Can’t Stand The Heat
“Man, this is nothing. What are you so jacked up about?”
The guy in the mirror had no answer, just a wild-eyed stare and unruly dark hair.
“Hi, I’m Adam Temple. Welcome to Market!”
The guy in the mirror looked, if anything, more dismayed.
“I know. That sucked. Maybe less enthusiasm?”
The guy in the mirror was clearly desperate enough to try anything.
“I’m Adam Temple, and I want to thank you for joining me in my newest venture.”
A knock on the staff bathroom door saved mirror guy from commenting on that one. He looked relieved. Adam cursed and ran his hands through his hair one last time, and watched the waves tumble back into place, as messy as ever. His fingers positively itched to be doing something useful, like piling mounds of microgreens on trays and topping them with fresh peach chutney and creamy chevre. In fact, he’d been in the kitchen, cooking like a fiend and ignoring the clock, until his restaurant manager had finally forced him downstairs to put on a tie.
All to impress the assembled food snobs of Manhattan. And the critics! Christ, he really hoped they hadn’t invited that woman from Délicieux, the one who never had a nice thing to say about anyone. He knew he should’ve kept a closer eye on the guest list, but he’d kept accidentally on purpose forgetting about the party. Like he didn’t have enough to do, getting the crew and the restaurant ready for the actual opening next weekend. The damn menu wasn’t even finalized yet, and here he was, about to go upstairs and dance for the assembled gourmet elite like a trained monkey. Well, okay, he was giving a speech—there’d be no dancing. But still.
He huffed out a sigh. Why couldn’t he just impress them all with the food? Why did they have to put on tonight’s ridiculous show?
Because Eleanor fucking Bonning says so, Adam reminded himself. And until the restaurant is a giant-ass success and you can buy her out, you’ve gotta follow her instructions like a suburban house wife watching Julia Child.
Anything that would get that woman out of his hair faster was, by definition, a good thing. Eleanor was supposed to be attending the party to night, checking up on her investment, and Adam grimaced. Yet another reason to hide out in the bathroom. It hadn’t always been like that, but lately, whenever they were in the same room, it got kind of ugly. Eleanor wasn’t technically a woman scorned, since she’d dumped him, but she couldn’t have been any more furious if she had been.
There was a second, slightly less tentative knock, and an unfamiliar voice called out, “Chef? Are you in there? Grant’s looking for you. He says it’s ‘time and past.’ ” The kid’s voice went into an exaggerated drawl on the last few words, mimicking the restaurant manager’s distinctive Virginia accent. Fucking out-of-work actors masquerading as waiters.
“I’ll be right there. Are the canapes going over well?”
There was a pause, just long enough to make Adam’s heart freeze in his chest. Electric rage pulsed through him a moment later, reanimating everything, when the kid quavered, “Uh . . .
Frankie said not to serve the food yet. So we waited. Was that not what you wanted?”
Adam threw open the door, and the kid winced at whatever he saw on Adam’s face. Not that Adam usually had to work at intimidating his underlings, since he was built more like a boxer than a cook, but he imagined his current expression was probably pretty fierce.
God damn Frankie, anyway. Best friend, sous-chef, and indispensable kitchen asset or not, Adam was going to kill him.
“Get back to work,” he snapped at the kid, who hurried off like the hounds of hell were after him. Adam turned to the stairway up to the dining room, any concern over the state of his tie forgotten.
He could hear the party in full swing, voices and laughter echoing down the stairwell. It sounded good, like happy customers, and Adam let the fantasy spin out for a second, let his mind and chest fill up with the satisfaction of running a really fine restaurant, full of people enjoying themselves.
Possibly enjoying themselves a little too much. He took the stairs two at a time, visions of magazine critics crashing into TV Cooking Channel executives dancing before his eyes.
A wave of chatter and tinkling glasses broke over Adam like boiling water from a kettle as he reached the top of the stairs. He felt his neck flush hot, but he grinned his signature grin, the one Frankie said made him look like an escaped lunatic, and started shaking hands.
The third time a woman dressed all in black—seriously, did women in New York ever wear any other color?—fell on him, gushing about the raspberry cocktails, Adam knew he’d been right to panic.
These people were hammered.
Christ, how long had he been in the staff bathroom?
While he’d been angsting over his speech, these people, these serious professionals of the food world, had obviously been up here swilling down rosewater-flavored vodka at an alarming rate.
He righted another tipsy woman, this one in a black pantsuit, and she smiled beatifically as she thanked him. Adam smiled back, and made his slow way toward the horseshoe-shaped bar in the middle of the restaurant, hoping to find Grant Holloway, restaurant manager and tight-ass extraordinaire. Who, if Adam had to guess, was probably pissing himself right about now.
Several of the newly hired wait staff passed by, trays full of empty champagne flutes, and Adam swallowed another bubble of angry panic. Loose and relaxed was one thing out-and-out, knee-walking plastered was another. One of the waiters tried to give the single full glass on his tray to Adam, who shook his head and held up both hands to ward him off.
Someone in this joint had to keep his wits about him. Which reminded him, he was searching for Grant. Adam spied a bright blond cap of hair bobbing behind the bar, and headed for it.
The crowd around the bar wasn’t as deep as Adam had feared, probably because most of the drinks were being served by the wandering waiters, but he still had to throw an elbow to get close enough to catch Grant’s attention.
Adam’s restaurant manager was slight of frame and disarmingly boyish. Meticulous in all things, including matters of appearance, it was he who had decreed that Adam must wear the striped silk instrument of torture currently choking off his air supply. So it was something of a shock to see Grant ducked down behind the bar, rummaging frantically for, Adam could only assume, the last bottle of house-steeped vodka with rose petals. He bounced up, triumphant, tie askew and collar open, one end of his shirt
untucked from his trousers. Adam gaped for a moment at the wild glint in his normally staid employee’s eye, then took a deep breath.
Wits, he reminded himself. Keep them about you.
“What the hell is going on here?” he yelled over the din.
Okay, so he wasn’t great at following his own advice.
Grant started violently and nearly bobbled the vodka. He grabbed at it with both hands and a curse before turning to face Adam with a look of manic aggravation on his face, which smoothed out instantly once he saw who it was.
The expression that replaced it was closer to joy. Mixed with relief, Adam recognized grimly. Not a great sign. Any crowd that could ruffle Grant was not a crowd Adam wanted to be within cocktail-garnish-lobbing distance of. And Grant was looking pretty seriously ruffled.
“Boss,” Grant cried. “You’re finally here!”
Adam put his hands on his hips. Yeah, okay, so maybe he’d dawdled. First in the kitchen, and then in the bathroom. But it wasn’t like he’d taken a month-long siesta or anything. You couldn’t tell it by Grant’s rapturous tone, though.
Grant held up a peremptory finger in Adam’s direction, and turned to a hovering waiter, who’d been eyeing the vodka bottle covetously since Grant had unearthed it. With a few terse, low words, Grant handed over the bottle, and shooed the young man toward the kitchen, where the cocktail trays were being staged.
“Supplies are running low and the natives are getting restless. Honestly, where have you been? We’re understaffed. Frankie came out here and said not to serve the food! And then he took off for the Lord only knows where,” Grant said in a rising rush, his relief turning to exasperation faster than Adam could follow.
“His ass better be working the pass, getting everything plated,” Adam seethed.
Everything in him ached to storm the kitchen and take care of it himself. Something of that fervent desire must have shown in his eyes, because Grant interjected a quick, “Stay here! Don’t disappear again.”
Adam huffed and glared around the corner of the bar to the slice of kitchen visible from the main dining room. There was movement, hustle, and his chef senses tingled. It looked like chaos from here, but it wasn’t. Those guys, his crew, they knew what they were doing. More than that, they knew he’d kick some ass come morning if they didn’t get it done. Adam caught sight of his sous chef’s spiky tangle of black hair as Frankie strode down the line, barking orders, and felt the tension in his shoulders relax a bit. Unpredictable and thoughtless, for sure, but Frankie was a good man to have on the line.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he told Grant. “It looks okay.
Frankie’s got the crew working, and everything’s under control.”
“Not yet, but it will be,” Grant promised, eyes narrowed. “That was the last bottle of rose vodka, we’re nearly out of raspberries, and the line cooks are on point with the first round of hors d’oeuvres. We can get the food trays going while you do your welcome speech, let these folks soak up some of the alcohol.”
That was Grant. For all his fussing and bossiness, and occasional friction with the authority-phobic Frankie, Grant was a master of organization.
Adam . . . wasn’t. He liked to get involved with things, get his hands dirty, explore. Which led to hours of playing in the kitchen with a new recipe, or driving all the way up through the Adirondacks to check out a new possible source for fresh goat cheese. He needed someone like Grant to keep him grounded. On track. Bounding along in the right direction. Which, in this case, seemed to be behind the bar. Grant had swung open the movable piece at the side while he was giving Adam the rundown, and now he was tugging Adam’s sleeve to get him to step behind the bar and up onto the raised platform that helped the bartenders reach the top-shelf liquor.
Suddenly, Adam was head and shoulders above the milling crowd, and before he could blink, Grant had clapped loudly enough to get the attention of those standing closest.
Word spread throughout the room like a line of fire around a pan of cherries jubilee, and pretty soon it was quiet. Mostly. Adam paused long enough to hear several people clear their throats, and one inebriated guest tittered loudly before being shushed.
Grant beamed up at him encouragingly, and rather than wring his scrawny neck for shoving him up here with no warning, Adam settled for narrowing his eyes in a way that he hoped promised future, painful retribution. The answering sparkle in Grant’s gaze suggested that the message had been received, and was mainly fodder for amusement. He took off for the kitchen at a fast clip, clearly relieved to finally be allowed to feed the hordes.
Gritting his teeth, Adam carved out a “company” smile. The wide grin reserved for high-profile diners who wanted to see how a professional kitchen worked, and figured their status out in the real world entitled them to an all-access pass to Adam’s.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for being with us to night, as we celebrate the launch of Market. A new way to eat.”
There was applause, enough to relax him and make him think soaking the audience in liquor hadn’t been such a bad idea, after all.
“At Market, we want to bring back an old-fashioned idea: bone-deep knowledge of what you’re eating, and where it came from. Everything I serve, every ingredient I cook with, has been sourced from local suppliers. I don’t know about all of you,” he continued, falling into the comforting rhythm of this discussion he’d had so many times, with Frankie, with Grant, with the loan guy at the bank, with anyone who would listen, “but I’m sick of the grocery store culture that has kids thinking chickens are born shrink-wrapped in plastic, or that peaches ripen in December. We’re so removed from our food! And it turns the experience of eating into a mundane chore.”
The house lights were dim, but the bar was lit from underneath and the spillover light reflected off the glassware and bottles, casting dancing white sparks over the upturned faces of the crowd.
“My mission here is to let all of you know—to let everyone who loves food and loves to eat know—it doesn’t have to be that way. Food is personal. It should be personal. Dining is an intimate experience, and I want to close the gap between diners and food producers. This is nothing new. Alice Waters has been talking about this since the Sixties. What makes Market different is our dedication and our creativity. I refuse to cook boring food.
“No,” he continued, putting a hand flat on the bartop, feeling the solid wood under the heel of his hand. “More than that. I refuse to cook empty food, pretty presentations with no substance, all flash and no heart. I don’t want to impress you. I want to nourish you.”
Adam frowned. The vehement exclamation came from somewhere in the crowd, and he lifted a hand to shade his eyes, as if that would somehow help him identify the speaker.
“At Market . . .” He tried to find his place, but the momentum, the passion, was gone. He felt sweat spring out cold on his palms. “We . . . I was saying, I want to nourish not just your bodies, but your minds. Your understanding of what food is, and how it comes to you.”
That same damn voice spoke up again. “It hasn’t come to us at all!”
Movement by the swinging kitchen doors caught his eye momentarily. Adam looked over to see the waiters pouring out of the kitchen, food-laden trays in hand. The perfection of Grant’s timing staggered him, and all he could say was, “What?”
“There isn’t any food,” a woman said, detaching herself from the rest of the fascinated audience. “You’ve invited us here, apparently, to talk at us about your fabulous food for hours on end but have yet to serve us any.”
Adam raised his eyebrows. He didn’t think the “hours on end” comment was totally fair. The woman, a redhead, Adam noticed, nodded once, decisively, as if pleased with herself. An attractive older woman at her side attempted to pull her back out of the limelight, but Red was having none of it. She tossed her head and marched right up to the bar, wobbly in her heels but purposeful in her movement.
Adam divided his attention between the waiters, finally beginning to offer their trays of pastry puffs and roasted vegetable skewers to the guests, and the approaching heckler. As the guests began to notice and enjoy the food, most of them turned away from the bar and fell on the waiters like lions on a herd of lame gazelles.
The heckler was wearing the requisite black dress, draped over what looked like very nice curves— but the shoes. Bright, shiny with a glossy patina like you get on good crème anglaise, the color of pinot noir held up to the light. Heels like ice picks, and above them, her legs stretched on for miles, slender and perfect. Those shoes sparked his interest.
Interest that ratcheted up by a billion as the light from the bar finally illuminated her face. She was gorgeous, like a Botticelli angel, all flaming hair and startling blue eyes, round cheeks and sweet, sweet mouth.
What was coming out of her mouth, though? Not so sweet.
She pursed those pretty pink lips up at him and sneered, “It always makes me wary when a chef feels he has to climb up on his soapbox and philosophize to justify his cooking.”
“You’re right,” he said, baring his teeth in a parody of a smile. “It’s crap. My food is a more eloquent expression of the benefits of local, seasonal produce than anything I could come up with to say.” He gestured to the other guests. Most of them, he noted with gut-deep satisfaction, were licking their lips and reaching for a second or third canape. “Seems like they all agree with me.”
Now it was her turn to blink. She looked pretty and owlish, confusion softening the hard line of her mouth; too damned intriguing. Anger and attraction coiled in his belly, a pleasantly unsettling mix. Not unlike what happened when he added a splash of lemon juice to a rich cream sauce.
“What’s your name?” he asked her.
She tossed her head again, the motion making her sway a little. Adam looked more closely. Her pupils were blown wide and dark, and her cheeks were flushed in a lovely contrast to her fair complexion.
“Miranda Wake, Délicieux magazine,” she said defiantly, as if expecting him to take issue with it.
Ah-ha, he thought, somehow unsurprised, even though he’d always pictured the New York food scene’s most notorious critic as being considerably older and more dried-up looking than this fiery little piece. Miranda Wake. You are blitzed out of your mind, on cocktails I designed, mixed with liquor I steeped with my own hands.
There was something weirdly erotic about it, and Adam covered the momentary oddness by stepping down and coming around the bar to shake her hand. The speech portion of the evening seemed well and truly over, now that the food was getting out.
“Adam Temple,” he said, taking her limp, warm hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Are you?” she asked, confused again, and Adam smirked. Her fingers were impossibly slender, making him notice the fine bones of her knuckles, the turn of her wrist. He wanted to force-feed her something rich and decadent.
“Absolutely,” he assured her.
“Well,” she said, frowning. “Well, I’m not pleased to meet you. I didn’t even want to come here to night. Restaurants that espouse a cause are trite and pretentious, and your food is bound to be atrocious.” She slurred over the twin shus sounds and wrinkled her nose, working her mouth as if stretching the muscles around it would help get it back under her control. “I’ve reviewed lots of ‘local produce’ restaurants, and it’s never been anything more than a stupid gimmick to cover the fact that the chef has no imagination.”
“Is that right?” Adam said, irritated beyond belief. Why did she have to be so gorgeous and snotty? “Damn. If there’s one thing I hate to be accused of, it’s lack of imagination.”
Incredibly, she blushed at that. Fantastic.
“You know,” he said, “I don’t think I like the way you talk about my food without ever having tried it. What makes you the authority?”
Her cheeks pinked again, this time probably more due to annoyance than booze. “I’ll have you know I’m the top critic at Délicieux. I get more fan mail than any other columnist.”
“Yeah, but I bet half of it’s hate mail,” he said, baiting her.
“Some,” she admitted with the careful dignity of the drunk. “I have exacting standards which few restaurants can meet.”
“Don’t your standards usually require you to at least taste the food before passing judgment on it, sweetheart?”
“I . . .” She paused, disconcerted. “Yes, of course. But it’s not my fault I haven’t had any of yours yet. And don’t call me ‘sweetheart.’ ”
“Sure thing, doll,” he retorted. “And you could’ve been sampling the wares for the last five minutes if you weren’t so focused on giving me a hard time. But I understand, the hands-on approach isn’t really your thing. You spend most of your time hunched over a computer in a cramped little office, right? All alone in your ivory tower, while the rest of the world struggles to meet your ‘exacting standards.’ ”
“I . . . I . . .” Her eyes were wide and shocked, and her chest heaved, giving tantalizing glimpses of the shadowy valley between her breasts as she strained the fabric of her dress.
He sneered. “You wouldn’t last a day in the real world. You wouldn’t last ten minutes in my kitchen.”
That soft, round chin shot up, and she took a step closer. Her eyes flashed with something, but at this point, Adam was too ticked to decipher it.
“Oh, wouldn’t I?”
He stepped in, too, until they were toe to toe. “Not a chance,” he declared. “In fact, I dare you. Spend one day in the kitchen at Market, work with me and my crew. See what it’s like from the other side. After that, review my restaurant, rip my cooking to shreds, I’ll take it like a man.
Until then, sweetheart?” He leaned down close enough to see just how long and thick her eyelashes were. She smelled like raspberries and sugar, and something deeper, more complex. “Keep your opinions to yourself.”