congratulations."
It didn't take long for the room to empty out after that. Jayne dealt with the details of the auction—receiving funds from people and handing out their "winnings"—and I spun around saying goodbye. Gabriel joked with the judges and with Shellie and Kimberly, but Shane and his assistant were quiet, puttering around their kitchen. We'd specified that both contestants would need to stay for cleanup, but Shane was so disheartened it seemed cruel. I'd recruited cleaning volunteers from among our students, and I whispered to Gabe that perhaps we should let Shane go. A moment later I saw him and his friend slink out the door, and that was the last we ever saw of him.
Soon the room was empty of guests and the rest of us were cleaning up as quickly as we could. The feeling of success was heady; I felt like I'd just inhaled a lungful of pure "YES!" The cleaning of two dirty kitchens and the huge roomful of discarded plates and glassware couldn't mar this at all.
Kären and her crew had the buffet picked up in no time, and the camera crew had left almost before the guests. Sellway's staff milled about, not helping with cleanup at all. Jeff Smith was red-cheeked and jovial, clapping Gabe on the back every couple of minutes. When Frank asked me to step into his office for a moment, I felt a flush of pride, knowing I fully deserved the praise I was about to get.
Jayne stopped me as I followed Frank back toward the offices. "Heidi, this was amazing. You did such a great job. I can't believe how well it went!"
I hugged her, grateful that she'd said so right in fRont of Frank. I knew she'd done it on purpose; she was savvy like that. "I'll call you tomorrow to figure out what we need to wrap up, OK?"
"Sounds good." She kissed my cheek and I turned away.
Frank was already seating himself behind his desk as I followed him into the office. I hated to sit down; I felt a helium pull tugging me upward, a bouncy elation which didn't want to be tethered to a chair even for a moment. I supposed it'd be worth it to hear Frank recant even a little of his earlier grouchiness.
"Could you close the door?" he asked as I began to sit.
I tilted my head. "Um…sure."
His face was not at all contrite or sheepish; instead he seemed to leer. Alcohol made the skin of his face a flaccid, like soft meat. I felt a flicker of confusion.
"I think you know what I want to talk about," he said.
"It seems like maybe we should wait on the debrief until after the event, or even next week," I returned, not at all sure anymore that I wanted to hear what he had to say. "This is probably something we should all discuss together." I turned back toward the door.
"No." He rose. "No, this is right now. You don't need to go back and schmooze and suck up all the glory any more. You think you can just waltz in here and let us do all the work for this and you can take all the credit?"
I turned back and was surprised to find his face red and bloated. "What? What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about the way you just show up, willy-nilly, at four o'clock today when I've had staff here working since the crack of dawn on this. Do you know how many man-hours have gone into this event? Do you even know what man-hours are?" He lingered on the word man.
"You have no idea how hard we've worked on this—" I began. My spine had stiffened and my face was tight.
"Oh, I can see how hard you've worked," he sneered, and in a flash I understood what was going on. Like rabid animals just unleashed, Frank's eyes were all over me, slurping down the V of my dress, licking up my bare legs under the black hem. "Prancing around in that—yeah, that's working." His voice left no question of his meaning. His mouth was open a little. I realized now the look he'd been giving me all night was not just pissy but caged, waiting for this moment.
I put my hand on the doorknob. I had no intention of being trapped in here with him. I already felt dirty. "That's disgusting," I said, meaning his slavering demeanor as well as his actual accusation. "Gabriel and I have worked harder than you can imagine on this event; we've raised thousands of dollars for FareStart; you have no idea—"
"Yeah, right," he snorted. "FareStart."
Outright confusion replaced horror as my primary emotion. "What?" I asked, my face screwed up into a big question mark. "What are you talking about?"
"As if FareStart's going to see any of the money you took." I realized later he was just talking to keep me there, as he moved around the desk, but I was far more shocked by his implication than I had been by his lewd approach. "I know where that money went. I should tell that FareStart girl you've been pocketing it all."
He picked the wRong thing to say. Any fear instinct I had was gone, and I felt white-hot. The weeks of exhaustion we'd gone through to get Rusty Chef off the ground fueled my fire. I had carefully tabulated funds, begged for free stuff, put myself out on a limb to save a few dollars here and a few dollars there, all to raise more for FareStart. Implying I was a slut was one thing; calling me a thief was something else.
"That is bullshit," I spat. I felt suddenly taller and stRonger; I wanted to slap him, crush him under my shoe, kick him and see what ichor or noxious gas would come out of that bloat. I knew better than to get near him, though. "That is a lie. Every penny is accounted for."
"Anyone can doctor the books," he said, and now I was conscious that he was moving toward me. He said the words almost gently, and said them to my breasts, his face angled down.
I wanted to defend myself, not from his lecherous approach but from his accusation. Self-preservation kicked in, though, and without thinking about it I pushed down on the doorknob and back-stepped out of the room. I could see the surprise on his face as the light and noise from the hallway struck him like a slap. I wanted to stand and fight, but I could feel my knees shaking and my stomach rising. "Fuck you," I said, and fled.
He brayed laughter at my back. I had given voice to his desire.
Some hormone turned on the faucets at my eyes and I veered around the corner and into the ladies' room, furious with myself. Locked in a stall, I knelt over the toilet, sure I was going to spew, disgust and fear roiling inside. But nothing came up and as I angrily wiped hot tears away, I realized I couldn't tell Gabriel about this now. Not only would it ruin Rusty Chef for him too, but also he'd probably walk over and deck Frank, and that probably wasn't such a good idea right now.
I pulled myself together, checked the mirror to make sure my chin was raised and the tears didn't show, and walked with what I hoped was nonchalance back to the showroom, looking surreptitiously around for Frank. He was sitting in a small circle with Jeff Smith and some other Savage employees, and watched me as I walked by. I pretended to ignore him.
It took Gabe about two seconds of working beside me to ask what was wRong, but I just said that the day had started taking its toll on me and I was really tired. I threw myself back into the cleaning and it wasn't much longer before we were done. I stood behind the Explorer and fussed with the way things were packed into it.
"Let's go say goodbye," Gabe urged.
"Is it okay if I just wait in the car? I'm so tired."
"Sure, baby. I won't be long." He considerately tucked me into the passenger seat, kissed me, and closed the door. I watched him walk into the well-lit showroom, which had floor-to-ceiling windows along its entire length. It was like watching a silent movie. Frank watched him warily, but Gabe approached with open, loose body language. He stood for just a few minutes, talking mainly to Jeff, laughing occasionally. Then he turned and came back to me.
I practically held my breath until we were on the freeway, letting Gabe tell me about the experience from his end and some of the comments the judges had made privately to him. When we swung up the freeway ramp, I let out a deep breath and, on cue, my eyes immediately overflowed with tears.
Gabe heard the change in me right away. He turned to examine my face under the rapidly passing street lights. "What's wRong?" he asked. "You did a great job!"
"I know," I moaned miserably. In a rush I let it all out. The words tasted like vomit coming through my throat.
There was no visible change in him but when he flipped the turn signal switch it might have broken off, and the car began to speed up. As he turned to look over his shoulder I saw the set to his jaw. He changed three lanes in one movement and accelerated down the off-ramp.
"What are you doing?"
"Going back to kill Frank."
I sighed and sat back in my seat. Fresh tears came and I felt my face pinch up in misery. "Please don't," I managed. He flashed a look toward me, then returned his intensity to the road. He was turning around and heading for the on-ramp.
"I love you," he said.
"They're probably gone."
I let out a shuddering, sobby breath and he turned again to me, while gunning onto the southbound freeway. "Are you all right?" he asked, more softly, moving one white-knuckled hand onto my thigh.
I nodded. "Please can we just go home?"
"In a minute."
There was no changing his mind. In just a moment, our headlights were splashing into the parking lot again. The plate glass fRont of the showroom was still lit up like a marquee, with the circle of good ole boys visible.
"What are you going to say?" I asked.
"I don't know." Gabe slammed it into park. "I love you," he repeated. He kissed me quickly and got out. "I'll be right back."
He was still wearing his chef coat and pants, but looked more like he was going in to a prize fight as he stiff-armed the door and strode toward the Savage guys. Jeff looked up with a friendly smile, obviously asking about what Gabe had forgotten, but his mouth quickly turned down. It was like watching a bad remake of the earlier, jovial goodbye scene. Gabe's back was straight and hard, his hands flat and stiff as he gestured like karate chops. Frank looked like a satisfied toad, spreading his arms, his shoulders shrugging languidly, shaking his head.
Gabe seemed to grow taller; I could imagine the deadly tone of his voice and his Scotch-colored eyes full of flame. Jeff's face reddened and twisted, but then smoothed back out. He sat back in his chair and sipped his drink. Gabe's shoulders lost their starch. The extra few inches of height drained back out of him. He half-turned and I could see his jaw still set in fury, but I knew it was over. He stood a moment more, casting as much vitriol as possible with a last remark, but Jeff's and Frank's faces remained smug. When Gabe turned and came back toward me, frustration and hatred wrote their cold poem all over his face. He held his head up all the way out the door.
The acrid smell of Shane's burned oil, and of defeat, clung to Gabe as he climbed back into the car. His lines were drawn from weariness. I just reached for his hand. He squeezed mine tightly, then started the car and again pointed its lights northward toward home.