The big guy lumbered toward me, waving the cleaver. Weeping like a baby.
“Take it easy, buddy,” I said. “No harm done.”
“I d-d-didn’t mean to do it. I swear to God I didn’t.”
“I hope not,” I said, looking at the mangled, bloody mess he’d caused. “Why don’t you give me that cleaver before you make this any worse?”
“I’m a screwup,” the big guy said. He was close enough for me to read the little name tag on his white coat. Eldon Something with Too Many Consonants.
“We all have bad days, Eldon,” I told him. “Just hand me the cleaver.”
He hesitated, then handed over the knife. He made a loud sniff to clear his sinuses, then used the sleeve of his white jacket to wipe the moisture from his eyes and the sweat from the rest of his face.
I was sweating, too. It could have been the heat from the television lights. Or the steamers. Or Eldon’s incompetence with the cleaver. Probably all three.
“I’m sorry, chief,” Eldon mumbled.
“Chef,” I corrected him.
“Oh, right. Chef.”
Actually, it’s Chef Billy Blessing. If you recognize the name, and I sincerely hope you do, you’ll understand that I don’t engage in a whole lot of on-the-job chef-ing these days, though I do run a popular restaurant on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, Blessing’s Bistro. (A New York magazine pick. Tops in food and service per Zagat, thank you very much.) I have a line of savory prepared meals (which you can find in the frozen-food sections of the better supermarkets). And there’s a series of cookbooks (the latest of which, Blessing’s Best: Brunches, just went into a second printing, a New York Times Bestseller). But people usually know me because I’m on TV. My own show, Blessing’s in the Kitchen, appears on the Wine & Dine Cable Network, Thursdays at four p.m. EST, and, for reasons I’ve never understood, repeated at two a.m. on Saturdays. I guess if you come home drunk, the first thing you want to do is turn on the forty-two-inch LCD and watch me cook. And, crucial to the whole Blessing mini-empire, I’m a regular on Wake Up, America!, the morning news show airing weekdays on the Worldwide Broadcasting Company. I’m the guy with the food features, interviews, and the joke of the day. Viewers tell me I remind them of a stocky Eddie Murphy, minus the mustache, the honking laugh, and the leather pants. I prefer to think of myself as a more accessible, less intense version of Denzel Washington. They also assume, because our producer, Arnie Epps, has instructed me to keep a smile on my face whenever I’m on camera, that I’m always cheery. I’m not. At the particular moment I am describing, in the midst of a disastrous trial run for a new Wine & Dine series, I was one hundred and eighty degrees from cheery.
I turned to survey the other nine inhabitants of the soundstage kitchen. They, like Eldon, were dressed in chef coats, with most of their hair tucked under white caps. Also like Eldon, they were all very young, the exception being a beady-eyed fortysomething gent who had the appearance and the odor of a greasy-spoon fry cook.
They’d separated themselves by gender. A male with acne was staring at me with the goofy adoration of a dependent dog. Another was nervously rubbing a mustache that looked like anchovies attacking his upper lip. I spied a brown Mohawk partially tucked under a cap, the oily bottom spikes sticking out over the collar of his coat like the tail of a dirty bird. Yuchhh!
One of the very young women—girls, actually—chomped on gum. A pretty brown-skinned sister who might qualify as a supermodel trainee seemed more interested in protecting her long fingernails than in food preparation. A girl with a sallow complexion had little pieces of metal piercing her brows and ears, and every time she nodded her head, which was often, they caught the light and reflected it into the camera, causing a flare. God help her if she was ever trapped outdoors in a lightning storm.
Breakfast was obviously the most important meal of the day for a fourth girl, judging by the tattoo of a fried egg on her neck. A fifth, another black woman, was showing more attitude than Wanda Sykes but none of her humor.
All were supposed to have had at least an introduction to the preparation of food, but my guess was that they wouldn’t have known how to toast up a Pop-Tart.
“Is there anybody here who can split a duck?” I asked.
The fry cook stepped forward. “No problema, boss,” he said, taking the cleaver from my fingers.
He approached the countertop chopping block, where three medium-size ducks rested. Two of them were picture-perfect. The third had an ugly gouged and mangled breast, thanks to Eldon’s halfhearted use of the cleaver. The ducks had been cleaned and were ready to be seasoned with salt and pepper, rubbed with olive oil, and then placed in a steamer with chopped scallions, shredded ginger, six tablespoons of dry sherry, and oil.
But first they had to be split.
“Make it a good, clean whack,” I told him.
“Easy as spankin’ the baby,” the man said. He drew back the cleaver and brought it down on one of the perfect birds. A clean severing.
“Excellent,” I said. “Continue.”
The man shrugged and raised the cleaver again. He removed the neck and wings.
“Fine,” I said.
But instead of stepping away, he raised the cleaver again and cut off a leg. He’d lopped off the other leg before I could shout “Stop!”
His brow furrowed in confusion.
“The legs are supposed to stay on,” I said.
“Sorry there, boss,” the man said. “Guess I’m kinda used to how we cut ’em at work.”
“Where would that be?”
“KFC on Forty-second.”
“Of course,” I said. I turned to squint into the darkness beyond the lighted soundstage and called out, “Lily, if you’re out there hiding, may we speak?”
The show’s director and my coproducer, Lily Conover, moved past the camera crew and emerged into the light. Lily was a small, wiry woman in her forties, with highlighted blonde hair cut in a short fluff. She wore cat’s-eye glasses, a plaid shirt, tight black jeans, and cowboy-style boots made from the hide of some no doubt nearly extinct reptile.
“Pretty ugly, huh?” she said as I rested my arm over her shoulders and led her to the rear of the studio.
“You think? Food School 101. A concept right up there with a singing cop show, Who’s Your Daddy?, and Britney and Kevin: Chaotic.”
“The idea isn’t totally awful,” Lily said. “But we needed more time. This bunch is the best we could find on such short notice.”
“These kids would have trouble microwaving soup,” I said.
“They’d probably leave it in the can,” Lily said.
“And the so-called celebrity judges?”
We turned to the table where the three judges sat, looking hot and restless. The most famous, an aging former sex kitten whose only lingering fame was due to her vociferous disbelief in global warming, was trying unsuccessfully to keep the unpopular, and some might say repulsive, insult comedian from invading her personal space. The final judge, a three-hundred-plus-pound food writer, was staring wistfully at the raw ducks.
“Let’s dump the concept and send this crew back to KFC and points south.”
“Rudy won’t like that.”
“Rudy,” I said, sighing. “Why did we even consider his lame idea?”
“Why? Let me count the ways,” Lily said. “One, Rudy Gallagher is a Di Voss Industries vice president, and executive producer of a morning news show we all know and love, Wake Up, America! You may remember the name from your W-2 forms.
“Two, while Rudy isn’t directly in charge of our little cable network, his fiancée, Gretchen Di Voss, is. That would be the same Gretchen Di Voss who is the daughter of the owner of Di Voss Industries. I know you’ve heard of her, because you and she used to . . . How do the kids put it? . . . Knock boots.”
“Okay,” I said.
“And three,” Lily said, not to be denied, “your old flame has given the lovable Rudy’s independent production company the green light on this pilot. So . . .”
“Okay, okay,” I said. “Points made. Rudy is to be obeyed.”
“We can sort of work around him, I think,” she said.
“Let’s try. And could we possibly set our celebrity standards a little higher than the D-list?”
“Sure,” she said. “Of course, that would mean paying them a little more. And the money would have to come from our end. . . .”
“That’s one of the things I love about you, Lily. The subtlebut- powerful quality of your arguments. So we stick with these turkeys. But can’t we at least find apprentices who don’t look like fugitives from the Syfy Network?”
“Rudy wants the show to skew young,” Lily said. “And he wants eccentric.”
I rarely get headaches but felt one coming on. “These kids can’t even turn on a stovetop. How can we expect them to cook a meal? And the bozo with the Mohawk, what’s that all about?”
“I repeat, Rudy wants eccentric,” Lily said.
“Which explains the gal with the egg tattoo on her neck.”
“As I understand it, that’s just the start of her body menu.”
Having no interest in the special of the day, I smiled but only fleetingly. “How serious is this youth-demographic thing? Are they gonna ask for changes on Blessing’s in the Kitchen?”
“You know the game, Billy. But for now at least they’re focusing on Food School 101. Yet another reason not to just blow it off.”
“You’re right,” I agreed, glancing at my watch. Nearly six-thirty. “Let’s call this a wrap and head back to the old drawing board. Priority one: better students.”
“I’ll put somebody on canvassing real cooking schools and colleges,” Lily promised.
“And forget the eccentric stuff. I can be eccentric enough for all of us.”
“Your call. But Rudy won’t like it.”
“Let me worry about Rudy.”
“Well, now’s your chance,” Lily said, using her chin to point across the soundstage. “But you may have to wait in line.”
Rudy Gallagher, tall, trim, immaculately dressed, was deep in conversation with the black pre-supermodel, his TV camera–handsome face registering concern at whatever she was telling him.
“What’s her name again?” I asked Lily.
“Of course it is. Another of Rudy’s protégés?”
“I don’t think so, though it looks like it might turn out that way.” Rudy had the girl’s right hand sandwiched between both of his and was saying something that brought a stunningly bright smile to her face.
“Do you remember Ms. Moon’s age, by any chance?” I asked.
“Eighteen,” Lily said.
“Think I should go break it up?”
“She’s past the age of consent.”
“Barely,” I said.
“You should meet my gramps, Billy. You two think alike. Today’s eighteen-year-old girl is the equivalent of a debauched forty-year-old when you were a kid.”
“I thought forty was supposed to be the new thirty,” I said.
“That’s the deal. Teens are older and fortysomethings are younger. Now we all meet in the middle. Like Ms. Moon and Rudy.”
Melody Moon was handing Rudy Gallagher a tiny white card. He slipped it into his coat pocket and watched her walk away, a wolfish grin on his face. As soon as she joined the other contestants, he dropped the grin, turned, and stormed toward us.
“Why the hell is everybody just standing around, Blessing? Time is money.”
“Yeah, and a penny saved is a penny earned. We can throw clichés back and forth all evening, Rudy, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s not working.”
“What’s not working, besides you?”
“These would-be apprentices. They’re doofuses.”
“That’s exactly what we need,” Rudy insisted. “For Christ’s sweet sake, don’t you get it? I want American Idol in the kitchen. I want the contestants to look like idiots during the tryouts. The dumber and more inexperienced they are, the better. If there’s one thing viewers love to watch, it’s extroverted idiots who don’t care if they look like assholes.”
I was too surprised to reply. I’d been imagining a sort of game show where people might actually learn something about preparing food—and Rudy’s so-called mind was on American Idol.
Lily jumped into the void. “The problem, Rudy, is that these contestants are just boring fence post dumb, not funny dumb or charming dumb. We didn’t have enough time to round up the right kind of extroverted idiot.”
Rudy stared at her, thinking about it. “That could be,” he mused. “I didn’t hear any thick foreign accents. Accents kill. That goofy kid on Idol you could barely understand, the viewers loved him.”
“Accents,” Lily said, getting out a pen and jotting down the word in her notebook. Not for the first time, I marveled at her ability to involve herself in such nonsense without breaking.
“So what you people are telling me is that the concept is solid,” Rudy said. “You just screwed the pooch by rushing it.”
“You wanted us to get a pilot going by the time you were back from Afghanistan,” Lily said. “But you came home early.” Rudy had traveled to Kabul to oversee a week of live evening news broadcasts on the WBC network, bigfooting the evening news producer to accompany the show’s square-jawed voice-in-the-well evening news anchor, Jim Bridewell, and a bare-bones production team. The others were still there, but for some reason Rudy had returned after just a few days.
“How was it over there, anyway?” Lily asked.
Rudy straightened. His handsome mug tightened into a parody of seriousness. “It was ghastly, Lily. Real, gut-level suffering and pain everywhere you looked. And bloodshed. A fellow at our dinner table had his throat cut by terrorists.”
“My God, that’s horrible,” Lily said.
“Not one of our staff?” I asked.
Rudy waved a hand airily. “Oh, no. He was . . . just somebody we met over there.”
“And he was murdered right in front of you?” I couldn’t believe he was being so blasé about it.
“As close to me as you are now. My God, it was horrible.”
“What was the deal?” Lily asked. “Why’d they kill him?”
He shrugged, opened his mouth as if to say something, then fell silent.
We waited, expecting him to tell us more, but, being Rudy, his thoughts had turned inward. “You know, back when I was a fledgling, in the eighties, I cut my production eyeteeth gofering Cease Fire. Don’t know if you remember it, but it was the only series about ’Nam that went into a second season. That was gritty stuff. But the real thing makes Cease Fire look like Hogan’s Heroes.”
He punctuated the statement with a deep breath and, with a shake of his head, seemed to call a mental “Cut!” to his war-torn memories. Then it was on to the business at hand. “Okay, suppose we hold a couple of citywide auditions. How much time do you need?” Without batting an eye, Lily answered, “A month for the auditions, maybe three weeks to edit the footage into two or three halfhours. Then another couple of weeks to shoot the first show.”
Rudy turned to me. “No way to speed it up a little?”
“Lily’s the boss when it comes to scheduling,” I said.
“Okay,” Rudy said. “But don’t let me down again.”
He turned, started to go, then said over his shoulder, “Billy, walk with me.”
I looked at Lily, rolled my eyes, then followed him on his way out of the studio.
“I’m an old hand at what works on the box, Billy,” he told me.
“They call it reality TV, but that’s just another name for game show. And I know how the game show is played, from the days of Let’s Make a Deal to The Biggest Loser. Viewers love to watch the crazies, but they also want a display of skill. We’ll need a couple of kids good enough in the kitchen to make a contest of it.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, sensing where this was going.
“I was just talking with this gal, Melody, I think she said her name was. One of your people.”
My people. Ignoring the racist remark, I said, “Melody, the pretty eighteen-year-old.”
“Eighteen? Really. I’d have thought nineteen at least. Anyway, she’s exactly the kind of final contestant we need. Beautiful. Poised. Ethnic. I’d go so far as to suggest she should be a finalist. One of the serious contenders for the grand prize.”
“She didn’t seem to be serious about anything but her fingernails,” I pointed out.
“Maybe. But if she were to get some practical experience . . . at a restaurant, say . . . for the next month . . .?”
“You asking me to put this kid in my kitchen?”
“Just a thought. Like an apprentice’s apprentice. Work it out so she can do some simple stuff. Broil a steak. Scramble eggs.”
“Gee, Rudy. Putting aside the obvious fact that I’m running a four-star restaurant and can’t afford to serve burnt steaks or insult my professional kitchen staff, there’s also the legal and ethical problems of training somebody for a cash-prize TV show that I’m coproducing and hosting.”
“Damn if you’re not right, Billy. Now that I think about it, it would be a lousy idea.” A frown barely disturbed his almost ridiculously handsome face. “God, what was I thinking? Putting them together . . . No. No. Definitely forget the restaurant. But keep her in mind as a contestant.”
I found Lily in the cafeteria, playing with her laptop. She looked up as I approached the table, a diet soda in hand. “What’d the great idea man have to say?” she asked.
“Not much. What a jerk.”
“Either that or he’s a genius,” she said. “American Idol in the kitchen.”
“Our own Simon Cowell,” I said.