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Poppy Markham practically grew up at the family restaurant in Austin, Texas, and, until recently, worked as a sous chef under her surly stepsister, Ursula. Poppy's not sure if her dad will ever forgive her for leaving the family business to become a public health inspector-the most reviled figure in the restaurant industry-but when he asks her back into the kitchen to help out during the restaurant's grand re-opening, she can't refuse. Chaos ensues when the guest of honor, Michelin-rated chef Évariste Bontecou, ...
Poppy Markham practically grew up at the family restaurant in Austin, Texas, and, until recently, worked as a sous chef under her surly stepsister, Ursula. Poppy's not sure if her dad will ever forgive her for leaving the family business to become a public health inspector-the most reviled figure in the restaurant industry-but when he asks her back into the kitchen to help out during the restaurant's grand re-opening, she can't refuse. Chaos ensues when the guest of honor, Michelin-rated chef Évariste Bontecou, is found stabbed to death with Ursula's knife. Sacrebleu!
Sorting through everyone who had it in for the hot-headed, philandering French chef is worse than deboning a Coho salmon. Could it be the bad-boy sous chef eyeing his chance at the top or the conniving waitress rumored to be Évariste's paramour du jour? The closer Poppy gets to solving the mystery, the hotter things get. And as everyone knows: if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.
Deboning the chef.
Flown in from Monte Carlo to Austin, Texas, to add sizzle and spice to the redesign of Markham's, a beloved local restaurant, Chef Évariste Bontecou antagonizes everyone from the dishwasher to the sous chef. So it's no big surprise when he turns up dead, impaled on a large butcher's knife. Unfortunately, that knife belongs to the restaurant owner's stepdaughter Ursula, who is thrown in the slammer. Poppy Markham, who used to work in the restaurant before decamping to become a public-health inspector, decides to save the day, the restaurant and even Ursula with a bit of supersleuthing. She's helped by her former beau, the deliciously handsome food critic Jamie, and the pair turn up a few secrets: that three mystery men who dine at Markham's weekly are treated to complimentary bottles of lavishly expensive wine; that several deals were in place to reassign ownership of Markham's; and that a certain waitress may have been romancing not only the roly-poly, married Bontecou but Ursula's sometime boyfriend and even the restaurant's new manager. Poppy's home will be torched, her dad hospitalized and her hormones reattuned to Jamie before just deserts are served up.
First-timer Allen delivers a breezy and likable menu with perhaps a tad too much panting after Jamie.
"Up to my elbows in rancid chicken at a taco trailer on the east side." I swung my backpack full of cook's togs over my shoulder. "And don't start. I'm doing you a favor tonight."
She thwacked a small animal with a meat cleaver, severing body parts. "The favor is for Mitch, not me."
"So fire me," I said.
"How about if I wait for you to quit again?" Thwack!
Ursula York is my stepsister and the chef at my father's restaurant. Whatever had her so agitated couldn't have anything to do with me. Ursula was an of-the-moment kind of girl and we hadn't shared any moments for the past six months. "Seriously, Ursula, can't you give it a rest tonight?"
Before she could respond, Évariste Bontecou, the Michelin-rated chef my father had flown in all the way from his exclusive restaurant, Le Château Azul in Monte Carlo, for Markham's grand re-opening, burst through the swinging doors, red-faced and twisted tight about something. Évariste was a short man. If I said he stood about four feet tall and two feet wide and resembled an oversized, undercooked chicken drumstick, I would be exaggerating. But only by a few inches. His bright red chef 's coat made him look even more like raw poultry.
Évariste's brilliant modern interpretations of recipes in the classic 1938 French encyclopedia-cookbook, Larousse Gastronomique, earned him respect, but his tantrums made him famous. The evening promised fireworks, which was one of the reasons I had agreed to help out in the kitchen. No way would I pass up a chance to see the Wicked Witch of the Southwest mix it up with Europe's Enfant Terrible.
"Stupid reporters!" Évariste shouted. "When I say I 'ave a Michelin star, he ask if eet is from the tire people."
Will Denton, the restaurant's general manager, trailed Évariste through the doors. "Reporters love to joke," he said.
"Cretin!" Évariste roared, ignoring Will, or perhaps responding to him. "I will not be aggressed with stupidity!" He poked his finger into the air, grazing Will's chest. "Everyone knows what a Michelin star is. No more interviews."
I had heard firsthand reports about Évariste's flare-ups, but that was my first time to see him in action. I tried to catch Ursula's reaction, but couldn't see enough of her face to tell if she was fuming that he had brought his gripes into the kitchen or smirking that it was Will, not her, who had to deal with them.
Will's fading smile dropped completely from his face. "Évariste," he said, smoothing his voice, "this is an important night for you and for Markham's. I need you to speak with these reporters."
Évariste waddled over to a cooling tray of silverware by the dishwasher. He selected a handful of spoons, then took his time walking across the thick rubber floor mats to the stove. He began tasting the sauces and soups simmering in huge silver pots, aware of his audience, but not acknowledging us.
Will was right. My father had a lot riding on this night and we couldn't afford a tantrum so early. I have a way with chefs and knew just what to say to calm him down and send him back to the dining room. "Évariste," I said.
He spun round. "Chef!" he barked. "You call me as 'chef' een my kitchen!"
"Chef Bontecou," Will interrupted, "you are the star of the evening."
That's not what I would have said, but it worked. Évariste stopped shoving spoons between his pink lips. He turned and looked up at Will, then tilted his head, inviting him to continue.
Will stepped closer to Évariste. "We've gone to a lot of trouble to bring you here and to promote your Texas debut. Important people will be here tonight. As a successful businessman, surely you can understand that we need you to do what you're good at."
"They are stupid," Évariste said, softening but still petulant.
"Yes," Will agreed, "they are stupid. But even a stupid reporter can write a good story."
"Pft," Évariste said, lifting the lid on another pot.
Ursula's special pot. The pot she uses to experiment with, to perfect her famous soup recipes. The pot everyone in her kitchen knows not to touch.
Ursula looked up from the frog legs she had been cutting off at the ankles, glared at Évariste, then returned to the business of defooting frogs. I doubted she had started inviting critiques of her cooking. She had once fired a cook who tasted one of her soups and then suggested that her crawfish bisque "felt grainy on the tongue." I considered that she had learned to control herself, but that seemed just as unlikely.
We crowded around Évariste to watch him work, but even standing on his tippie-toes, he couldn't see inside the pot. "Get him a step-stool," I said.
Ursula's sous chef, Trevor Shaw, stood closest to the stock room and in moments produced one. He held on to Évariste as the little chef ascended the steps. Évariste sniffed the pot, looked as if he had smelled nothing more enticing than boiling water, then lowered his head and sniffed again. "This is not mine," he said.
"It's Ursula's," Trevor said. "Venison stew. She's been workin' on the recipe for a few days."
Ursula looked up, her face as hard and white as horseradish root. Her cheeks flared crimson when Évariste poked a fat, hairy finger into the pot then into his mouth. He clicked his tongue, snapping the flavors around, then held out his hand. "Verte peppercorns." He said it with such authority, I expected them to materialize in his fleshy palm.
"Verte?" Ursula asked in perfect French. He had finally thrown her witch switch. We all turned to look at her, as quiet as boxing fans waiting to see if it's a true KO. "I have asked you many times to speak English in my kitchen."
That was it? Speak English?
Évariste stared into the pot as if looking for the translation rising in the steam. "Verte," he murmured, then looked up. "Grin!" he exclaimed. "Grin peppercorns."
I reached around to a shelf behind me and handed him a canister of green peppercorns. The look Ursula gave me could have singed a yeti bald. I should have felt bad about cooking with the enemy, but after making me miserable for months as her sous chef, she had run up quite a tab. That night was my first and maybe only chance at settling up with her. Besides, Ursula cooked better when she was ticked off.
Évariste shook two tablespoons of the peppercorns into his hand, brought them up to his face for a sniff, then rubbed them together in his hands and let them fall into the pot. "Eet weel be good in thirty meenoots."
Trevor helped him down from the stool, a look of awe on his face. "You're amazin,' Chef. One taste and you knew exactly what it needed."
Will broke up the love fest. "Chef, please, the reporters are waiting."
Évariste turned to me and pointed to his hat. "Is eet straight?"
I looked at the foot-high pleated cylinder atop his rotund body. He looked like a pudgy exclamation point. "Straight enough," I said.
"Straight as a shark's fin," Ursula muttered.
Will escorted Évariste out the swinging doors, setting off a lightning storm of flashbulbs and thunderous cheers among the reporters. Ursula returned her attention to the frog legs, her anger beginning to settle into a simmer.
Ursula's kitchen used to be my kitchen and then our kitchen until I quit and became a public health inspector. My father understands why I chose that traitorous occupation, but he hasn't forgiven me for leaving the family restaurant in the first place. The fact that I had agreed to be an extra pair of skilled hands in the kitchen during the rush that night gave him hope that I might return. I was going to disappoint him again.
I don't like Ursula, but I love my father and I love the restaurant, so I needed to get along with the chef. Even though she had been the one to yell, I decided to apologize for being late. I tapped her on the back and she turned to me, finishing a thought she had started in her head. "You know, my guys won't give me so much as an 'attagirl' when food critics add a fifth star to their restaurant rating system just so they can award it to me, but that Monaco midget adds one little spice to a pot of deer meat and they turn his step-stool into a pedestal."
"Just ignore him," I said, knowing she couldn't. Wouldn't.
She pulled a teaspoon from her apron and dipped it into a container of something one of her cooks had set on the counter. "That's what Mitch tells me," she said, sipping from the spoon. "But how am I supposed to do that? The only reason I'm going through all of this is because of that Gallic grunt. Big flippin' deal he can cook camel's ribs. My meat supplier's still laughing from when Évariste tried to place an order for them."
She dipped another spoon into the container then hovered it in front of my lips. I sipped something much too salty. "Tastes like the Gulf of Mexico," I said.
She pitched the spoon across the kitchen with expert precision, landing it in the bus tub with a hard clink. "I am so sick of men telling me what to do."
"Then why don't you tell me what to do," I said.
"Get changed and you can field-dress the rabbits. Évariste swears we'll sell out."
So that's how it was going to be. She knew I was a vegan. If I didn't eat animals, why would I want to flay them? Why couldn't I peel potatoes or pre-plate salads? But grousing about my assignment would send both of us into the ring, and we had too much prep work to do.
"No problem," I said. I swung my backpack off my shoulder and hugged it in front of me with both arms, taking up as little space as possible as I veered around prep cooks slicing fresh beetroot and chiffonading parsley.
When I pushed through the swinging doors into the wait station, I stopped dead.
The main dining room, usually cool and serene before service, churned with people and activity. The French Fox, as American food writers had dubbed Évariste—not for his looks, but for his business acumen—held court in front of dozens of journalists. I recognized a lot of the Austin media, but also saw film crews from other cities and even a few with foreign identifications. All at Markham's. And all because of Évariste Bontecou.
I caught sight of a woman in a perfectly coiffed platinum-blond bob standing next to a tan, handsome, bald man. My stepmother Nina and my father Mitch. I hardly recognized my father anymore. He had been a cradle-to-grave hippie until Nina sunk her acrylic claws into him. She was more interested in how people looked than in who they were, and Mitch became a victim of her shallow upgrades. When he cut off his wispy ponytail and traded his full Hemingway beard for a trim goatee, local newspapers wrote stories on his "transformation."
Not one to pass up an opportunity to get her name in the paper, Nina had parlayed the interest in Mitch's makeover into more publicity by making over the restaurant. She had coerced Mitch into transforming Markham's Bar & Grill, the casual eatery he had started with my mother before I was born, into an upgraded white-linen restaurant with an upgraded name, Markham's Grille & Cocktails, the extra 'e' completely unnecessary and pretentious. Between husbands or when she's bored, Nina works as an interior designer, and I had to admit that the restaurant's sleek new look deserved to be celebrated.
I moved closer to the podium and waved across the crowd to get their attention. Mitch's face lit up when he saw me, but Nina scowled. The feeling is mutual, I telegraphed with my own scowl. She said something into Mitch's ear and his answer made her frown. Yes, Nina, I will be here all night. They turned back to the reporters volleying questions at Évariste, then to Évariste lobbing answers back to them.
"Chef!" a reporter called. "What's your favorite beer?"
"Chef, what's your impression of Austin?"
"Ow-steen reminds me of home, but les filles at home, they wear no tops on the beach."
Ursula slammed through the kitchen doors just as a reporter asked, "Chef, do you like the Longhorns?"
"Eet depends on how you cook them."
Ursula uttered a forceful, "Ugh!" over the laughter and stomped past me.
The night was bigger than Ursula and bigger than me. If I was going to put up with her, she could put up with Évariste. I followed her to the women's restroom, ready to tell her to cowgirl up, but when I opened the door, what I saw shut my mouth before I even opened it.
Excerpted from If You Can't Stand the Heat by ROBIN ALLEN Copyright © 2011 by Robin Allen. Excerpted by permission of Midnight Ink. 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.
Posted December 31, 2012
I was able to snag book two, Stick a Fork In it, from this series off Netgalley in the early summer and after reading it, decided I needed to read book one. It didn’t disappoint either. Check out my review of Stick a Fork In It.
I thought I would be met with a lot of details and set up as usually comes with first books of a series, but that definitely was not the case. There were a few new details that I learned, but these are definitely cozies that can stand on their own and out of order.
Poppy Markham's family is introduced and are great characters. My family favorite is her dad. Met with a lot of changes and hardships in this book, he is still a great dad.
My favorite overall characters are still John With and John Without. They definitely add humor to the story and life of Poppy. It was a lot of fun to learn about Poppy’s dad, stepmom, and a little more about her stepsister. I thought the crime itself was pretty clever and I did have a hard time guessing who had done it. The scheme in the crime was pretty clever.
There is a little bit of romance, not a lot, as expected, and definitely some wit. This is a great new series in the cozy mystery genre. I would recommend this book/series to all cozy mystery readers. If you are new to cozies, this would definitely be a good series to start out with.
Posted April 3, 2012
Posted January 13, 2012
No text was provided for this review.