They call him the gourmet detective; the only thing sharper than his mind is his palate. When chefs need a rare ingredient, an ancient wine, or simply a new idea to gain that extra Michelin-star boost, they come to the detective’s cozy London office and plead for his help. For top-notch cooking, he is always happy to lend his taste buds to the cause. Now Raymond Lefebvre, executive chef at one of London’s finest French restaurants, has asked for the detective’s help with a bit of kitchen espionage. Lefebvre’s crosstown rival is winning international accolades cooking a dish called Oiseau Royal, and Lefebvre wants the recipe. Getting it takes the detective deep into the Circle of Careme, where the most elite chefs in Britain gather to swap recipes, techniques, and gossip. But when the chefs of Careme start to die, the detective starts to salivate. There is no finer appetizer than murder.
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The Gourmet Detective
A Gourmet Detective Mystery (Book One)
By Peter King
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Peter King
All rights reserved.
He shuffled into my office, his outsize suit hanging loosely on his oversize frame. I recognised the face like a St Bernard with all the troubles of the world on its back, the lugubrious expression, the large sad eyes and the drooping lips. A strange figure but then I see a lot of them in my business.
"You're the one they call 'The Gourmet Detective?'" he asked. His voice was deep with melancholy.
"Says so on the door."
He nodded. "We have an appointment."
We did indeed. He had called the day before and said he wanted to consult me. He had refused to give his name but I knew him the second he walked in the door. I waved him to a chair. He eased his 23 stones or so into it cautiously and with good reason. It creaked in protest, never having been subjected to such a strain.
"You specialise in culinary investigations," he said flatly.
"For some detectives, it's divorce, for others it's missing daughters. Some chase statues of birds while—"
"Birds?" he asked, puzzled.
It was clear he was not a private detective aficionado and I let it pass. "Specialisation is the name of the game today," I told him. "So for me, it's smoked salmon, salsify and Sauterne."
"You come well recommended," he said, looking at me as if he thought it strange that anyone would recommend me.
"By whom?" I asked but it was his turn to let one pass.
"This commission I have for you is—"
"I haven't said I'll accept it yet," I reminded him.
"I think you will," he said, obviously a man used to having his own way. "What are your rates?"
"The latest job offered a thousand pounds on acceptance, a hundred pounds a day plus expenses and a further thousand pounds on completion."
"Who was your client?"
"I can't tell you that."
He moved his bulk fractionally and the chair groaned in agony.
"It would be worth it for Tattersall's to locate a substitute for tamarind in their Tangy Sauce. They sell four and a half million bottles year—nearly 40 per cent of the market for bottled sauces other than ketchup. Your fee would be negligible to maintain such a market share."
"Confidentiality is, of course, something all my clients insist on," I said in that lofty tone employed so effectively by lawyers and abortionists. Inwardly, I was seething. How on earth had he found out about the Tattersall offer? He was right too. The fee would have been negligible—and the truth was that it had been only half of that.
"And it wasn't a substitute for tamarind they wanted." I had to keep talking to take my mind off the painful reality of only getting 50 per cent of what I should have had. "It was an alternate. There are half a dozen different kinds of tamarind but they have been using only one—"
"The wild tamarind from East Africa."
"—which is now being affected by drought so an alternate is vital."
"You did well to find one—but then that is your principal business, I believe."
"Whoever found it did well," I conceded, determined to play out this part of the charade to the bitter end. "But yes, my main business consists of locating rare and exotic foods, advising on substitutes for scarce products, finding alternate sources of ingredients which are difficult—sometimes nearly impossible—to obtain. I help people with unusual foods to find outlets for them."
We eyed each other for a long moment. I couldn't tell from his mournful expression whether he was thinking about ethics, food or money. Perhaps all three, he certainly took long enough.
Then he said, "It must have been you who tracked down those six bottles of Château Yquem, Premier Cru Superieur. I heard the client wanted them forty years old."
"Not an easy assignment. Somebody did well again—that man really knew his business."
He nodded his massive head. "Phillipe at the Grand crowed about that for days. He considered it quite a coup."
So he should have. It was quite a coup for him—less so for me. I didn't make much money out of that job. Those confounded bottles were much harder to find than I had expected.
He considered me carefully. "You know who I am, I suppose?" He didn't say it with any condescension. He just wanted to clarify the point.
"Yes. You're Raymond Lefebvre. Your restaurant, Raymond's, is one of the top ten in London—"
That brought the first real reaction I had had from him. He leaned forward and the chair screeched. He wagged a finger like a banana at me.
"And maybe one of the top twenty in Europe."
"Top six! And no maybe!"
This man's reputation was considerable. I had seen his face in magazines and on television though he did not court publicity as avidly as did so many in his profession. He had been known to say that he preferred to let his food speak for itself. Bocuse and Guerard might do it differently but Raymond was a respected figure among his peers despite his rather aloof and isolated attitude.
I knew also of his earlier days—long, hard years in Paris learning the trade, turning his hand to everything that now contributed to his status. His accent was almost unnoticeable for he had been in Britain many years. Now here he was in my tiny office—what could he possibly want me to do for him? He was a top-flight restaurateur and I was a second-rate private eye (top half dozen though—well, among the specialists anyway).
His next question took me completely unawares.
"Do you carry a gun?"
"A gun!" I yelped. It probably came out as a yelp anyway and it must have ended at a note approaching high C. I coughed to conceal it but couldn't help blurting it out again. "A gun!"
The faintest twinkle of amusement flickered across his face.
"Not an unusual question to ask a private detective surely?"
I struggled to regain my voice. "I have already explained my activities—although you seem to know plenty about them. So why would I need a gun to help find a European equivalent of Birds' Nest Soup or help the Australians to market kangaroo livers."
He looked appalled. "Kangaroo livers! You're not serious!"
I was pleased to learn I knew something he didn't. "Why should ducks and geese have the only tasty livers?"
He studied me, not sure what to make of this. Was I pulling his leg? he was wondering. I wasn't but I let him wonder.
"We can talk about this some other time," he said dismissively.
I wasn't going to hold my breath. The day a French chef contemplates serving kangaroo livers in his restaurant will be the day Colonel Sanders studs his chickens with truffles.
"Very well," I agreed. "What shall we talk about today?"
"This is confidential—" he began.
"I thought I had already made it clear that—"
"I know you did but my business could be severely affected if one word of this leaks out."
"So could mine."
Still he hesitated then he plunged in.
"You know Le Trouquet d'Or?"
"Of course," I nodded.
Who didn't? If Raymond said his restaurant was one of the top three in London then Le Trouquet d'Or was one of the other two. It was run by another displaced Frenchman, François Duquesne who had earned three Michelin stars before he was 30 years old and was renowned for his elegance and originality.
Another thing came into my mind. There was bitter rivalry between Raymond and François. Not quite as desperate as between the Hatfields and the McCoys or between Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham but certainly more intense than that between Macys and Gimbels. Of course, all top chefs are wary of each other, all striving to outdo, out-think and out-cook the others but there was more to it as far as Raymond and François were concerned.
Some said it was an old feud, dating perhaps to teenage days although comparisons of their biographies did not suggest that this was likely. The romantics said that there had been a quarrel over a woman but then romantics always said that. No one knew for sure and speculation was rife—but what did all this mean now? Like a simmering sauce, the plot was beginning to thicken. I tried not to look too eager but I was hanging on every word.
"At Le Trouquet d'Or, they serve a dish called Oiseau Royal," said Raymond.
"I've heard of it," I admitted. "It's the speciality of the restaurant. When Prime Minister Kom was here from Singapore, it was the one dish he wanted to eat. A well-known Australian critic was reported as saying that it was the best meal he had in London during his recent trip and—"
"Yes, yes," said Raymond testily. "That's the one. I want you to find out exactly how it's prepared."
So that was why he was here. I was surprised. With his reputation as a chef, why did he want to know how a rival prepared a dish? Perhaps the breach between them was reason enough in itself. Or was there more? He saw the uncertainty cross my face.
"Oiseau Royal isn't just another meal. It's a classic of cuisine—oh, yes, I admit it. I must know exactly how it's prepared."
I said cautiously, "As long as we agree that's what I'm doing. If I accept this job, what I give you will be a distillation of observation, investigation and deduction. There will be nothing illegal or underhanded. I want to make it clear that I am not a thief or a spy."
Did he acquiesce just a little too readily?
"I wouldn't want it any other way," he assured me.
I wanted to believe him and I thought I did but then I had been wrong on previous occasions when I had believed people. In any case, it was a good opportunity to put on a little pressure.
"It has been said that Oiseau Royal is more of a secret than Coca Cola," I told him.
"Pfft ..." he puffed out in a typically Gallic dismissal, packed with scorn. "How long will it take you?"
The clever so-and-so. If I said too long a time, I would sound inefficient. If I said too short a time, I would be cutting down on my fee. I had no choice but to be honest.
"Not more than a week."
He nodded. "I'll write you a cheque for a thousand pounds. Another thousand on completion. A hundred pounds a day fee plus expenses."
How could I say no? "I'll have a contract made out and—"
"No," he said quickly. "Nothing in writing." He pulled out his cheque book and scribbled, handing me a very handsome piece of paper.
I reached for it then stopped. "Just one thing ..."
"What is it?"
"When you say 'completion' ... let's decide what that means precisely."
"I mean that you will tell me everything I need to know in order that I am able to produce the same dish."
"Who's to decide if it's the same?"
"It must appear and taste the same to any discerning diner."
Still I hesitated. He eased back in his chair and shrugged. The chair shrugged too in its own creaky way. "After all," he continued, "you are a gourmet detective and I am a gourmet restaurateur. Surely two such men can agree on such a point?"
It sounded reasonable and it was evidently the only assurance I was going to get.
"All right. How do I get in touch with you?"
He took out a card. "Here is the restaurant number."
"What if you're not there?"
He looked at me in astonishment. "I'm always there."
I should have known. Then another thought occurred to me.
"I'll need to eat at Le Trouquet d'Or and I'll have to taste Oiseau Royal." I hadn't fully decided whether I had to or not but it was not an opportunity I intended to forego. "The last I heard, the place was booked up a month in advance. How am I going to get a table?"
He "pfft'd" again, derisively this time. "When they say a month, they probably mean ten days. Still ..." he pondered a moment then he said, "There's a New York man, a millionaire who has a lot of people visiting London for his business. He always advises these people to eat at either my restaurant or at Le Trouquet d'Or. Just say that Mr Winchester told you to ask for a table—they'll fit you in."
"Winchester? THE Harold Winchester?"
"This too will be kept confidential," he admonished. He began manoeuvring himself out of the chair which sighed in woody relief. "I'll expect to hear from you in a week," he said.
I escorted him to the door, watched him out and went back to my desk where I took another look at the cheque. It looked just fine.
As it was now late afternoon, the banks would be closed. Depositing the cheque would have to wait until tomorrow. Even as I fingered the cheque, enjoying its nice valuable feel, a few niggling doubts lingered.
Why had Raymond come in person? Wasn't this the kind of mission he would delegate to a subordinate? A chef of his reputation would surely not want to have his name associated with the lifting of a recipe from a rival restaurant—even if it was done without any illegal or unethical actions. He had checked me out carefully—there was no question of that. Only someone with a lot of excellent contacts in the trade could have found out about Tattersall's and the Château Yquem that had gone to the Ritz. Still, he was taking a risk and an unnecessary one at that.
Aside from that—could I do it? Could I learn the closely kept secret of Oiseau Royal and enable Raymond to duplicate it? I was less concerned about that. It was a challenge but I was sure I could do it. The time was not a problem either. If the secret could be learned at all, it could be learned within a week.
As for the money—well, that would be extremely welcome. Business hadn't been overactive lately. I had had a period when things were fairly brisk but clients aren't notoriously swift in paying bills for the kind of services I provide. I had been preparing for a lean month or two—this fee would tide me over very handsomely.
It was the final thought that was disturbing and it wasn't one I wanted to dwell on ... but why had Raymond asked me if I carried a gun?CHAPTER 2
The next day was Wednesday. I was in the office early after a light breakfast of fresh- squeezed Martinique grapefruit juice, curried eggs with Virginia ham, toasted rye bread and Cuban coffee. Arriving at the office early is no problem for me. The office is near Hammersmith Bridge and I have only a five minute walk from my flat in Shepherd's Bush. I detest cars and refuse to own one. I find them virtually useless in today's London with its streams of barely moving traffic, its agonies and aggravations, the high cost of petrol and the even higher cost of parking. The Tube gets me around most of the time and when I am on a case, expenses cover taxis. Getting to the office is my first exercise of the day.
I worked until 9.30 then walked up to King Street to deposit Raymond's cheque in the bank. I returned feeling reasonably affluent. About the case itself I was still mildly uneasy but couldn't think of anything I could do about it.
My office is small—some would describe it as miniscule. A desk and a swivel chair plus another chair for visitors (I had examined it and there seemed to be no permanent damage resulting from Raymond's brief if punishing occupancy), a wall of file cabinets (each in a different style and none matching)—and nothing else. Certainly nothing personal—I'm a private person as well as a private eye. In my flat, I have a silhouette drawing of Sherlock Holmes' profile, a lithograph of Allan Pinkerton and a photograph of Auguste Escoffier and have contemplated putting them on the wall of the office. But I've never done so—keep clients guessing, I'd decided.
The day's work was clear-cut. Take care of as much of the correspondence as possible then review all of the jobs in hand and establish which I could wrap up quickly and which could be put on hold. I intended to spend as much of every day as I could on Raymond's assignment so that I could meet the week's deadline I had set.
The first letter I opened had been a beauty. I get a lot of correspondence now that I am becoming known as a gourmet detective. Some of it is crazy, some even bizarre. A few requests are preposterous while others are impossible. There are still the few that are intriguing and this first letter was one of those.
"We are a U.K. company," it began, "small but ambitious. We have had modest success in bringing to the British market such products as mangoes, saffron, girolles and wakame.
"We are now embarking on a programme to put snails on to restaurant menus and wish to start with some in London.
"Can you help us? We would welcome a proposal from you and an outline of your terms and conditions."
Excerpted from The Gourmet Detective by Peter King. Copyright © 1994 Peter King. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Bought "Roux the Day" because it sounded intriguing and was on sale. Went on to buy the rest of the series! I love the plots, characters, and fascinating food information and menus seamlessly woven into the mysteries. This series is a foodie's dream and would make a great gift...think originally...think fabulous "detective" stories vs that cookbook!
Very interesting. Great mystery.
A different kind of cozy mystery for sure. This first in the series of the Gourmet Detective finds this unnamed chef, turned food detective, who's goal is to find sources for difficult food ingredients and to determine recipes from various gourmet restaurants. When one of the privileged few attending the infamous Circle of Careme dinner dies twice, our detective goes on the hunt for the killer and the poison that can cause this strange manner of death. This book almost seems like a spoof on "foodies" and fictional detectives. Many exquisite and different meals are described throughout the book. And most every detective that I've ever read about or seen on TV prior to the publication of this book, is referred to by the Gourmet Detective. Rivalry between chefs, food writers, and TV cooking personalities is portrayed throughout the book. The mystery almost seems to be the venue for these "foodie" things rather than being the main point of the book. I actually enjoyed most of the food descriptions, detective references and the mystery, but the story might have been more interesting if the mystery had been a bit more focused. I listened to this on Audible and believe that the somewhat stuffy, condescending tone of the reader, actually made the book much more enjoyable. I would give another book in this series a try, but definitely only with Audible.