Posted on February 24, 2013 - by

TOPPED CHEF: A Sneak Peek into Chapter One

Chapter One
“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, ‘I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?’ ” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.
— A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
Evinrude woke me from a sound sleep, first with his rumbling purr and then with a gentle but persistent tapping of paw to cheek. I blinked my eyes open—the bedside clock read six fifteen. I hissed softly at his gray-striped face. “I love you dearly, but you’re a monster,” I told him as I rolled out of bed. “Spoiled rotten cat flesh.”
Tail hoisted high, he trotted out of the room ahead of me, meowing loudly. Miss Gloria’s lithe black cat, Sparky, intercepted him before he reached the food bowls lined up in the corner of the tiny galley of our houseboat. He sprang onto Evinrude’s back and wrestled him to the floor. While they boxed and nipped at each other, I poured a ration of kibbles into each bowl, refreshed their water, and then staggered onto the deck to check out the morning.
The plum-colored night sky was shifting to pink to make room for the day, which looked as though it might turn out “glorious and whimsical,” as the Key West Citizen had promised. A quartet of wind chimes tinkled lightly from the boats down the finger. Had there been a stiff wind or the first spitting drops of a cold rain, I’d have gone directly back to bed. But on a morning like this, there was no excuse to avoid the dreaded exercise I’d prescribed for myself.
Twice in the past ten days, I’d lured myself out of bed to go jogging before work, with the promise of a thick, sweet café con leche from the Cuban Coffee Queen as a reward on the way home. In addition to adding heft to my resume, my position as food critic for Key Zest had added a bit to my waistline over the past months; I was anxious to reverse the trend. And besides that, the Key West Food and Wine Festival loomed this week—it promised a series of tasting sessions that could ruin the most stalwart dieter. Which I was definitely not.
And most pressing of all, my first real date with detective Nate Bransford had been rescheduled for this evening. (You can’t count a threesome including your mother as a romantic encounter.) So it wasn’t hard to convince myself that today should be the third session—not that jogging two miles would magically transform my figure from jiggles to muscles, but I had to start somewhere. And maybe it would help work out the predate jitters, too.
I hurried back inside, replaced my pajamas with baggy running shorts, red sneakers, and a T-shirt that read “Dinner is ready when the smoke alarm goes off.” I’d bought the shirt for Christmas for my stepmother—who, while a brilliant chemist, was famous in our family for cremating roasts and burning even soup from a can—but lost my nerve before sending it. Why jostle a relationship that had recently settled into a pleasant détente?
I tucked my phone into my pocket and dashed off a note to my roommate, Miss Gloria, who lets me live onboard her houseboat in exchange for errands like grocery shopping (which I adore anyway), and sending occasional reports on her mental and physical condition to her son in Michigan. I stand between her and a slot in an old-age home—and I take my responsibility seriously. The Queen’s Guard of Tarpon Pier.
I wrote: Jogging—ugh! Call me if you want a coffee.
Then I hopped off our deck, tottered along the dock, and started grinding up the Palm Avenue hill over the Garrison Bight, which is Key West speak for harbor, toward the Old Town section of Key West. There aren’t many changes in elevation in this town, so I was just as happy to get this challenge over with early on. I puffed past the U.S. Naval Air Station’s multistory building—Fly Navy—and then by the pale pink and green cement block apartments for enlisted folks and their families. I finally chugged around the curve onto Eaton Street, my lungs burning and my thighs cramping into complaining masses. I picked up my pace, pushing harder because I smelled bacon: The Coles Peace Bakery called to me like a Siren to Ulysses. Stopping for an unscheduled bacon and cheese toast on crispy Cuban bread would devastate my fledging resolutions.
As I hooked right on Grinnell, heading toward the boardwalk that wound along the historic seaport area, I tried to distract myself by thinking about my tasks for the day. There’d be e-mail to answer, as the biweekly issue of Key Zest, our fledgling Key West style magazine, hit inboxes today. And I was in charge of responding to the usual flurry of complaints and compliments. For the first time in my short career, I’d had to swallow hard and write a negative review. This was bound to come sooner or later. Key West is a foodie paradise, but like Anywhere, USA, there are lousy meals to be had, too. As a careful follower of the major newspaper restaurant critics, I’d read plenty of stories about critics suffering through horrendous dinners. Or worse yet, bouts of food poisoning. I’d actually memorized one of the New York Times critic Sam Sifton’s sharper quotes:
“And lobes of dismal-flavored sea urchin served over thick lardo and heavy toast were just dreadful: the eighth band after Nirvana to write loud-soft-loud music and call it new.”
But hearing about rotten reviews and writing them were two different animals. I wasn’t convinced that I would ever develop a killer instinct—famous critics seemed to enjoy ripping apart a horrible dinner. Me? I could only imagine the chef sweating in the kitchen, slaving over the stove, plating the meal, praying that his special whatever hit the mark. It broke my heart to think about dissing some poor chump’s food.
My second meal at Just Off Duval a couple nights earlier had started off well. True to its name, the restaurant was located a half block from Duval Street, far enough from the bustle of the town’s main party artery to mask the grit and noise. My friend Eric and I had ordered glasses of wine and settled into the pleasant outdoor patio edged with feathery palm plants to enjoy our dinners. The night was cool enough for a sweater, and the scent of roasting meat had my stomach doing anticipatory back-flips. A half loaf of stale Italian bread and a pool of olive oil that tasted almost rancid were the first signs the experience would be a downer. I jotted a few notes into my smartphone, agreeing with Eric: Any restaurant should be allowed a tiny misstep.
But then my chef’s special salad was delivered: a small pile of lettuce dog-paddling in thick blue cheese dressing that screamed “emulsifier” and wore powerful overtones of the plastic bottle it must have been squeezed from. On top of that were chunks of pale pink mealy tomatoes. Though the mashed potatoes that accompanied the main courses were creamy and rich, my thirty-eight-dollar fish smelled fishy and Eric’s forty-two-dollar steak was stringy. We didn’t have the nerve to order dessert. I hadn’t actually gotten ill, but my stomach had roiled for half the night in spite of the half roll of antacids I’d eaten. According to a text the next morning from Eric, who generally had an iron constitution, his gut still didn’t feel quite right as he and his partner drove to Miami for some much-needed R and R.
I had tried to wriggle out of writing it up. But there wasn’t time to substitute something else. And my boss, Wally, had specifically told me this restaurant should be included in the next issue of our magazine. But the words of former New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl kept churning through my mind: The more expensive the restaurant, the more damage a lousy review can do. And mine was definitely lousy. It started like this:
All kitchens have an off night. Unfortunately, my three visits at Just Off Duval coincided with three bad nights. JOD, a newish restaurant on a cul-de-sac a half block off Upper Duval Street, has been the site of four failed restaurants over the past six years. Whether this is due to bad cooking juju or simply uneven and overreaching preparation, I fear that Just Off Duval will be joining their ranks….
I shook the words out of my mind and staggered past the Yankee Freedom ship, which ferries tourists to the Dry Tortugas for snorkeling expeditions most mornings. Then I paused on the boardwalk along the harbor to catch my breath. Several large sailboats left over from the races the previous week still clanked in their slips, alongside catamarans loaded with kayaks and sport fishing powerboats. The pink streaks in the sky had expanded like silken threads of cotton candy, bringing enough light so I could make out the details of the early-morning activity. Nearby, a thin man in faded jeans with long hair and a bushy beard that reached to the middle of his chest sprayed the deck of one of the Sebago party boats with a high-pressure hose. The hair around his lips was stained yellow, as if he’d smoked a lifetime’s worth of cigarettes, and faded to white at the tip of his beard.
As I leaned against a wooden railing to stretch my calves, a bare-chested, red-haired man skidded around the corner, wearing a long black coat and a small American flag draped from his belt like a loincloth. He leaped onto the boat, pulled a knife out of his waistband, and, taking a fighter’s crouch, brandished it at the man with the hose.
Even under the pirate’s tricornered hat, I recognized him—Turtle, a chronically homeless man whose behavior fluctuated with the status of his mental illness. A couple of months ago, I would have backed away as fast as I could. But now I understood more. Since it was the end of the month, he’d probably run out of meds. And if the cops came, he’d end up in jail. Where he’d only get worse.
The bearded man spun around, growled, and pointed the hose at Turtle, who had begun to execute tai chi–like movements, waving the knife in shaky figure eights. My adrenaline surged as I pictured a throat slit right in front of my eyes.
“Listen, man,” the worker yelled, “get the hell out of here. You’re on private property.”
“They can’t take what I ain’t got,” said Turtle, crouching lower and moving forward.
This was going to get ugly unless someone intervened. “Turtle,” I called. “Put the knife down. Please?”
“Avast, ye stinking pirates!” Turtle yelled, swinging around to wave the knife at me. Heart pounding, I stumbled back a few steps.
“I’m calling the cops right now.” The white-bearded man sprayed Turtle’s legs, now wet to the knees, as he yanked a phone from the back pocket of his jeans.
“Turtle,” I said, “I’m going for coffee and a Cuban cheese toast. Can I get you one?”
His pale blue eyes darted from me to the white-haired man and back; the knife twitched in his fingers. Then he shrugged, shoved the weapon into his belt beside the flag. and hopped off the boat. I took a shaky breath and led him around the block to the Cuban Coffee Queen, wondering how to keep him focused in this world, not deep in his own crazy loop.
“I love this weather, don’t you?” I asked, glancing over my shoulder. He danced along several feet behind me, fending off imagined dangers with his cape and his knife. What would it feel like to be inside his head? Awful, I guessed.
As we approached the little white shack painted like an oversized Key West postcard that housed the Cuban Coffee Queen, he hunkered down and pulled out the knife again. A couple with a baby stroller were ordering breakfast at the walk-up window. The woman stiffened and whispered something to her husband. He moved around to stand in between his family and us.
“Turtle,” I said softly, “better put that away or you’ll scare the other folks. Would you rather have a Cuban bagel or a cheese toast?” I reached out to touch his arm but stopped when I saw his startled face.
“Cheese toast, matey!” he growled, sidling away from me and sliding the knife back into his belt again.
“Why don’t you wait here?” I suggested, pointing to a painted wooden bench about ten feet from the coffee stand.
He sat, tugging his cape around his body and closing his eyes. He rocked back and forth and his fingers tapped out a rhythm on his knees to a tune I couldn’t hear. I stepped up to the food stand’s window next to a large stuffed rooster.
“Two large café con leches and a cheese toast please,” I told the woman with dark hair and eyes who appeared at the window. I glanced over at Turtle. “Better make one decaf.” She took my money and I stuffed two bucks into the tip jar while the milk steamed and shots of espresso drained into paper cups. Smelled like my kind of heaven. She buttered a slab of Cuban bread, slapped on a layer of cheese, and popped the sandwich into the grill press.
As soon as my order was ready, a police car pulled up and stopped next to the coffee stand. Officer Torrence—a cop who knew my business a little better than I’d prefer for a man I wasn’t dating—peered out of the cruiser on the passenger side. His gaze darted from the sodden homeless man to the breakfast in my hands. He rolled down the window and smoothed his mustache.

“Everything okay here?”
“Just dandy,” I said, forcing a smile. Turtle had tensed, looking ready to spring. My hands trembling, I walked over to deliver his coffee and sandwich. He took off, Torrence watching him as he booked it around the souvenir shop and back to the harbor.
“Where’s your scooter?” Officer Torrence asked.
“I jogged here this morning.”
“You want a ride?” he asked, gesturing to the backseat of the cruiser. “You look a little pale.”
“No thanks,” I said with a weak grin and waved them on. I was terrible at keeping secrets—the worst. He’d want to know everything about Turtle and I’d find myself spilling the details of the altercation at the harbor and how he’d scared the little family at the Cuban Coffee Queen and likely Turtle would still end up in jail.
Besides, everyone on Tarpon Pier would notice me emerging from a black and white—I’d never hear the end of it. As I took my coffee and walked out to Caroline Street, a text message buzzed onto my phone.
FYI, Hayley, the owner of Just Off Duval called me at home. Freaking Out. Get to the office ASAP and we’ll make a plan.
I almost dropped the phone. My worst nightmare: facing the owner or chef whose restaurant I’d panned. It hadn’t taken long to happen.
I flagged down a pink taxicab to carry me home.


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