(OK, so I hope to have the next Luna City book available by November, 2017. Read and enjoy!)

Kitchen Work

“The work day in a restaurant kitchen starts early,” Richard had told his young prospective apprentices, halfway wishing that they would reconsider the whole thing. “Very early – as in before the crack of dawn; 5 AM to be precise.”

“Well, that’s all right,” Bree Grant chirped. “Gee-Nan and Grampy’s roosters tune up just outside my bedroom window, hours before sunrise, and Grampy gets up early to feed the goats.”

“And on those days when we serve supper at the Café – which will be those Friday and Saturdays around the holidays and special events,” Richard continued, hoping to dampen some of that juvenile optimism, as it made him feel very old, “Your work day will end at ten o’clock. Midnight if you are not on top of the game. Otherwise at around 3 PM, when everything for the following day is sorted.”

“That’s all right,” Bree was unquenched. “Anything to get out of eating Gee-Nans tofu and lentil barf.”

“Wait until you have spent a week scrubbing dishes, pots, and pans,” Richard warned. “That tofu-barf might start to look awfully good to you, then.”

“Never,” Bree looked obstinate, and Richard scowled. “Let me remind you; I am to be addressed as Chef. I will address you as Grant and I will not be contradicted. About the only thing I want to hear from you is a request for clarification, and it had better be a necessary request, let me tell you – is ‘Yes, Chef – immediately, Chef.’ Are we clear?”

“Yes, Chef,” Bree nodded. Richard obscurely pleased that she did not quit on the spot, said, “Good. See you tomorrow, Grant. Bright, early, and 4:30 sharp.”

“Yes, Chef.” Bree glowed happily, and Richard sighed for the resilience of extreme youth.

 

Bree was, in fact, waiting for him the next morning, when he opened the door to the Airstream. She was sitting on the old picnic table at the next camping-spot over, with her own bicycle leaning against it.

“Good morning, Chef!” she exclaimed, as Richard rolled out his bike, and Ozzie hopped into his basket on the back. “Is this early enough for you, Chef?”

“Grant, don’t talk to me and expect a civil answer until I’ve had twelve more inches of hot British caffeine in me.”

“Yes, Chef,” she answered, still irritatingly sunny.

 

To his mild astonishment, Robbie Walcott was sitting on the back stoop of the Café, waiting for them. An elderly Volvo sedan was parked in the space by the trash bins – obviously, he had driven himself. The Volvo was dented here and there, and splotched with rust and off-color primer paint – obviously the main transportation for the younger Walcotts.

Like Bree, Robbie was annoyingly cheerful. “Hi, Chef, Hi Bree. I didn’t want to be late on my first day. Dad always says if you are on time, you are early…”

“He would,” Richard unlocked the back door, and flicked on the lights in the kitchen; spick, span, and scrubbed tidy. “Well then, Grant, Walcott … by the time this summer is over – and if you last, you will be qualified to start in any restaurant in the land as a line cook. An extremely inexperienced one – but a line cook, none the less. I expect you to know where everything – every plate and pan, every ingredient, every tool – is in this kitchen by the end of today. Perishable storage is to the right – walk in cooler, and freezer. To the left, non-perishable. Through here – the main kitchen. Every such item here has a designated place, and by the end of the day, be in it; clean, polished and ready for continuing use. Am I clear so far?”

“Yes, Chef!” they chorused obediently. Bree bounced up and down on her trainer-shod feet. “I have a question, Chef – what are we going to learn, first?”

“Ah,” Richard smiled, dangerously. “How to wash dishes. And scour pots. And take a turn at peeling veg, and taking out the garbage. Still keen on learning classic French cuisine, the old-fashioned way?”

“Well, yeah, of course, Chef,” Robbie answered first, earnest and slightly baffled as to why it should be any other way. “Dad says that the right way to learn a job from the ground up is to start with the dirty stuff. And to handle a ration of crap. It’s a form of hazing, Dad says. A necessary ritual initiation, required to become part of an elite unit. Otherwise it just wouldn’t be the elite if just anyone could power through and carry out the unit mission. Dad says otherwise it’s participation trophies all the way around, and that’s no way to manage an elite organization. Not if the organization wants to go on being elite. Dad says…”

“Enough,” Richard held up a hand. It pained him to admit, even if only to himself, that Clovis Walcott – that is, Colonel Retired Clovis Walcott – had a point, albeit one pounded in with a sledgehammer. “You don’t need to tell me what your father says, again.”

“I really want to learn to cook, Chef,” Bree announced, her lower lip sticking out, mutinously. “Cook the right way, and anything that isn’t tofu-barf. And I’ll wash pots and take out the garbage, if that’s the deal. What comes next, when we know everything there is to know about dishwashing and peeling potatoes? When do we really start learning to cook.”

“In good time, Grant,  and in stages,” Richard smiled ferociously. “When you are sufficiently experienced at pearl-diving, then you move on to plating up cold salads, appetizers and desserts. Not actually making them – just putting them on plates in an attractive manner. Once you are adept with the cold foods, you will move on to plating the hot foods – side dishes, stews, or casseroles. Because this is a small establishment with limited menu options, I plan to combine those duties with managing the fryers. Should you succeed in not setting a massive fire which burns the place to the ground and actually dishing up edible servings of fried items, then it’s on to the sauté station. Ah, my innocent little novices – the sauté station will be the making or breaking of you. Lots of different foods, cooked in hot pans, all at the same time. Here again – because it is a small place, with a limited menu, I have combined it with the broiler-grill station; chops, burgers, hot sandwiches, sautéed fish. Attention to detail, unflappable in the face of distraction – that is what this station demands of the aspiring apprentice cook. In between breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I also plan to familiarize you with the mysteries of baking breads and sweet rolls, edible garnishes, and making soups and sauces. In larger kitchens, those are the province of dedicated specialists – but here in the Café …”

“You double up,” Robbie nodded, quite without guile or sarcasm.

“Indeed,” Richard continued. “What normally would take four or five years is being crammed into the space of three months … well, by the end of summer, should you last that long,” he added, parenthetically, “You will have the barest, slightest inkling of how to cook. And one more thing. Hygiene is of primary importance. You will wash your hands upon starting work, after using the facility, after handling raw food, eating, or touching your hair, face, clothing, coughing, or sneezing … in fact, go and wash your hands now, just on general principles.” He sighed again. “Every day, a clean apron – they are hanging up in the closet by the back door. Dirty ones go into the bin at the end of the day. The same for clean towels. The laundry truck comes once a week. But for now, mes enfants – go wash your hands and put on your aprons. The workday begins.”

 

“It has surprised me no end,” Richard confessed, not a week later, when Kate Heisel came out to the Age of Aquarius. Over the previous month, they had fallen into a habit; on Monday afternoons, after Richard had gotten a good night sleep after a weekend of eighteen-hour long days, and the Weekly Beacon had been put to bed, of Kate coming out to the Airstream for a light early supper, a progress report/strategy session, and a cuddle. Unfortunately, the scheduled cuddle was with Ozzie, who made no secret of his perverse adoration of Kate. Now the cat was curled up in Kate’s lap, as she lounged in the banquette seats in the caravan, her sensible shoes kicked off and a glass of Sefton’s marvelous mustang grape elixir at her elbow. Richard was fixing filet of sole bonne femme on the tiny gas stovetop, to accompany a dish of carrots caramelized with a bit of butter, ginger, and brown sugar.

“What has?” Kate asked, reasonably. The first two videos for Captain Kitten’s Kitchen had been shot, edited and posted, one with Mateo and Angelika, one with Robbie and Bree – all demonstrating simple dishes and techniques.

“The apprentices,” Richard answered. “Grant and Walcott … I have been brutal with them, my Kate of Kate Hall. Brutal, sarcastic, and demanding. Run them off their feet, hounding them every second, like a species of human sheep-dog, snapping at their heels. Do this – wash your hands – no, you imbecile, attend to the recipe card as it is written – and to what end?”

“Yes, what end?” Kate gave Ozzie a lingering caress, and Richard scowled at the sauté pan in which the sauce for the filets was thickening nicely.

“To no end! They are cheerful, obedient … every dish and pot in the place has been scoured to the nines – three times! The prep-work for the following day has been done – even before I ask for it! They say ‘Good morning, Chef!’ and ‘What can I do now, Chef?’ The walk-in cooler is cleaner and more neatly-arranged than I have ever seen it! Guests can hardly set down an empty cup or a plate, and Grant or Walcott is around to take it away. I am baffled, my Kate – baffled beyond words.”

“You shouldn’t be,” Kate grinned and held up her glass for a refill – which Richard was happy to do – seeing that it only was a half-step from cooker to refrigerator, and then to table. “You’re flattering them, Richard. You’re doing the courtesy of treating them like adults and not pulling your punches. Kids that age crave being treated like adults, not like delicate little children-orchids. And,” she added, taking a sip of Sefton’s glorious elixir. “That is what kids of that age want, more than anything else. To be treated as if they are grown-ups, to have real responsibility. Doesn’t matter if you’re the harshest, most demanding bastard on the planet. You’re being real and absolutely straight with them. And you are teaching them importing things. Bree wants to learn to cook, in the worst way …”

“Agreed with that,” Richard sighed. “She’s impulsive with the recipes, without sufficient grasp of the rules required to break them successfully.”

“But she wants to learn,” Kate continued. “So does Robbie. Now, he strikes me as being one of those kids who adores a challenge.”

“They certainly have it now,” Richard agreed, and Kate giggled.

“Reminds me of working on the school magazine when I was in high school.”

“I didn’t know there was such a thing in Luna City,” Richard racked his brain and came up empty, and Kate giggled again.

“No – I went to school at St. Scholastica’s in Karnesville. The guy who was taught the journalism class which produced the magazine was a crusty old Jesuit, who made his vows equally to God and the Chicago Manual of Style. He was as brutal to his students as you are to your apprentices – but we all adored Brother Gerald. He had high standards. When you finally succeeded in pleasing him, you had accomplished something, and you knew it was good. It was rough at first,” Kate admitted generously. “Getting back a story that you had slaved over covered with so many red marks it looked like an ink-bottle had exploded was a definite kick in the ego. And eventually, learning was achieved.”

“Life, alas, is full of kicks to the ego,” Richard poured himself another glass of wine. “Best learn to handle them and move on.”

“Speaking of moving on,” Kate gave an extra-thorough head-skritch to Ozzie. “Have you picked up any stray talk about the Mills Farm expansion?”

“Thou woundest me, Kate – that you would treat me as an informant, lurking around the tables, picking up gossipy tittle-tattle around the Café for your news stories!”

“I wouldn’t do anything of the sort!” Kate protested, although she had flushed rather pink. “No – I was just making conversation. If I wanted the straight scoop on that, I would go directly to Lew Dubois. I’m just a small-town newspaper reporter – and a weekly at that. I had just been talking to Great-uncle Jaimie last week – and he was going on about signing a hunting lease agreement with Mills Farm. He was so pleased – and it was all because of Lew. He came and talked to Uncle Jaimie a good few times, all dressed in a dirty barn-coat and muddy boots, explaining what it was all about… Uncle Jaimie was pleased as anything. He’s been next-door-across-the-river with Mills Farm since forever, and all he ever got out of them by way of outreach was Benny Cordova buying him drinks at the VFW now and again. Uncle Jaimie must be about the only property owner in Karnes County who doesn’t have a gas lease on his land.”

“Anti-fracking?” Richard stirred the sauce for the sole filets. “Supposed to cause earthquakes, you know.”

“No, just no one ever explained it to him that it wasn’t like the move Giant … an oil well spewing finest grade-a crude in a humongous pool over all of his pastures. Uncle Jaimie would rather not deal with all of that. He’s a guy from the last century – no, strike that. The century before the last.  A hunting lease is fine with him. Give him a break, Richard – he’s in his eighties. And … can I have another, Richard? I have a cat in my lap.”

“Seeing that it’s my cat…” Richard obliged, and topped up her wineglass. “Do continue, my Kate. The main entrée is nearly ready. What else is going on with this strangely diplomatic Dubois character?”

“Well, he has also managed to sweet-talk Judy and Sefton into sale of half an acre of their lad, with about sixty feet of river-frontage. Which is a mere sliver of what they do have, so I don’t think that is any great sacrifice. Which pleases Uncle Roman no end, because it means Judy and Sefton can repay him a good chunk of the costs for their new home … and he has a potential contract to build a new facility for Mills Farm – a riverside boat house, Uncle Roman says.”

“So Roman Gonzales profits coming and going,” Richard topped up his own wine-glass. The sauce was coming along nicely. “Nice work, if you can get it. Maybe I should have gone into carpentry and construction.”

“Too seasonal,” Kate replied. “And there’s at least as much demand around here for good cooking … oh, speaking of which – I’ll be a bit late next Monday, I’m afraid. Last-minute town council meeting, and it may run long.”

“Oh?” Richard felt his heart sink several centimeters. He hated having a routine disturbed. “What brought all this on? You couldn’t just skip it, could you?”

“I can’t,” Kate explained with careful patience. “It’s my job, so I have to go – as boring as town council meetings normally are. This one is special, though. Martin Abernathy sent out the meeting agenda to everyone who usually attends, and even posted something on the Chamber of Commerce’s Facebook page. The first order of new business is to discuss a bid to lease out the Cattleman Hotel to Venue Properties.”

“And this is significant? The place is a huge white elephant. The municipality can barely keep the lights on at the best of times.” Richard was well-acquainted with the bedraggled Belle Époque splendors of the Cattleman Hotel, as it took up half of the western side of Town Square. It once had been a quite splendid establishment, but it’s best days were now at least half a century in the past. There was a small museum in the old lobby, opened two days weekly by the Luna City Historical Commission, which maintained an office on the second floor. There were a handful of suites available to adventurous travelers, and a splendid and old-fashioned bar open with great fanfare on Founder’s Day weekend. Otherwise it served as a lumber room and overflow storage for the city, and most of the third and fourth floors had been abandoned to dust and slow decay.

“Too true,” Kate nodded in agreement. “Oh, thanks, Rich – that looks delish! I know – everyone loved the old place. I mean, half the elder citizens have fond memories of going to parties in the ballroom, or having supper … and everyone was up in arms when VPI first set up Mills Farm, and they wanted to buy the whole place for a dollar, disassemble it and rebuild someplace else. Before I was born, but Great-uncle Jaimie and Abuelita still spit fire when they talk about it. The VPI manager at the time – he thought that he could just waltz in, drop some money on the table and rip out part of the heart of Luna City. Although,” Kate added, as Richard set down his own serving on the table, and slid onto the banquete; Kate obligingly shifted her feet to allow him room, and continued. “I think the Bodies were pretty slick, gifting the place to the city, way back then. It was a dead weight to them and the tax advantages should have been obvious. Keeping the Cattleman open cost more than it would ever bring in, and that doesn’t even consider the costs of repairs and renovation. I’ll have the skinny on that after the meeting next Monday, anyway.” She took a delicate bite of the fish, and Richard was distracted by the expression of sheer gustatory delight which passed over her face. “I could eat this every night, Rich… are you going to offer this as a prix fixe option some weekend? Look, I don’t mind being your test subject. I’d beg to be … hey, you catch your own fish!” she reprimanded Ozzie, who had reached out a paw with the speed of light, aiming to snag the next bite from her fork.”

“The little blighter will have his own fish, my Kate – just dump him off your lap,” Richard savored his own first bites, and Kate protested.

“No, he’s our star kitten. Can’t we indulge him, just a bit?”

“Bad for his character,” Richard answered. “Trust me – I know this from first-hand experience. Enjoy your own supper, my Kate – I have prepared a special sweet for afters. But you don’t get your sweet until you finish your supper and veg.”

“Cruelty in the extreme,” Kate protested, but her eyes were merry and full of affectionate laughter, and Richard considered once again how very content he was with this new life; his café, his caravan and most of all, his Kate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *