I debated whether it would be worth ten years in San Quentin
if I beat Thom to death with the salt and pepper shakers.
He continued to complain, cajole, bitch, beg, mope, and
wheedle-we'd only been seated for five minutes.
"So she changed her mind. What's the big deal? Those
chocolate owls," he snorted in derision. Thorn's manicured
nails alit on a bottle of that five dollars-a-liter Italian mineral
water he favors. He took several tiny sips before continuing.
"Mrs. Gerson wants something literary. It's a benefit for the
new library. Be creative, for God's sake. Think theme."
My name is Mary Ryan. I'm cranky, recently divorced,
and thirty-four years old. I'd been on my feet since five that
morning and the only theme I wanted to think about was an
ice-cold martini, straight up, two olives, no vermouth. My
eyes wandered over toward the bar.
"Mary! Pay attention." Thom pounded the table with a
fat fist. "You're the pastry chef at the hottest restaurant on
the West Coast, not a bricklayer. I'm merely the controller.
Can't you envision something?" The tone of his voice clearly
implied that I had the imagination of a turnip. Having established
the battle lines, he slouched lazily in his chair, the cut
of his Armani jacket masterfully hiding his pudgy frame.
Envision something. Currently I was envisioning the cases
of Valrhona chocolate I'd ordered in anticipation of making
two hundred individual chocolate cakes. My food cost for
the month of October would be a financial meltdown if I
didn't convince him to stick with the original menu.
I was at a tactical disadvantage. My Ross wardrobe always
paled in comparison with Thorn's designer togs, but today I
was more disheveled than usual. Anticipating a battle, I'd tried
to boost my professional appearance by brushing my teeth and
turning my apron to the clean side; but I'd been stirring caramel
over a hot stovetop for the past two hours and was bedraggled
and sweaty. I tried to contain the stench emanating from my
armpits by holding my arms down at my sides, but I still
must have smelled rank because Thom kept inching his chair
away from me in discreet little hops. I was not in the mood to
indulge Mrs. Gerson's ridiculous requests.
We sat at a table in the restaurant trying to finalize the
menu. It was four o'clock, the lull between lunch and dinner
service. In the background the kitchen hummed with activity as
the crew sliced, diced, and whacked away in preparation for
dinner. The dining room still bore the remnants of lunch service;
a linen napkin here, a dirty wineglass there. Within an hour all
the tables would be smartly dressed for dinner with white linens,
precisely placed silverware, and gleaming wineglasses.
American Fare is a case study in what makes a successful
restaurant. Firmly entrenched as the society hangout, we're chic
but not snobbish, intellectual but not stuffy, fun but not giddy.
On Tuesday nights when the opera is in season, you might see a
man resplendent in a tuxedo seated at one table and a young
dot-commer wearing a tee shirt at the table next to him. Neither
looked out of place.
Thom tried again. "What about something along the lines
of that exquisite spun sugar replica of City Hall you made
for the reopening? The one that made the national news.
Except this version would be a replica of the library."
"It took four months to make," I said flatly. "Mrs. Gerson's
party is next week. I suggest something simple. The fall
bounty is at its peak right now."
"Well, we can't just hand out apples, now can we?" Thom
I resisted the urge to stand up and pour my coffee over
Thom's mousse-entombed hair.
Thom came on board when American Fare opened two
years ago. It was mutual loathing at first sight. Shortly after
his hire, he held a staff meeting to announce that he'd changed
the spelling of his name. Although it was still pronounced
"Tom," it was spelled with an "h" wedged in between the
"T" and the "o." I always pronounce the "th" in his name-like
Thumper-when he's not in the room, and a couple of
times I've slipped up and actually "th'd" to his face. No wonder
he thinks I'm a bitch.
He loves pampering and gossiping with the San Francisco
socialites, and has so ingratiated himself that many of them
now insist he help with the menu planning for their events.
Mrs. Gerson is his personal favorite, a woman so obsessed
with social climbing that I bet she has cleats on the soles of
"Persimmons are coming into season. What about my individual
persimmon puddings with a Marsala zabaglione?" I
suggested. "It'll be the talk of the town." When I was tired
or bored, I tended to speak in clichs. Both applied in this
case. I nonchalantly rolled down the sleeve of my uniform to
hide a large blob of chocolate on my forearm.
Thom tried to narrow his eyes in frustration and anger
but to no avail. A recent round of botox injections from a
needle-happy plastic surgeon had left the upper half of his
face with all the animation of a ventriloquist's dummy. "Mrs.
Gerson is creating an event, Mary. I'm sure you can come up
with something more exciting than persimmon pudding."
My persimmon pudding happens to be something to die
for and Thorn knew it. The next time he came sniffing around
the kitchen begging for one of my boring persimmon puddings
he could shove it up his snotty ass.
Shaking his head back and forth, he tsked-tsked as if deeply
frustrated. All his worse fears had been realized. I did have
the imagination of a turnip. Clearly I wasn't getting the point
and he was going to have to spell it out for me.
"Must I repeat myself?. Theme, Mary. Mrs. Gerson confided
to me personally that she must make a splash with this party.
All of the place cards have the guests' names printed like
library cards, and for party favors she's handing out signed
first editions of some children's book. Can't remember the
name. Something about a boy who does magic tricks. Harvey
Potts or something like that. I've never heard of this book,
but Mrs. Gerson assures me this is the thing right now.
Doesn't it sound like fun?"
I glared at him. "The last the time you used the word fun
and Mrs. Gerson in the same sentence we catered her dog's
"I remember that party." He sighed with satisfaction. "We
got two," he waggled two chubby be-ringed fingers in my
face, "two columns in the society pages."
"Those personalized dog biscuits made the restaurant smell
like a Purina factory for a week," I snapped back. "As long as
people pay for it, you'll agree to anything. And it's Harry
Potter, you idiot."
"Why at some point in all our interactions do you stoop
to name calling? We've gone down this road too many times
for it to be even remotely amusing." He moued a yawn. "I
handle the financial end, help with a little menu planning here
and there." The smug tone of voice belied the insignificance of
his role. "Your job is to make the desserts. Can we get cracking
and decide on this menu? I haven't got all day. I was supposed
to phone her over an hour ago with the menu change." He
held up his watch and tapped it three times with one of his
With each tap, my back spasmed into an ever-increasing
knot. No, beating him with the salt and pepper shakers
wouldn't kill him fast enough. I should grab a chair and tap,
tap, tap his skull with it. But I swallowed my rage. I was
hungry, I smelled bad, and I wanted to go home. Time to
cut a deal.
"What about warm chocolate cakes with a blood orange
mousse?" I suggested, thinking this might at least salvage some
of my food cost. "Princess Michael of Kent ordered them
last week and loved them. Remember, Thom?" I reminded
him, adding a few strategic inflections of my own.
Thom got a thoughtful look in his eye, as if the aura of
royalty was almost too much to resist. Then he must have
realized how painfully easy those chocolate cakes were to
make. Melt some chocolate, beat up a few egg whites, and
voil. Certainly not the hours of overtime on my part that
he envisioned, which, since I was on salary, wouldn't cost the
restaurant one cent extra.
"Come, Mary. Let's do something original that will leave
San Francisco society talking for weeks. Something that will
be written up in the society column the next day. Where's
your sense of whimsy?"
Suffice it to say, my whimsy ran out the door screaming
about three hours ago.
"Pear cardamom sorbet with chocolate-hazelnut tuilles,"
"Theme, Mary," he reminded me. "How about individual
mille feuilles, sifted over with confectioner's sugar, with book
titles on the top written in dark chocolate?"
"No way, Thom. Buches de noel, but instead of meringue
mushrooms, make little squares of meringues to resemble
books. Trees of Knowledge. Get it?"
Thom rolled his eyes. "Of course I got it. Too Christmasy,
even without the mushrooms."
We fired dessert suggestions back and forth at each other
for another ten minutes before finally compromising on
individual chocolate boxes made up to look like books-dark
chocolate for the top, bottom, and spine; white chocolate
for the sides to resemble pages-filled with blood-orange
mousse. Cutesy. Two hundred of these suckers. I loathe
making cutesy desserts. Plus, tempering all that chocolate,
working it back and forth with a spatula, determining when
the chocolate was just at the right temperature to cut it without
fracturing it. The knot in my back began throbbing
violently in anticipation.
"Okay, okay. I'll do the goddamn boxes with the blood-orange
mousse," I agreed wearily. "Call your Mrs. Gerson
with the good news."
Thom didn't bother to hide a broad grin as he pushed
himself away from the table. Why did I have the sick feeling
that this was exactly what he wanted all along? In the background
the janitor began moving the chairs in order to
vacuum the dining room. I looked at my watch. One hour
until service. I felt in my pockets for my car keys. I was so
tired I was half tempted to go to my car without returning to
the locker room for my backpack and wallet.
"Oh, Mary." Thom stopped his victory march across the
dining room and called over one shoulder. "One small thing."
"The names of literary classics piped on the Front of each
one. Make them all different. For fun."
"Fun," I repeated in a deadpan voice. There was that word
"You know, Gone with the Wind or The Importance of Being
Earnest. Mrs. Gerson is a big Oscar Wilde fan."
I stared at him in horror. "And how am I supposed to fit,"
I counted quickly, "thirty-one letters, if you include spaces,
on a five-inch by seven-inch piece of chocolate?"
"I have total faith in you," he said gaily and continued
I shut my eyes in contemplation of the hours I'd spend
hunched over a table, a paper cone filled with white chocolate,
piping out literary titles on a rectangle the size of a postcard;
truly, a labor of Hercules.
Yes, it was worth ten years in Q.
I opened my eyes and grabbed the salt and pepper shakers,
but he was already halfway across the dining room, whistling
"Cry Me a River."
Copyright © 2002
Claire M. Johnson
The morning of Mrs. Gerson's party my alarm clock went
off at five. The weather had turned cold the weekend before
and the tip of my nose and forehead were freezing, the only
body parts not covered with down. As I turned on my bedside
lamp to make sure I didn't fall back asleep, every muscle in
my lower back screamed in violent protest. The hot light
branded my eyelids until I couldn't stand it anymore, and I
hauled my ass out of bed. On my way to the shower my calf
muscles joined in the agony chorus and cramped in sympathy
with my back. Yesterday had been an eighteen-hour day and
even a scalding shower didn't rejuvenate me.
Shit, I thought, as my shoulder went into spasm while I
pulled on a tee shirt. I'm getting too old for this. I felt ninety
and near death.
The week before had been the proverbial nightmare. I'd
worked an extra two hours every day, melting, tempering, and
cutting out chocolate rectangles. Two days ago, just as I was
ready to assemble the rectangles into their cutesy little mock-book
form, I discovered someone had placed a hot stockpot
next to the rack where I had stored the chocolate rectangles.
All the sheetpans on the bottom of the rack had melted and
rehardened, leaving the chocolate with a sickly bloom resembling
bathtub scum. All that chocolate would have to be
remelted, tempered again, and recut. It took every ounce of
strength I had not to break down sobbing.
After making it crystal clear that if anyone got so much as
within five feet of me and the rack with the chocolate on it
I'd cut their hearts out with a clam knife, I fortified myself
with a triple espresso every two hours and worked as if possessed
by the devil himself. I'd managed to recoup most of
the damage and had only two tasks left to do: make the
mousse and pipe out the novel titles. I'd go in early before
the kitchen crew arrived, finish up, and then go to my gym
and soak for three hours. I've yet to use the exercise equipment.
I belong to a gym for the Jacuzzi.
By five-thirty that morning, I was on the Bay Bridge,
driving with one hand, eating cold toast with the other, hot
coffee between my legs. I spent the entire drive racking my
brains for the shortest novel titles I could think of. Anything
longer than ten words didn't qualify. Jane Austen was good
for three: Emma, Sanditon, and Persuasion. Tom Jones worked,
Vanity Fair was good. Bleak House. Jane Eyre. The Victorians
were winning hands down.
The restaurant had been closed the day before so that
Davyd, party czar to S.F.'s elite, could work his magic on the
dining room. He'd transformed our bistro French dcor into
an Art Deco extravaganza. Masses of blood-red tulips (where
did he find tulips in October?) arced out of three-foot-high
black lacquer vases scattered throughout the room. He'd
replaced our tables with round tables for ten and covered
them with black and white Harlequin-patterned tablecloths.
For centerpieces he had grouped black-leather bound books,
red fountain pens, quills, and wired-rimmed spectacles in a
casual array that looks simple to achieve, but in reality is
almost impossible to do right. Floor to ceiling-length scrolls
of parchment lined the walls, each one penned in meticulous
calligraphy with the first paragraph of a famous book. "It is
a truth universally acknowledged ..." from Pride and Prejudice.
"In the late summer of that year we lived in a house ..." from
A Farewell to Arms. "In my younger and more vulnerable
years my father gave me some advice ..." from The Great
Gatsby. It was beautiful, but all that manufactured elegance
made me uncomfortable. Time to enter the world I knew.
All right reserved.
Excerpted from Beat Until Stiff
by Claire M. Johnson
Copyright © 2002 by Claire M. Johnson
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Copyright © 2002
Claire M. Johnson
All right reserved.