It may be Christmastime, but thoughts of peace on earth, good will toward men, don’t seem to extend to the restaurant biz. Hayley has been assigned to interview Edel Waugh, chef/owner of Key West’s hottest new restaurant. But off the record, Edel reveals someone’s sabotaging her kitchen and asks Hayley to investigate.
Things heat up fast when the restaurant is set on fire—and a body is discovered in the charred wreckage. Is someone out to destroy the chef’s business—or actually kill her? Amid holiday festivities like the lighted boat parade and visiting relatives who stir up mixed emotions, Hayley needs to smoke out an arsonist and a killer who may turn up the heat on her next…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
PRAISE FOR THE KEY WEST FOOD CRITIC MYSTERY SERIES
Key West Food Critic Mysteries by Lucy Burdette
Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon.
—Jackson Brown and H. Jackson Brown Jr., Life’s Little Instruction Book
My cell phone bleated from the deck outside, where I’d left it to avoid procrastinating via text messages, Facebook updates, or simply lounging in the glorious December sunshine with our resident cats, watching the world go by. The biggest interview of my career as a food critic was scheduled for this afternoon and I wanted—no, needed—to be ready.
Miss Gloria, my senior citizen houseboat mate, hollered from her rocking chair overlooking the water. “It’s your mother. Shall I answer?”
“Mind telling her I’ll call back in an hour?”
Miss Gloria would relish the opportunity to chat with her anyway, and maybe her intercession would slash my time on the phone with Mom in half when I returned the call. I am crazy about my mother, honest. But it had still been a shock when she announced she’d rented a place in Key West for the winter season. Wouldn’t it be so much fun to spend Christmas in paradise together? And New Year’s . . . and Martin Luther King Day . . . and Valentine’s Day? You get the picture. Mom had followed Diana Nyad’s attempts to swim from Cuba to Key West with rapt attention. When Diana overcame sharks, jellyfish, rough water, and advancing age to complete her 110-mile swim on her fifth try, at age sixty-four, Mom took it personally.
“Diana says we should never give up,” she announced on the phone a couple of months ago. “Why not ‘be bold, be fiercely bold and go out and chase your dreams’?”
My mother had been a little down since the summer because her fledgling catering company had not taken off the way she’d hoped. Although she’s an amazing and inventive cook, the business part of owning a business eluded her. For her first five catering events, cooking with only the highest-quality ingredients, she’d lost money rather than made it. A lot of money. Even her newish boyfriend, Sam, who was supportive beyond any reasonable expectation and categorically opposed to meddling, had suggested she take a few steps back and reconsider her plan.
“Why not? You should go for your dream, too,” I remember saying. “That’s exactly what you told me when I lost my bearings: Keep putting yourself out in the universe, and eventually the wind will fill your sails.” I stopped myself from trotting out more metaphysical tropes. I hadn’t wanted to hear too much advice when I was feeling down; Mom probably didn’t want mine, either. “What do you have in mind?”
“I’m thinking of coming to Key West for the winter!”
Whoa. If that was her dream, who was I to stop her? But my big solo adventure on this island was about to turn into How I Met Your Mother.
Half an hour after the phone call, Miss Gloria came inside to report on her conversation with Mom, our two cats padding behind. I stroked my striped gray boy, Evinrude, from ears to tail, his fur warm from basking in the sun. His purr box caught and sputtered to life.
“She’s hoping we can swing by in half an hour to look at her condo and have a little lunch,” Miss Gloria said. “Sam is flying in later tonight, so this may be her best shot at girls-only time for a while. And then she starts her job with Small Chef at Large on Monday. Jennifer’s already assigned her to head up a couple of the Christmas parties they’re catering.”
Exhibit two: my mother’s new job with Small Chef. You had to give her credit for sheer brass guts. How long had it taken me to land my position as food critic at Key Zest? A couple of months at least. And lots of groveling and dozens of sample restaurant reviews. Key West is chockablock with talented, overqualified folks who swarm every decent job opening like roaches to crumbs. And yet my mother had landed a position with the premier caterer in town after meeting her once, at my best friend Connie’s wedding reception last spring. She’d been here only a week, but I suspected she was already best friends with half the natives on the island. She’d probably be designated an Honorary Conch at the next city commission meeting.
“Give me fifteen minutes to finish this up and we’ll go,” I told Miss Gloria.
Today I was interviewing Edel Waugh, chef-owner of the new Key West restaurant Bistro on the Bight. I skimmed the review her New York restaurant, Arnica, had scored in the New York Times last spring. Overall, the review glowed with praise, but Paul Woolston, the critic, had ended with this punch to the gut: “With bad blood between the ex-husband and -wife co-owners of Arnica, one wonders when—not if—their personal poison will seep into their food.”
I tweaked the list of questions to ask Edel when we met later, then changed out of my sweats and into a pair of slim-fitting black jeans and a red swing shirt that drew the eye away from the waistline and matched my sneakers. Christmas, just two weeks away, was the one time of year that I broke my own rule about not wearing red because it clashed with my auburn hair. Miss Gloria was waiting for me on the deck, dressed in the first of a deep rotation of Christmas sweatshirts, this one spangled with sequins and glitter-dusted reindeer.
“You look so cute!” we said at the same time.
We locked the cats up in the houseboat—things get a little dicier on the island during the high season, with an uptick in partying visitors and in the homeless population—and headed down the dock to the parking lot, where I keep my scooter. Miss Gloria began to sing “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” as she fastened her pink helmet and swung her leg over the bike. As we puttered down Southard Street to the end of the island, Miss G pointed out which Conch houses had been newly decorated for the season. The specialty here, of course, being white lights wound around the trunks of the palm trees. Who could be grumpy on a day like this?
Ten minutes later, we rolled past the wrought-iron gates and the guardhouse that mark the entrance to the Truman Annex complex, and took a right onto Noah Lane, the last developed street before the Navy’s harbor, aka the mole. My mother could not have afforded a seasonal rental in this neighborhood, except that her boyfriend, Sam, had gotten excited about a winter getaway and bankrolled a nice house just blocks from my ex Chad Lutz’s condo. When the gates closed at six p.m., there was only one way out of the neighborhood; it would be hard to avoid him. If I wasn’t already inured to running into Lutz the Putz, I would be by Easter, when Mom headed north.
Mom came bursting out of the front door onto her new home’s wide wooden porch and hugged us both. “My two favorite ladies,” she yelped. “I’ve made chicken salad and cupcakes. Come on, I’ll give you the grand tour and we can eat out by the pool.”
“I can’t stay long,” I told her. “I have an interview set up with the chef at Bistro on the Bight.”
“The restaurant opening on the harbor!” Mom said. “I read about it in the Citizen. I can’t believe my favorite chef in the world will be right here in Key West. I’m dying to eat her food again. Any chance—”
“Sorry, Mom.” I cut her off and grinned. “I’m happy to share a lot of things with you, but not my job.”
I’m the food critic for the Key West style magazine Key Zest. It’s complicated because we have only four people on staff. One of them, the co-owner Ava Faulkner, despises me and would happily slash me from the masthead at the first opportunity. Next is Danielle, our administrative assistant, who manages all the online intricacies of the magazine and scrambles to keep the whole project from sinking under the weight of Ava’s negativity. And last but not least is my editor Wally Beile, who makes my heartstrings and other body parts twang in a most unprofessional way. Though with his own mother dying of cancer, I hadn’t seen much of him lately.
Afraid I’d hurt my mother’s feelings, I sputtered a little more explanation. “I don’t think bringing my mother along on the interview would give the appearance that I know what I’m doing.”
“That’s okay, honey,” she said, “I don’t have time, anyway. I’ll catch up with her another time.” Then she gripped my shoulders and looked into my eyes. “I swear, Hayley Catherine Snow, I will not cramp your style while I’m here.”
“Thanks, Mom. I’m sure there’s room for two Snow women on this island.” I wasn’t sure, really, but I was going to try hard to make it work. Because the truth was, she had always been my biggest fan, and she was a lot of fun besides. And, let’s face it, utterly out of my control.
She spun away, leading us into a spacious living room furnished with expensive rattan furniture, cushioned with pillows covered in pale linen fabric patterned with palm fronds. The kitchen was even more magnificent—a bright yellow-and-white-tiled space that included a six-burner gas range, two dishwashers, two ovens, a wine chiller, a bread warmer, and a center island topped in green granite that made me vibrate with envy.
“You could throw one heck of a party here,” I said, as we followed my mother onto the back porch. White rattan chaise longues overlooked a perfect little dipping pool shaded by palm trees with an elegant waterfall at the far end.
“Wait until you hear how many events Jennifer has me working,” Mom said. “She wants me in the kitchen a couple of days a week, of course, but she’s already put me in charge of two parties. I’m developing the menu for tomorrow—a Southern belle’s Christmas luncheon. I’m thinking curried chicken salad with grapes and pecans, and a green salad, and then for the ladies who don’t eschew carbs, big buttermilk biscuits and maybe Scarlett O’Hara cupcakes.”
“Oh swoon,” said Miss Gloria. “No one in her right mind is going to eschew those carbs. What is a Scarlett O’Hara cupcake?”
“It has to be red velvet, don’t you think?” I asked.
“Maybe with raspberry cream cheese frosting? That’s what I tried out this morning. We’ll see if you approve.” Mom led us to the table, which she’d set with shimmery gold place mats, tan polka-dot napkins, and white plates. A bright orange bird of paradise swooped from a clear glass vase at the center for contrast.
“Watch out Martha Stewart,” Miss Gloria said with a cackle. “You are so clever. It already looks like you’ve lived here forever!”
We loaded our plates in the kitchen and brought them out to the poolside table. Mom slid a platter of the pink-icing-slathered cupcakes in the center, to remind us to save room. I spread a thin layer of honeyed butter onto a warm biscuit, admiring the tiny flecks of green scallion in the dough, and then bit into it.
“Oh my gosh, these are the best,” I said, and then tasted the chicken. “And the curry is exactly right—a little bite but not enough to put anyone off.”
Miss Gloria only rolled her eyes and moaned with pleasure.
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” Mom said when we were halfway through lunch. “I almost forgot to tell you the other news. You remember my cousin Chuck? His daughter, Cassie, is a pro golfer. She and her husband are popping down to the island for a couple of days this week and I’ve insisted they stay with me. And weren’t you going to make a dinner reservation at Latitudes when Sam’s here this weekend? Would it be a problem to add two more people?”
“Not really,” I said, though more people made it challenging to concentrate and harder to manage. “As long as they don’t mind me ordering and tasting their food.”
Latitudes is the restaurant on Sunset Key, the small private island a stone’s throw from Mallory Square, at the very bottom of Key West. Dinner guests have to make a reservation well ahead and then take a water taxi to the island. For me, this dinner would be work more than pleasure, as I’d been assigned to review the restaurant for the next issue of Key Zest. I couldn’t afford to take a second trip over—I had to get what I needed in one visit.
“I know they’ll get a kick out of a little window into your world,” Mom said. She bit into one of the cupcakes, sighed with satisfaction, and patted her lips with her napkin. “I also set up a tee time at the Key West golf course for Cassie and her husband, Joe, and Eric and you. I invited Eric because he and Joe are both psychologists so I figured they would hit it off. I know Eric played a little as a teenager. Your muscle memory doesn’t forget that kind of history, right?”
This was crazy in so many ways that I was struck dumb. Well, almost dumb. “Back up a minute. I don’t play golf,” I managed to squeak, because I couldn’t say the things that really came to mind. Out loud. To my mother. In front of Miss G.
Mom laughed, a silvery peal that meant she’d started marching down a path and would not be deviating from it. “How hard could it be? And, besides, Cassie’s a pro. I’m sure she’ll be happy to give you some pointers.”
Revenge is like serving cold cuts.
As you might expect from our island’s near-Caribbean status, Key West restaurants tend to be casual, with wide-plank floors, doors thrown open to the outdoors, and waiters with tattoos, cutoffs, and weathered faces. Bistro on the Bight had not adopted this trend. The designers had set the eatery apart with clean, spare decor heavy on stainless steel, copper trim, and leather. Orchids bloomed purple and pink on every table, and I noticed no funky odors—almost unavoidable in a humid climate when a place had been around awhile. I jotted a few notes on my phone and waved to the server, who emerged from the swinging door that I figured must lead to the kitchen. He was clean-shaven, dressed in a full-body white apron with all black underneath, as though he might have just flown in from New York City. Black is not big on this island.
“I have an appointment with Ms. Waugh. I’m Hayley Snow.”
“The chef is expecting you,” the server said, and led me to a table for two in the far corner of the room, near the kitchen. “Can I bring you a beverage?”
“No, thanks,” I said, pointing to the BPA-free water bottle clipped to the side of my backpack. I was still swimming from a second glass of my mother’s Arnold Palmer—half lemonade, half iced tea, and one of the drinks in the running for her southern Christmas party menu. “I’d love to look at the menu while I’m waiting, though.”
He crossed the room to the hostess stand and returned with a crisp linen folder.
“She’ll be with you shortly.”
As he exited through the swinging door, I heard a voice from the kitchen, feminine yet husky with intensity: “This is not rocket science. You need to prepare it exactly as I showed you yesterday. Our customers don’t want a new adventure every time they order a dish—they want what they loved last time and the time before. Exactly as the recipe is written. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Chef,” chorused a few voices.
I began to peruse the pristine pages of the menu and was immediately drawn to the shrimp salad with fennel and orange and a roasted chicken served with pommes aligot, a recipe featuring potatoes mashed with heavy cream, garlic, and cheese. My mouth began to water even though I’d just eaten.
The kitchen door swung open again, banging against the pickled wood trim on the wall. A petite woman with a pink face, rosebud lips, and a mass of black curls escaping from her toque barreled over to my table. She thrust her hand at me, and when I took it, squeezed mine like a lemon pinched in a vise.
“Edel Waugh,” she said. “You must be Ms. Snow. I appreciate you taking the time to write the feature.”
“Delighted to meet you,” I said. “Please call me Hayley. I have some questions prepared, if that’s okay.” I tried to hold my voice steady and not show how nervous I felt—of course she would expect me to come with questions. Besides, I had the sense that this small, fierce woman would roll right over me if I didn’t take the lead. She nodded, sat down across from me, and crossed her arms over her chest.
“You developed a very successful restaurant in New York. Why not stick with what you’ve already got humming? Why Key West?”
She flashed a quick grin, rubbed a finger over her chin, which had a spot of something on it—grease? Gravy? Though I couldn’t think of any dish I’d seen in her repertoire that involved gravy. Which seemed a shame, really. My stomach gave a little rumble of agreement.
“New York is fabulous in December—the lights, the crowds, the festivity. January and February? Dead. I’m an ambitious person,” she said, rapping her fist on the table, which bobbled a little from the force of the impact. A frown crossed her face and she snapped her fingers and called for the waiter who’d greeted me. “Leo?” He trotted across the room. “As soon as Ms. Snow and I are finished, you need to look at this table,” she told him, rocking it for emphasis. “Our diners should not have to endure an unsteady eating surface.” He backed away with a sheepish look on his face, and she returned her attention to me.
“Truth is, as in many arenas, a female chef has to work harder than a man to get to the top levels. The work is brutal—long hours, heavy lifting, staffing issues, money problems. Of course, male chefs have those challenges, too, but women are assumed to be less creative than men, less driven, less than men in actually any way you can imagine. But I don’t buy that.”
She stared me down.
“As I’m quite sure you know, the New York restaurant was developed with my ex-husband. This is my chance to prove that my food and my restaurant are equal to anything a male chef might invent.” Her eyes blazed with intensity.
Who would dare consider her less than a man?
“I have gathered some information to share with you that you might do well to read before you write your piece. Menus, of course, but also my training manuals for kitchen and front-of-house staff.” She pushed a folder across the table. “Let’s go for a spin around the kitchen—assuming you’re interested?”
She whisked me through the gleaming kitchen, which smelled amazing—onions frying, sauce simmering, chicken roasting—and introduced me to a few of the staff: the head sous-chef, two line cooks, the pastry chef, even a dishwasher. They all struck me as professional, if a bit harried. In each case, Edel’s staff tightened visibly under the glare of her examination, almost flinching as she approached. There was no question about who would be in charge of the dishes coming out of this kitchen. She would be watching every detail from the amuse-bouche to the cleanliness of the glassware to the size of the carrot chunks in the stew to the herb sprigs garnishing the dinner plates.
After we’d finished the tour, Chef Edel walked me out through the restaurant to the dock along the water. “Before you write anything up, I’d like you to come back, spend a few hours in the kitchen. I think you’ll understand what we’re trying to do here in a way you can’t by listening to me talk—or even the brief visit we just had.” She cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. “Honestly? I’m not quite sure that Key West will be able to appreciate my kind of food—the islanders may be too provincial. I mean that literally and figuratively,” she added.
I gaped at her, unsure what I could possibly say. Maybe she didn’t realize that a large chunk of this population came from points north, including her own New York City. It was a peculiar blind spot, to say the least.
“How would tomorrow around four p.m. work in your schedule? We are treating tomorrow night as our soft opening. I’d like you to join us for our staff dinner before the restaurant opens.”
I agreed without checking my phone because nothing felt more pressing than the opportunity to watch this whirlwind chef in action.
“There’s a reason I asked for you to write this piece,” she said.
She’d asked for me? I thought my boss had come up with the idea.
She fidgeted, gazing over the horizon for a moment—the first time I’d noticed her looking insecure about anything—then swung those intense brown eyes back to me. “Some things have started to go a little wrong.”
Now I was really puzzled. And curious. Surely she wasn’t looking for my culinary expertise. I’m an accomplished home cook, but certainly no gourmet chef—my tweaks on her recipes could not be welcome. “What kinds of things?”
“Recipes altered. Things gone missing. Like that. I could use another pair of eyes. I’ll discuss it with you after dinner service tomorrow. The soft opening is less than twenty-four hours away and my staff is acting as though they’ve never set foot in a professional kitchen.”
“I’d love to help if I can. But why me?”
“I’ve heard about you. You’ve gotten involved with other mysteries on this island. People say you’re good with puzzles. And fearless. To the point of being a little stupid.”
Which struck me almost dumb, for the second time that day. If she was trying to butter me up, her technique needed honing in a way I was certain her knives did not.
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . .
—Mel Tormé and Robert Wells
Although it had been Ava Faulkner’s idea for Key Zest to have a presence in the Hometown Holiday Parade, which helps mark the launch of the Christmas season, I wasn’t surprised that she turned the actual work over to the rest of us. Wally managed to scrounge a banged-up golf cart with three bench seats for the base of the float, and we’d been brainstorming ideas for the past couple of weeks by e-mail. Santa . . . elves . . . key lime pie . . . palm trees . . . margaritas . . . key deer . . . At the last go-round, we were basically nowhere. Pretty much the only part we had nailed down was that Wally would dress as Santa, Danielle and I as elves. We’d blocked out late this afternoon and this evening to firm up a theme and begin production, as the parade date was caroming in our direction.
Parades are big business on this island. The granddaddy of them all, Fantasy Fest, takes place during the week leading up to Halloween and features a different theme each year. And lots of costumes, which in Key West means the skimpier, the better—right down to body paint only. In the presence of an excellent paint job, it might take the onlooker five minutes to realize she’s staring at a stranger’s bare breasts. Maybe painted to simulate Mickey Mouse or an antique car or a bunch of grapes, but bare all the same.
Fortunately, dressing as an elf would not involve exposing a lot of skin.
I parked my scooter at the back of a conch house in New Town, where one of Wally’s pals let him store the cart for the week leading up to the parade. The sounds of Bruce Springsteen crooning “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” wafted out from the stand-alone garage. Lights twinkled inside and I heard Danielle singing harmony to Bruce’s baritone. My heart was pounding a nervous rat-tat-tat-tat. It felt like forever since I’d really talked with Wally and even longer since we’d spent any time alone. Last spring all signs pointed to the possibility that love was about to blossom. But then his mom’s stage-four cancer was diagnosed. Understandably, the other concerns in his life fell away to the shadows. He’d been working from her home in Delray Beach for months and months while she suffered through surgery and chemotherapy. Her health seemed to be on a slight uptick—at least in the short run—so he’d taken the opportunity to come back down to Key West for the holidays. I’d watched this progression once already when my friend Connie’s mother died during our freshman year in college. Losing your mother too soon—watching her waste away in pain—was just about the worst experience I could imagine.
I pulled in a big breath of balmy air, arranged a cheery smile, and headed in. Wally was wiring two dashing reindeer that looked like stolen lawn ornaments to the front of the golf cart. A sign hanging from the deer’s necks proclaimed them to be carrying Santa and his cutie pies.
“Santa and his cutie pies?” I yelped over Bruce’s song.
“Danielle thought of it.” Wally, wearing a faded green T-shirt and worn jeans that showed a little flash of thigh through the thinnest places, hopped off the cart, slung an arm around my shoulder, and pecked my cheek. I hugged him hard. He looked and felt thinner than he had last time I’d seen him. Danielle turned down the volume so we could talk normally.
“Do you get it?” Danielle asked, pointing to the cart. “Do you see? The rest of the cart will look like a giant key lime pie when we’re finished.” She had laid out another sheet of thin plywood and blocked out in bright paint TO SAMPLE THE BEST OF THE ISLAND, VISIT KEY ZEST. She was in the process of tacking white lights to the cursive lettering that spelled out Key Zest. But my attention leaped to her costume: a Santa hat, black leggings, and a bikini top constructed out of red faux fur outlined in more blinking white lights. The outfit made the most of her considerable assets.
“Hayley, wait until you see this,” she said, demonstrating how the blinking Key Zest sign would hang from the cart’s roof. “The most important thing is lots of lights—and we put together a sound track that has all the best foodie Christmas carols on it.” She began to warble “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” She grabbed my hands. “Do you know how to dance swing? I was thinking we would pop out of the pie whenever the parade slows down and then dance! Maybe toss out candy canes?”
I eased my fingers from her grip and backed away. “This all sounds great. Sort of. But please don’t tell me you want me to wear that.” I pointed at her fuzzy, blinking brassiere. “An elf costume is bad enough . . .”
“Come on, it’s cute. It’s Key West. Skimpy costumes are the norm. And it will draw attention to our float.”
“Believe me, you don’t want the kind of attention I would draw.”
Wally crossed the garage and tousled my hair, a big grin on his face. “She’s pulling your leg. She figured once you saw what she had on, the striped tights and red elf skirt would start to look good.” They both started to laugh.
“So I’m modest,” I said. “I’m from New Jersey.” Which only made them laugh harder.
I began to help Danielle tack lights to the wooden board, and then duct tape swirls of lights on the body of the cart. Finally the whining of Wally’s band saw wound down.
“Did you get a chance to meet the new chef at the Bight?” Wally asked.
“Did I ever,” I said. “She’s as tough as my grandmother’s cast-iron frying pan. But I liked her. In fact, she’s invited me to have the family meal with the staff tomorrow and then spend a couple hours in the kitchen. It’s their soft opening.”
“Do your best work,” Wally said, “because Ava fought me tooth and nail about assigning this to you.”
“I’m your food critic. Who else was going to write it?” I asked, indignant. I spend a lot of time feeling indignant when it comes to Ava Faulkner.
Danielle piped up, “She said, and I quote, ‘We have half a dozen new restaurants debuting in Key West every season. Let’s concentrate on the ones that make it, not waste space on some damn fancy-pants New Yorker who wants to make a big splash by dragging her old ideas to a new location.’” She wagged a finger and pinched her lips in an excellent imitation of my nemesis. Except for the gorgeous cleavage, which Ava lacks.
I sighed. “She’s such a pain. Do you think anyone would notice if we fed her rat poison?”
“Maybe something a little more subtle, considering that her sister was murdered,” Danielle said, and grimaced. “Besides, rat poison makes an awful big mess. And how would we get it into her? She hardly eats anything and she certainly wouldn’t eat something you cooked.”
“So true.” We worked a few minutes in silence, attaching the gigantic pie shell to the sides of the cart and installing the blinking KEY ZEST sign on top.
“Why do you suppose Edel Waugh wanted to open a restaurant in this town?” Danielle wondered, when we stopped for a break.
“You know, I asked her that question, but she never really answered. Other than talking about how grim New York is in January. And she did say this was her chance to prove herself separate from her ex-husband.”
“All the biggest chefs want to expand their domains,” Wally said. “It’s like a McDonald’s franchise, only different. And much, much better. Design a menu and a concept that diners love, then set up another one just like it, somewhere else. Double the reservations, double the money, double the name recognition. People want familiar yet fresh. In this case, New York food with Key West flair.”
“But you can’t cook in two kitchens at once,” Danielle said.
“I don’t know how much she cooks at this point—she’s the grand director and idea woman. But imagine training the staff in two places—that must be a major headache,” I said. “Making sure the dishes are the same whether you order them in New York City or Key West. Maybe that’s why she was yelling at the staff.”
Danielle looked at her watch. “Oh shoot, I have to run home and get changed. My date is picking me up in an hour.”
“Why don’t you wear what you have on?” I said. “You’d sure make a big impression.”
She grinned and blew me a kiss, then gathered her things, turned off the bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, and trotted away. That left Wally and me alone in the shadows of the garage, now lit only by the twinkling of a thousand little white fairy lights. He switched on the Christmas music soundtrack, which began to play “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and started around the golf cart toward me. My heart thumped and skin tingled as I anticipated his embrace. Eight months since he’d declared he might have feelings for me and we still hadn’t figured out how to handle them in public. Or really in private, either. He reached for my hands and pulled me closer.
“Helloooo!” called a voice from the yard outside. The dreaded Ava Faulkner. We sprang apart and Wally yanked the chain of the overhead light, shocking the room with the sharp brightness of the bare bulb. I busied myself cleaning up scraps of wood and paintbrushes and hammers so Ava wouldn’t see what I was certain was my tomato-red face.
Wally began to yammer about the design of the float and explain how the elves would come bursting out of the pie to distribute candy canes emblazoned with the Key Zest Web address. Ava looked unimpressed.
“I didn’t even think to ask,” he added, eyebrows lofting. “Would you like to be an elf, too?”
“You’re kidding, right?” she asked, a look of horror on her face. She turned to me. “Could you excuse us? We have some business to discuss.”
This was vintage Ava—humiliating the minions by treating them like children or undervalued underlings. But there would be nothing to gain by confronting her or refusing to leave, so I scurried to collect my backpack and helmet. “See you tomorrow,” I said to Wally. Outside, I paused in the shadows by the open window to catch my breath. Which suddenly made eavesdropping irresistible.
“You wanted to talk?” Wally was saying.
“I’m not happy with how things are going,” Ava said. “I’m sorry that your mother has been ill. And I’ve been willing to tolerate your absence over this period of months—but it was with the understanding that you would be sure the business was covered.”
“I have made sure,” Wally said in a firm voice. “I’ve said this every time you and I have talked. Hayley and Danielle have been handling the day-to-day issues and we have been in touch by e-mail and phone daily. I’m doing the best I can, considering that my mother is dying.”
I would not have been that polite. I would have melted into a blubbering, outraged puddle.
“As I mentioned, I am sorry about your mother,” said Ava, “but I beg to differ. Very little has been handled. Our subscription numbers have stagnated. I’ve picked up several phone messages from potential advertisers who have not been contacted—they are offering us easy money, and we can’t be bothered to follow up. But worse than that is a lack of editorial direction.”
I peered through the window into the garage. Wally had sagged against the workbench on the far wall, his arms crossed over his chest, his glasses pushed up to his forehead so that even from a distance the sadness in his eyes was clear. I wanted to rush in and hug him, and then lambast Ava for her insensitivity, which would only make things worse. Then I realized that if his job was in trouble, so was mine. Over and over, he’d protected me from her misplaced wrath. If he was going to be squeezed out, I was a goner, too.
“Do tell me about the problem with editorial direction,” he said in a quiet voice.
Ava gave a quick nod. “I know I mentioned the piece about Bistro on the Bight. If Hayley Snow”—I flinched at the sound of my name barked from her scornful lips—“is supposed to be a food critic, then how can she possibly spend time in this woman’s kitchen and write a puff piece on this supposedly up-and-coming chef and retain any scrap of impartiality? Can’t you see that every restaurant on the island will be demanding equal treatment? And then every reader will assume that the chef has been greasing the skids to earn what is not a review but essentially a monstrous advertisement?”
“I don’t agree,” Wally said. “You’ve been saying for months that we need articles with more depth, more heft. Profiling new business owners is part of that. And Hayley is a consummate professional. She will not cross lines, nor will she produce a so-called puff piece.” He pushed away from the bench and stood up taller. “What are your other concerns?”
Ava huffed and stalked around the golf cart to slap her bag on the workbench. “I’ve made a list,” she said, as she pulled her iPad mini from the satchel.
I’d heard enough. Hell would be paid if I got caught listening in on her harangue. Besides, her insensitivity made me sick to my stomach.
One thing was certain: the more she insisted I should not interview Edel Waugh, the more determined I was to continue.
If you’re cooking with love, every plate is a unique event—you never allow yourself to forget that a person is waiting to eat it: your food, made with your hands, arranged with your fingers, tasted with your tongue.
—Bill Buford, Heat
Before blasting across the island to the old harbor for my second visit to the Bistro on the Bight, I read over the document called “Do’s and Don’ts for Servers” that Edel had e-mailed me last night. “Extremely detailed” was one way to describe the list. “Anal,” “obsessive,” “controlling,” and “neurotic” were others. I concluded that it might be a miracle her staff hadn’t bumped her off rather than simply played practical jokes or quit in droves. Or however else her problems had manifested themselves. By now I was extremely curious.
To be fair, I agreed with many of the items on her list: If she managed to keep her drill-sergeant proclivities confined to the kitchen and waitstaff, her diners would be in for an exquisite experience. Whoever had launched the trend of having waiters announce their names and proceed to treat diners like old maiden aunts deserved what they had coming. And don’t get me started on staff sharing their own experiences with why they’d switched to gluten-free diets or the pounds they’d lost by eliminating carbs, or, worse yet, any white-colored food. Or clearing plates before everyone at the table was finished . . . or asking diners if they were “still working on” their meals, as though dining at that particular restaurant was a Herculean task rather than a pleasure. Servers could stumble into a lot of traps, and Edel seemed determined to sidestep all of them.
I parked my scooter in the pay lot near the old Waterfront Market, hoping the Cuban Coffee Queen was open. The CCQ, a concrete shack painted as though it’s a giant postcard of Key West, dispenses some of the best coffee on the island. If Edel worked me as hard as she worked her staff, I would need every jolt of energy the caffeine offered.
Not only was the coffee stand open, but it was also jammed. I wended my way through a big family from India, a couple with two babies in strollers, and two workers from the Fury pleasure boats, probably headed to man the sunset cruises, which at this time of year cast off earlier and earlier. As I waited in line to order my Cuban coffee, one of the CCQ workers pushed out through the trailing strands of heavy plastic that separated the little kitchen from the outdoors. He offered a chunk of ham to a waiting Australian shepherd with spooky blue eyes, who snatched the meat and nearly took his fingers off.
I sat on the yellow bench to wait for my coffee, then recognized the man next to me as Wes Singleton, the former owner of a fried-fish-and-burger joint on the harbor. A funky-smelling bar can survive in Key West with the right music and the right party vibe, but a funky restaurant is a turnoff. Wes’s place had finally succumbed to a series of bad customer reviews online and a brief shutdown by the health department. Rumor had it they’d found a horde of rodents in his kitchen. The restaurant had been in my queue of places to review; I was grateful that it had closed before I had to weigh in. Even though I recognize it as a necessary duty, I still despise writing negative reviews.
Wes lit up a cigarette and slurped a slug of his coffee.
“How’s it going?” I asked, inching away from the smoke.
“Slowly,” he said, blinking sleepy gray eyes. “Looking for work.”
“Have you tried Edel Waugh’s new place? I’m certain she’s looking for experienced staff.” Then I wished I’d kept my big mouth shut. Because of course Edel’s restaurant had replaced his, after the little rhubarb with the health department and the financial problems that had followed.
He stared back at me. “Don’t you think it would be a little weird to work for someone else in what should by rights be my space? Besides, I’ve heard she’s hell on wheels.” Then he cackled, and I laughed with him, because what else could I do?
“I hadn’t thought of it that way. I’ll let you know if I hear of something,” I added, just to be polite. The worker at the cash register called my name and I said good-bye and eased through the crowd to collect my café con leche.
Inside Edel’s place, I was greeted by the waiter I’d seen yesterday. “How did the dinner go last night?” I asked. “The soft, soft, soft opening?”
He held out his hands, palms up. “We were okay in the front of the house”—he gestured to the empty tables and chairs—“some issues to work out in the back. But I’m sure Chef is all over it.”
“We didn’t meet formally yesterday. I’m Hayley Snow.”
He shook my hand and smiled. “Leo McCracken.”
“Do you hail from New York or were you hired here in Key West?”
“I’m down from New York for the high season. After that, we’ll see.” We both cringed, hearing a clang of pans clashing to the floor and a harried, screaming voice. “She said to send you in when you arrived,” Leo said. “Good luck.” He gave an apologetic smile and went back to folding crisp white napkins into neat triangles.
I trudged across the dining room and pushed open the swinging door. Edel was looking up at a tall man with a shock of white hair wearing a chef’s toque and checkered pants. “Did you taste that before you added the salt?” Her voice was hoarse with fury. She grasped a big wooden spoon and stabbed it at his apron-wrapped belly. “Go ahead, taste it now.”
The sous-chef dipped the spoon into the pot, sniffed the pale pink sauce first, and then took a sip. And instantly recoiled. “Oh my god,” he said, clutching his throat, his eyebrows arched in horror.
“Explain,” said Edel, squeezing her hands into fists. She was shorter than the sous-chef by a good eight inches, possibly even a foot, but in spite of his vantage point looking down on her, he appeared terrified. “Explain how our signature pasta sauce is so spicy and salty that no customer would eat it.”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged helplessly. “It was fine when we made it. I’ll start another batch right now.” He turned away from Edel and called out to two of the other workers. “Mary Pat, get tomatoes, shallots, garlic, butter, and cream from the cooler. Rodrigo, get this shit out of here.” He slammed the spoon against the big pot, splattering the ruined sauce around his station. A swarthy man with an impassive face who’d been washing dishes scuttled over to whisk the stockpot away.
Then Edel noticed me hovering inside the dining room door. “Come in,” she said, waving me forward and mustering a smile. She wiped her damp face with the sleeve of her white coat. “I’m sorry for that introduction to our kitchen. Apparently, we’ve got soft-opening-night jitters.”
Then she swept me through the kitchen and introduced me to the staff—the sous-chef she’d just bawled out was Glenn Fredericks. After Glenn, I met the line cook, Mary Pat; the pastry chef, Louann; and Rodrigo the dishwasher; and then I lost track. I perched on a stool and took notes as I watched them prepare everything that would be needed for the night to come.
“What’s the best thing about Christmas in Key West?” Louann asked me. “Sounds like you’ve been around for a while.”
Excerpted from "Death with All the Trimmings"
Copyright © 2014 Lucy Burdette.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Praise for the national bestselling Key West Food Critic Mystery series:
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