Monday, December 23, 2013

Her Master's Choice--First Chapter


Bound to Please 1


Copyright © 2013

Chapter One

“Did he describe it as an ‘orgasmic explosion’?”

Shannon Bloomfield giggled. She dug her forearms into the comfortable position on her desk where she often hunkered down and Skyped with her BFF, Natasha Woolf. The two women got a sheer kick out of ruthlessly tearing apart food critic Bletchley Park. His purple prose and use of absurd metaphors made him the laughingstock of the foodie world—but maybe that was why he was so popular. People enjoyed “hate reading” his blog just so they could revel in savagely picking it apart later.

Natasha tossed her hair over her shoulder. “No, this time he went for ‘a regular tornado of flavors.’”

“Hoo, boy,” said Shannon. “He’s getting into the weather metaphors now. ‘A seismic cataclysm of cilantro and cumin.’”

Natasha laughed until her eyes were wet then took another sip of her hibiscus tea. She liked to pour it into a margarita glass so she could pretend they were enjoying cocktails, but they usually had too much work to indulge in that. Natasha had to leave her apartment soon to head to her new restaurant in the suburbs of Tucson. The two women used to work together here in the hills of Berkeley—thus the name of Shannon’s restaurant, The Wolf and The Fox.

Shannon didn’t want to change the restaurant’s name when it was at the top of its game, even if it had just recently lost a coveted star in the classy and deluxe Hamsun guidebook to the world’s restaurants. Chefs had been known to commit suicide when a star was deducted from their rating—after all, the top rating, the crème de la crème, was only three stars. Most restaurants didn’t even make it into the guide with one star. But in the foodie world appearances were everything, and some poor fellow in France who was probably already depressed had actually killed himself after being demoted from three to two stars for the “lazy presentation” of his sea urchin toast with caviar. Restaurant reputations were made and broken on the weight of one measly Hamsun star.

“Imagine how the Hamsun inspector of that restaurant felt when he heard about the chef,” the two women had always mused from the safety of their three-star Berkeley kitchen. Well, now Shannon knew how it felt, because coincidentally right after Natasha had moved to Tucson, the new ratings were unveiled, and The Wolf and the Fox had lost one star. Shannon had been too mortified to show her face for a couple of days, but the show must go on. The atmosphere in her kitchen had been stiff and uncomfortable for quite awhile, the rating only talked about in whispers.

Now Natasha said, “I’ve got to sign off now. We’re unveiling a new king salmon gravlax tonight and I don’t even know if the fish were delivered. Just one last thing.”

Shannon sat erect, on alert. She knew Natasha well enough to know that tone in her voice. She was pretending to be relaxed about something that was actually incredibly important. “Yes?”

“Deep Dish.”

I knew it! Deep Dish was a highly mysterious internet presence. He—most people agreed it was a man—popped up once in awhile commenting on blogs, and he always seemed to have an insider’s industry knowledge of things. In fact, Deep Dish seemed to know hugely secretive things before they happened. He had once scooped a brand-new restaurant’s award of the coveted one Hamsun star a week before the awards were announced. He bandied about names like Tony Bourdain, Jamie Oliver, and David Lynch as though he personally hung around with them. He truly did seem to know that Bourdain planned on jetting to Rwanda next to sample fufu and ugali, or that Bobby Flay was about to announce that he hated raisins. Deep Dish seemed to be a legitimate insider in the foodie world. That, or he really was Rachael Ray in disguise. “Let’s dish!” cried Shannon, Deep Dish’s catchphrase.

“Well,” said Natasha, “I saved the best for last. According to Deep Dish, the Hamsun inspector is going to revisit The Wolf and The Fox again within the next week.”

Shannon sat in silence, stunned. Why had Natasha withheld this vital information until now, just tossing it off in her sign-off?

Natasha leaned in closer to her computer screen. “And get this. Deep Dish thinks it’s someone different this time because the guy last year blew it so badly.” The scuttlebutt was that The Wolf and the Fox had lost their star due to some badly molded flan that was spiced too boldly. It couldn’t have just been that one item, but inspectors were human too, and no doubt had their irritated days. Since the majority of global Hamsun inspectors were men, the assumption was that an irritated, unprofessional asshole had had a bad day, and the powers that be at Hamsun were obviously now regretting having removed that one star.

Shannon leaned closer too. “That’s awesome, Natasha! Of course now I’m a nervous wreck all over again. I’d best zip back to the restaurant too.” The flan had been completely eliminated from their menu to prevent lookie-loos from ordering it in some kind of morbid tasting and blogging contest, but you never knew where the Hamsun raters would focus their ire next. “Do you think they might try and send a woman this time?”

“That’s what Deep Dish said. Here, I’m sending you his link. He thinks the next inspector will be a woman pretending to be half of a couple. Isn’t this awesome, Shannon? You get a second chance!”

That “second chance” was already bumming out Shannon. “Yeah,” she muttered, “a second chance to get another star taken away.”

Natasha waved a dismissive hand at her, the other hand on the mouse about to click off. “Don’t be so pessimistic, Shannon! You can do it. You’re Berkeley’s ‘it’ place—”

“At the moment,” moped Shannon.

“—and you’ve earned top reviews in every publication worthy of the name. Gastronomica said your lemongrass chicken was velvety, and The Art of Eating praised your quinoa salad. ‘Impudent and scintillating,’ they said. Michelin compared you favorably to Chez Panisse. You even got Bletchley Park to revise the scathing review he did when I was head chef at The Wolf.” The acid-tongued critic for the Tribune, Bletchley Park was also Shannon’s ex-boyfriend. But the less said about him, the better. “You don’t need to worry about this asshole rater coming next week. Just make sure you keep an eye out for any woman under fifty who has a male beard as her date. Here. I just texted you the link.”

“Are we sure? We just assume all the inspectors are under fifty because, well, it’s commonly known that most of them are.” Actually, nothing was commonly known about Hamsun inspectors. Their own parents—or spouses, if they somehow managed to have any—weren’t even supposed to know their true identities. They traveled all over the United States and Europe eating two meals a day at restaurants and staying in crappy Extended Stay America apartments. Shannon, Natasha, and the other members of their Facebook foodie group often pretended to feel sorry for these lone raters—they called them “raiders” in less charitable moments. After all, how could they possibly have any friends living as they did, unable to reveal the tiniest detail of their occupation? If any of them even succeeded at maintaining a marriage or a real relationship, how real could it be when they had to pretend to their own partner they were flying to Denver to attend a plumbing convention?

So they had probably just assumed all inspectors were under fifty because of the stress and physical toil the job must entail. All Hamsun inspectors were inhuman zombies and monsters, so loneliness wasn’t a characteristic often ascribed to them.

Natasha nodded with confidence, wiggling one eyebrow. “Check your text.” Her lovely image vanished from Shannon’s computer screen, replaced with a screen saver of Tony Bourdain in Namibia. It was the episode where he’d sampled the warthog anus, but the screen saver didn’t actually depict that part. Shannon just liked Tony, probably mainly because he physically resembled “the one who got away,” her ex-husband Guillermo. Tony even had that bon vivant, humorous, and fun attitude that was Guillermo’s trademark.

Shannon had loved Guillermo with a passion, with that sort of obsessive lust that only twenty-somethings ever felt. Once a woman had been through that sort of soul-searing, all-consuming infatuation with a man, she was probably burned out for life. Once she’d recovered, her next big relationship with popular food critic Bletch turned out to be a rinse-and-repeat scenario. She had put Bletch on a pedestal and worshipped him obsessively—so why did he need the ego-stroking of other women? But he did. Most men probably did.

No. Shannon was determined that her feelings for her next boyfriend would be more down-to-earth. Her love for the next man would be based upon a genuine, grounded, mature sort of love. She was not afraid to love again—she was afraid to worship again.

And her next fantasy boyfriend would never, ever cheat on her. Shannon Bloomfield would not be cheated upon again. That seemed to be her “pattern,” as they said in those self-help books. Guillermo and Bletchley, in retrospect, had a lot of things in common. They were both “yes men” who seemed devoted and worshipful on the surface, attending to her every need, flowing with sappy sentiment and emotion—emotion that must have been faked. For how could a man love a woman to the ends of the earth or time or whatever the crap those men claimed, then turn around the next night and fuck another woman?

I’ve been going about it all wrong. Shannon checked the link Natasha had sent her and did a quick makeup check in her 1940s bathroom with the jade, black, and tan tiles. Guillermo and Bletchley had oozed sincerity all over her, seduced her with flowery words, then stabbed her in the back. Shannon was sick of yes men. She had enough of those at work—her line cooks, salesmen, diners, her sous chef, Darius Fripp. She even felt that people tip-toed lightly around her because she was the high-powered owner of The Wolf and The Fox, one of “America’s Best New Restaurants,” according to Bon Appétit magazine. Her life was a blur of roasting, sautéing, sauce-making, meeting and greeting, ordering, and tasting. When she tried to sleep at night all she saw was hands chopping and stirring. No one dared criticize her because at the age of thirty-three she was at the top of her game.

Shannon jumped down the steps between her front door and her driveway. The filtered autumn sun warmed her face. She loved her Berkeley house, the row of vintage bungalows straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock film, the lacey shadows of the Japanese maples flickering against the Craftsman exteriors. It was so quiet up in these hills, each tweeting bird stood out like an instrument in a symphony, and Shannon preferred it that way. There was enough noise and excitement, enough hustle and bustle, at work. She didn’t need a party boyfriend who stayed up until four in the morning, like Bletch. Those party animals were clearly unreliable.

She put her 370Z Roadster into reverse, careful not to ding the undercarriage on the steep slope where the driveway met the street. No, her life was pretty good, aside from losing that one star Hamsun rating and the messy breakup with Bletch six months ago. She sped downhill toward the shopping district where The Wolf and the Fox was located between a marijuana dispensary and a mom and pop hardware store.

Let’s dish! Deep Dish’s blog had said. Word on the street is that Ms. Bloomfield at The Wolf & Fox will be given another lease on life with a return visit by the dreaded Hamsun raider who docked her a star last summer. The grapevine says to expect this beeyotch between today and next Wednesday. Run, Shannon, run! Or at least get your flan to set right in your ramekins before deciding you are seaworthy of this C-word’s star rating.

C-word indeed. Shannon set her jaw as her tires hugged the roundabout that was the center of her lovely neighborhood. I’m going to make sure every I is dotted and every T is crossed when this beeyotch steps into my restaurant. Then I’ll be the chef who earned back her third star.

That feat had never before been accomplished. There were only twenty restaurants in America that had three Hamsun stars. And Shannon was bound and determined to rejoin their ranks.