Getting paid to prepare dinner for six people in a stranger’s kitchen is not unlike conducting a symphony while trying to play all of the instruments yourself. Though the closest I have ever come to conducting was sitting in the second cellist chair for a youth orchestra more years ago than I care to claim, I imagine the two feelings to be similar. Timing is everything, but timing is meaningless without a plan. I always have a plan – until the first violinist (or sauté pan) throws a hissy and the plan goes to shit.
Friday night was proceeding according to plan: arrive by 5pm, inventory kitchen supplies, unpack, lay out mise en place, have four burners, two cutting boards and a mixing bowl going by 5:15. The woman who hired me is very gracious but is asking me a number of questions about the things I am doing – this is not in my plan. As she is writing the checks, I make every effort to respond to her queries – “the water bottles are filled with fish stock I made last night, it is the base for the lobster bisque, flour and butter are heated over a low heat to form a rieux – it is a staple of Cajun cooking and will thicken and enrich the bisque, the pork shoulder was roasted for 12 hours in a low oven now I am bringing it back to temperature by steaming it over a seasoned beer bath” – and on it went.
When she left to get dressed I was extremely grateful as my internal metronome had slowed by a beat and a half – I was at least 15 minutes behind. By the time her guests began arriving, the bisque was done but the shrimp and lobster still needed to be poached in butter. The pork was stuffed in their puffed pastry cigars with mushrooms and mascarpone cheese and ready for the oven but I hadn’t made the sauce that goes with it or the spinach and apple salad. I could hear the guests milling about the living room but only muffled conversations.
I left the kitchen to let the host know that once she gave me the sign the first course would be on the table in four minutes. Two guests seemed to follow me back to the kitchen but stopped in the doorway. I tended to the stove but could not ignore the terse tones of their conversation.
“John, I’m sorry you’re not taking this seriously.”
“Jane, I’m sorry that you’re feeling pressure because we’re going to all these weddings and you want one.”
“This has nothing to do with that, and everything to do with you being lazy about our relationship.”
This is not in my plan.
Thankfully, the host calls everyone to the table, but not before John punctuates his exchange with his girlfriend by saying “Jane, can we not have any more of your drama tonight?”
A moment later I present the amuse bouche. “This is a gift from the kitchen; it is an Italian Clam Casino with crispy pancetta on a bed of rock salt.”
“This wasn’t on the menu, Refugee” says the host with happy surprise.
“No, the amuse bouche is just a restaurant tradition, a gift, something unexpected to help set the tone for the meal” I reply, delighted that I have achieved the desired effect. The undesired effect was Jane mumbling “unexpected gift to set the tone, novel concept” in John’s direction.
Who knew we should have set an extra plate for Awkward?
Lobster and Shrimp Bisque is five minutes from the table where the chatter sounds polite, but heard through the door I can’t be certain. Being greeted by silence upon emerging from the kitchen arms full of dishes is not uncommon, but this is an awkward silence.
“Butter poached Lobster and Shrimp Bisque” I announce to approving hmms and ahhs. When I return with the final three bowls for the gentlemen at the table, the host inquires “Refugee, where did you get your bisque recipe?”
“Almost ten years ago, I wanted to date a friend who told me that lobster bisque was her favorite soup ever. So I set out to make the best bisque ever – this recipe is the result of several weeks of kitchen tinkering to make a date worth lobster bisque.”
Jane found another opportunity to twist the knife in John’s ribs – “So nice when a man makes an effort to impress a woman.”
“Even better when the woman is worth impressing” John retorted.
“Fuck you, John.”
There is safety in the kitchen and I quickly retreat to it. Several minutes pass before the host comes into the kitchen to return bowls but more to apologize. “I’m sorry, Refugee; I am pretty sure that was the last outburst for the evening” she says.
There is a planned cigarette course between the slow pork cigars and the beef tenderloin but Jane must be a fast smoker because she swung the double kitchen doors my way.
“Is there anymore wine?”
“The wine for the next course is still decanting, but you are more than welcome to some of the pinot noir I’m drinking.”
“Thank you” Jane replies as I fill her glass halfway. “When did you start cooking?”
“Forgive me for being the blunt, Jane, but are you sure you want to talk to me at the moment?”
“Better you than my asshole boyfriend.”
I wanted to agree, but neither party has comported themselves well from my perspective. “You’re with friends, celebrating Valentine’s Day, enjoying exquisite food and great wine; surely you can find a way to enjoy this evening even if you and John are not having the best of nights.”
“Are you always this reasonable?”
“I am sure that my ex-wife could provide an itemized accounting of me being unreasonable, and the next course is ready.”
The beef tenderloin and pastry mezzaluna courses proceeded without incident. As I was prepping the cheese course Jane came back to the kitchen. “I’d like you to cook for me sometime; please give me a call” she said tucking her business card into the breast pocket of my chef coat in a maybe flirtatious way (my hands were full.)
Some clients aren’t worth the money.