I WAS desperate to put something in my mouth with no audience watching. Nobody but me would know what the sip from the glass was, no one else was entitled to an opinion of the contents of my plate, no one was there to tell me, “Have another bite. Do it again.”
No camera tracked every scrap from plate to palate tonight; I could not take another request for a do-over of some tidbit that only starving lunatics would willingly put in their mouths. Maybe Renfield would want another taste of the morsels I was expected to eat until Sam the Sadist and Marcie the Monster were satisfied that the light values and the grotesquerie of my meal were properly captured on film, but I did not. I wanted good, honest lager, poured with just the right amount of foam on the head, and a snack of something that the English-speaking world recognized as bread with a bit of cheese that didn’t smell like dead men’s feet. I wanted to chase it with a pickle that looked like it began life in a garden, not the bottom end of a cave in ancient Gondwanaland. And damn it, no one was going to take pictures of it going into my mouth. I would chew in privacy for what might be the first time in weeks.
I sounded ungrateful, didn’t I? I had the best job in the world—I went from continent to continent eating my way through the best cuisine in the neighborhood, telling the camera and therefore the folks down home how delicious it all was. Or how stomach turning. Or how the food in Parma, Italy stacked up to the same dish served at Rosie’s Diner in Parma, Ohio. I’ve been from Phoenix, Arizona way past Tahoma, to Bombay, to the back-ass of beyond Thailand and Kenya, munching my way through whatever the locals offered me. Sometimes I thought they were having way too much fun at my expense. Sometimes they’d fight me for what was on the plate. Sometimes I felt like an unmitigated ass for taking even a mouthful away from people who had to work too fucking hard to collect enough food for family groups who were way too kind about taking in the ugly American who couldn’t even say “thank you” properly in their language. I always worried about it coming out as the local variant of “fuck your mother.” I wasn’t much of a linguist.
I didn’t have to practice words I didn’t understand here. We might be divided by a common tongue, but any insult I offered to someone’s mother would be on purpose, because we were all speaking English, more or less. Me, probably less. At least by local—UK—standards.
But that’s okay; I wasn’t saying a word here. I was drinking a pint of lager—that’s “beer” to my fellow Yanks and “one type of beer” to people who are accustomed to a lot more choices—that’s sitting at the perfect temperature, not too warm, not too cool, and not explaining to anyone or their camera about the best way to cellar the stuff, something I’d become an expert on about seven minutes before the camera rolled.
The traveling circus that is Jude Marshall Tastes had been left behind for the moment, and I had no doubt that Sadist and Monster were using the hotel room to its fullest capacity before we flew back to the US. I would return later and try not to breathe deeply of their escapades. It was just for one night; we couldn’t connect flights from Nowhereskavi to New York without the layover. Sharing a hotel room kept the expenses down, which was entirely necessary both because it was the end of this filming tour and because—have you ever priced a hotel room in London? The producers should thank us for watching the money. Oh, you thought I was the tall guy with the earring and the big budget?
No, I was the “me too” guy, with a smaller channel, a smaller budget, and a bigger need for the outrageous just to get noticed. You might say I was the guy most likely to have to eat spider on a stick.
Wasn’t supposed to be like that. I had a great restaurant with a following and a Michelin star, a cookbook that shone briefly in a sea of similar titles, and then it all faded away, except for the lawsuits. Let’s just say that my financial backer and I don’t exchange Christmas cards anymore, although he does remind me of that non-compete agreement every time he hears I’ve pitched a project. Bastard.
I was a sort-of somebody, and now I’m a different sort-of somebody, lucky to have a gig that at least takes me all over the world and into new experiences. It keeps me afloat in a sea of chefs and ex-chefs all looking for their own personal formula for “Bam.”
A month of eating my way through year-old cabbage and pig parts in Bumfuckistan and adjacent locales left me yearning for something immediately recognizable. Comfort food. So when the waitress came along to ask if I wanted anything else, I stopped her after the words “pea soup” left her mouth. I liked the irony of eating pea soup in London, I wanted a flavor that reminded me of home, and I wanted honest, unadorned thick green glop that sat in the spoon until bodily removed. Pea soup never sounded better.
Pea soup went with the ancient carpet in this pub and the tables carved with graffiti. Perhaps I would go shoot a few darts after I ate and give Sadist and Monster another few minutes alone with a mattress that sagged not quite as deeply as the Marianas Trench. It wasn’t like I had anyone who wanted to crawl into any sort of bed with me. Life on tour kept couples apart for months at a time, something that made the producers’ first choice chef back out before the contracts got printed. They found me after that, alone, unattached, not even a cat to feed or an aquarium for someone else to clean. Being a chef in a fixed location was hard enough on a relationship, with the crazy hours and the various temptations, whether it’s the bottle or the food or the waiter in section three.
I did have qualifications for this gig beyond being single and willing to eat food not found in American supermarkets, though I draw the line very firmly at balut. I could describe what I was eating, and my tendency to say any damned thing I thought was at last a power harnessed for good, though at forty-two, I should fucking well be able to speak my mind. Lacking a filter south of brain, north of mouth had gotten me fired from more than one job in my youth and had figured into losing the restaurant, but was probably a bigger asset now than my “piercing amber eyes,” my “ruffle-able brunet hair,” or “semi-athletic physique” or any of the other bullshit the publicists had written into the promo material. The audience hardly ever saw my eyes anyway. They were usually closed, either from the joy of a heavenly grilled prawn or the horror of quite a lot of things. And they’re light brown, damn it.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that my crew found each other. They were away from their settled lives just as much as I was, if you could call what I had back in New York “settled.” With just the three of us, any tensions between the two of them were likely to slop onto the third party, and that sounded a lot like, “Have another spider on a stick, Jude.”
I’d had enough of the tensions and food I could barely pronounce—this tour was over just in time, and I could leave Sadist and Monster behind for a few hours while I started to soak back into my own life. A beer and pub grub were a good place to start.
I didn’t want weird, I didn’t want fancy, I just wanted—
And the waitress was back now, with a bowl that contained thick green soup and—
“Oh fuck. What is this?” I picked up a few shreds of the frizzly stuff on top and let it flutter back to the surface.
“Parsley.” She was probably looking at me like I was an escapee from Broadmoor or wherever they stashed the lunatics these days, but I couldn’t be sure. I was holding my head, shaking it back and forth, muttering, “Oh fuck, oh fuck, what is this, I can’t, no, no.” Or words to that effect. I knew it was parsley. I just didn’t know why it floated on top of my soup in this corner pub, where one expects simple, solid fare.
“I’ll take it away then.” She reached nervously for the bowl, but I stopped her.
“It’s not your fault.” At least I hoped not; waitstaff in my establishments never garnished the food. “Don’t mind me. It’s been a rough couple of weeks.” She snatched her hand back quickly. Couldn’t blame her.
“It does say on the menu….” She trailed off nervously.
Menu? Here? What does a pub need with a menu? I looked around and had to wonder how I’d missed the big green chalkboard marked with the day’s specials. Sure enough, it said fresh green pea soup with chiffonade of prosciutto and parsley and noisettes of something in something sauce that I couldn’t read from here, but the words of doom were in bright yellow and should have sent me running before I got my jacket off. Gastro-pub. I’d been drinking in a gastro-pub. No wonder the waitress looked at me so oddly when I’d asked for a ploughman’s lunch.
I picked up the spoon. “It’ll be fine.” And it was fine, it was better than fine, it was damned good soup—the parsley and the prosciutto added a bit of salt and savor with the nip of chlorophyll. It worked beautifully; it was just out of place and out of my expectations. I’d always thought good beer and fancy food didn’t happen in the same places. Beer and basic went together and never got near a white tablecloth. I had about a third of the bowl inside when something else out of my expectations happened. Too bad the camera and crew were back at the hotel, because the man in chef’s whites was very photogenic: early thirties maybe, thick, light-brown hair and creamy skin, straight nose. Where’d he come from?
“Is something wrong with the soup?” he asked, and now I had to explain. I’d upset his staff, and possibly him, with my little tantrum.
“It’s spectacular soup. There’s something wrong with me.” Only one corner of my mouth smiled, and I continued. “I’ve been eating a lot of strange things lately, and was all set for something plain. I just wasn’t expecting this. I think I walked in with my eyes shut.” Shrugging and taking another spoonful of his concoction by way of apology, I met his eyes, only to drown in the depths of blue and concern.
“I suppose you have. Where have you been filming?” he asked, and I told him, and didn’t think to be startled by the question until I recited the geography.
“How do you know?” I wondered out loud. “Do you watch?”
“Sometimes. Bit of a mixed experience in Thailand for you, poor bloke.” His smile brought out a dimple in his right cheek. “I didn’t think I’d ever have Jude Marshall sitting at one of my tables. Have you hidden the camera crew?” He looked around, as if a grown man holding a Sony SRW-9000 on a Glidecam might be crouching under the lip of the bar.
“I’d make arrangements with you first. Really, I’m just here for a quiet meal.” Was he disappointed at not getting the publicity? Did he think we’d just barge in? I’m an uncouth SOB, but I have some manners. And if I didn’t, I’d still have Managing Marcie.
“Then sorry to interrupt.” That smile wasn’t an interruption. “But since this might never happen again, I’m going to ask for an autograph. Would you mind?”
Being recognized didn’t happen so often that I’d gotten used to it, or that the thrill of being asked had worn off. I looked around for something to write on and patted my pockets, worried that I’d left the business cards back at the hotel. “Sure. On what?”
His smile was brilliant, full of white but not quite straight teeth. “I’ve got your cookbook.”
I lost my heart completely. He had a copy of my darling! My poor, flash-in-the-pan magnum opus that never came anywhere near the bestseller list, and he had a copy. Hope he didn’t understand how rare that made him. “Perfect.”
“I’ve got to get back to the kitchen, but I’ll be back out in a minute.” Then he did a double take at the door, where six people had just walked in, filling his face with “uh-oh.” “I’ll send the book out with Imogen. Thanks.”
He nearly ran back to the kitchen: I doubted he’d left something char-able on the burner. If it was all the same to him, I’d rather not wait for Imogen, who would tell me his name but not how to inscribe the book. I would like another look at mine host, who had a very nice ass, even disguised in baggy chef’s whites. Finishing off the soup a little faster than it deserved, I threw a handful of change from four different countries on the table for a tip. There were only a few places he could have gone, and when I stuck my head through the likeliest door, he was there, chopping for all he was worth.