BY SUZETTE BLOM
Copyright is held by the author.
GERALD HAD been cooking for hours when Jillian finally showed up. She barged in the door like nothing was wrong, as if he could cook dinner for 30 all on his own. He had rented the space for this event months ago after Jillian convinced him that an invitation only event for top business leaders would improve his catering business’s sagging bottom line. The wait staff had already started to arrive. He did not look up at first. He carefully laid the wooden spoon that he used to stir the boeuf bourguignon down on the on the wooden spoon rest and wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his sleeve. When she wrapped her arms around his back in a playful hug he spun around, his eyes blazing in anger.
“Well, glad you could make it.”
She twirled away playfully he could not see her flinch, or so he thought. Jillian yanked open the drawer, pulled out a crisp white apron and began tying the strings on to the back of her neck in a loose knot that would come untied with the slightest movement.
Gerald had seriously begun to regret that they spent the night together. He made sure to tell her that fucking always destroyed working relationships. He had been the head chef at 3 Michelin starred restaurants before he started his own event company. He’d never seen relationships in the fast paced and fickle epicurean world work out well. The way she pranced around the kitchen made him wonder whether she chose not to heed his warning on that topic or that he simply wasn’t that good a fuck. The latter was possible although he didn’t like to admit it. His less than stellar performance in bed reminded him that his once famous boeuf bourguignon was as out of date as mom’s apple pie. Hooking up with Jillian hadn’t remedied the fact that he was no longer on the cover of Gourmet magazine.
Gerald’s lip twitched with irritation over Jillian’s total lack of consideration let alone utter failure to assume responsibility. Furiously chopping up bits of bacon, he had to repress visions of smashing her head and watching the blood spatter on to the white counters.
“I could do 10 or even 20 totally on my own. You know that. But 30! It was your idea to do 30. This is the last straw. After tonight I don’t want to see you in this kitchen again. Ever! Is that clear.”
Jillian wiped her hands on her apron and placed them both carefully on his buttocks, squeezing playfully.
“Sure, should I go now or after we serve the consommé?”
Gerald threw several handfuls of bacon into the Boeuf and simply shook his head in disgust.
He was angry with himself for going into this ridiculous business with this narcissistic dragon lady.
In spite of himself he could feel the anger subsiding as he watched her lithe purposeful movements. She was simply good at averting disasters, something he had never quite mastered. He watched her out of the corner of his eye as she created masterpieces out of the blandest ingredients. His envy added a piquant spice to his attraction to her. Her dishes became memorable creations, the kind that lit up the mouth with the first bite and conjured feelings of delight long after. His dishes were by the book Betty Crocker style with about as much flair as saw dust. He comforted himself that at least he was the boss and that counted for something. Or so he was fond of reminding her. But he could not shake the feeling that he was working with an evil doppelganger.
He watched out of the corner of his eye as she whirled about the kitchen. Her movements crackled with frenetic energy. The biceps on her impossibly thin arms flexed taut beneath her faded cotton T shirt as she lifted heavy wood platters off the counter to make room for her creations. She selected a large ceramic tray and began spreading oil on the bottom with her fingers disregarding every rule he had taught her. Then she threw a discordant selection of vegetables into a colander and ran them under tap water without letting it run first. She hacked a slab of butter, shoved it into a bowl and microwaved it before proceeding to pour it over the unwashed vegetables. Nothing was measured and she never once turned the timer on. It was too much to bear. And yet by the time she had assembled all the ingredients into the oiled pan the dish she was making looked beautiful and had an aromatic bouquet that made your mouth water.
For a moment he glanced at her pert face, freckles on her cheek bones like an irregular burst of spray paint, the long dark lashes cast down over her sparkling hazel eyes. She resembled a pixie about to harass its next victim. Wisps of unruly red hair escaped the knot she had tucked into her chef’s hat. This is not what a chef looks like, he thought. Nor was it like anything he believed was in the slightest way attractive and yet the memory of that unruly red hair tumbling down her back as she raised her arms to take her t-shirt off before they made love filled him with an inconvenient twinge of desire.
“We don’t have any fresh dill.” He exclaimed in frustration.
“No worries.” Jillian replied cheerfully. Her face was a sea of relaxation despite his best efforts to disrupt that calm with angry barbs. He was sure she was coated in some kind of emotional Teflon. Nothing stuck. His blood began to boil. Didn’t she understand the critical need for fresh dill. “Are you for real!” Gerald exploded. “I can’t make the amuse bouche or the Cream dip without the dill. This dinner is a disaster and we are screwed. “His shrill voice punctuated the air.
Jillian calmly poured a glass of wine and sipped it, hand on hip, disregarding the absolute finality that his world was collapsing.
“Well Miss Don’t-worry-be-happy,, what do you propose we do now?” he demanded, aware that he sounded hysterical when he wanted to sound like an executioner.
“Just make it with something else.” She laughed as she pulled his earlobe.
“And the Boeuf Bourguignon is just not working! You do know this is my signature dish.” His voice grating even to his own ears. The potent mixture of anger, frustration and fear tore at his insides.
He watched as Jillian filled a large tray and carried it to the counter. He was riveted by the tattoos wrapping around her biceps. Did she really have to wear something short sleeved? Even if she stayed in the kitchen someone important could pop in. Didn’t she understand that he was trying to attract a certain type of clientele. Not just moneyed. The kind that really knew good food. The kind didn’t just ask for the house white wine but would understand which vintage could go with which course. How could he cultivate that clientele when his co-chef, not even a lowly sous chef, had tattoos winding around her skinny arms.
His thinking was unaffected by the fact that just last night he had found those tattoos irresistible. They made her thin arms seem like the arms of a goddess filled with sensual possibility. Now under the glaring pot lights of the kitchen they were just crass.
Jillian began vigorously chopping some chives and carrots which she had not bothered to soak. With each stroke of the knife Gerald felt his blood rush to his temples. He carefully wiped the sweat off the back of his neck with a towel and stirred the boeuf. He glared at the Boeuf. He had to admit even to himself it was not doing well. Even the most generous fan would have condemned it. It was rapidly transforming into a pot of dried leather. He was descending into Dante’s inferno each time he tasted it.
Jillian happily hummed a Drake song as she began making her fifth dish, pumping and breaking into hip hop moves as she spun around the kitchen.
“Hey, I’m ready to start plating. Can I turn on some music?” she asked breathlessly as she glided by him.
Hip hop, cheap wine and tattoos and yet she was ready to start plating. He felt a pinched nerve at the back of his neck as his shoulders rose up in response.
“Hey, let’s put some chocolate shavings on the smoked salmon. It will make it more interesting,” she suggested helpfully.
“Chocolate shavings on the Salmon! Why not cool whip on the Boeuf!” he scowled.
No response. Jillian’s face was once again coated in Teflon. In absolute horror he watched as she began grating up some dark chocolate. He willed himself to grab the grater and crash it over her head. He was sure there was something in law about justifiable homicide.
In moments she had grated a small volcano of chocolate shaving which she immediately deserted and began laying out small bowls for the amuse bouche. She filled each with slivers of vegetables, cured meat and maple baked almonds. That was not what was on the menu! Did she know no bounds! Worse, she never measured. There was no consistency. Each bowl was different. This would not do. She had crossed a line.
“Taste this. It’s fantastic.” Jillian handed him a small bowl and danced around the kitchen delighted by her own perfidy. Gerald looked down into the small bowl and reluctantly began to taste it. The first bite had a perfectly balanced astringency. The slivered vegetables she had chosen complimented each other in a pot pourri of delight. The saltiness of the cured meat contrasted with the sweet flinty taste of the almonds setting off sensations of delight on his palate. He involuntarily closed his eyes to focus on the intense pleasure in his mouth.
As he opened eyes Jillian’s face was an inch away from his, her mouth was, in what was plainly apparent to him, a rictus grin of sadistic pleasure.
“Wash it down with this,” she said, handing him a glass of the plonk she had been drinking.
Much to his surprise the wine balanced the diverse sensations he had been experiencing.
As he tried to turn back to the Boeuf Jillian reappeared with another appetizer of salty white fish plated on a rind of sweet melon and topped with dried strawberries.
“Next time we do this let us try it with dried pineapple,” she suggested.
Gerald looked at her as if she had suggested serving big macs that she picked up at a drive through the night before.
He took a bite. He resented every tingling sensation of delight the mixture of sweet and savoury provided. It brought to mind the softness of her mouth when he kissed her last night and the slight sheen of sweat on her shoulders when he touched her hair. The woman he held in his arms last night fit with his visions of the perfect dinner table laden with a creaseless white linen table cloth set, Riedel crystal and china bowls form Villeroy & Boch containing perfectly measured portions of tender Boeuf Bourguignon which could not fail to impress. The woman in his kitchen was a wrecking crew all by herself.
In his reverie he didn’t notice that she was liberally casting handfuls of the grated chocolate shavings over the smoked salmon.
If only he had a taser! He would watch her writhe on the floor which would give him more pleasure than the amuse bouche. In spite of his murderous fury he could not stop the mounting desire to taste the forbidden salmon with the chocolate shavings on top. As the salmon touched his tongue his salivary glands began to flow. All he wanted was more.
The chocolate enhanced the texture of the fish in a way he had not thought possible. With that taste came the memory of exploring the curve of her waist with his fingertips as she lay tangled in the sheets. The leprechaun in a faded t shirt standing at his side now could not possibly be the nymph in his bed last night. His anger stabilized him, brought him back to the rational creature he purported to be. “Who puts chocolate shavings on smoked salmon!” He reprimanded himself.
The guests had begun arriving and the serving staff was ready to start carrying out the appetizers. He revelled in his panic. It fuelled him. It flowed downward from his temples to his belly until reached his knees which he was sure were beginning to buckle. The bitter taste of bile was rising up into his mouth cancelling the flavour the amuse bouche.
He retrieved the Boeuf from the oven and dipped a wooden spoon into the mixture to taste it. It was not even mediocre. He had to admit to himself it was simply inadequate. That was how his epitaph would read. Here lies Gerald, inadequate to the last. He thought of jumping out the window or falling on a cutting knife.
The serving staff were bringing in the dishes from the amuse bouche. Gerald couldn’t help noticing that every bowl was empty. Jillian had poured herself her third glass of wine and took a sip before lining up the plates for the next course.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you! I added a citrus salad to clear the palate a bit.”
He was about to burst forth in a stream of invective but he couldn’t help but observe that the citrus course looked like it came out of an impressionist painting. The perfection of a dish that he had not planned hit him like someone who had just thrown sand in his eyes.
Jillian came within an inch of his face, a piece of orange skewered on a fork. Like a baby being fed he allowed her to push it into his mouth. The sweet acid gushed over his tongue like a refreshing waterfall.
“What did you put on this? It’s delicious.”
“Just some Mediterranean Sea salt and a little olive oil. Of course it would be better with dill.”
The mention of the dill removed whatever good will the refreshing orange had created.
“I thought we could also have this coconut sorbet,” she said moving aside so he could see the neat little Chinese cups lined up to hold the forbidden sorbet. “I’ll plate it as soon as the Boeuf is done. I’ve got these little purple edible flowers we can stick on top.
Gerald was seething, especially because his turn was next. His horrible overcooked boeuf was next. He began to tremble.
“Hmm,” Jillian muttered as she dipped a wooden spoon to taste the boeuf. “A little orange juice and some red wine would fix this!”
She whirled like a dervish and before he could stop her she had poured half a carton of Tropicana orange juice and a bottle of cheap Bordeaux into his signature boeuf bourguignon. His life as he knew it was over. He heard something shatter and realized the plate he was holding had dropped out of his numb fingers. His blood had stopped flowing.
“Now that is great Boeuf Bourguignon!” Jillian resembled a Cheshire cat as she tasted the transformed boeuf. He pushed her out of the way with what little strength he had left and grabbed the spoon out of her hand. Trepidation overwhelmed him as he slowly dipped the spoon into the pot. He felt a drop of sweat trickle down his back. He wondered again what the penalty for murder in the face of this kind of provocation was.
Jillian continued to smile, her grin widening as the spoon moved closer to his mouth. He shovelled a tiny chunk of the Boeuf on to the spoon and dabbled some of the runny sauce over it. Tears had started to build at the corner of his eyes. He pried open his lips and sucked in the Boeuf.
It was perfect. His overcooked leathery Boeuf had been made into perfection with Tropicana orange juice and some cheap red wine. It made his head hurt. The tears began to flow down his cheeks. The hatred building in him felt like a toxic rot. He was no longer exploding with emotion. She had emptied him of hope and possibility.
He stood by the door as the waiters laid the plates of Boeuf out for the guests. He could hear the groans of pleasure as they consumed Jillian’s doctored concoction. Jillian came up behind him and put her arms around his waist.
“Do you hear that! They love it. I told you — easy peasy. We are great together. I just think we should lay off the extracurricular stuff. It makes you so grouchy.”
It was a judgement he would have to live with for the rest of his life.