Become a Fan
The Final Ingredient
By Christopher Klim
Wednesday, September 24, 2003
A master chef determines the fate of an employee, while preparing a convicting man's last meal.
Nola J's Friday Specials:
Sesame-Encrusted Salmon in a Wasabi-Saki Paste, with New Zealand Mussels
Roasted Capon in a Tarragon-Chardonnay sauce, with Spring Vegetables
Veal Nola with Cracked Crab and Tomatoes
When the call came from prison, I was lecturing Faith MacPherson again. The waiters lingered by the salad prep, working the tongs through the spicy greens. The dishwashers paused over sudsy piles of flowered china, the steam moistening their hair. They believed I enjoyed criticizing her. I saw that look in their eyes. They thought I was a bitch, but I loathed having to spell things out for Faith. I hoped she’d aspire to perfection on her own.
"The mousse cake was garnished with fruit." I watched her shrug her shoulders. Pink streaks accented her braided hair. She wore a flaming orange tube top beneath her apron. What could she know about presentation and style? "It’s supposed to be painted with cocoa and caramel sauce."
"Everyone does it like that." She smirked as if she'd reinvented the Caesar Salad. "I decided to go with sliced orange and kiwi and give it an island flair."
"This is Princeton, not a luau at Club Med." I recalled her resume—excellent credentials, a woman to take under my wing. This business grinds up women like discount chuck. I hesitated to embrace my failure.
"I thought the citrus complimented the rich flavors."
"I don't need ideas. I need consistency." I drummed the facts into her head. A person saw magic emerge from the kitchen, but in reality, the menu was set far in advance. A kitchen required skilled chefs who recreated the same illusion with pinpoint accuracy. "Customers want the Crème Brulee to appear exactly as the dozen times before. Do you know what I'm saying? Exactly the same."
"That's a bore." She blew her pink bangs off her eyes.
I wanted to smack her. That’s how my mother would have handled it. This was my kitchen. The title on the engraved menus bore my name. Faith was my assistant, my hire, and my mistake. I'd gone out on a limb, selecting her above more qualified chefs.
"Ms. Jones?" Ralph held the cordless phone from the front desk. He burst into the kitchen, noticing the sluggish activity. He locked onto Faith and me near the large stainless steel doors to the cooler, then rolled his eyes. He knew she was in trouble again.
"You have a call." Ralph stepped softly, the soles of his Italian loafers kissing the tile floor. "It seems urgent. Should I inform him that you are involved?"
I snatched the phone from his hand, commanding Faith to wait with a single glance. It was after ten and only three couples remained in the dining room. If I wanted, I could make the kitchen grind to a halt. "Hello?"
"Is this Nola Jones?" The caller's voice splintered and twanged at the edges, like a stretched rubber band about to pop.
"Thank God. I'm having an awful time with this dessert. It's coming out all wrong."
"Who is this?"
"Ben Kuppek. I cook at the prison."
"Trenton?" I figured he wanted food shipped for a prison function. "I only cater in-house."
"No, no. I need to make Zabaglione."
"It's simple: eggs, sugar, Marsala." I prepared to hang up and resume my argument. Faith bit her nails. I'd told her to stop last week. She caught my glare and stuffed her hands beneath her apron.
"Just whip it together over a low heat," I said.
"I'm getting it all wrong."
I paused to concentrate on the caller. He was an institutional cook. I imagined huge pots of chili brewing in a kitchen with utensils resembling pitchforks and shovels. Zabaglione was deceivingly simple, like carbonara and hollandaise, something a rookie took for granted and blew in grand fashion.
"Should I send you directions?" I asked.
Kuppek sighed a chef's sigh, as if he’d burnt the apricot passion soufflé or, in his case, the instant cake mix. An aspiring chef pleaded for assistance. I wished Faith asked for help. Even the waiters saw her struggle.
"Would you like me to demonstrate?"
"Could you?" He responded, a desperate lift in his voice.
"It will be my pleasure."
"Armi said you were the only one."
"Hayden Armistice?" The name stopped me cold. I knew Armistice. He loved my Zabaglione. I'd scribbled it on the board one night, because I wanted the challenge. Armistice was big money from Princeton. He used to make special orders. Requests like that turned me on, so I obliged whenever he posted a reservation. It had shocked me to learn that the courts convicted him.
"Turns out he's got good taste," Kuppek said.
"The restaurant's closed on Monday. We do prep for the week. You can come to my kitchen."
"That's cutting it close."
"What do you mean?"
"It's part of his last meal. He's set to die on Monday."
My eyes turned away from Faith. I pictured Armistice in his Burberry suit and gold cufflinks, the essence of refined existence. "I didn't realize."
"I kind of wanted to get it right."
"It's the honorable thing." I often wondered how my meals finished the day. This one would be the finish for Hayden Armistice. "Let me think. Weekends are crazy."
"I understand. I used to manage a little Italian joint on the highway."
I let his comment pass unmolested. "Tomorrow is a regular menu. Sunday is the Thompson Banquet. Everything will be on autopilot. I can show you then."
"Super. It will give me time to practice."
"You must practice."
I hung up on Kuppek and refocused on Faith, but the specter of Hayden Armistice pervaded my thoughts. I fought to recapture the thrust of my argument.
Faith leaned against the counter by the food processors. She slunk back to the spot in front of me. She reminded me of a cat I owned once. That animal harbored a lot of bad ideas too. One involved scratching the hide on my leather couch. I deposited it at the SPCA so it might reconsider.
"Fruit with the cake," I said aloud. The help had lost interest. Waiters charged through the door with trays of dirty dishes, depositing them near the sloppy water. They thought about counting their tips and hitting the road.
"It doesn't work?" Faith lowered her head, her confidence waning.
"It cheapens the presentation. It's a shortcut."
"Shortcuts are for diners." I hadn't intended to insult diners. I respected them. They handled a few dozen ingredients, mixing and matching to fill a menu as dense as a Michener novel.
"I should've asked you first."
"You may ask, but the answer will probably be no."
She shied away. I thought that I might've been too harsh, but she stopped and looked back, her pink braids snapping around her head. "May I have Sunday off?"
I felt the punch sapped out of me. My hair was sweaty on my scalp, and my makeup felt grungy and exhausted. I needed a spell in the hot tub and a long shower. "Sunday is the Thompson Banquet."
"I heard you say it was on autopilot."
I divided my thoughts between who was in and who was out, and Faith just passed to the out list. She mustered no drive or courage to ride out the storm. I dismissed her with a wave. "Work it out with Gerald."
Moroccan Fish Soup Tangine Style
Smoke Salmon on Toast with Capers
Montasio Cheese Frico stuffed with Arugula
Angel Hair with Herb Pesto and Tomatoes
Baby Lamb Chops encrusted in Garlic and Herbs
Griddle-Crisped Chicken with Olives and Polenta
On Sunday evening, I stood in Ben Kuppek's Chambersburg apartment, avoiding the madness of my kitchen. Dennis Thompson was a patron of Nola J's since I opened the doors ten years ago. I was sure his banquet rolled without a hitch. I'd left the details to my other assistant, Gerald Basque. He was a quiet man, older than I, with scant flare but deft precision in the kitchen. A real wizard with the knife, he dressed meats better than any chef I'd encountered. He deserved more of my attention. Soon he might be my only assistant.
I whipped out my cell phone and dialed the restaurant. I'd arrived early on Sunday, set up the appetizers, and finished the soup. I left the meats to the blade master but departed before he showed. It wasn't like Gerald to be late.
"Good evening, Nola J's." Ralph answered the phone with contrived dazzle. He saw my cell number on the caller ID.
"This is the chef," I said, our little joke. "Is my assistant in?"
"Yup, the pots are running over."
"Like a pig in mud," he whispered, "cheeks full of Frico as we speak. Shall I go ask?"
I glanced at my watch, matching it against the tacky clock in Kuppek's undersized and poorly stocked kitchen. "Three courses down already?"
"They are licking the tablecloths tonight."
"Should I get back?"
"We can survive a night without you. You might consider asking Mr. Short Order out for a drink."
I scanned Kuppek as he entered his narrow kitchen. He stood beside painted tiles of herbs and spices. The tarragon looked like sage, which resembled rosemary. At least, they were green and buoyant, unlike Kuppek who appeared gray and weary from smoking. After viewing his pathetic kitchen, the first thing I asked him to do was to put out the cigarette, now.
“No such luck,” I said.
“No sparks?” Ralph quipped.
"I don't think our ingredients would blend well.”
"Too stale." I watched Kuppek smile. His hair shined, thick and wet, permanently locked in the 70's. "Call me if there's trouble at the shop."
I jumped into the recipe. I whisked the eggs and sugar in a double boiler, gently adding the Marsala to the fold. "Bring the temperature slowly to 160 degrees. Too fast, and you won't achieve maximum volume. Too hot and you'll curdle it. Understand?"
Kuppek nodded, impressed by my talent at the stove. He seemed to grasp the process, but he held the whisk like a crowbar. Worse yet, he mixed unevenly, stopping at times. He demonstrated no inclination for the subtleties of cooking.
"Keep it going." I said encouragingly. "Are you friends with Armistice?"
"Friendly. Sometimes, we sit after dinner. No one visits him."
"What do you talk about?"
"Good food and wine. He knows a lot."
He frowned into the pot, watching the bubbles recede into the liquid. "I should've seen this coming. Usually it's shrimp cocktail and filet mignon. Killers don't often come from million dollar estates."
I assumed control of the whisk, vigorously attacking the mixture as we spoke. I possessed the ability to divide my mind between tasks. To survive in the kitchen, you must handle a minimum of three simultaneous operations. "I can't believe they're executing him."
I thought he sounded pitiless. Armistice was, after all, another human being. I reduced the flame before the liquid spoiled. "He spared his dying wife more pain. Don't you think that shows compassion?"
Kuppek's head kicked back like the lid to a trashcan. "He's done it before."
"What do you mean?"
"He married two other older women before this one. Both were sickly like the third." Kuppek leered. "Both died unnaturally."
"Armi helped things along."
"Poison. Slipped it into their medication."
The conversation fizzled. It took an hour and a half to coax Kuppek into producing recognizable foam. He thanked me profusely, and I evacuated his ashtray apartment, relieved to find my silver Jaguar untouched in the street.
I pressed the speed dial for the restaurant. "Where are we?"
"Assorted Pastries, Ma'am." Ralph spoke as if reciting the menu for the Queen of England. He got on my nerves.
"Four star, I'd say."
"One complaint about fatty lamb chops."
I was mortified. "Fatty?"
"How did Gerald let that happen?"
"Gerald? Sunday is Faith's night."
"I thought they switched?"
"Who told you that? She came in late as always."
I hung up without saying good-bye. I was going to kill her, throttle her neck until her pink hair turned a fuchsia shade of blue. It was all over but the paperwork for unemployment.
Call for Reservations
I thrashed around my kitchen. I cooked when I was angry. I liked the pungent spices and the feel of the blade in my hands as I pulverized the meats and vegetables in my path. It restored sanity to a world without order.
Veal shanks simmered in a pot of vegetables for Osso Buco. Duck poached for Wednesday's confit. A pot of trout and herb soup and another with mushrooms and lentils melded on the stove. Soup tasted best after a day or two. I envisioned the weekly specials coming together. I gathered my strength, feeling the toxins in my veins subside. I can run this place by myself. I don't need help.
Faith entered as the phone rang. I was tempted not to pick it up and fire her on the spot. With one hand on the phone, I scanned her tie-dye outfit and beaded purse. I felt cold. Clean out your closet and remove your wardrobe of knives before sundown.
"It's a disaster," Ben Kuppek said over the line. He sounded desperate again.
"Calm down. What's going on?"
"I can't get it. A dead man's waiting for dessert, and I can't pull it off."
"What's it look like?"
"It collapsed. Toss it and start over."
"I've done it three times already." Kuppek coughed, then wheezed. The receiver fuzzed in my ear.
"The heat's too high."
"I know that, but any lower and the flame goes out."
I pictured the bulky institutional burner—great for boiling a pot of macaroni and cheese for one hundred men. Hayden Armistice would never taste my Zabaglione again. "I have a portable propane burner. You can bend candles over it without melting the wax."
"Thank God, you're an angel."
"I'll be there in thirty minutes."
I disconnected and stared at Faith. She stood at attention. Word had drifted back about the fatty lamb and my reaction. Her hands fidgeted with her purse strap. She assumed the worst, and she was right.
"I have an emergency," I barked. "Watch everything."
I expected the dishes to be ruined by the time I returned.
Hayden Armistice's Last Meal
Oysters on the Half Shell
Pear Salad with Mixed Greens,
Walnuts, and Gorgonzola
Skate with Black Butter
Salmi of Squab
I parked my Jaguar beside the mosaic on the prison's outer wall. A mural of joyous faces roamed beneath barbed-wire and watchtowers encased in bulletproof glass. A guard tilted his head in my direction. I smiled and yanked my instruments from the seat.
Ben Kuppek intercepted me at the gate. A guard patted me down and escorted us to the galley. I tried not to focus on the electric gates and weapons around me, retaining my composure. The place smelled like loneliness, like a kitchen after midnight when everyone's left and you sit beside the cold burners with a glass of sherry. If you shift too suddenly, you create an echo, the imprint of your existence bouncing back at you.
I brushed Ben aside, set up the burner, and rose the savory foam in ten minutes. Everything I employed—the whisk, double boiler, the very ingredients—came from my kitchen. I refused to leave another detail to chance.
Hayden Armistice sat at one end of a long table. I emerged from the galley holding the Zabaglione. Kuppek had tried to take the fluted glass from my hands, but I stopped him. It became a matter of pride. This was my creation.
I set the dessert in front of Armistice and placed a silver spoon beside it on a linen napkin. Armistice looked up. His eyes were the thing I remembered, deep brown like warm dark mocha. His eyebrows and mustache looked exquisitely groomed, black and peppered with gray. His clothes were prison issue denim, complete with stenciled name and number on the chest. I understood the indignity of being poorly dressed when you knew better. I felt sorry for him. He'd die in those clothes. I was glad I'd packed the silver spoon and crystal.
"Miss Jones," he said, "or is it Ms. Jones."
"Miss is fine."
"I was hoping you'd come. Please, sit."
I saw Kuppek chat with the guard by the swinging doors to the galley. They seemed as unthreatened by Armistice as I was by Faith MacPherson. I slid a plastic chair from the table.
Armistice dipped the spoon into the glass, retrieving a moderate portion of foam. He slid it in his mouth and shut his eyes. I saw them flutter ever so slightly behind the lids. The simplest ingredients conjured ecstasy on the palate.
"Marvelous," he said.
"Thank you." This was the moment a chef rarely gets, the pure enjoyment of one's craft.
"I wish you had prepared the entire meal."
"No one asked."
The corners of his mouth turned down for a moment, then lifted as he savored another spoonful. "The Zabaglione is treat enough."
"You have the knack. I regret not visiting your restaurant lately."
"I noticed you stopped coming around, before I heard about the trial."
"It was a taxing affair. My stomach couldn't handle more than crackers and chicken broth."
“But that’s behind me now.” He placed the spoon on the table and stared across the dinning hall. I wanted to turn around, but I knew there were only drab tables and monotonous walls at my back. His mind wandered. He still looked hungry. I suspected that if I dove into my repertoire of finest meals, he'd remain unsatisfied.
When he returned, his face appeared heavy. He carried baggage from wherever he'd been. "Are you going to ask the question?"
"What question?" I had an inkling to what he referred.
"Everyone wants to know, but you are too refined to ask. I can tell by your cooking."
"I don't want to trouble you."
"But you are curious."
He was right. I wanted to know why a man with everything went too far. I looked at the dead man, as Kuppek called him. He appeared aloof and unthreatening. What lurked inside? His previous wives had been exhumed and examined for traces of arsenic and morphine. I already knew the contents of Hayden's system at death: eggs, sugar, Marsala, and the lethal injections used to first sedate him, then bring him down.
"My wives were near the end," he said. "I tried to alleviate their pain.”
I held still. It was painfully obvious I’d heard his confession.
“But you cannot push things toward fruition,” he said. “If I am guilty of anything, it is forcing the inevitable."
The duck confit still simmered when I returned, but the soups and Osso Buco were set aside in good order. I lifted the plastic and poked the veal shanks with a fork. Tender and ripe with flavor. The clock edged toward midnight. Hayden Armistice's stay on earth approached expiration.
Faith gathered the ingredients for Double Chocolate Sponge Cake. Most desserts I bought from a trusted Pennsylvania bakery, but a few I still prepared on the premises to keep the menu honest. As she leaned over the counter, I noticed her pink hair restored to an even brown.
She held an egg in the air, poised to crack it open, but as I covered the veal, she stopped mid stride. "Is it right?"
I tossed the fork in the dish bin, hearing it clank against the rigid steel. "The Osso Buco will be a hit on Wednesday."
"Am I working that night?" She faced me. Her cheeks were scrunched and red. She verged on tears.
I hoped she didn't crush the egg in her hand. "I admit I was going to fire you."
"I know. Everyone told me."
"You've disappointed me."
"I hear it in your voice."
Her admission stunned me. I didn't hear myself speak. I was driven and successful. I mowed down roadblocks, even when the roadblocks were other people. "I expected too much."
"I'm sorry I disappointed you." She began to cry. "Before I came here, I'd read about you in the New York Times. I wanted to impress you."
"You stand somewhere between a cook and a chef. You must decide which you want to be."
"A chef like you. Should I pack up and leave?"
I saw how easily she was going to relent. I'd fired better chefs for giving out free meals or moonlighting at other restaurants. One waived a butcher's knife at me but refused to follow me into the dining room and break protocol. I know a great chef when I see one. I believed Faith contained those ingredients, and I refused to let her fail.
"Stop what you're doing. I'll show you how to make Chocolate Zabaglione."
Her face went blank, an empty chalkboard to be filled in the fashion I chose. Her tears ceased. She rested the egg on the counter. Amazingly, it neither rolled off or away. "But that recipe won't stand overnight?"
"When I'm through, you'll be able to repeat it for the Wednesday special."
She wiped her eyes with the back of her wrist.
"Master that," I said, "and I'll teach you a few others."
Copyright Christopher Klim 2002
Site: Author Christopher Klim Home Page
Want to review or comment on this
Click here to login!
Need a FREE Reader Membership?
Click here for your Membership!
|Reviewed by Dens Dreamweaver