One

 

“ALL RIGHT, let’s go. That’s one of the steak and frites—rare, Tommy—two of the ravioli, one lamb, and two trout.”

There was a beat, and the kitchen staff all called in unison, “Yes, Chef!”

Simon smiled. It was like listening to call and response, or like soldiers using sign-countersign. The shout of “Yes, Chef!” unified and galvanized the kitchen and turned separate stations into a single unit. It wasn’t just an acknowledgment of the orders that had come from the dining room, or even each station checking in. It was more than that—something closer to the starting pistol for a race or the beep of a heart monitor.

A silent kitchen was a kitchen in trouble, struggling, with each station focused solely on its own work. And a chaotic kitchen was a kitchen where things were falling apart. But a kitchen like this one? With pans and grills sizzling, Marcus, the roundsman, checking each station, Jenny, the sous chef, setting out the garnishes, the butcher spatchcocking, the bussers thumping down trays of dishes, and steam-scowered dishwashers heaving them up again? This kitchen looked like chaos, but it wasn’t. And it was the response—Yes, Chef!—that let you know everything was running exactly as it should.

Simon raised his head from his notes and smiled at Mark, head chef and, increasingly, friend. Mark acknowledged the look with a nod. No smile—he had his game face on, which meant smiles would be dished out sparingly and only to those exceeding themselves in the kitchen. That was just fine by Simon.

Simon had poached Mark for head chef at Brasserie sur le Lac three years earlier, and every time he saw Mark in action in the kitchen, he was glad he’d done it. Mark started work on the first of June that year and never seemed to stop. He was always first in, and he was often last out. His “comic-book hero” jaw was always clean-shaven. His whites were impeccable and brilliant. Even though it was mid-August and so hot the outside air felt like the temperature of bathwater and it must have been ten or more degrees hotter in the kitchen, Mark looked calm, clean, and cool. His only concession to the heat was the little ice pack he rolled into the kerchief around his neck. And Simon only knew about that because Mark came into Simon’s office to change it every couple of hours. He wouldn’t do it in front of the under chefs because he felt it was a show of weakness. He had incredible standards but wouldn’t ask that the staff do anything he wouldn’t do himself. He was one hell of a chef.

Too bad he’s married. Simon watched Mark steward the kitchen into action. He’d be absolutely perfect for Tristan. Simon’s baby brother might already be in a relationship, but he deserved better. Much to Simon’s chagrin, he’d dredged up an ex-con from God knew where and then fallen head over heels in love with him. Rebound, Simon kept telling himself. Tristan was on the rebound. That was all. He was counting the days till that relationship was over and Tristan looked for somebody better. Simon wasn’t going to say “I told you so,” because his brother had been through a lot lately. Besides, that wasn’t his style. Instead he’d have some guys waiting in the wings. Maybe Marcus, Simon mused as he watched the roundsman move from station to station like a bumblebee in a field of flowers.

Marcus was a hard worker and conscientious, and he did shit like go camping and hiking and rock climbing on the weekends—hobbies he’d taken up in the last year or two and which had done something to his chest and back and butt that even Simon had noticed—another someone who’d be good for Tristan. And Marcus wasn’t dating anyone, as far as Simon knew. Would he be interested in guys? Impossible to know without asking, and that would be an awkward conversation. Marcus, I’ve always liked you, and lately you’ve gotten pretty ripped. Are you interested in dating my brother?

Simon scowled. Across twenty feet of kitchen and two stations, Hiro, the sommelier, happened to glance up and meet Simon’s eyes. He raised one eyebrow and pointed at himself. Are you scowling at me?

Simon shook his head and waved. Sorry.

Then Ginger, his maître d’, caught his arm. “Hey, boss,” she said. He glanced at the clock—6:15 p.m. Right on schedule. “Ready to do the roster?” she asked.

“Yep. Who do we have tonight?”

She showed him her notebook, the names written in her careful, perfect copperplate.

“Mr. and Mrs. Campbell are back, with a party of six this time,” she said. “The kids and grandkids. Littlest is five, but Jenny says they can do something toddler friendly. It’s Mr. Campbell’s birthday, by the way. They’re seated now, at table ten.” She nodded toward the big table by the windows, the one with the good lake view and plenty of space for Mrs. Campbell’s wheelchair. The Campbells were regular enough customers for Ginger to fold their needs into their reservation without comment. Of course they would want a table with a view and wheelchair access but slightly outside the hubbub at the heart of the restaurant. He’d have to go shake hands with the family and send Mark out to hobnob between the last course and dessert.

“Judy Auchinschloss,” Ginger went on. “She’s sitting at table one. And there’s Chas and Jen Chan, not in yet. I’m thinking table four. Amber Curzon—”

“The lawyer?” he asked, startled by the name.

She glanced up at him. “Someone you know?”

“No, I just….” He shook his head. Curzon was part of the reason Tristan was dating an ex-con and not a current con. Though, to be fair, the fire at the bakery really hadn’t been Jake’s fault. “I know the name from around town,” he explained. “How many in that party?”

“Four altogether.”

Huh. Amber got Tristan’s boyfriend off the latest round of criminal charges. Tristan wouldn’t stop talking about her as though she were some kind of goddess and not a scumbag washing machine. Whenever Tristan went on about how great she was, all Simon could picture was a troll in a business suit. It would be interesting to see her in the flesh. “Can we put her at table eight?”

Ginger raised an eyebrow. “The table closest to the bathrooms?”

He nodded.

Ginger snorted. “Sure, if you want. But her money spends the same as anybody else’s, you know.”

“I know.”

“You just don’t want her money,” she surmised shrewdly.

Simon considered that. “Not especially, no.”

Ginger eyed him and then cleared her throat and went on. “Okay. By the bathroom it is, then. Who else? Oh. Antanoli, party of four, silver anniversary. They should be in when the Campbells are gone, so I thought I’d break up table ten and give them ten B. And then….” She hesitated, and something about her manner and expression made it seem like she was about to give him a present. “We have Lucas Ferreya, party of three. Actually, the reservation’s under Mazurek, but I did a little snooping.” She winked. He failed to wink back or grin or do anything. The name had sent a jolt right through him, as though somebody had pushed a stun gun up against his abs and pulled the trigger.

“Luke Ferreya?” he answered, a little breathless. “Coming here? What time?”

She laughed. “I know, right? He’s booked in for eight. Cole Doren is with them,” she added, grinning hugely.

Christ. He heard himself say, “Cole Doren? Really?” After all, the guy was an important food critic out of San Francisco, though word was he’d moved to New York. He’d just put out a book on the history of Spanish wines, and now he was editor of Devour. But Simon’s brain was still stuck on the other name. Luke.

It had been how many years? And the last time he’d seen Luke….

Simon felt the blood rush into his face. Jesus. That was something he should not think about in public.

“You okay, boss?” Ginger asked.

“Yeah, I just….” He blinked and shook his head. “It’s been ten years since I saw him last.”

Luke had been on the way up, and in the intervening years he’d worked with the likes of David Chang and Christina Tosi, and hit the culinary scene so hard, all that was left behind was the scorched shadow of nouvelle cuisine and a rabid following of fans. He changed what steak was in the US, which Simon had thought impossible. But Luke had done it, and he made it look easy.

Simon and Luke had gone to culinary school together, back when Simon thought he’d follow exactly in his father’s footsteps and be a chef. Simon did all right. He managed to acquire some decent knife skills, and he could poach an egg, but he wasn’t exactly chef material.

Luke, though.

Luke was magnificent, glorious from the instant he walked through the doors. Even before the class was invited into the kitchen, Luke’s natural talent was obvious. It was just by chance that they’d hit it off and started a friendship. Simon was in no way in Luke’s league. In fact, next to Luke, Simon had felt exactly how rote and clumsy he was. Luke was gifted, in palate and in mind. He’d been utterly unaware of it too, and when people began to make him aware, he worked hard to keep himself humble.

Even after all the years and distance between them, Simon knew that Luke never forgot his friends. He funneled his rabid followers to his old classmates’ restaurants and boosted great reviews for them. In ten years Simon had never seen Luke punch down to get an easy up. “He’s a prince,” one of their old classmates, Andre, had once said to Simon. “And the rest of us are just the common folk.”

It sure seemed that way. Just being close to Luke’s rising star had left Simon in no doubt that his own future didn’t include commanding a kitchen. Chef material he was not. He hadn’t completed culinary school. He dropped out and did hospitality management instead.

“Ten years is a long time,” Ginger said, smiling faintly. “You nervous about seeing him?”

Simon laughed as though the question were silly, but the laugh came out a little strangled. “Okay, a little,” he admitted. “Warn Mark and Jenny about that table. They’ll want to know. And….” He glanced into the kitchen, where things were that sort of organized chaos that only kitchens could be. “Do we have anybody at the chef’s table tonight?”

Ginger shook her head. “No. It’s got the new menu all over it, though.”

Simon waved one hand. “Forget about that. Seat them there.”

She nodded and gestured to the dishwashers. “Sam,” she called to the youngest of them, a kid who was eager to move out of the dish pit and into cooking, “can you clear the chef’s table while the bussers are busy?”

Sam nodded. He stepped back from the dish pit and wiped his hands on his splotchy whites.

“No,” Simon snapped. “C’mon, Sam, use a towel.”

Sam ducked his head and grabbed a towel from the peg to dry his hands. “Sorry,” he said. “Uh, the chef’s table’s the one in the little room?”

Ginger nodded. “Put all the paperwork under my station for now. Any food goes in the samples fridge. Wipe the crumbs up, take away the dishes.” Sam nodded and hurried off.

Simon watched him go. “His collar’s yellow,” he muttered.

“Always,” Ginger murmured. “But it’s hot in the kitchen, and it’s worse in the dish pit.”

Simon’s scowl got deeper. “If he wants to be a chef, he’s going to have to present himself like one.”

“That’s Mark’s business,” Ginger reminded him. “You’re the manager, not head chef. Stay in your lane.”

Simon grunted. Normally he would have had a rejoinder for Ginger, but he couldn’t be bothered to squabble. Luke’s name had sent a jolt through Simon that left something like a fizz of anticipation behind, as though someone were about to pop a cork on good champagne. He nodded and started toward the dining room. Then he pivoted back toward Ginger. “Tell Hiro no beer at service tonight.”

She gave him a flat look. “Shouldn’t you be talking to the head of beverage about that?” she asked wryly.

“I am.”

She folded her arms across her chest and tipped her small, pointed chin up at him. “Actually, my paycheck doesn’t represent the additional—”

“I swear, Ginger, I’m working on it. I really am. Dave is already mentally out the door. Please.”

She harrumphed softly.

“Have Hiro bring up the best burgundy we’ve got for the chef’s table.”

“Before we know what he’s having?”

Simon smiled at her. “Apple and endive salad and then the steak and truffled pommes frites. Citrus sorbet for dessert.”

She narrowed her eyes at him.

“Order it for him. Tell him I said so.”

Her eyes got sharper. “That’s really overstepping.”

“That’s what he’ll want,” Simon answered. He hadn’t seen Luke in the flesh for a long time, but he still talked with the guy. Social media mostly, but since Simon had no social life outside Family Dinners and work-friendships at the hotel and brasserie, as far as he was concerned, social media counted as keeping up.

People in the industry were all in. It was all they did. Some jogged or kayaked too, but nobody was running marathons or paddling competitively. If you were in the kitchen, you committed. And really high-class fine dining was kind of like living in a small town—everybody knew everybody, and people kept track of the movers and shakers. Most of the current cohort of top chefs had worked in kitchens together when they were grinding out their apprenticeships or scrabbling at the first rung of the greasy ladder.

He still knew Luke as well as he ever had, and one thing that had been true in culinary school was still true to that day—Luke spent his life doing amazing things to food, surprising and delighting the people who came to his restaurants and slobbered after his fare. But sometimes all he wanted was to sit down and eat good simple food that was exactly what it claimed to be.

Simon knew what the brasserie did—simple food—and he knew they did it well. And Luke? Well, Simon was pretty sure Luke would appreciate it too.

“Maybe I am overstepping,” he admitted. But he grinned at Ginger, who was still looking at him aghast. “If it’s a problem, tell him you need his opinion like you need a second asshole and he’ll eat what he gets.”

Ginger blanched, and her mouth dropped open.

Simon laughed. “We went to culinary school together. Tell Hiro to bring up the burgundy. And let me know when Luke arrives.”