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Vampire Chef — Chapter One

“Charlotte!  We got Anatole Sevarin!”

I replied to this news with the most reasonable words in the most reasonable tone I could manage:  “Get out of my kitchen!”

In case you think I overreacted, let me tell you my kitchen is in the back of Nightlife, the restaurant I co-own with my brother, Chet.  It was Chet who had just charged shouting past the hot line in the middle of the dinner rush.

“Did you hear me?” My brother waved his cell phone over his head excitedly.  “Anatole Sevarin!”

I heard him.  I also heard:

“Fire two duck!”

“Pick up twelve!  Pick up nine!”

“Where’s my carpaccio?”

“Nineteen one and two want those specials no ‘shrooms.”

It was Friday night and the house was packed.  Because we cater to vampires, paranormals and their guests, our dinner rush happens later than most places, even in autumn, but I’d already been on my feet for eight hours.  My sous chef, Zoe, was out because her mother was in the hospital (note to self: call, find out diet restrictions, send decent food), so I was doing her job as well as mine.  We had way too many order tickets on the “dupe slide” over the cold prep station, and in another hour the vampire theater crowd would be out looking for someplace to eat.  We had to get those full tables served, satisfied and cleared.

So, I looked up at my brother and said,“Get. Out. Of. My. Kitchen!”

“Robert’s sitting him at table twenty-four.”  Chet grinned so widely I could see his fangs.

Did I mention my brother’s a vampire?  Which — aside from the fact that he didn’t belong there — is why I really didn’t want him in my kitchen, never mind if the city’s most prominent undead dining critic had just walked in without a reservation.  Chet has a tendency to forget how flammable he is these days.  He says I forget how fast he is.  I say they’re called “flash fires” for a reason, and I am not going to sweep him off the floor.  He can just lie there and be ashy.  He says the health inspectors would write me up.

I say then he’d better stay the hell out of my kitchen.

You can see that of the two of us, I am the reasonable one.

Right then, however, he just stood there grinning like an undead idiot and I knew he wasn’t going to move until I acknowledged his news.  I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction, but I could hear the ticket machine chattering away and on the stove three sauces and two gravies started to bubble ominously.

“I’ll talk to you after rush!” I told Chet.  “Now, GET!”

Seemingly chastened, my brother slunk toward the door, but between one eye-blink and the next, he’d whisked back, swung me around and set me down.

“Yes, Chef!” he called, already out the door.

The kitchen had gone unnaturally quiet.  As soon as my vision cleared, I was greeted by the unprecedented and most unwelcome sight of my staff standing still.

“What?” I demanded.  “Have we closed early?”

“No, Chef!” the crew chorused.

“Tonight we are perfect, get me?” Anatole Sevarin wrote the dining column for Circulation, the number one city paranormal publication, in print or online.  There was no point in treating him as less than a VIP just because Chet had ticked me off.  “And I see all the plates for twenty-four, coming AND going! “

“Yes, Chef!”

I stepped back up to my station in the middle of the hot line, ignoring some highly suspicious grins.

The cacophony resumed.

We got Anatole Sevarin. My heart sang as I tasted our special scarlet-eye gravy for seasoning and added a grind of pepper.  We got Anatole Sevarin!

Nightlife had come a long way from the time when Chet was sleeping days in the walk-in to save rent and we had to deal with anti-vamp protesters on our doorstep.  The idea of “night and day” dining establishments is still relatively new.  It’s been been ten years since the Equal Humanity Acts recognized vamps, weres and other “human derived paranormal peoples” as, well, people. The idea that humans and vampires might be willing to sit down together at a table, in public, is one that still gets poo-pooed around the restaurant world. In fact, the words “freak show” have been used more than once.

What the skeptics miss is that a growing number of families stay in touch with their relatives and friends after they’ve turned. There’s also an increasing amount of cross-over in the banking and business communities. This creates a need for a place where all sides of the equation can socialize, entertain and be comfortable.

Many people still think vampires only drink unprocessed blood.  It is true that vampires cannot digest solid, cooked, food, but they do just fine with all kinds of liquids, especially if they’re protein based.  Broth, eggs, and milk may not have the psychotropic effects that human blood does on a vampire, but they provide nourishment and flavor.  This opens up a whole world for the chef.  In fact, the milkshake tasting on our dessert menu is a big hit right across the board.

Despite our steady growth in our food quality and clientele, though, we were still the farm team.  We had heart, we had talent, but we hadn’t yet made our move to the major leagues.  A good review by Anatole Sevarin could get us there.

Another thing about Nightlife — like most other New York City restaurants, we pretty much run on the ragged edge of disaster.  We’re located on Tenth Street just around the corner from Broadway, so we fork out a mid-sized fortune in rent.  There were weeks Chet went without his salary and I cut mine so we could keep the staff paid.  Those times were becoming less frequent, but we had yet to turn our first profit, a fact that was giving our accountant gray hairs.  Wimp.

A good Sevarin review could fix that too, and the whole staff knew it.  Fortunately, it had the effect of sharpening their game.  A professional kitchen is an assembly line with a thousand moving parts.  And knives.  And fire.  Walking in the wrong direction in there can cause a serious injury.  Worse, it can make someone’s dinner late. After Chet dropped his news bomb, you could feel the excitement honing the focus of the entire line.  Everybody started paying extra attention to basic technique — knife skills, fire, composition, plating — like they were already on stage, which in a way, they were.  I felt a surge of pride in my people and my place.

As executive chef, one of my jobs is to make sure everything moves smoothly and efficiently on a nightly basis.  If I have to get in there and push, that’s what I do.  I cook, taste, slice, chop, pluck, simmer, butcher and plate.  I shout, cajole and praise.  I condemn if I absolutely have to.  I never, ever compromise on a matter of quality.  I revel in the noise, the steam, the scents of onion, grilling meat, fresh herbs and heady spices, as well as the whole control-freak vibe of being absolute mistress of ten people and three hundred square feet for between twelve and fifteen hours a day, six days a week.

If I am loud and less than polite, it is because my job demands it.  At five foot four in my clogs, I’m not an imposing figure.  I’m nobody’s waif though.  A lot of what I carry is muscle, but I’ve got plenty of curves.  Part of that is nature, part is a combination of occupational hazard and professional pride.  Like the saying goes; how can you trust a skinny cook?

At thirty years old, my hands are calloused and my arms carry half-a-dozen scars.  My back has a rough patch I’m told is the shape of Australia; a souvenir of the burn I got by knocking into someone who was carry a pot of boiling veal stock.  I consider these all war wounds and wear them proudly.  To complete the picture, my eyes are blue and my hair is the shade that goes by the unflattering name of “dishwater blonde.”  I wear my hair long, almost down to my waist in fact.  It’s the one girly affectation that I won’t give up, even though it makes my life difficult.  I can’t wear it loose on the job.  Aside from sanitary issues, it’s just plain dangerous.  Remember those flash fires?  So, every morning I braid my hair and wind it into a tight coil at the back of my head.  That way, even if the roughly fifty pins I use to keep it in place fall out, the braid tumbles down my back and not into the soup.

Which tonight was a choice of a lovely chicken-miso broth with ginger and fresh scallions, or a sugar pumpkin soup with your choice of creme fraiche or foamed veal “raw sauce.”

“Excuse me, Chef Caine?”

“Yes?” I said without turning around.  The voice belonged to Robert, our white-haired, English maitre d’, who was standing back about two feet from me.  A veteran of bigger and busier kitchens than mine, Robert knew better than to sneak up too close to someone working an eight burner cook top.

“Table two wants to speak to the chef.”

“Compliment or complaint?  And have you sicced Chet on them?”

“Complaint, I’m afraid.  Mr. Caine’s out there now, but they insist on speaking with the chef.”

I bit back a sigh.  This happens.  Sometimes it’s just somebody trying to impress their date, or their client, but sometimes — despite everybody’s best efforts — something’s gone wrong.  It’s the other side of being mistress of all I survey.  Mistakes coming out of the kitchen are my fault.

Any other time it would have been no big deal.  I’d go out, smooth things over, and offer a complimentary dessert.  Tonight, though, we had Anatole Sevarin in the house, and whatever was going on out there, he was watching and taking notes.  Notes for publication.  Notes to go out on the blogs, and with FlashNews (Online on now! (TM)), and even on paper.

Which meant we had to squash this situation, immediately.

I motioned Reese over to cover my station, undid my apron, tossed it onto the chair at my desk and followed Robert out front.

Nightlife’s dining room is a long, narrow space with exposed brick walls, red oak floors and a pressed tin ceiling that cost most of our meager budget to restore.  It had been a saloon when the building opened back in the 1880s, and somehow its magnificent mahogany bar survived the intervening years, politcal changes and food trends. The rest of our decore is simple, and done in warm shades of brown, cream and gold.  The lighting is low for atmosphere, but for obvious reasons we have flower vases on the tables instead of the usual candles.

No matter what restaurant you’re in, stepping into the front of the house is stepping into a different world.  Not only does the temperature plummet at least twenty degrees, the noise level drops a half-dozen decibels and the atmosphere goes from one of fevered activity to leisurely conversation and relaxation.

Tonight, however, not everyone was relaxed.  Suchai, our dining room captain, was at the back station where we keep the glasses, water pitchers and bread baskets.  His face was screwed up tight.

“What’s the story?” I murmured to Suchai as I motioned for Robert to head back to his post by the door.  I’d already zeroed in the problem table.  Table two was up front  by the window.  When asked if we deliberately sit pretty people there, I plead the fifth.  Right now, Chet stood beside a seated couple; A male vamp with a black jacket, chartreuse turtle-neck and thinning hair looked across at an over-fluffed blonde woman in white and scarlet who I could tell, even at this distance, was a complete veetee.

That’s short for “vamp tramp.”

“She’s got a problem with the soup, Chef,” said Suchai softly.

I frowned.  My soup?  There was a problem with my soup?  “Did you offer to replace it?”

Suchai nodded.  “And so did Mr. Chet, but she insists on seeing you.”

“Okay, then.  I got this.  You concentrate on Mr. Sevarin’s table.”

Suchai nodded and I squared my shoulders and put on my sober, PR face.  My kitchen whites attracted instant attention as I moved between the tables, and everybody in our full house turned to watch the show.  I snuck covert glances around me.  We had about half-a-dozen people seated at the bar, mostly with Kevin’s specialty martinis in front of them.  A werewolf dined alone on the carpaccio at sixteen.  The engagement party at twelve and thirteen looked like they were doing all right, although the air was a little strained around the live in-laws.  Michele, our wine steward, was pouring more champagne, which should help loosen things.  At nine, a pair of African-American vamps I’d been told were up from Atlanta toasted each other with our Special Blend sangria.

In short, except for two, everything looked great.

Except for two and twenty-four.  Twenty-four was empty.  Completely empty.  Absolutely empty.  No food critic anywhere.

Can’t worry about it now.

“I’m Chef Caine,” I said as I reached table two.  “Is there something I can help you with?”

The blonde raked me over with her eyes, trying to decide if I was any kind of threat.  I also had the feeling her vampire date was beginning to regret the company he was keeping.  You very rarely see a vampire squirm.  But this veetee apparently had that effect on people. My roommate Trish could have identified the lot number of the dye that had turned her hair that shade of butter yellow.  My other roommate, Jessie, could have told me the maker of the scarlet, strappy, sequined stilettos on her feet, but I would have had to go to Terry to get the designer of the flimsy white dress that was supposed to look like the kind of nightgown that used to get described as “diaphanous,” which she wore over a red sheath and tights.  Terry also might be able to tell me who was responsible for the too-round-to-be-real boobs that threatened to spill out of the ensemble and into the sugar pumpkin soup with creme fraiche.

“Your werewolf deliberately dropped his filthy hair into my soup!” The veetee pushed the bowl toward me.  Yes, there was indeed a black hair in the soup, and yes, that was bad.

I will not look behind me to see if table twenty-four is occupied.  I vowed.  I will not cringe, and I will not look behind me.

Instead, I glanced at Chet.  Chet shifted his weight and I frowned hard.  What’s eating you now? I wondered exasperatedly.  As front-of-house manager, Chet had dealt with more obnoxious customers than I had mediocre line cooks.  One more shouldn’t be making him antsy.

“I’m terribly sorry,” I said to her, endeavoring to mean every word.  I didn’t for a second believe there had been deliberate soup-sabotage.  Suchai is one of our most reliable people.  He pays attention to the details of his job and never takes off sick.  In return, we make sure he always gets his four nights off during That Time of the Month.

“Your soup will be replaced immediately, and for your inconvenience, I hope you’ll accept one of our dessert selections, with my compliments.”  Chet had doubtlessly said all this to her, but I was the chef.  Little Miss Power-Grab wanted to hear it form me.

Unfortunately, she was sharper than she looked.  “You don’t believe me!  She doesn’t believe me!” she added to her vampire, in case he hadn’t heard the first time.

“It’ll be all right, Pamela,” said her vamp, attempting to recover some of his lost dignity.  The pair from Atlanta were sneering, and I was willing to bet that hurt worse than Pam’s withering glower.  “They’ve already offered to fix the problem…”

“I want him fired!”

I spend my days in an environment that could kill me in multiple ways, dealing with testosterone-poisoned line cooks who all think they’re destined to be the next Bobby Flay or — God help us — Anthony Bourdain.  I can give orders in a dozen different languages while carving up a chicken in ninety seconds flat.  Paranormals do not scare me, and emotionally-challenged pretty young things wearing blue eye-shadow definitely do not scare me.

“I assure you,” I said with what I hoped was firm courtesy.  “All necessary corrective action will be taken.”  Don’t look back.  Don’t look back.

“I want him fired!” Pamela said again, louder this time.  Her vamp looked up at Chet helplessly.  I thought I heard a chuckle from the pair at nine, and if I heard it, the vamp most definitely did.

I faced Chet.  Make it good.  Chet, in turn, pressed his mouth into such a thin line you could see the impression of his fangs beneath his upper lip.

“It will be taken care of,” he said in that extra-low register vampires can achieve.  I knew it was an act, but the all hairs on my arm stood up anyway.  Pammy probably thought Chet was going to take poor Suchai out back and make a meal out of him.

Actually, there was no way we’d fire Suchai.  Not only was he part of the reason we were heading toward genuine fine dining status, he and his wife had just had their first litter.  Let me tell you, it’s no joke to keep six little weres fed and clothed.

However, Chet got the result we needed.  Pamela preened, tossing all that hair back and exposing the full length of her pristine lily-white neck.  The corner of her vamp’s mouth glistened.  I thought about offering him a napkin, and re-classed the woman from vamp-tramp to full-blown fang-tease.  I also considered taking my soup away from her and ordering her out my door.  But Sevarin might just be back from wherever he had gone by now.  He might be seated at his table, taking notes on how I handled this, and considering telling everyone not to order the soup.  So, I just signaled for Chet to take the dish, which he did.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?” I asked.  If this was it, we might just get out of this with whole skins and a decent review.  After all, this wouldn’t be the only time Sevarin came in.  A good critic made multiple visits to a restaurant.  Next time, we’d be ready for sure…

Then, the drunk stumbled in.

Chet saw him even before I did, and was in front of him in an instant with a polite “May I help you, sir?”  Over Chet’s shoulder, I saw dark hair sticking up in all directions, and a pair of wild and unfocused eyes in a white face, but that was about it.

“Pamela!” The drunk shoved Chet aside, which meant he was strong, as well as completely blotto.  “Pamela!”

The engagement party was gasping and guests were shrinking back, where they weren’t already on their feet.  Pamela had the grace to look embarrassed as we all stared at her, including her vamp.  I caught our maitre d’s eye.  Robert read me easily, and retreated discreetly to the coat closet to call 911.

The Atlanta vamps raised their eyebrows.

“Sir, I’m afraid you’ll have to leave,” said Chet firmly.

Now I could see the drunk was a young man, skinny, with high cheekbones and wearing a sports jacket that was probably designer, although it was hard to tell, because it also looked like he’d been sleeping in it.

“Pamela!” he wailed.  Pamela sat stiffly, attempting to look as dignified as her fang-tease outfit would allow.  I saw triumph shining in her eyes and if I hadn’t hated her before, I did now.

“Sir…” Chet spread his arms, getting ready to either grab the drunk, or herd him toward the door.

The drunk ignored him.  “You let her go, you undead bastard!”  Nebbish vamp went whiter than dead and knocked his chair back as he jumped to his feet.  The drunk swung both arms high over his head.

Whump!

There was a smell like hot kerosene and a ball of flame the size of a watermelon burst to life between the drunk’s palms.  Chet leapt back.  Somebody snarled.  Somebody screamed.

Well, shit.  This wasn’t just a drunk.  This was a drunk warlock with lousy taste in women.

And he was threatening to torch my restaurant, and my guests.

In the middle of dinner rush.

This was not how I planned to get Nightlife into Circulation.

“Put that out!” I shoved past my brother.

The warlock blinked at me.  The flame wavered and shrank from watermelon-size to cantaloupe-size before he caught himself and it flared up again.  “Why should I?”

Heat washed against my face.  “Because, you idiot, she’s not worth it, you’re too drunk to have any damn aim, and besides you’re going to…”

The alarm blared and in the next heartbeat a driving shower of white foam pelted down on the dining room.  Guests shrieked and swore and dove for cover.

“Set off the sprinklers,” I finished.

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