Experienced pastry chef Claire Johnson whips up an insiders look at San Francisco's cutthroat restaurant trade. Cranky Mary Ryan has sunk a lot of time and talent into the in-vogue American Fare, the town's hottest spot, while grieving over her broken marriage. At work very early one morning, she steps on a laundry bag stuffed with the dead body of one of her employees. The investigation soon exposes all the dirty secrets that the food business would like to keep secret: the philandering chefs, the silly whims of the dining public, the hiring and illegal aliens, and the subsistence-living pay scale. Events begin to spiral that, in time, take out the restaurant's celebrity chef and force Mary to use her unique skills to uncover a poisonous scheme. Hard-edged, filled richly with restaurant lore and murder galore, this is a mystery debut to savor.
About the Author
Claire M. Johnson completed the California Culinary Academy’s program for professional chefs in 1983 and worked as a pastry chef in San Francisco and Oakland for eight years. Set in the restaurant world, Ms. Johnson’s first novel, Beat Until Stiff, won the 1999 Malice Domestic Writer’s Grant. She lives in Lafayette, California, with her husband, two children, and numerous animals.
Read an Excerpt
Beat Until Stiff
By Claire M. Johnson
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2002 Claire M. Johnson
All right reserved.
I debated whether it would be worth ten years in San Quentin if I beat Thom to death with the salt and pepper shakers.
He continued to complain, cajole, bitch, beg, mope, and wheedle-we'd only been seated for five minutes.
"So she changed her mind. What's the big deal? Those chocolate owls," he snorted in derision. Thorn's manicured nails alit on a bottle of that five dollars-a-liter Italian mineral water he favors. He took several tiny sips before continuing. "Mrs. Gerson wants something literary. It's a benefit for the new library. Be creative, for God's sake. Think theme."
My name is Mary Ryan. I'm cranky, recently divorced, and thirty-four years old. I'd been on my feet since five that morning and the only theme I wanted to think about was an ice-cold martini, straight up, two olives, no vermouth. My eyes wandered over toward the bar.
"Mary! Pay attention." Thom pounded the table with a fat fist. "You're the pastry chef at the hottest restaurant on the West Coast, not a bricklayer. I'm merely the controller. Can't you envision something?" The tone of his voice clearly implied that I had the imagination of a turnip. Having established the battle lines, he slouched lazily in his chair, the cut of his Armani jacket masterfully hiding his pudgy frame.
Envision something.Currently I was envisioning the cases of Valrhona chocolate I'd ordered in anticipation of making two hundred individual chocolate cakes. My food cost for the month of October would be a financial meltdown if I didn't convince him to stick with the original menu.
I was at a tactical disadvantage. My Ross wardrobe always paled in comparison with Thorn's designer togs, but today I was more disheveled than usual. Anticipating a battle, I'd tried to boost my professional appearance by brushing my teeth and turning my apron to the clean side; but I'd been stirring caramel over a hot stovetop for the past two hours and was bedraggled and sweaty. I tried to contain the stench emanating from my armpits by holding my arms down at my sides, but I still must have smelled rank because Thom kept inching his chair away from me in discreet little hops. I was not in the mood to indulge Mrs. Gerson's ridiculous requests.
We sat at a table in the restaurant trying to finalize the menu. It was four o'clock, the lull between lunch and dinner service. In the background the kitchen hummed with activity as the crew sliced, diced, and whacked away in preparation for dinner. The dining room still bore the remnants of lunch service; a linen napkin here, a dirty wineglass there. Within an hour all the tables would be smartly dressed for dinner with white linens, precisely placed silverware, and gleaming wineglasses.
American Fare is a case study in what makes a successful restaurant. Firmly entrenched as the society hangout, we're chic but not snobbish, intellectual but not stuffy, fun but not giddy. On Tuesday nights when the opera is in season, you might see a man resplendent in a tuxedo seated at one table and a young dot-commer wearing a tee shirt at the table next to him. Neither looked out of place.
Thom tried again. "What about something along the lines of that exquisite spun sugar replica of City Hall you made for the reopening? The one that made the national news. Except this version would be a replica of the library."
"It took four months to make," I said flatly. "Mrs. Gerson's party is next week. I suggest something simple. The fall bounty is at its peak right now."
"Well, we can't just hand out apples, now can we?" Thom sneered.
I resisted the urge to stand up and pour my coffee over Thom's mousse-entombed hair.
Thom came on board when American Fare opened two years ago. It was mutual loathing at first sight. Shortly after his hire, he held a staff meeting to announce that he'd changed the spelling of his name. Although it was still pronounced "Tom," it was spelled with an "h" wedged in between the "T" and the "o." I always pronounce the "th" in his name-like Thumper-when he's not in the room, and a couple of times I've slipped up and actually "th'd" to his face. No wonder he thinks I'm a bitch.
He loves pampering and gossiping with the San Francisco socialites, and has so ingratiated himself that many of them now insist he help with the menu planning for their events. Mrs. Gerson is his personal favorite, a woman so obsessed with social climbing that I bet she has cleats on the soles of her Ferragamos.
"Persimmons are coming into season. What about my individual persimmon puddings with a Marsala zabaglione?" I suggested. "It'll be the talk of the town." When I was tired or bored, I tended to speak in clichés. Both applied in this case. I nonchalantly rolled down the sleeve of my uniform to hide a large blob of chocolate on my forearm.
Thom tried to narrow his eyes in frustration and anger but to no avail. A recent round of botox injections from a needle-happy plastic surgeon had left the upper half of his face with all the animation of a ventriloquist's dummy. "Mrs. Gerson is creating an event, Mary. I'm sure you can come up with something more exciting than persimmon pudding."
My persimmon pudding happens to be something to die for and Thorn knew it. The next time he came sniffing around the kitchen begging for one of my boring persimmon puddings he could shove it up his snotty ass.
Shaking his head back and forth, he tsked-tsked as if deeply frustrated. All his worse fears had been realized. I did have the imagination of a turnip. Clearly I wasn't getting the point and he was going to have to spell it out for me.
"Must I repeat myself?. Theme, Mary. Mrs. Gerson confided to me personally that she must make a splash with this party. All of the place cards have the guests' names printed like library cards, and for party favors she's handing out signed first editions of some children's book. Can't remember the name. Something about a boy who does magic tricks. Harvey Potts or something like that. I've never heard of this book, but Mrs. Gerson assures me this is the thing right now. Doesn't it sound like fun?"
I glared at him. "The last the time you used the word fun and Mrs. Gerson in the same sentence we catered her dog's birthday party."
"I remember that party." He sighed with satisfaction. "We got two," he waggled two chubby be-ringed fingers in my face, "two columns in the society pages."
"Those personalized dog biscuits made the restaurant smell like a Purina factory for a week," I snapped back. "As long as people pay for it, you'll agree to anything. And it's Harry Potter, you idiot."
"Why at some point in all our interactions do you stoop to name calling? We've gone down this road too many times for it to be even remotely amusing." He moued a yawn. "I handle the financial end, help with a little menu planning here and there." The smug tone of voice belied the insignificance of his role. "Your job is to make the desserts. Can we get cracking and decide on this menu? I haven't got all day. I was supposed to phone her over an hour ago with the menu change." He held up his watch and tapped it three times with one of his pudgy fingers.
With each tap, my back spasmed into an ever-increasing knot. No, beating him with the salt and pepper shakers wouldn't kill him fast enough. I should grab a chair and tap, tap, tap his skull with it. But I swallowed my rage. I was hungry, I smelled bad, and I wanted to go home. Time to cut a deal.
"What about warm chocolate cakes with a blood orange mousse?" I suggested, thinking this might at least salvage some of my food cost. "Princess Michael of Kent ordered them last week and loved them. Remember, Thom?" I reminded him, adding a few strategic inflections of my own.
Thom got a thoughtful look in his eye, as if the aura of royalty was almost too much to resist. Then he must have realized how painfully easy those chocolate cakes were to make. Melt some chocolate, beat up a few egg whites, and voilà. Certainly not the hours of overtime on my part that he envisioned, which, since I was on salary, wouldn't cost the restaurant one cent extra.
"Come, Mary. Let's do something original that will leave San Francisco society talking for weeks. Something that will be written up in the society column the next day. Where's your sense of whimsy?"
Suffice it to say, my whimsy ran out the door screaming about three hours ago.
"Pear cardamom sorbet with chocolate-hazelnut tuilles," I suggested.
"Theme, Mary," he reminded me. "How about individual mille feuilles, sifted over with confectioner's sugar, with book titles on the top written in dark chocolate?"
"No way, Thom. Buches de noel, but instead of meringue mushrooms, make little squares of meringues to resemble books. Trees of Knowledge. Get it?"
Thom rolled his eyes. "Of course I got it. Too Christmasy, even without the mushrooms."
We fired dessert suggestions back and forth at each other for another ten minutes before finally compromising on individual chocolate boxes made up to look like books-dark chocolate for the top, bottom, and spine; white chocolate for the sides to resemble pages-filled with blood-orange mousse. Cutesy. Two hundred of these suckers. I loathe making cutesy desserts. Plus, tempering all that chocolate, working it back and forth with a spatula, determining when the chocolate was just at the right temperature to cut it without fracturing it. The knot in my back began throbbing violently in anticipation.
"Okay, okay. I'll do the goddamn boxes with the blood-orange mousse," I agreed wearily. "Call your Mrs. Gerson with the good news."
Thom didn't bother to hide a broad grin as he pushed himself away from the table. Why did I have the sick feeling that this was exactly what he wanted all along? In the background the janitor began moving the chairs in order to vacuum the dining room. I looked at my watch. One hour until service. I felt in my pockets for my car keys. I was so tired I was half tempted to go to my car without returning to the locker room for my backpack and wallet.
"Oh, Mary." Thom stopped his victory march across the dining room and called over one shoulder. "One small thing."
"The names of literary classics piped on the Front of each one. Make them all different. For fun."
"Fun," I repeated in a deadpan voice. There was that word again.
"You know, Gone with the Wind or The Importance of Being Earnest. Mrs. Gerson is a big Oscar Wilde fan."
I stared at him in horror. "And how am I supposed to fit," I counted quickly, "thirty-one letters, if you include spaces, on a five-inch by seven-inch piece of chocolate?"
"I have total faith in you," he said gaily and continued walking.
I shut my eyes in contemplation of the hours I'd spend hunched over a table, a paper cone filled with white chocolate, piping out literary titles on a rectangle the size of a postcard; truly, a labor of Hercules.
Yes, it was worth ten years in Q.
I opened my eyes and grabbed the salt and pepper shakers, but he was already halfway across the dining room, whistling "Cry Me a River."
The morning of Mrs. Gerson's party my alarm clock went off at five. The weather had turned cold the weekend before and the tip of my nose and forehead were freezing, the only body parts not covered with down. As I turned on my bedside lamp to make sure I didn't fall back asleep, every muscle in my lower back screamed in violent protest. The hot light branded my eyelids until I couldn't stand it anymore, and I hauled my ass out of bed. On my way to the shower my calf muscles joined in the agony chorus and cramped in sympathy with my back. Yesterday had been an eighteen-hour day and even a scalding shower didn't rejuvenate me.
Shit, I thought, as my shoulder went into spasm while I pulled on a tee shirt. I'm getting too old for this. I felt ninety and near death.
The week before had been the proverbial nightmare. I'd worked an extra two hours every day, melting, tempering, and cutting out chocolate rectangles. Two days ago, just as I was ready to assemble the rectangles into their cutesy little mock-book form, I discovered someone had placed a hot stockpot next to the rack where I had stored the chocolate rectangles. All the sheetpans on the bottom of the rack had melted and rehardened, leaving the chocolate with a sickly bloom resembling bathtub scum. All that chocolate would have to be remelted, tempered again, and recut. It took every ounce of strength I had not to break down sobbing.
After making it crystal clear that if anyone got so much as within five feet of me and the rack with the chocolate on it I'd cut their hearts out with a clam knife, I fortified myself with a triple espresso every two hours and worked as if possessed by the devil himself. I'd managed to recoup most of the damage and had only two tasks left to do: make the mousse and pipe out the novel titles. I'd go in early before the kitchen crew arrived, finish up, and then go to my gym and soak for three hours. I've yet to use the exercise equipment. I belong to a gym for the Jacuzzi.
By five-thirty that morning, I was on the Bay Bridge, driving with one hand, eating cold toast with the other, hot coffee between my legs. I spent the entire drive racking my brains for the shortest novel titles I could think of. Anything longer than ten words didn't qualify. Jane Austen was good for three: Emma, Sanditon, and Persuasion. Tom Jones worked, Vanity Fair was good. Bleak House. Jane Eyre. The Victorians were winning hands down.
The restaurant had been closed the day before so that Davyd, party czar to S.F.'s elite, could work his magic on the dining room. He'd transformed our bistro French décor into an Art Deco extravaganza. Masses of blood-red tulips (where did he find tulips in October?) arced out of three-foot-high black lacquer vases scattered throughout the room. He'd replaced our tables with round tables for ten and covered them with black and white Harlequin-patterned tablecloths. For centerpieces he had grouped black-leather bound books, red fountain pens, quills, and wired-rimmed spectacles in a casual array that looks simple to achieve, but in reality is almost impossible to do right. Floor to ceiling-length scrolls of parchment lined the walls, each one penned in meticulous calligraphy with the first paragraph of a famous book. "It is a truth universally acknowledged ..." from Pride and Prejudice. "In the late summer of that year we lived in a house ..." from A Farewell to Arms. "In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice ..." from The Great Gatsby. It was beautiful, but all that manufactured elegance made me uncomfortable. Time to enter the world I knew.
Excerpted from Beat Until Stiff by Claire M. Johnson Copyright © 2002 by Claire M. Johnson
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Hot tempers and sharp knives are a dangerous combination. But in this story, it is cold, calculated murder - not hot emotions- that's at work. I found this book to be one of the most enjoyable mystery books that I've read in a long time. It is insightful into the food business, witty, and fast-paced. I especially enjoyed the interaction between chef Mary Ryan and Detective O'Connor, friend of Ryan's ex-husband. And, unlike so many other mysteries, this one holds together at the end with a plausible, yet exciting, conclusion. I hope that there will be a second book!