How to handle a hungry crowd on a forty-minute waiting list for a table at Clementine’s No Crap Café? Have Matteo, the smoking-hot Italian maître d’, hand out sample plates of bruschetta brushed with rosemary-infused olive oil and topped with thinly sliced, lightly sautéed eggplant and tomato, along with shot glasses of my frozen white-grape smoothie. Hell yeah, it worked.
The kitchen was running an unusual twenty minutes behind on this busy Friday night. As owner and executive chef of the two-month-old vegan restaurant, I needed to be out there doing damage control in the lounge and among the tables, schmoozing it up, asking how the gnocchi was, if table six liked the Argentinean wine the waiter had recommended, and assuring tables three and seven that their entrées would be out in five minutes and dessert was on the house. Instead I was on sauté with my sous chef, Alanna, who wasn’t bringing it tonight. Alanna was usually A-game all the time. But tonight, she was forgetting ingredients, leaving the refrigerator open, knocking baskets of garlic to the floor, and snapping at everyone.
First of all, snapping at the staff was my job—not that I did much of that. I ran my restaurant the way I’d always wanted a kitchen to run. On teamwork. High morale. And precision timing. If I told you what went on in some of the kitchens I’d worked in when I was coming up from trainee to salads to line cook to sauté to sous chef, you’d swear I was exaggerating. A face pushed down into a bowl of cucumber soup because it went from just-chilled to room temperature before the waiter could pick it up. Being called a string of nasty swear words for slicing a portobello mushroom a hair too thin for a burger. Forgetting to salt the water before the pasta went in to boil? You don’t want to know what became of that guy. So just trust me. A few executive chefs I’d worked under would make a drill sergeant wet his tighty-whities.
“Plate that now, Alanna,” I said, maybe a little harshly, but she was staring into a sizzling pan of fusilli with the roasted-red-pepper sauce I’d just worked on, and it was starting to singe, as were her two other pans of yellow squash, zucchini, and eggplant for the seared-vegetable napoleons.
She blinked and shot me a “Yes, chef” with the gravitas of a saluting soldier, quickly plating the fusilli and stacking the vegetables—a little sloppily, but the napoleon still looked delicious and she had to make three more. As she hastily moved one plate over to make room for the others, the plate of fusilli clattered to the floor so loudly that my typically unflappable vegetable chef, Gunnar, glanced up, and he rarely glanced up.
“Fucking fuck, Alanna. I almost sliced off my thumb,” Gunnar shouted from across the room, a yellow squash in one hand and a sharp knife in the other. He ran his hand under the sink at his station and slapped on a Band-Aid.
“Sorry,” Alanna called to him, then went back to staring at the sautéing vegetables.
“Focus!” I shouted to everyone. I glanced at Alanna, beside me at the next station. “You okay?” I whispered. “What’s going on?”
“Fine. I’m fine. I’m plating.” She blew an escaped red ringlet of hair out of her face and quickly stacked the other three napoleons along the stainless steel counter and restarted the fusilli. At this point on the wait scale, I’d have to comp table six’s check. “Up!” she shouted, and a waiter appeared with a tray.
I’d been hoping to leave early tonight to get started on the hundreds of tiny, edible seashells for the wedding cake I was making as my gift for my boyfriend’s half sister, who was getting married tomorrow afternoon. But no way could I leave Alanna, about to spontaneously combust, on her own right now. At thirty, Alanna was a few years older than I was, and such a trustworthy, talented, hardworking up-and-comer that I considered myself danged lucky to have her. Right now, though? Lukewarm mess. Her chef whites were covered in splotches of mole sauce and olive oil, odd for the pristine Alanna McNeal. Her long, curly, flaming red hair, usually in a braid or chopsticked bun, was all bird’s-nesty, frizzy swatches sticking out of her lopsided braid and tendrils plastered to her face. Her expression was half-pissed, half-I’m-going-out-of-my-mind, and maybe a smidgen of I-might-cry. Alanna never cried. Besides, my kitchen was a cry-free zone.
“Alanna, take a break,” I told her, lowering the heat on the red-pepper sauce. “I’ve got you, okay?” I really had no time to back her up. My barbecue chili needed attention, and dessert orders were coming in, which meant I’d have to take Evan, on helper duty tonight, away from Gunnar, who needed support on vegetables since the napoleons and the roasted-root kebabs were a huge hit. Between backing up Alanna and handling desserts, I’d need Evan’s help with warming the mini-chocolate-lava cakes—five seconds too hot and the cake would turn sludgy.
I probably needed an extra line cook, especially Thursday to Saturday nights. But I couldn’t spare a thought to that right now or my head—and my red-pepper sauce—would explode. Note to self: at the wedding tomorrow, when the minister is reading all the Indian poetry that the bride told you she added to the ceremony, think about up-and-coming chefs you’ve heard good things about.
“I’m fine,” Alanna said, stirring the fusilli with one hand and giving the vegetables a toss with the other, but when the steam from the boiling pasta hit her full in the face, she looked as if she was about to lose it.
She wasn’t fine, but she wasn’t talking, either, not that talking was allowed between the hours of 6:00 and 8:00 p.m., the busiest time in the kitchen, especially on a Friday night. You could curse, you could shout at one of the McMann twins, either Evan or Everett, twentysomethings fresh out of the Vegan Culinary Institute, who switched off between line cook and all-around helper, to get you more garlic from the produce bins or another block of tofu from the refrigerator. But you couldn’t start talking about what you did last night or how you and your boyfriend almost broke up. Yakking it up was reserved for prep and the staff meal before the dinner rush started. In my kitchen, you focused on the food, your job, and the clock.
Because if you listened to gab, you might miss that one of your busboys, a wannabe model whose young–David Beckham face let him get away with stealing tips and leaving early at least twice a week, had to be fired. I hated firing people.
Alanna was just having a bad day. No big whoop. We all had ’em. To be honest, I didn’t like nights off from the restaurant, even if it meant escaping somewhere amazing on the back of Zach’s Harley. I’d live at Clementine’s No Crap Café if I could. I arrived around noon and stayed till closing—eleven o’clock—spending the hours before prep in my tiny office beside the kitchen, going over the books, inventory, mail, bills, recipes that needed reworking, specials that needed revamping, and staff issues, and lately there had been issues.
“There are always going to be issues,” Zach had said last night as he’d massaged my shoulders and back. “All kinds. From staff to codes to food to the receipts’ not balancing. That’s the restaurant biz.” Had my boyfriend of seven months cared that I smelled like garlic and blackened tofu and spicy chili? No. Zach owned a restaurant too, a bloody mess of a steak house called the Silver Steer, which was even more packed every night than Clementine’s No Crap Café, so he understood thieving busboys and distracted sous chefs, even if he wasn’t often at the Silver Steer. As CEO of Jeffries Enterprises, which he’d started himself at the age of twenty-three, Zach balanced more plates in the air than I did. Did I always listen to his occasionally veering-on-know-it-all advice? No. But he knew his shit.
Truth: I loved my eleven-hour days. With my own place, my own kitchen, working so hard was pure pleasure. No, I didn’t love sitting at a desk going over paperwork, but I loved when the clock struck three and the staff arrived for prep and the staff meal, in order to taste the specials and describe the dishes to the waiters. It was important for the waiters to know every ingredient in every entrée for when diners asked, and they always asked.
“So there are no eggs in the fusilli?” a woman had asked her waiter yesterday when I was out schmoozing at the next table. A smart ten-year-old who didn’t work at the restaurant could likely answer that one, but despite a sidebar of the menu that stated in bright orange that the restaurant was strictly vegan and a boatload of press we’d gotten recently for being the hot, new vegan place in LA, people still asked. “I’m a vegan and want to make sure,” she’d added. “If there are eggs in the pasta, I can’t eat here.” She’d shivered for effect.
“Eggs? As if,” the waiter had said. “Clementine’s is vegan all the way. No eggs. No dairy. Nothing that comes from an animal.”
That same woman asked for regular cream for her tea not forty minutes later.
My customers ranged from hard-core vegans in PETA T-shirts (I was wearing one today under my chef jacket), to vegetarians kicking it up a notch, to carnivores such as Zach, who always left my restaurant commenting that he felt like Popeye after downing a can of spinach. Just keep coming back, people was what I cared about. Clementine’s No Crap Café was years in the making, and at a mere two months old, despite good reviews and packed tables every night, I had to work my butt off to keep the place a success. LA had a slew of great vegan restaurants, and new ones were opening up all the time. My mission was to keep Clementine’s hot, customers happy, and food critics raving. That meant no distractions. Such as a sous chef whose red braid tip was now dipped in a hot sauté pan of olive oil as she bent over to pick up the zucchini she’d dropped.
That was it. I drew the empathy line at hair in pots. “Alanna. Go home. Now,” I said. I took her pan and dumped it in the trash. “Something’s obviously bothering you, so go home and deal. If you need tomorrow off, call me, okay?”
She looked relieved for a split second. “But you’re off tomorrow for Zach’s sister’s wedding,” she said, twisting her braid up into a bun. She grabbed a chopstick from her apron pocket and stuck it through her thick hair. “You need all morning to work on the cake, and the wedding starts in the afternoon, right?”
Shitballs. The wedding was at three. I wouldn’t get out of here till midnight. Then I’d have to wake up at 5:00 a.m. to start on the cake. “If you need tomorrow off, don’t call me,” I amended, shooting her a smile.
“I won’t let you down, Clem. I’ll be fine. I’m just . . . distracted right now. I’ll be fine tomorrow. Swear.”
Hey, sometimes it happened. And it never happened to Alanna, so she got a pass. “Go. If you need to talk later, call me, okay?”
She nodded and practically ran out.
“Gunnar, you’re acting sous chef tonight,” I told him. “Evan, take Everett’s spot as line cook. Everett, you’re on vegetables.”
“Don’t you mess up my station,” Gunnar hissed at Evan. Gunnar, late twenties and stick skinny with a mop of blue-black hair and narrow, green eyes, was famous for a serious approach to vegetables and his lack of a sense of humor, but he managed to make me laugh every night. Despite being so young, he was long divorced and had a nine-year-old daughter he adored, who looked just like him, minus the constant smile. Gunnar wasn’t a smiler—except when it came to his girl.
Within ten minutes, Gunnar and I made seven stir-fry specials, four orders of fusilli, and eight vegetable kebabs. I’d scalded myself with boiling water, had red-pepper sauce in my hair and wet flour under my nails, but we were only five minutes behind. Fuck yeah, we got it done.
Until a party of ten came in and we ran out of tofu for the blackened-stir-fry special. How the holy hell had I let that happen?
I took over Alanna’s and my job, sent Gunnar back to vegetables, and sent Evan to Xander’s—one of my favorite late-night markets—for five pounds of firm tofu pronto.
No more distractions, I ordered myself. While I’d been checking inventory earlier, even my normally focused mind had wandered to whether to substitute agave nectar for the sugar in Zach’s sister’s wedding cake. When I should have been thinking about how many blocks of tofu we’d gone through. Next time one of Zach’s relatives gets married, don’t volunteer to make a wedding cake for two hundred and sixty guests when you have to be at the wedding on prime Saturday night during prime kitchen time, I mentally yelled at myself as I stared into the refrigerator.
Six minutes later, Evan, whose flushed face and mussed hair indicated he’d sprinted to the market and back, returned with the wrong kind of tofu because he was in a rush and I’d freaked him out. You should have seen his exhausted, hangdog face. How could I yell at him?
I’d yell at myself. Inventory was my thing. And I’d better step it up and fast. In six weeks, a New York Times reporter was coming to the restaurant as part of a piece on “veganmania” across America. For the travel section in a Sunday edition. This was a shot at Holy Grail–level publicity. Only a few restaurants from a handful of US cities would make it into the article. Clementine’s had to make it in. Which meant the minute the wedding was over tomorrow, I was sneaking away from the reception and Zach’s zillion relatives and coming back to work. From now on, there would be no running out of firm tofu. There would be no running behind schedule. There would be no sautéing braids.
There would be no distractions.
Skinny Bitch Gets Hitched
For the second time in just a few short months, Clementine Cooper’s professional reputation hinges on one restaurant review. Clementine’s No Crap Café is poised to score the Holy Grail of publicity—a mention in the New York Times Sunday travel section—if Clem’s veggietastic lasagna can bowl over the food critic.
Clem has no time for distractions. Or surprises. But when her meat-eating millionaire boyfriend Zach Jeffries shocks her with a sweet and romantic marriage proposal, of course she says yes! Now she has to plan the most important menu of her life while fending off her domineering future mother-in-law’s extravagant plans for the wedding.
As if there wasn’t enough on her plate, Clem decides to open a second restaurant on her parents’ farm—Clem’s No Crap Outpost— against Zach’s advice. Just when she needs his support the most, Zach grows distant. The only person who really seems to understand is Clem’s friend and biggest competition, the cute vegan chef Alexander Orr. Putting out fires in the kitchen is easy—but in her relationship? Suddenly, her time with Alexander feels . . . hotter . . . than usual, and Clem starts to wonder if the charming carnivore she’s engaged to is really the man she should spend her life with.