Skinny Bitch in Love
If anyone had told me five, even ten years ago, that one day my life would depend on a plate of nine butternut squash ravioli with garlic and sage sauce, I would have said, “Shit, yeah, it would!”
O. Ellery Rice, food critic for the Los Angeles Times, sat at Table Three, the table at Fresh, sipping a glass of organic white wine and tapping her blood-orange nails into her iPhone. O was also the “anonymous” Lady Chew of Los Angeles magazine. Obviously, she had a lot of juice.
I was born to be chef of Fresh, the hottest vegan restaurant in Santa Monica and maybe all of L.A. And because Emil Jones, our superstar chef, was down and out with an ailment unmentionable in a kitchen, sous chef—that would be me—had her chance.
“Blow it, Clementine—one mistake—and you’re dead,” Emil had called to scream into my ear a half hour earlier when
he’d heard from probably twenty people that O’s silver Mercedes had pulled up outside Fresh.
We had nothing to worry about. I stood at my station, working on the ravioli in the gleaming, stainless steel kitchen, oblivious to the clangs of pans around me, the hiss of sautéing oil, the chop, chop, chop of knives against cutting boards, the comings and goings of the waitstaff. I filled each delicate wonton wrapper with perfectly seasoned yellow-orange squash and whisked the sage sauce until it magically appeared both translucent and opaque at the same time. The ravioli would be perfect.
I’d spent years working toward this night, toward this moment, training under the best. And I wasn’t talking about the famed Vegan Culinary Institute teachers or my executive chefs at Candle 22 or Desdemona’s, restaurants where I’d chopped, sliced, and scalded my way from vegetables to line cook to assistant sous chef. I was talking about my father, organic farmer and amazing cook, who’d given me a chef’s hat for my ninth birthday and taught me how to nudge flour and water into a pasta dough so sublime it melted on the tongue. How to take one vegetable from the ground—eggplant, for instance—and make a savory dinner that would satisfy a family of five. How to simmer a chipotle chile that had won me a sparkly blue ribbon at age eleven.
Even before that chile, I knew I wanted to be a vegan chef. Veganism was in my blood.
Let’s get something straight right here, since I get this question all the time: what the hell do vegans eat? First let
me tell you what vegans don’t eat: anything that comes from an animal. Yeah, even if you don’t have to slaughter the creature to get it. So no eggs, either. No milk. No brie on that cracker. And yes, fish are animals. Then what do vegans eat? Duh: everything else.
Nothing made me happier than being in the kitchen, learning, experimenting, perfecting. But like an idiot, I’d decided to forget all that the summer I graduated from high school and before I started cooking school in the fall. Away from home—in L.A.—for the first time, I ate whatever the hell I wanted. Having your first hamburger at eighteen? Enlightening. I lived at In-N-Out Burger that July. Stuffed my face with cupcakes. Drank every kind of sugary alcoholic beverage imaginable. Hit up diners after drinking till 2 a.m. and had fat omelets stuffed with bacon and Swiss cheese. I even thought about trying to switch from the Vegan Culinary Institute to Le Cordon Bleu or the Culinary Institute of America.
And guess what? Also for the first time ever, I started feeling like shit. And not like the hot shit I thought I was for “breaking free” from my parents’ way of life, doing my thing. My once clear skin? Zits everywhere. My one pair of expensive, perfect jeans? Suddenly too tight. And was I allergic to something? Everything in me felt clogged, including what little brain I had left.
I gave up the meat. Bad kinds of booze. Dairy—all of it. I went back to eating the way I had growing up, and within weeks, right before I started at the Vegan Culinary Institute, I was back to my old self. I gave up the crap and stopped feeling
like crap. Quelle surprise. It made me more committed than ever to becoming a vegan chef.
So last weekend, when the stricken Emil announced he was making me chef for O’s scheduled visit, there was only one place to go to practice under the best eye: my parents’ farm in Bluff Valley, three hours north. I’d made Fresh’s entire Italian menu for my dad so that no matter what O chose, it would pass his test. Fresh’s gimmick was that the menu changed every week. On Fridays, when the guarded secret was revealed via a one-word mosaic tile sign that Emil hung in the window, a line wrapped around the block. This coming Friday: Italian.
And so in my parents’ big country kitchen, greens and root vegetables and apple trees as far as the eye could see when looking out the window over the sink, I made it all. From the intense minestrone soup to the melt-on-your-tongue butternut squash ravioli to an orgasmic tiramisu. My dad couldn’t stand next to me at the center island the way he used to—not since his cancer went from stage two to three. Before the C word came into our lives, he’d tower beside me, shaking his head and dumping the entire tray of seitan I’d just over-seasoned or tasting the soup and pointing at the garlic cloves. But now he watched from his wheelchair, opinionated as ever, nodding, directing, and occasionally giving me the prized, “You make me so proud, Clem.”
Twice I had to step outside and gulp in air. My mom, with her long graying braid and red Wellies, had come over while harvesting the cucumbers and assured me that every time I
visited, my dad was happier and stronger. I drove up every month since his diagnosis more than a year ago, but sometimes, the sight of my formerly robust father—now so frail and weak, his cheeks gaunt and his eyebrows gone along with the blond hair I inherited—made me burst into tears. And trust me, I’m no crier.
I’d had to make the pizza primavera twice and the butternut squash ravioli three times to pass my dad’s test. (The second time it only got a 9.5 out of 10.)
For O. Ellery Rice, no less than perfection.
I turned down the burner on my sage sauce, then gestured for my sous chef, the trusty Faye (thank God Emil hadn’t forced me to work with Rain—definition of frenemy—even though Rain was sauté chef and technically should have been named my sous chef during Emil’s absence), to man the pan while I dashed over to the peephole. James, the Shakespearean drama student/waiter chosen to serve O, stopped at her table with the one hundred seventy dollar bottle of biodynamic white wine to top off her glass. O shook her head so slightly that a waiter less dramatically trained than James might have missed it and bothered her by asking the unnecessary question.
You don’t scare me, I silently told her as she slid a forkful of escarole and plum tomato into her mouth. In her early fifties, rail thin and tall, her dark hair in her signature bun, and her face almost obscured by the trademark huge black sunglasses, O sat regally, alone—as always. Her MO was to announce the day she’d visit a restaurant, but not the time. I’d been on red
alert since five thirty. The moment that silver Mercedes pulled up, I went to work on the ravioli, working the dough the way my father taught me long ago, precisely cutting each square, filling each space extra lightly with the mixture of squash so it would layer on the tongue. The sage sauce was simmering, awaiting the final sauté of the boiled ravioli, the tiny crumbles of garlic at the ready.
I watched Service, as Emil called the waiters, in their blinding white uniforms, gliding past the rectangular steel tables. It was lateish, almost nine, and all but two of the fifteen tables were taken. O. Ellery Rice tapped at her phone. Took a sip of wine. Another bite of escarole. I gestured for my sous chef to turn the burner on for my garlic, then darted over and waited for the oil to ping exactly right before sliding in the crumbled bits.
“She’s tapping on the phone now,” Jane, a busgirl, reported at the peephole. “Eyeing the plate of fusilli that just passed. Tapping again. Fork going up. That’s it, Clem, three bites of the salad.” O never took a fourth bite of anything.
I added the ravioli to the sage sauce for a perfectly timed infusion, gently stirring the garlic one pan over. In two minutes, I plated the ravioli and scraped up the garlic, then shook the slotted spoon with such a practiced shake that each crumble landed perfectly atop the sauce.
The ravioli would go out in exactly five seconds.
Four. Three. Two . . . As James held the plate for my final inspection, his white T-shirt, white pants, and white shoes so pristine you’d never guess he’d been serving for three hours, I
knew it was perfect. This ravioli would make my father proud. An eleven, maybe even a twelve.
The plate went out. The kitchen applauded. Ty, vegan pastry chef and one of my best friends, placed a cup of his sick tiramisu at my station, CHEF spelled out on top with chocolate shavings. I loved that guy. After closing tonight, Ty and his boyfriend were throwing me a little party at their amazing West Hollywood house to celebrate my big night. T-minus three hours.
I quickly went to work on the backup plate, just in case James tripped or someone crashed into him (happened to my least favorite waitress last week) and waited. My heart was beating in my ears.
Please let her love it. Please let her write that Clementine Cooper, just twenty-six, is a chef to watch, that the ravioli melted on her tongue, that the explosion of squash and garlic in her mouth was like “being made love to with exquisite rough tenderness by your fantasy lover,” which is how she’d once bizarrely described a shepherd’s pie.
In less than thirty seconds, James returned to the kitchen, the plate of ravioli shaking in his hand.
“Oh shit, she’s leaving!” Jane whispered from the peephole.
“Who’s leaving?” I said.
“O,” she said.
What? I stared at the plate in James’s hand. One third of one ravioli had been eaten. That was not three bites. It was only one third of one! I darted to the peephole. O. Ellery Rice’s table was empty.
What just happened?
James, never at a loss for words, was practically choking. “She said—”
The kitchen went dead quiet.
James tried again. “She said—”
“What the fuck did she say?” I shouted.
“She said it’s no wonder people rave about Fresh’s pastas when there’s real butter in the sauce.”
I laughed. The way people did when something made absolutely no sense. “Butter?” Butter was almost a dirty word. There would no more be real butter in the kitchen of a vegan restaurant than there’d be a cow carcass hanging in the pantry and a bloody ax against the wall. I’d perfected my own vegan “butter” sticks from soy milk, vinegar, and coconut oil, and though they were good substitutes, no one, and certainly not O. Ellery Rice, would mistake it for churned milk.
I looked around the kitchen as though I’d suddenly spot a tub of Land O’Lakes. My gaze stopped on Rain Welch. Her long, dark hair was in a bun secured with two chopsticks, and she was stirring a pot of fusilli. Calmly. As though the ceiling hadn’t just caved in.
Because it hadn’t caved in on her. Just me.
Had my dear frenemy slipped a pat of butter in the sauce when I had been racing around the kitchen like a madwoman? Come on. No way. Even I wouldn’t believe that. Anyone who worked at Fresh cared about the place, worshipped Emil. And Rain was madly in love with him; everyone knew that. A couple of months ago, I’d caught them in the secret room inside
the pantry, Rain bent over the steel safe, Emil standing behind her. I’d assumed the reason I hadn’t caught them since was because they were being more careful, but maybe Rain had cut him off when he promoted me over her to sous chef last month.
Maybe she hated both of us enough to ruin Fresh.
With gray eyes colder than the stainless steel counters, Rain glanced over at me with the almost-smile of the victorious.
Holy shit. “Rain, if you—” I started to say, but my cell phone interrupted me.
“YOU ARE FIRED,” Emil screamed into my ear. “Get out of my restaurant. Now.”
Just like that, I was standing outside Fresh at the tail end of the dinner rush, unable to move or think, until three blondes in the same L.A. weekend uniform of tiny skirt and four-inch heels said “Excuse us” and made me realize I was standing in the middle of the sidewalk. My hands were shaking. My hands never shook.
“Let’s get out of here,” Ty said from behind me.
I turned around to find Ty shoving his apron in his messenger bag. “You’ve got two more hours to go,” I said.
“Like I’d work for that ass?” he said, taking my hand. “I called Emil to make sure he knew you’d been set up. Gave him the ‘If she goes, I go.’ ”
“He told you to go?” Ty was one of the top pastry chefs in L.A. Everyone wanted him.
“Actually he offered me a raise to stay.”
He held up his hand. “We’ll both have new spots tomorrow. No one fires my best friend.”
Did I mention Ty was great? He was also drop-dead hot. Six one and lanky, sweetly gorgeous, with a shock of jet-black hair and eyes so green that people often stopped in their tracks to stare at him. No one got “Are you a model?” more than Ty.
We wound our way down to the Third Street Promenade, even more crowded than usual for a Friday night in June. At our favorite juice truck, Ty got us frozen pomegranate smoothies, then we walked through the crowd.
“I can believe Rain would screw you like that,” Ty said. “But she screwed Emil worse. I thought she was crazy in love with the guy.”
“She hated my guts for getting promoted over her. And she must hate Emil’s guts for all that wasted sex.” I sipped my smoothie. “Now I’m the one who’s screwed.”
“Hey.” Ty slung an arm around me. “It’ll blow over. Emil will call you tomorrow morning when he’s calmed down, and he’ll tell you you’re not fired, that he knows ‘someone’ wanted to screw you both over. We’ll be back at work and it’ll be Rain who’s gone.”
“Nice try, but I’ll never work in this town again.”
He stopped and tipped up my chin. “Yes, you will. The
whole thing is stupid and conniving; anyone will know someone sabotaged you.”
“Who wants to hire a chef that people want to sabotage?”
“All chefs are both revered and despised. And anyway, Clem, you’re one of the best vegan chefs in L.A. Seriously. You’ve proven yourself at three of the hottest restaurants. If Emil doesn’t hire you back, you’ll get a job anywhere you want. Don’t worry.”
I was a lot of things, but naïve wasn’t one of them. Within twenty minutes, Ty would be named pastry chef at another top restaurant, but I wasn’t kidding about my not being able to “work in this town again.” A vegan chef who cheated to make the food more irresistible to a non-vegan critic? Through. Done. Over.
Ty spent the next half hour not answering the ten or so calls he got—clearly executive chefs who’d already heard he’d quit Fresh—and coming up with all the delicious ways that karma would take care of Rain Welch and assuring me no one would really believe I used butter in the ravioli. But then he had to leave. The only call he’d answered had been from his boyfriend, Seamus, who said that Pippa, their enormously pregnant Siamese cat, was about to have her kittens and could we postpone my party till tomorrow. Yeah. No problem.
Instead of going home to my own hot boyfriend who’d dumped me six months ago when he “accidentally” fell in love with a barista/model (such a cliché I’d almost laughed, but hadn’t because my heart felt like it was being stabbed by a thousand sharp stilettos), I called Sara, roommate and best
friend, told her today’s whole shitty story, and headed to our apartment.
Of course, because it was a Friday night, Third Street Promenade was full of couples holding hands. Kissing. Laughing. Happy people with jobs.
As I walked up toward Montana Avenue, I felt like all those happy people with jobs were staring at me. The dumped, fired cheat who put real butter in the ravioli at Fresh for O. Ellery Rice.
I was about to call Faye, my sous chef for two seconds, and ask what was going on, who’d taken over the kitchen, and what everyone was saying, but a text came in from Claudia, vegetable chef, who was usually hilarious.
Little container containing remnants of real butter found under asparagus in the pail at your station. WTF?
I texted back one word. Well, one name. Rain. And waited.
Oh. And then a minute later. Shit.
Oh shit was right. Because the next ten minutes were a flurry of texts.
From Faye: Rain swears up and down she didn’t do it, that yeah, she was pissed she wasn’t promoted, but she’d never . . . Not sure what to think, Clem.
Not sure what to think? What?
From Jane: OMG—Emil just fired the whole staff except the waiters, not including James, of course, dishwashers, and bus-people.
Oh shit. Shit, shit, shit!
Then this gem, from the new guy on vegetables. Fuck you, Clementine.
From the juice bar: Thanks a lot, C.
And then, from Rain herself: Bitch.
Did these people I’d worked with for more than a year think I’d really use butter in a recipe? Me? The one raised on the organic farm by the vegan hippie parents?
As I finally slogged onto 15th Street, the sight of the empty storefront on the corner made me stop, as it always did. I didn’t exactly forget about Fresh, about pats of butter, about being hated by everyone I worked with—used to work with. But the storefront was beautiful. The curved red oak door looked like it was from an enchanted cottage; the arched window caught the sun in the mornings and the moonlight at night, illuminating the glass brick and stained glass back wall. This was the place, my dream space. Where I would open Clementine’s Café. (I was still deciding about adding “No Crap” between “Clementine’s” and “Café.”) Ten or so tables, a combination of round and square, polished wood. I’d repaint the pale yellow a Mediterranean blue and whitewash the floor. Add an amazing juice bar. I’d be chef, of course, and hire a small but brilliant team.
Clementine’s No Crap Café.
Of course, if I opened it now, half the people I know would come and spray paint out the “No” and add in “Full of.”