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"Any last words?"
A puff of dense steam clouded the hot kitchen as the young man pulled the lid off an enormous stainless-steel stockpot. His remark had been addressed to a tank filled with ten dozen live Maine lobsters.
In the warm air, the pungent smell of garlic and hot frying butter mixed with countless other delectable aromas, blanketing the crowded room with the fine perfume of many cooks' efforts. I stepped into the din and swirl and heat, instantly embraced by the heady atmosphere.
Wesley, half a head taller than any of the assistant chefs in the room, saw me at once and met me at the door.
"The truffles never arrived. Fifteen pounds for the love of France!" Wesley checked his watch, the kind with a digital readout and timers and buzzers. "It's seven. The schedule's shot. There goes the artichoke and Swiss cheese tortellini topped with fresh truffle shaved to order."
I met the eyes of Wesley Westcott, my dearest friend and business partner. Wes was usually granite right before guests arrive, when it's one hour to dinner and counting, but this was the first time we'd spent fourteen thousand dollars on one fragile ingredient.
"Wes. . ."
"Coming through!" Our assistant backed her way into the huge kitchen, leading three young men. Each pushed handcarts stacked with crates marked PERISHABLE and AIR FREIGHT.
"Who's got the crowbar?" Holly's strong voice rose above the commotion of thirty cooks and helpers hard at work.
I said to Wes, "The truffles have arrived fashionably late."
"Ah. Good." He rechecked his digital. "Fine."
Someone moved aside, and I felta blast of smoky air from the fireplace where several legs of lamb were roasting on a spit. I was getting high breathing in the succulent aroma of rosemary-scented lamb. I love this. The fun, the noise, the smells, the elevated temperature, the sensuous pleasures of cooking.
I smiled at Wes and he seemed to relax a notch. After all, the truffles had arrived.
Our track record for keeping some of Hollywood's biggest stars happy at their own parties, perhaps even more than the excellence of our cuisine, was adding to the growing word-of-mouth popularity of our company, Madeline Bean Catering.
And this is a great town for caterers. Here, clients desire parties that are extraordinary and are prepared to pay the extraordinary costs. It's this outlandish disregard for thrift that the small-business person such as myself can come to appreciate in their clientele. And such parties!
Wes and I once set up a bar mitzvah for the son of a talent agent in a mock rainforest. It included a parrot that recited the first line of the bar mitzvah boy's Hav Torah. In Hebrew. And the L.A. Times wrote up our "wrap" party for Mel Gibson's last action movie. We blew up tile catering truck right after dinner.
Tonight we were standing in the kitchen of TV producer Bruno Huntley's grand estate, on the evening of October thirty-first, preparing dinner for six hundred guests. And as for our reputed ability to soothe cranky hosts, this evening could be the acid test. If we could keep a famous asshole like Bruno Huntley happy at tonight's Halloween party, we would soon achieve a new "personal best."
Manny Martinez, working on the other side of the kitchen, was waving his wooden spoon at me. He didn't appear happy.
Holly flattened herself against the crates she was working on as Wes and I squeezed by.
Close up Manny looked more worried. "Taste it."
I picked up a fork and dipped it into the souffle he proffered. It flaked. It crumbled. It pulled away from the sides of its dish pathetically. Too dry. Too brown.
Wes grabbed the fork. "Is this the arugula and chevre souffle?"
It was something less than the golden, well-puffed mixture of garden greens and goat cheese that was our hostess's favorite dish.
"It was fine when it came out of the oven," Manny said. "But now . . . "
I pointed at the pretty round baking ramekin decorated with hand-painted black cats. "It's the dish."
Wes considered. "It's the right shape," he said. Its sides were straight and tall and in the correct proportion to send the fluffy mixture towering skyward as the beaten egg whites expanded in the heat of the oven.
I clinked the side of the dish with my fingernail. I loved the fine art of detective work and I loved being right. "It's stoneware."
Wes began to nod. Stoneware retains more heat than porcelain. "It's still cooking after it's out of the oven."
"Manny," I advised, "your eggs are getting scorched by the dish."
"I knew I didn't overcook nothing," Manny pointed out. We cooks have egos more delicate than, well, a souffle.
"So we adjust the recipe for stoneware. Make a note." Wes turned and gave me a fond smile. "Oh, you're good."
And then the screaming began.
"Oh no! Oh my god!"
First a woman's guttural shriek. Then men shouting.
"Get them off me! Get them off! Jeez!"
I turned quickly and spied Holly, usually calm as toast, now swatting at her legs in a panic, swearing like a teenager.
She had pried open one of the crates marked PERISHABLE. Instead of containing outrageously expensive delicacies air-shipped from the Perigord region in France, the crate had instead disgorged thousands of wriggling earthworms.
Freed from their wooden prison, they had oozed out onto the floor, squirming in their peaty-smelling packing earth, and over the shoes of Holly and several of her mates.
Wes was all business. "Okay. Get them the hell out of here. Then I want the floor bleached and sanitized. Got it? Oh, and all those of you who have been..." He smiled graciously. ". . . wormed, please change out of those clothes. . .