Due to a government sequester, entertaining at the White House has been severely curtailed. So executive chef Olivia Paras is delighted to hear that plans are still on to welcome a presidential candidate from the country of Saardisca—the first woman to run for office—and four of that nation’s top chefs.
But while leading the chefs on a kitchen tour, pastry chef Marcel passes out suddenly—and later claims he was drugged. When one of the visiting chefs collapses and dies, it’s clear someone has infiltrated the White House with ill intent. Could it be an anti-Saardiscan zealot? Is the candidate a target? Are the foreign chefs keeping more than their recipes a secret? Once again, Olivia must make sleuthing the special of the day…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
As executive chef at the White House, I was responsible for feeding the First Family and—whether they be friend or foe—all the home’s guests. I took my duties to heart, and was exceedingly proud of my team and the small part we played in shaping our country’s history.
My role at the White House had evolved over the years, much to the Secret Service’s dismay. Through no fault of my own (well, most of the time) I’d been entangled in situations involving enemies of the president, international assassins, and those who attempted to conspire against the United States. Armed with stubborn tenacity and more than a bit of good luck, I’d had a hand in seeing justice served, and even saved a few lives in the process.
It had been suggested, more than once, that President and Mrs. Hyden find less of a troublemaker to head up their kitchen. But the First Family liked me and what I brought to the table, both literally and figuratively.
Several months ago, Special Agent in Charge, Leonard Gavin—Gav—and I had gotten married in a surprise ceremony here in the White House. Surrounded by friends and family as we exchanged vows, my life changed forever. After the ceremony, during the sweet reception that my assistants, Bucky and Cyan, had arranged for us, I’d endured countless good-natured barbs about how, now that I’d “settled down,” perhaps my terrorist-fighting days were over.
And maybe they were.
Since our wedding day, life had been very, very quiet. And truly, I had no quarrel with that. If I never went into hand-to-hand combat, if I never faced another barrel of a gun, if I was never again left bound and gagged with no chance of escape, well, I wasn’t about to complain.
I rested my chin in one hand, elbow perched on the White House kitchen’s gleaming countertop. The fingers of my other hand beat out a non-rhythm of impatience against the shiny stainless steel.
It’s not that I craved life-threatening adventure. Not at all. But right about now I would have appreciated a little diversion.
Unfortunately, however, we were in the middle of a government sequester. State dinners had been delayed, parties canceled, and visitors put off until our country’s leadership got its act together.
Staring at the clock, waiting for Bucky to return from an errand, I reflected on the boredom that loomed ahead. I longed for a challenge. I hungered for the excitement that came from planning a state dinner—the kind that kept guests talking for years, regaling envious friends with descriptions of mouthwatering appetizers and luxurious entrees. I ached to collaborate with the florist, the sommelier, and of course, Marcel, our executive pastry chef who could dream up a dessert that was as spectacular as it was sweet.
My skin practically crawled, itching for the president and First Lady to announce that a hundred guests were expected for dinner tomorrow night. I wouldn’t have minded, even if they demanded we serve a seven-course meal. I would have gone insane with preparation, of course, but that was far more appealing than the doldrums we were facing now.
Most of all, I wanted Cyan back.
Until the country’s situation improved, a number of “nonessential” members of the White House staff were on furlough—among them, Cyan. I certainly didn’t consider her nonessential. Quite the opposite. But when the government decided to slash salaries, they neglected to seek my counsel.
Bucky and I were doing our best to keep the kitchen operating efficiently, which—to be fair—wasn’t difficult, given the ripple effect the sequester was having on entertainment. I thanked my lucky stars Bucky hadn’t been sent home, too. I’d have gone stir-crazy on my own.
Because cost-cutting strategies involved eliminating most fancy dinners, he and I didn’t have much to do beyond preparing the family’s meals and feeding numerous—often angry—congressional leaders during marathon negotiation sessions held at the White House.
Marcel, the executive pastry chef whose French accent seemed to grow thicker with each passing day, had also been kept on. I knew why. Despite what the anti-Hyden pundits may assume, Marcel’s job wasn’t secure because the First Family chose to indulge their collective sweet tooth. Truth was, the Hydens weren’t big fans of dessert. They preferred savory items.
What kept Marcel busy in his kitchen was the fact that the president recognized how effective a tray full of expertly crafted and lick-your-fingers-clean pastries could be at the bargaining table. While my concoctions of steak salad, lobster bisque, or pork tenderloin sandwiches satisfied appetites, Marcel’s creations had far more potential to cheer up grumpy lawmakers.
In my heart, I knew I shouldn’t complain. Granted, Cyan was out of the kitchen, and that wasn’t optimal. But, on the bright side, Virgil was missing, too. A few months earlier the First Lady had delivered an ultimatum to our high-drama chef: Virgil would be required to seek help for his anger management issues and apologize to me and my staff or his career at the White House was over. The man had attempted to undermine my authority and sabotage my career once too often. That final, fateful time, Mrs. Hyden had witnessed his hostility and laid down the law.
Since that fateful day, we hadn’t heard a peep from the dining diva. Our chief usher, Peter Everett Sargeant III, kept us informed enough to let us know that Virgil remained in town, but beyond that, no one knew what he was up to, nor whether he’d taken steps to address his problems. He hadn’t apologized. I had a feeling it was that, more than the mandate to get help, that was holding him back from returning to work.
With all that in mind, I’d decided that my only option was to wait out the sequester with little to no complaint. Except for worrying about Cyan, who was living without a paycheck for the foreseeable future, we were under very little pressure. Food preparation at the White House had been the quietest and least stressful it had been for as long as I’d worked here. Maybe I should try harder to enjoy the lull.
“Good morning, Ms. Paras.”
I straightened to see Peter Sargeant and his assistant, Margaret, in my kitchen doorway. He wore his customary squirrel-alert expression. She carried a tablet and blinked at me from behind large tortoiseshell glasses. Neither smiled, but that was no surprise. Having them show up in my kitchen together, however, was. The last time they had, it had been to inform me of Cyan’s furlough. I braced myself, hoping Bucky wasn’t about to be cut, too.
Sargeant stepped forward, his ever-eager associate close behind. “I hope we aren’t interrupting your busy day.” Giving a derisive look around the quiet, pristine kitchen, he added, “Or your daydreaming.”
“What do you need, Peter?” I asked, ignoring the snarky comment. Over the years I’d come to accept his personality. I appreciated the fact that I could depend on him for support when I needed it, but on a day-to-day basis, I found dealing with his persnickety attitude to be more than a bit tedious.
He turned to Margaret. “You may do the honors.”
She was tiny, even shorter than Sargeant, with small fingers and big eyes. Mid-forties, she sported a short, dark bob and wore clothes that were so perfectly suited, I wondered if she and Sargeant shared the same tailor.
“We have news and important updates to share with you.” She cleared her throat and read from her tablet. “The first comes from an e-mail to Peter Everett Sargeant, from Parker Hyden.” She glanced up at me at that, lifting her eyebrows in emphasis, as though I wouldn’t have recognized the president’s name on my own.
“Share the pertinent information, Margaret,” Sargeant said. “No need for dramatics.”
Margaret tightened her lips at the rebuke, pushed her glasses up her nose, and went on. “We will host a Saardiscan dignitary for dinner, approximately two weeks from now.” She slid her gaze toward Sargeant before continuing. “The second update comes from the secretary of state, informing us that the chefs who were originally scheduled to visit your kitchen are on their way, too.”
“The Saardiscans are coming?” I repeated. “What about the sequester?”
Margaret said, “Does it matter? We were told to notify all departments. That’s really all you need to know.”
Even Sargeant seemed taken aback by his assistant’s snippiness. “Yes, well, there is more to it,” he said. “As you know, the Saardiscan chefs’ visit was arranged for more than a year ago. We were loath to cancel.”
I did know. This was a very big deal where our two countries’ diplomatic efforts were concerned. “But you did cancel,” I said. “Are you telling me they’re coming tomorrow, after all?”
I pinched the bridge of my nose, closing my eyes for a brief second to gather my thoughts. I’d wished for this, I reminded myself. Mere moments ago.
Sargeant went on to explain, “When the sequester was first announced, everything was canceled. The problem, at least as it relates to the White House, is that negotiation can be delicate with some countries. Saardisca is one of these.”
I understood, even as my mind raced. Had we planned to entertain chefs from France or Canada, the administration might have been able to rearrange things with little more than a polite apology. Saardisca, however, was an uneasy ally. A frenemy. We hadn’t had a political or ideological blowup between our countries in more than a decade, but that didn’t mean we agreed on everything. Truth was, we didn’t agree on much.
Yet, I wasn’t prepared for this sudden change. I’d had a plan in place for the Saardiscans’ visit, but once the sequester had been imposed, I’d put those plans on hold. I needed to salvage my notes, pull lists together, and set up flowcharts.
Ideas banged against each other in my noisy brain; I barely registered that Sargeant was still talking.
“Fulfilling our promise to Saardisca has been deemed of the utmost importance. The decision, therefore, has been made to honor our agreement.”
“I wish I would have known this was a possibility,” I said.
One side of his mouth curled up. “I’m sure the president regrets his oversight in neglecting to include you in the decision making.”
I ignored the sarcasm. “How long will they be here?”
“Two weeks?” I repeated, surprise jolting my voice up several notches. “I thought they were to visit for three or four days.” So much for the original plans I’d made. Those notes would barely get me started.
“Things change,” he said, deadpan. “In what appears to be serendipitous timing, the delegates will be working with you for the duration of the Saardiscan presidential candidate’s visit to the United States. President Hyden will host an official dinner for all of them when the candidate returns here after touring the country.”
“Did you say ‘candidate’?” I asked. “You mean it’s the challenger for president who’s coming to visit?” That surprised me. The incumbent had been in power for decades.
“Yes, Kerry Freiberg,” he said. “If you kept up with headlines, you would know that her campaign has been gaining steam.”
I did keep up with headlines, but there had been no mention of her coming here. “She’s the first female to run for that office, isn’t she?”
“No one expects her to win, but the fact that she’s the first woman to make it this far is garnering her a great deal of press.” He sniffed. “And because her platform is based on improving diplomatic relations with other countries, a stop in the United States is a requirement.”
“A two-week stop.” I rubbed my forehead. I needed to get organized, and quickly. “Tell me what I need to know. Do you have the date that we’ll be hosting her for dinner? Will there be more than one event? Do we have dietary dossiers for Ms. Freiberg and the members of her staff?”
Margaret had begun taking notes, writing longhand with a stylus, as I outlined all the information I’d need.
“We will get back to you on these matters,” Sargeant said when I took a breath. “And whatever else you need to know. As you can imagine, there are other departments to be notified and a great deal that my office needs to oversee. If you’ll excuse us.”
Bucky returned a little while later, bringing with him the woodsy scent of autumn air. He hung up his windbreaker and came to stand over my shoulder to study the notes I was jotting as thoughts occurred to me. I would arrange these scribbles into some semblance of order later.
“What’s up, chief?” he asked.
My mind twisted and flipped with a myriad of things I needed to do—hundreds of things I wouldn’t have imagined having to worry about a half hour earlier. My fingers tingled; my leg bounced with impatience.
I looked up at him, grinning. “We’re having company.”
When the president’s son, Josh, tumbled into the kitchen that afternoon for his cooking lesson, I had the unhappy duty of letting him know that the plans we’d made for the coming weeks had been canceled.
“That stinks,” he said, brows furrowing over dark eyes. The kid was far too considerate to pitch a fit, but I detected a tiny whine in his tone. “I thought that this sequester thing meant that I would get to spend more time in the kitchen, not less.”
“I thought so, too,” I said. “I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”
Disappointed, he nodded.
“While the visitors are here, the Secret Service thinks it would be best to keep you out of the kitchen completely.”
“Stupid Secret Service.”
“Your safety is the most important thing,” I said, ruffling his hair. “And we both know that’s serious business.”
Grudgingly, he nodded again. “We can still work together today, though, right?”
Despite the fact that I had a thousand things to get done before tomorrow, I refused to disappoint him further. “Absolutely. Let’s get started.”
* * *
By the time the Saardiscans arrived the next morning, I’d received dossiers on all four of them as well as a little more background on why this particular diplomatic endeavor had been given the green light when so many others had not.
President Hyden and his advisers had discovered that canceling the chefs’ visit would be viewed as a personal affront to the current Saardiscan government. Rather than risk a political firestorm and public-relations nightmare with the touchy country, the president had chosen to take the high road and see this endeavor through.
I suppose I should have anticipated this, at least a little. We were, whether it was acknowledged or not, putting our neck out politically by hosting the chefs here. Saardisca would have been reluctant to let this opportunity go.
Recent unpopular decisions by Saardiscan leaders had caused several other countries to give them the cold shoulder. If passive-aggressive games could be played at high-stakes tables like the U.N.’s, then those nations were doubling down for the win.
Bucky and I had gone over the chefs’ dossiers the night before, discovering that the documents were light on substance. We’d been given copies of their solemn-faced passport photos—all of which reminded me of mug shots—along with information about which province each man hailed from and where they’d studied. There was almost zero in terms of personal information.
“Not much to go on,” Bucky had said.
I pointed at each photo in turn. “Kilian, Tibor, Hector, and Nate,” I said. “I need to memorize their faces so I don’t mix them up. You know how hard it is to keep people straight when you meet them all at once.”
“Not a very pleasant-looking bunch,” he said.
I laughed. “My passport photo isn’t much better.”
“All men, too.”
“According to the notes, Kilian and Tibor are the top two chefs in their country,” I said, “but neither was invited to the Club des Chefs des Chefs this year. Or the year before.”
“Sounds to me like Saardisca is upset that they haven’t been invited to the grown-ups’ table,” Bucky said.
“They feel snubbed; not that I blame them. This venture may be their ticket in, assuming things go well.”
Bucky stepped back and folded his arms across his chest. “No pressure on us. No way,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Seems like a lot to ask of a kitchen that’s operating short-staffed.”
I pulled in a breath. I knew Bucky was right, that there was enormous pressure on us to make this work. And yet, I was thrilled. We had a project. An important one. I couldn’t wait to meet these men.
“We’re serving as kitchen ambassadors,” I said. “Our job isn’t to craft policy. Our job is to make the chefs feel welcome. And to keep everything on an even keel while they’re here. We can do that.”
“If you say so, chief.”
“Diplomacy has to start somewhere.”
The men arrived in the kitchen a short while later, accompanied by two Secret Service agents. After we made introductions and quietly assessed one another, I showed them around the main kitchen. They took everything in slowly, occasionally asking a question, and making unintelligible noises that could have been appreciation or disdain.
While the Saardiscans were in the White House, they’d be allowed unrestricted access to the main kitchen, pastry kitchen, two pantries, the refrigeration area, and some storage. They would also be allowed in the Center Hall and ground floor as needed, but if they were to travel elsewhere in the building, they would require an escort.
Marcel had taken our visitors for a quick lunch before providing a tour of the pastry kitchen. Bucky and I planned to join them in a few minutes, as soon as we finished plating lunch for the First Lady and her staff. The president’s meal had been sent to the West Wing twenty minutes earlier.
One of the Saardiscans returned to the kitchen. He came around the corner with his hands balled, elbows up, as though looking for a fistfight. Moving quickly, he strode in, not making eye contact with either Bucky or me.
It took me a moment to remember which one he was. “Tibor,” I called to the man. Muscular and strong-shouldered, he was systematically opening and shutting every stainless steel cabinet in the room. The brisk clanking spoke to his vexation. “What are you looking for?”
He spun, scowling. Tall and solid, he was at least fifteen years my senior. His face was lined and red, like a fresh cut of flank steak. He had thick, black hair, which he wore brushed back and that quivered with gel.
“Nate told me to bring him a new apron.” Tibor flung his hands in the air. “How do I find anything in this place? Every cabinet looks the same.”
Bucky glanced at me. His lips twisted and he looked away. Neither he nor I could mistake Tibor’s contemptuous tone, but Bucky knew better than to snap back, thereby risking an international incident. He held his tongue and waited for me to respond.
“We keep our extra linens in that cabinet.” I pointed. Tibor would have found them eventually but I saved him about six cabinets’ worth of banging. “Did something happen to the one he was wearing?”
Tibor huffed, as though I’d asked a foolish question.
Bucky made a similar noise that was probably meant for Tibor’s benefit, but the agitated man ignored it.
The four visiting chefs had only been here a few hours, but I was already seeing personality traits emerge. Tibor was the hothead of the bunch. I hadn’t yet decided whether it was me he didn’t like, or women in general.
“Why do you have everything closed up?” he asked. When Tibor spoke, only his bottom teeth showed, reminding me of Jack Klugman in old reruns of The Odd Couple and Quincy, M.E. Or the cartoon dog Mutley, but without the laugh. Tibor motioned again at the gleaming row of cabinets. “Why not keep everything more easy to see?”
“That’s a fair question,” I said. A tuxedoed butler arrived to pick up the chicken pita sandwiches and bowls of quinoa and chicken soup we’d prepared for Mrs. Hyden’s lunch meeting. “Glass-front cabinets would make it easier to find things, but a lot more difficult to hide the mess.” I smiled. Tibor didn’t.
Bucky and I covered the lunch items then handed them to the butler for loading onto his rolling cart. “Thanks, Jackson,” I said to him.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said with a wink. “Looks and smells as wonderful as always.”
Once Jackson had taken off, Tibor—having procured the apron he sought—scowled again. “I don’t understand you Americans.”
Bucky’s face twitched. In a heartbeat, I knew this was going to be a long couple of weeks.
As much as I wanted to fire off a retort, I held back. I needed to remain tactful. More important, I needed to maintain control. Until I got to know these visitors a little bit better I couldn’t risk offending them.
“What don’t you understand?” I asked, keeping my tone lightly conversational. “Maybe I can help you.”
I’d learned early on that crusty people often used their crabby demeanor to mask insecurities. It was taking a great deal of effort on my part, but I vowed not to judge these new arrivals. They were probably as uncomfortable in a strange workspace as we were having them here.
I wiped my hands on my apron, addressing both Bucky and Tibor. “Are you ready to head upstairs?” I asked, pointing in the direction of the pastry kitchen.
* * *
When we arrived, Marcel was holding court in his deliciously creative kingdom.
Cramped and mostly windowless, this nonetheless efficient pastry kitchen had been created by carving out space from the home’s high-ceilinged pantry below.
This mezzanine-level work area, which was always tight, felt overwhelmingly warm today with the addition of four sizeable Saardiscans. Their tangy body odor made me wonder how often they bathed. Bucky and I stood closest to the exit, where I shifted from foot to foot, feeling a tingle of claustrophobia crawl up the back of my neck.
Oblivious, or merely accustomed to the compact surroundings and warm scent of humanity, Marcel was in his element. His dark, round face gleamed with pride as he showed off samples of the remarkable desserts he’d lovingly created for dozens of state events. Years before either of us had started working here, one of Marcel’s predecessors had installed a glass cabinet on the wall to display the exquisite models, which sat like priceless works of art on shiny shelves.
While some of Marcel’s most noteworthy accomplishments had been removed from the glass case due to deterioration, age, or from gathering too much dust, our ebullient French chef’s all-time favorite item was still holding strong. It was my favorite as well. A few years back, when President Hyden had invited the illustrious author Ray Bradbury for dinner, Marcel had created sunny dandelions fashioned from pulled sugar. A fist-sized bouquet of them in an edible vase had served as centerpiece.
Kilian, the leader of the Saardiscan contingent—the top chef, if you will—shook his head, his pale, soft face creasing into a frown. He used a chubby finger to scratch the top of his freckled crown. I put him in his early fifties, but he may have been younger. His baldness, ample girth, and cheeks blazing with broken blood vessels gave him the appearance of a well-fed, successful businessman.
“Is that not a weed plant?” he asked. While all of them spoke English far better than I would ever be able to speak Saardiscan, Kilian’s command of our language seemed to be the best of the bunch. “Why would you choose to decorate an elegant dinner with unwanted shrubbery?”
“Ah, but you see, this is a very special plant,” Marcel began in his mellifluous French accent. He must have anticipated the question, because as he launched into a nostalgic chronicle of Bradbury’s work, he leaned over to pull a slim paperback from a nearby shelf. Holding up a well-worn copy of Dandelion Wine, Marcel waxed poetic about how both he and President Hyden were enormous fans of the late master’s work. As was I.
The dandelions’ graceful, lance-shaped leaves and their heads’ luminous yellow rays, crafted from sugar and talent, never ceased to astonish me. These stunning decorations appeared so real that even though I knew the truth, it took all my self-control to stop from touching them, just to make sure. Every piece Marcel created in this cramped kitchen was edible. The work involved and level of precision required made my head spin.
Marcel often told me that he was in awe of my talents, but I believed his gifts far surpassed mine. These were masterpieces. I wished there was a way to display each and every one in the Smithsonian so that others, beyond those lucky enough to score a White House invitation, would be able to see and appreciate them.
When Tibor, Bucky, and I had gotten up here, Tibor had given the apron to Nate. Right now, the item sat unattended on a nearby countertop. I couldn’t imagine why they’d needed one from the main kitchen, rather than grabbing one from the supply here.
While Marcel continued to talk about the work done in his kitchen and about the members of his staff who were currently on furlough, I studied our new additions. I was having a very tough time remembering who was who.
When the four men had originally accompanied Marcel upstairs, and before Tibor had returned for the apron, I’d mentioned to Bucky that I was afraid I’d have to rely on mnemonic devices to keep the chefs straight.
“Kilian is easy,” I’d said. Short and pudgy, he was the head chef, “He’s the leader of the group. No problem there.”
“What about the rest of them?” he asked. “Can we come up with hints?” He pointed to one of the photographs. “Tibor the Terrible would work for this guy.”
“Tibor’s actually pretty easy to remember,” I said. “He’s always scowling and unpleasant. Whether or not it’s a good thing, it makes him memorable.”
“I have the hardest time with these two.” Bucky tapped the photos.
“Hector and Nate.” I read their names aloud. “I’m open to suggestions.”
“Neither one of them seems particularly thrilled to be here,” he said.
“Like Terrible Tibor does?”
Bucky shrugged, but I knew what he meant. “You can tell that Kilian can’t wait to get started. And Tibor, for all his grousing, asks good questions and seems like he’s, if not happy to be here, then at least willing to give it his best.”
“These other two are clearly more reserved,” I said, finishing his thought. “Nate takes in everything, but without comment. He’s so pale, so expressionless, he practically fades into the background. I’m afraid I’ll start forgetting he’s even here.”
“I doubt that,” he said. “But you’ve given me an idea. How about ‘Neutral Nate’?”
“Fair enough. Last up is this guy. Hector,” I said. “He always seems to be smiling. What do you think?”
“Looks more like a sneer to me.” When I reacted, Bucky held both hands up. “Okay, okay, that was unkind. They aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy personalities, though.”
“It’s our job to make them feel welcome,” I said. “So, how about Happy Hector?”
“Happy Hector,” he repeated. “Not terribly imaginative, but it’ll do.”
Now in the pastry kitchen, as I surreptitiously watched our visitors, I reminded myself of the nicknames Bucky and I had bestowed on them.
Terrible Tibor’s solid build, slick hair, and ruddy complexion contrasted with Nate’s physical blandness and stooped posture. Nate kept his eyes low and his shoulders hunched, constantly watching, never commenting, leading me to believe he was the least experienced of the group. Tibor kept his arms crossed as he listened, his lips curled to one side. Nate shifted his weight from foot to foot.
Hector was taller and younger than Kilian. More muscular, too. He spoke very little. His extraordinarily round face, coupled with his high eyebrows and upturned mouth, gave him an expression of perpetual wonderment. Bucky was wrong when he termed it a sneer. Hector struck me as the easiest of the bunch to manage.
Now, as Marcel turned to replace the dandelion in the display case, I quietly addressed Nate. “What happened to you?” The front of his smock was stained with what looked like red fruit juice.
Marcel answered my question, his voice booming. “Ah, you see the results of our little accident,” he said. Grabbing the new apron, he thrust it at Nate. “I am again so very apologetic for causing you to spill.”
Nate dismissed Marcel’s concerns, removing the stained item and replacing it with a new one. “Many thanks,” he said to Tibor. To me and Bucky, he offered a smile. “Not a favorable way to begin our visit, is it?”
“My fault, my fault,” Marcel said waving his hands in the air. I could tell he was eager to get back to his presentation. “Tibor was handing a pot of raspberry sauce to me, but it jumped from my fingers and attacked poor Nate. Again, I am so very sorry.”
Curious about the raspberry sauce, because nothing on display would have required its use, I was about to ask when Marcel turned to address the group once again. “As our delightful executive chef, Olivia, so eloquently told you when you first arrived, we hope you will treat our kitchens as your home during your most welcome visit.” He wiped the back of his hand across his brow.
Nate and Tibor glanced at me. It seemed the mere mention of my position startled them. Maybe I was imagining it. Marcel sniffed in deeply and blinked a couple of times as though clearing his vision. “We encourage you to share with us your particular expertise. This time we spend together promises to be a learning experience for both our countries. We—”
Marcel gripped the edge of the countertop behind him. “Oh, mon dieu,” he said, his eyes rolling up into the top of his head. “Je suis—”
Pushing my way between the others who stood paralyzed in front of Marcel—who was clearly in distress—I rushed to our pastry chef’s side. Too late. His mouth falling slack, Marcel toppled sideways.
His right arm reached into the air for help. Rotating as he fell to the floor, his flailing appendage hit the frame of a nearby shelving unit with enough force to make it wobble. One of Marcel’s spare stand mixers, perched near the shelf’s edge for easy access, listed heavily from side to side. Too far away to do anything but hold my breath, I watched as the apparatus almost righted itself one-half beat before Marcel bounced against it a second time.
The mixer fell.
It landed, with a horrifying crunch, atop his extended arm. All I could do at the moment was thank heavens it had missed his head.
“Marcel,” I shouted, kneeling next to him, searching for a pulse in his neck. I yelped at the sight of his arm, grotesquely twisted backward against the tile.
I turned to Bucky, but he was already calling for help.
Marcel was unconscious, but breathing. I loosened the neck of his tunic, doing my best not to move him, as I directed the visiting chefs to move toward the small kitchen’s far corner.
My words were quiet, but urgent. “Marcel,” I said. “Marcel, wake up.”
As if in reply, our pastry chef’s body jerked. His back arched and he began to convulse. I pulled at his clothing to loosen it further, trying to remember my first-aid training. Marcel coughed, spewing blood.
Kilian stared at Marcel’s prone form. “What happened? Is he unwell?”
I bit back the snippy response before it escaped my lips. What kind of question was that? Did he think that Marcel had simply decided to take a nap right now, in the middle of the kitchen floor? Did Kilian not see the man’s obviously broken arm? I directed my attention to Bucky, who had returned from the phone.
He took up a position next to me on the floor. “They’re on their way.”
I wasn’t a medical expert, so I had no idea what had happened. Didn’t heart attack victims usually remain conscious? Or was that just the way they were portrayed on TV? Could Marcel have suffered a stroke? He wasn’t that much older than I was. It was unlikely, but possible.
While monitoring him as best I could given my limited capabilities, I was aware of the visiting chefs murmuring among themselves across the room. They were clearly as confused as I was about what to do next.
Marcel didn’t require CPR, but his breathing was labored and his face glistened with sweat.
The moment the doctor and his assistants arrived, I stepped away, giving them as much pertinent information as I could.
The doctor, a slim, handsome man with prematurely white hair and a calm demeanor, turned to me. “What has he ingested today, do you know?”
“Marcel tends to taste as he works,” I said, feeling profoundly unhelpful. Our pastry chef’s girth was testament to the appeal of his creations. He was much too careful and too diligent, however, to accidentally nibble an ingredient he shouldn’t. Yet, what if? Despite the fact that everything he produced was edible, the kitchen itself was filled with items not meant for human consumption. “I’ve been downstairs most of the day.” A second later, I remembered, and turned to the visitors. “Did he sample anything?” I gestured the act of putting food in one’s mouth. Even though these men understood English quite well, I couldn’t help the instinctive movement.
The four men looked at each other, Kilian and Nate shaking their heads, and Tibor shrugging. “We stopped for the noon-hour meal. He ate with us,” Nate said, as though that explained it. Belatedly, I remembered that Marcel had arranged for the Navy Mess to provide lunch for our guests.
Hector’s eyes went wide. “What are you saying? There was something wrong with our food?”
“That’s not what I meant,” I began.
“Wait.” Kilian stepped forward. “He did taste more. We did.” Wiggling a finger between himself, Hector, and Nate, he said, “The raspberry sauce.”
Nate made a face, then held a hand to his stomach. “Yes, you are right.”
Hector stared at me. “Your Marcel had us try it when Tibor was downstairs.” His eyes were wild, his tone panicked. “He said there was only sugar and fruit. What was in it?”
I glanced back at Marcel’s unconscious form, hoping that what he’d coughed up might actually be raspberry sauce rather than blood. “We don’t know what affected Marcel; I’m simply trying to find out what may have gone on here while Bucky and I were downstairs.” Another thought came to me and I turned to one of the doctor’s assistants, a young man tapping information into a tablet. “I don’t know Marcel’s health history. Maybe he’s on medication?”
The assistant nodded, not breaking his concentration from the tablet’s screen. “Accessing his White House records now.”
The two Secret Service agents who had accompanied the medical personnel began herding us toward the spiral staircase that would lead us down to the Butler’s Pantry. “Let’s let the professionals handle this,” one said.
Bucky started down first. I let the visitors go next before following. As I stepped through the doorway, I gave Marcel one last glance. “Be okay,” I whispered.
There were two more Secret Service agents waiting for us when we arrived in the Butler’s Pantry. They politely, yet firmly, ushered our Saardiscan guests to stand against the long countertop that lined the room. Even though I’d only known the men for a couple of hours, I could sense their agitation.
Kilian whispered to Bucky. “What is happening?”
Bucky held his hand out toward me, a deferential message that Kilian ignored.
He pressed his case to Bucky. “Why are we made to wait here? Are we to be questioned?”
Bucky and I exchanged a glance. We’d both heard stories of brutal interrogations that were rumored to occur regularly in Saardisca. The men watched us with a fear that was palpable.
I took a step forward, which had the desired effect of garnering Kilian’s attention. “The doctor and Secret Service will update us on Marcel’s condition when they can.” My words were calm, but worry for my colleague’s health made my heart race in my chest and my breath come quickly.
Bucky kept his gaze on me, forcing the other man’s attention. Kilian’s words were clipped when he said, “We are concerned.”
“Of course you are,” I said. “We all are. I promise to keep you posted when we find out what happened.”
I tried to project an air of control, but I was anxious. Marcel had fainted without any forewarning. And that arm . . .
I couldn’t think about that now. The White House remained charged with collaborating with our Saardiscan guests and it was up to me and Bucky to shoulder that responsibility. “I’m certain that Marcel will recover and we’ll find out what’s ailing him. I’d rather not speculate.”
Clapping my hands together the way our former chief usher, Paul Vasquez, used to when he required our cooperation, I took charge. “We planned for most of today to be an overview, an introduction to our kitchens, and orientation,” I began. “I know that the next stop on your tour was supposed to be the chocolate shop. Let’s hope that Marcel recovers soon, because I know he would prefer to show you that area himself. In the meantime, let’s return to our main kitchen.” I held out a hand toward the doorway, encouraging the others to enter ahead of me.
Kilian took a deep breath. He nodded. As he proceeded into the kitchen, the others followed. I made eye contact with one of the two Secret Service agents. “I think we’re settled here,” I said. “Unless you feel the need to stay.”
One of the two spoke into his microphone, waited for a reply, then turned to me. “Let us know if you need anything, Chef,” he said. Two seconds later they were gone.
Bucky sidled up as we made our way into the kitchen. “You’ve got an uphill battle on your hands with these guys,” he said under his breath. “I don’t think they’re comfortable with a woman in charge.”
“You think it’s that, or that they don’t like me?”
Bucky shrugged. “Does it matter?”
Kilian talked with his group in their mother language as Bucky and I decided on a plan of action.
“It bugs me that we can’t understand what they’re saying,” Bucky said softly. “Yet you and I don’t have that advantage.”
“I’m sure they’re unsettled by Marcel’s collapse. I know I am.” I bit my bottom lip. “One of the goals for this visit is to help Kilian and his team learn more about how we do things in this kitchen. Marcel was planning to handle a good chunk of that.”
“It’s a good thing you came up with plans for our portion,” he said. “Looks like we’ll be getting started on those sooner than we expected.”
“There’s not much choice, is there?”
Bucky lowered his voice further. “Who’s brainy idea was it to host them here for two weeks, anyway?”
I ignored that and called the group to attention. “As you know, our country is in the midst of a sequester.” I caught a gleam in the eyes of a couple of the Saardiscans, giving me the impression that they wanted to ask more on that topic. We could save that for later. Right now I needed to establish order.
I went on. “Because the president is entertaining fewer guests these days, we don’t have an official dinner scheduled until the one for your country’s presidential candidate, Kerry Freiberg. From what I understand, she’ll be stopping by briefly to visit with President Hyden before she embarks on a tour of several North American cities. We’ll have more than a week and a half to plan for the dinner, and I think that’s plenty of time. What Bucky and I plan to do is to take you through the steps before big events, show you what we do in advance, and explain what methods we rely on to stay organized. We’re also eager for this opportunity to learn from pros like yourselves.”
“You Americans,” Tibor said, echoing his remark from earlier, “I do not understand you.”
“What don’t you understand?” I strained for politeness, but this guy’s attitude was getting old.
Tibor took a step toward me. His feet were planted shoulder width apart, his arms crossed in front of his chest, and his head tilted to one side in a signal I read as condescending. He offered what might have been a smile, but it was too forced, too harsh. His eyes remained tight. “We have come to visit, to learn about your country’s cooking methods, correct?”
“In our country, we feed our leaders using a traditional menu. Very little deviation. We order our ingredients in advance, and we prepare the food for consumption. We do not have a ‘main kitchen,’ a ‘chocolate kitchen,’ a ‘pastry kitchen,’ or a ‘navy kitchen.’” He shook his head as though the very thought of so many options disgusted him. “You may have six more kitchens you haven’t even revealed to us yet. I do not care. What I care about is pleasing our country’s leaders. We have been here many hours and have not prepared a single item yet.”
As Tibor was delivering his speech, Kilian grew visibly agitated. He pushed past his colleague, his attention defaulting, once again, to Bucky.
“My friend speaks out of turn,” Kilian said. “He is correct in that our country’s chefs do not have access to the tools and resources we’re seeing here, but he forgets that we are here to learn.” With that, he shot a pointed look at Tibor.
“How do we learn anything when all they do is talk at us?”
“Tibor.” Kilian’s voice strove for calm. “Have you no patience? We have not been here a full day yet.”
Tibor pointed at the kitchen clock as he faced Kilian. “Our day is almost over.” Then, with a sidelong glance at me and Bucky, he lapsed into Saardiscan, his voice rising.
Happy Hector and Neutral Nate watched their colleagues in what looked like horrified disbelief, saying nothing.
Kilian grasped Tibor’s forearms, hard. “Enough,” he said in English. Through clenched teeth, he added, “We are guests here. Stop behaving like a spoiled young child.”
Bucky nudged me. I didn’t look up at him.
“I would appreciate it very much,” I said, injecting authority into my voice, “if while we are working together in the White House, we all speak English.”
Tibor shot me a scathing look. “We are here one day and already you want us to forsake our home language?” If we were anywhere else, I believed he would have spat on the floor.
“I’m asking you to keep to English as much as possible,” I said, stressing the word ask, “because as of today, we’re a team. And in order to work together, we need to keep our communication open.”
“Bah.” He stared at the floor and scowled.
Kilian grabbed Tibor’s arm again and squeezed. “We will try our best to speak in English.” In a carefully modulated tone, he switched subjects. “One of the many things I seek to know more about is your culture. I believe Marcel was attempting to share some of that with us before his unfortunate accident.”
“Yes, he was,” I interjected before any of the visitors could launch into another speech. “I guarantee you will all learn much about the foods we prepare and how we plan for important events. I’m hoping that in doing so, you are encouraged to share with us some of your tricks of the trade.” I took a breath, watching their reactions, hoping “tricks of the trade” wasn’t too much of colloquialism, and that they’d understood. “Because we’re currently entertaining fewer guests for dinner, it appears as though we don’t work very hard at our jobs. I assure you, we do.”
I took another look at the wall clock. Not quite two thirty. Sargeant had warned me to be mindful of the fact that our guests would be suffering from jet lag and had set our first day’s schedule to end at three. “The car to take you back to your hotel will be here in thirty minutes,” I said. “Why don’t we go over tomorrow’s schedule in our remaining time, and plan to start fresh in the morning?”
When they were finally gone for the day, Bucky folded his arms and leaned against the wall. “Doesn’t ever get easier around here, does it?”
That night, Gav and I settled in at the kitchen table to have dinner and discuss our days. He passed the Brussels sprouts to me. “Do they have a prognosis for Marcel?” he asked as I scooped a helping onto my dish. Dinner tonight was a balsamic-crusted roast pork loin with mashed potatoes and the delicious sprouts. Comfort food. Perfect for the cooler fall weather.
“I heard from him before we left for the day. He was groggy, but lucid. He’s scheduled for a battery of tests tomorrow.”
“And his arm?”
“Oh, it’s broken all right.” I pointed to a spot halfway up my forearm. “If I understood correctly, he not only dislocated his elbow, he broke both his radius and ulna, right about here.”
Gav winced. “I’m sorry to hear it.”
As we served ourselves and dug into our meal, Gav told me a little bit about his day. He’d gone back to work several weeks ago, after an extended medical leave and our two-day honeymoon—most of which had been spent moving his belongings into my Crystal City apartment.
I listened as he told me about how, even after weeks back on the job, training his muscles to behave the way they had before his injuries was harder work than he’d anticipated. While he talked, I remembered our wedding day and how he’d surprised me by bringing everyone I loved together for the ceremony.
“Uh-oh. What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing at all, why?”
“You’ve got a wistful look on your face,” he said. “You seem miles away.”
“I’m sorry. One of the things you said whisked me back to our wedding day in the China Room.”
“No regrets about marrying me?” he asked. “The two of us lived on our own for a long time. We’re still in the adjustment period as a couple.”
“I think we’re handling that marvelously.”
He reached over to grab my hand. “Do you?”
“Absolutely.” I smiled as he ran a thumb over the backs of my knuckles. “What about you?” I asked. “It had to be tough to leave your bachelor pad for this quiet area.” I thought about Gav’s place, closer to the bustle of D.C. I’d loved the view of the Washington Monument from his living room.
“There’s no place I’d rather be than right here.”
I pulled my hand away, grinning. “Your food is getting cold.”
He looked as though he was about to say more when his cell phone rang. He pulled it from his pocket, gave the display a curious, confused look, then answered. “Gavin here.” He pushed back from the table and stood. As he listened, he started toward the living room.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the New York Times Bestselling White House Chef Mysteries “A compulsively readable whodunit full of juicy behind-the-Oval Office details, flavorful characters, and a satisfying side dish of red herrings.”—Publishers Weekly “Stellar adventure…Delightful.”—Carolyn Hart, New York Times bestselling author of Death Comes Silently “This series burns as bright as the sun during a sweltering D.C. summer.”—Seattle Post-Intelligencer “[A] unique setting, strong characters, sharp conflict, and snappy plotting...Hyzy's research into the backstage kitchen secrets of the White House gives this series a special savor that will make you hungry for more.”—Susan Wittig Albert, national bestselling author of Widow's Tears “The backstage look at the White House proves fascinating.”—Booklist
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In this 8th installment of the White House Chef Mysteries, Julie Hyzy has again created a fast-paced, smart and very readable story. Her characters remain fresh and highly entertaining. I look forward to every book in this series and this one does not disappoint!!
When approaching the 8th installment of a series I often worry that the characters may become stale. Julie Hyzy keeps both her characters and her recipes fresh and delicious! Just the right measurements of action and suspense, plus a dash of conflict and romance and I couldn't put it down! I am looking forward to White House Mystery #9 and hope involves a winery visit. Great read!
Only the finest ingredients—characters who are complex and funny and real. Plots that are intriguing and thoughtfully planned. Writing that is smart and riveting. Each one of the White House Chef books is better than the one before. Ollie is upright and capable and generous and kind, and I love to read the next installment of her adventures. I devoured this one in less than 24 hours (including working all day, sleeping at night, and feeding my family). The only thing I didn't like? That I'm already finished with it. I may have to go back for seconds.
This is a terrific series which gets even better in this book with the marriage of Olivia to her special agent Gav. Adds another dimension which could lead to changes in the future. Olivia has to deal with four foreign chefs in the White House kitchen. Of course, mayhem ensues and Olivia and her staff must figure out which ones are friends and which are foes. The plot is terrific and the White House setting is always so interesting. A good addition to the series.
All the President's Menus is the eighth book in the A White House Chef Mystery series. Another wonderful book from Julie Hyzy and five stars aren't enough for this book. The government has been sequestered and Chef Ollie is managing the kitchen with a reduced staff, when she is informed that the candidate for President of Saardisca will be visiting The White House and that four of that country's top chefs. Once the chef's arrive, Chef Ollie can see that this will be a challenge for her reduced staff. Kilian, the chef that is the lead chef of the group seems to be easy to work with, while Tibor who has a problem with Ollie being in charge of the kitchen and is sure that it is some form of American propaganda. While Hector and Nate seem to be easy to work with, but the fact that they spend a good deal of time talking in their own language is a bit discerning to Ollie. Then when Ollie's chief pastry chef, Marcel collapses in the kitchen, Ollie begins to wonder if the visiting chefs had anything to do with it. Working with s short staff, she doesn't have time for this and starts to do a little sleuthing. Surprisingly she does get a little, very little, help from the Chief Usher and from Tom, head of the WH Secret Service detail. Things are going well for the newlyweds. I love all of Hyzy's books and am definitely looking forward to the next in this series. Hoping to Cyan back in the White House kitchen and the same for Josh, the son of the President. It's so nice to see a child that isn't playing a hand held game every chance they get.
Dollycas’s Thoughts I absolutely devoured this book! We all learned about the word sequester not too long ago so it is perfect that Julie Hyzy takes us inside the White House to see how it effects Ollie’s kitchen. Most events were cancelled but their commitment to Saardisca could not be delayed or cancelled. Soon Ollie’s kitchen is boiling over with visiting chefs from there and trying to plan a dinner for woman trying to become its President. Things do not go smoothly as pastry chef Marcel is out of commission and one of the visiting chefs dies. Ollie can’t understand a word of Saardiscan but she knows that is the key to catching the killer and getting her kitchen back to normal. This story picks up with Ollie and Gav settling into married life and him returning to work at The White House. They also have an opportunity presented to them that may be too good to refuse. I love the entire cast of characters in this series! Ollie has grown comfortable in her position as executive chef but she still jumps when Chief Usher, Peter Sergeant, shows up in her kitchen. His arrival usually means trouble for her and her staff. Gav is finally back to work. Virgil is missing from the kitchen, but an angry Saardiscan chef takes his place. In fact all the Saardiscan visitors are interesting, each in a different way. Saardisca is a fictional country but it seems to be on the verge of some big changes especially if a woman is elected to be their new President. I also enjoyed that we visited Blair House on our trip to Washington D.C. We can only see pictures of the extraordinary place so many dignitaries stay. Hyzy brings it to life for all of us from the kitchen to the myriad of stairways and hallways that connect all the beautiful rooms. This is one of the best cozy mystery series available today. I have loved each and every story and am always anxious for the arrival of the next book. It will be the first book I read in 2016!!!
Olivia and Gav are happily married and she has been keeping out of trouble, since things have been quiet at the White House. That is until she is advised that she is to entertain visiting chefs from an important country currently under critical negotiations with the United States. Her first meeting with the four finds her a little at odds with at least one of the chefs because of his negative attitude and refusal to believe in what he calls American propaganda. But when pastry chef Marcel is found unconscious and later begs Ollie to keep her eyes out because he is afraid he was poisoned, she goes on high alert. Unable to convince the Secret Service that there is possibly an ulterior motive with this visit, she and her assistant, Bucky, are taxed with not only preparing regular meals, but also keeping the four chefs entertained and in sight at all times. In the meantime, Gav has a personal emergency that he needs to attend to, one that may have a large impact on his and Ollie's future plans. Is Ollie mistaken in her suspicions or has she once again detected a plot against the White House and its visiting dignitaries that may result in her own demise? I love this series and the troubles that this dedicated chef keeps finding through no fault of her own. Ollie and Gav and have a wonderful relationship, different from the original romance she had with Tom, and more supportive of her inquisitive talents. I also enjoy the working relationship with her kitchen staff, Bucky, and her supervisor, Peter Sargeant. I look forward to the next book in this series.
I liked all of these books the books are some what different then other books that i have read i am always looking for the next one in tje series a relaxing book easy to put down and pice up later
Love it can't wait for the next one
Julie Hyzy does it again. White House Executive Chef Ollie Paras gets involved in solving a murder while she juggles her duties at the White house while playing host to visiting chefs from another country. A good story that is fast paced.
I often wonder if things are as exciting in the White House as they are for Olivia Paras, our fictional White House Chef. In this book Ollie is trying to cope with a reduction in her staff and run her kitchen as smoothly as usual. But of course we know from the rest of the series this can not happen. Olivia is sent four chefs from Saardisca and she must now cope with them and their foreign ways. To top this off she is informed that the presidential candidate from Saardisca is coming for a state visit and of course this means a state diner. And than strange things start happening in Ollie's kitchen. And therefore all the excitement begins and Ollie jumps into action. (less) flag comment
The White House kitchen staff has been reduced due to the government sequester which only makes the visitation of 4 chefs from Saardisca a little more tricky. Olivia Paras, the executive chef, needs diplomacy to handle these chefs with diverse personalities as well as various culinary talents. When Marcel, the head pastry chef, is taken out of the equation, suspicions begin and then the death of the head of the foreign delegation causes Ollie to concentrate on the other visitors. You know too many cooks spoil the broth, well here, the reduction of cooks many be the problem. This is my favorite series, I just wish I didn't have to wait so long between installment.
White house seem in this country wonder if author was ever in a professional kitchen at hotel or other institution or any experience with a personal family chef (as this is both a personal chef plus a catering service someone else handles white house "lunchrooms for staff workers"
Jule Hyzy has written another amazing book. Ollie, Bucky, Cyan and everyone in this series are just as real to me as you are. This book was a quick read for me. I was left wanting more, which is exactly how we readers should feel. Julie has another great series out, Manor House Mystery. Grace is just as real as Ollie is. Either series, pick a book, I don't think you'll be disappointed. FTC Full Disclosure - A copy of this book was sent to me by the publisher in hopes I would review it. However, receiving the complimentary copy did not influence my review.
Novel was ok. Simple, quick read. This book would be good on a rainy day or a day at the beach or pool. I enjoy books with a little more substance so this wasn't great.