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Show business and death don't mix. Unfortunately, I discovered this while hosting a TV cooking show.
Up to then, I'd enjoyed being a TV chef. The job didn't pay well, but this was PBS. Arthur Wakefield, the floor director, had crisply informed me that most chefs made nothing for guest visits, much less five thousand clams for six shows. He could have added: And what's more, those chefs' kitchens haven't been closed by the county health inspector! But Arthur said nothing along those lines. Like most folks, he was unaware that my in-home commercial catering kitchen had been red-tagged, that is, closed until further notice.
So: Bad pay notwithstanding, I was lucky to have the TV job. Actually, I was lucky to have any food work at all. And I certainly didn't want more than our family and a few friends to know why.
I could not tell my upscale clients -- those who'd made Goldilocks' Catering, Where Everything Is Just Right! the premier food-service business of Aspen Meadow, Colorado -- that our plumbing wasn't up to code. And of course, I could never let it be known that my dear husband Tom was ransacking the house for valuables to sell off, so we could buy fancy drains and thereby get my business reopened. No plumbing? No drains? It sounded nasty. Sordid, even.
In September, things had gone badly. The county health inspector, giggling from the shock engendered by his surprise visit, closed me down. The bustle in our kitchen immediately subsided. Calls for catering gigs stopped. Suppliers sent letters asking if I wanted to keep my accounts current. Yes, yes, I always replied cheerfully, I'm looking forward to reopening soon! Soon. Ha!
Without my business, an enterprise I'd lovingly built up for almost a decade, I entered a spiritual fog as thick as the gray autumnal mist snaking between the Colorado mountains. I gave up yoga. Drank herb tea while reading back issues of Gourmet. Spent days gazing out the new windows in our beautifully-remodeled-but-noncompliant kitchen. And repeatedly told Tom how gorgeous the kitchen looked, even if I couldn't work in it....
Truly, the place did look great. So what if it didn't meet new county regulations mandating that every commercial kitchen sink have backflow protection? Months earlier, Tom had rescued the remodeling job after a dishonest contractor had made our lives hell. During time away from his work as a Homicide Investigator for the Furman County Sheriff's Department, he'd put in marble counters, cherry cabinets, expensive windows, a solid oak floor. And the wrong drains.
To fix the problem, Tom was now tearing out the guts of three new sinks and prying up the floor beneath. He insisted we should heal our temporary cash-flow problem by selling a pair of historic skis he'd bought years before in an odd lot of military memorabilia. In October, I'd started calling antiques dealers while wondering how, during a prolonged closure, I could keep my hand in the food business.
There'd been no takers for the skis. How else to get money? I'd wracked my brain for other ways to work as a cook: Volunteer at a school cafeteria? Roll a burrito stand up and down Aspen Meadow's Main Street?
Eventually, it had been my old friend Eileen Druckman who'd come through with a job. Loaded with money and divorced less than two years, Eileen had just bought the Summit Bistro at Colorado's posh Killdeer Ski Resort. Eileen -- fortyish, pretty, and blond, with cornflower blue eyes and a full, trembling mouth that had just begun to smile again -- had hired a good-looking young chef named Jack Gilkey, whose food was legend in Killdeer. To Eileen's delight, she and Jack had quickly become an item personally as well as professionally. When I told Eileen my business woes, she and Jack had kindly offered me the position of co-chef at the bistro. But I couldn't work restaurant hours -- seven in the morning to midnight -- fifty miles from home. Restaurant workers, I'd noticed, had a high mortality rate, no home life, or both.
Eileen, ever generous, had promptly pitched a cooking-show idea to the Front Range Public Broadcasting System. They'd said yes. I'd demurred. Eileen argued that my cooking on TV, at her bistro, would boost her business plus give her a huge tax write-off. Meanwhile, I could use my television exposure to publicize the new culinary venture I'd finally hit upon: becoming a personal chef. That particular avenue of food work requires no commercial kitchen; it only requires a wealthy client's kitchen. Just the ticket.
So I'd said yes to show business. The Killdeer Corporation had offered free season ski-lift passes to me as well as to my fourteen-year-old son, Arch. Shot through with new enthusiasm and hope, I couldn't wait to cook and ski. I gave up herb tea for shots of espresso laced with whipping cream. In November, I plunged eagerly back into work.
Every Friday morning, I would appear at Killdeer's Summit Bistro to do my bit before the camera. At first I was nervous. And we did have a few mishaps. Thankfully, Cooking at the Top! was taped. Viewers never saw me slash my hand -- actually, sever a minor artery -- while boning a turkey during the first episode. The spray of blood onto the prep counter had been distinctly unappetizing. The following week, I produced a meringue so sweaty it needed antiperspirant. I also dropped two roasts -- one of them stuffed -- and splattered myself with a pitcher of Bearnaise. But with glitches edited out, even I had to admit the Saturday morning broadcasts looked pretty good.
On the upside, I told jokes on-screen and mixed cream into smashed garlicky potatoes. I chatted about the rejuvenating properties of toasted, crunchy almonds while folding melted butter into almond cake batter. I gushed about the trials and joys of learning to ski as I chopped mountains of Godiva Bittersweet Chocolate. I swore to my viewers that my recipe made the darkest, most sinfully fudgy cookies on the slopes. I even assiduously followed Arthur's tasting instructions: Take a bite. Moan. Move your hips and roll your eyes. Say M-m-mm, Aaah, Oooh! Yes! Yes! Watching the footage, Tom had quipped that the program should be called The Food-Sex Show.
All in all, the first four weeks of taping went well. By Week Four, though, my personal-chef business still had not taken off. I only had one upcoming job. Arthur Wakefield himself had offered me a gig the following week: preparing food for a holiday in-home wine-tasting. Arthur supplemented his floor director income by working as a wine importer. He needed to showcase some new wines -- and serve a gourmet meal -- to high-end customers and retailers. So, even in the personal-chef department, things were looking up.
Unfortunately, in Week Five, Cooking at the Top! hit a snag, one occasioned by a predictable Colorado crisis: blizzard.