NOT TO brag, but I’m famous. Maybe infamous to some. Most people’ve heard of me even if they haven’t seen me on streaming media or TV. I’m Adam de Leon, the “brilliant young gay chef” who swept the Millennium Cook-Off, then capped that win with the Gift to the Gods Challenge five years later.
What being gay had to do with my cooking ability beats me. I’m the product of hard work and luck. A killer gigolo, my version of the better-known cocotte, propelled me to stardom.
There’ve been a lot of rumors about what happened to me afterward, whether I tried to off myself like the celebrity media brayed or if I plotted to poison Anthony Bourdain, Emeril Lagasse, and a dozen other celebrity chefs. Life should be so fucking dramatic, right?
Yeah, I thought about killing myself, but it had nothing to do with cooking. The chefs? Didn’t even occur to me to try to take them out. Hey, I get it. I know I look like a thug. It’s the scar across my eyebrow and on my cheek, right? Maybe my size. People say I have RTF, resting thug face.
My good friend Guy Stone and I might appear out to destroy ourselves while dragging the world down with us, but reality doesn’t match up to our looks. He owns and runs Stonewall Saloon and is tight with barista and coffee shop owner Jimmy Patterson. How middle class can you get?
Me? After the turmoil of the previous ten years, I got out of the celebrity-chef business, out of the San Francisco Bay Area’s seven point four million people, and started cooking locally grown food for people in a small town of twenty-five hundred, not counting tourists from the city and Lake Tahoe. I fix what I want for the people who show up to eat at my Sierra Nevada Mountains Bistro. I create one prix fixe meal three nights a week, sometimes two on Saturdays, from May until the snow starts in the fall. I cook for friends, acquaintances, and strangers, and host galas. For the past five years, my bistro has been a part of Lake Tahoe’s destination wedding scene.
The tabloids had a field day when I first moved here, saying stuff like “Gourmet Chef Cuts Out Lover” with smaller headlines like “Celebrity Chef Bets It All in Tahoe.” Yeah, yeah. Haven’t lost a dime yet, baby, but they’ve had me bottom out ever since I left Jason and the Bay Area.
Unlike Stone and Jimmy, Fredi and Max, and a bunch of my other friends, I’m not looking for love or to settle down. I’m perfectly okay as I am. I’ve got money, food, and friends. What more can a thug want?
THE DAY was shaping up to be one of those a guy’d like to eat slowly and savor. The air was crisp, cool, and clear, like the first bite out of a ripe Fuji right off the tree. Even in the dark of six thirty in the morning, before the sun and the birds rose, I hoped it was going to be another great day worth living.
I ran my hand over my face. I could use a shave. The area around my scar was feeling bristly. Was I starting to look like a pirate? People would be wincing more than usual when they saw the gash surrounded by jet-black facial hair. I’d tried growing a beard once, but the way the hair came in around the scar seemed to emphasize it rather than hide it. Fuck. No shaving today. Naw. I could live with being a pirate.
My sous chef arrived whistling. Tonight was going to be our last meal at the Bistro until next spring. I could smell the promise of snow in the air.
“Boss,” Little John greeted me, his voice cracking in the early morning. “Chef, there’s a man sitting outside the front door. He wants to talk to you. Now.”
I let out a sigh. Damn. I ached to savor this pristine morning and watch it turn into a gorgeous, life-affirming day. I needed to wash my soul in sunshine and feel my spirits lift. I didn’t feel like butting heads with some idiot who was up too early or stayed out too late.
“You deal with him. I think we have some of the salmon left over from last night,” I said. “Make him a takeout with it and the rice, a couple of rolls, and whatever else we’ve got in the little fridge.”
“No, I don’t think he’s a panhandler. He wants to talk to you. He looks like someone I used to know, only I can’t place him.” LJ shrugged.
“Yeah, yeah. Okay. I’ll get it. We’re doing the crab mignon with winter soup tonight, so you know the drill.” Every meal started fresh with us.
Little John nodded. To call him a gnome or leprechaun would be a mistake. Little John was a pinch over five feet—as tall as Danny DeVito and Prince, he’d told me. John Barton—Little John or LJ—was born with one of those timeless faces. He was in his early thirties, same as me, but depending on the day and his mood, he looked like he’d recently been released from either continuation school or a twenty-year stint in Folsom. We met in San Francisco when I desperately needed a sous. I had no idea about his past or his present outside the kitchen. He didn’t socialize. Never joined me for a couple of beers after hours. Just vanished until the next day. I didn’t even know where he lived. I had a phone number and a post office box to locate him.
The points he lost in a beauty pageant he made up in loyalty. He’d stuck by me when I’d stormed out of a well-known San Francisco kitchen after Jason was ripped from my life—or rather, after I’d finally grown the balls to dump him.
He had everything I required in a right-hand man—loyalty, punctuality, and dedication. He’d made a sacrifice to drop everything in the city and move to the sticks with me. What more could I ask?
“Oh yeah and, boss?” He turned to me before I got very far toward the front door. “Triple X called and said they told him not to come up here this afternoon.” He was shaking his head and frowning.
“Don’t call him by his wannabe gang name. He’s Xavier.” LJ looked at me, giving me the evil eye since he and the teen were currently butting heads. LJ thought Xavier was a hoodlum in training. I thought the kid was a run-of-the-mill teenager. “Okay, I’ll handle it.”
Xavier was my latest do-gooder project, an at-risk freshman who’d told the counselor he wanted to become a chef someday. Les Walker, the personable and cute high school counselor whom I’d thought about asking out on a date, hadn’t been as sure about this kid as he had been about the other two he’d given me in the five years since I’d first volunteered.
“Xavier Ramos isn’t the, uh, easiest kid I’ve worked with.” Les had looked apologetic. “To his credit, the kid’s had a hard home life. He got kicked out and was scrabbling on his own for about a year before the school noticed he needed help. The intake people couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t starved to death after he ran away from his foster family. Personally, I think he’s bright and loyal. I figure if anyone can help him, you can.”
Shit. How could I turn the kid away? We were struggling through our third week together. I wasn’t convinced I was doing anything to help him.
As LJ donned his apron and scanned the knives and ingredients for tonight’s dinner, I trudged up the stairs to the front door. My three-story Sierra Bistro looks from the street like a cross between a two-story log cabin and a Swiss chalet, but in reality, it hangs dramatically down the mountainside.
Most diners think everything is on one floor, both kitchen and dining area. As my aching feet can tell you some days, the place has a kitchen on the bottom floor. Above the kitchen is an intimate dining room with a tiny serving area that most diners think is the kitchen, which would be a joke if it were true. A half-floor balcony overlooking the valley juts between the dining floor and my apartment on the top.
This place has it all. My food and the view from the dining room are what call everyone from miles around to make the trip. Or as one critic put it: Come for the food. Stay for the view. Both will enchant you.
The dining level was chilly as I came up from the kitchen. Summer was nearly a memory and fall had crowded in, with winter not far behind.
I had to decide what to do. Last spring I’d bought an abandoned building in Old Town Stone Acres, a foothills community nearby. I’d had Fredi Zimmer design an apartment above the restaurant space, and Abe Behr’s construction company had done the remodeling work on the restaurant and apartment. Last week Abe had called me to say the job was nearly finished.
Since the floor space was a bit bigger than my tiny Bistro in the mountains, almost as big as where I worked in San Francisco, was I ready to start pounding the larger treadmill again? Was I ready to create lunch and dinner for the groupies who’d been begging me to return? My head fucking hurt thinking about it.
Shit. I had no choice. I either had to become the has-been celebrity chef working now in Stone Acres or hire someone else to cook. I couldn’t just let the place sit empty.
As I opened the front door, my mind didn’t immediately register the figure on my porch.
Well, goddamn. It was Jason, a vision from years past. But not quite. He looked similar to the Jason I’d loved and who’d moved with me to the Bay Area fifteen years ago, ready to take the city by storm. This guy seemed older, maybe a little worn around the edges, but definitely not the Jason I’d left in the gritty Tenderloin of San Francisco. He wasn’t as emaciated as the living skeleton he’d been. His light blue eyes weren’t bloodshot and roaming, unable to make contact. Fuck, this was what I always imagined Jason would look like after we got married and lived together for years.
He was my Beautiful Man, my Pretty Boy grown up.
This was the Jason of my dreams, not the nightmare I’d left behind.